Erin Hill

Aileen Wood
Cecily Greene
Janae Thompson

Putting Actions into Words: An Ethnography of A Scientific Writer

Many scientists hate writing. They will conduct experiments and they will stare through a
microscope for hours at a time but they dread the very important writing process that comes
after. Scientific writing in its rudimentary form is a translation of results set forth by one curious
person in search to find answers to questions many of us find mystifying. It reveals the
methodology, the drawbacks, and the results of the research conducted in a clear and succinct
manner. Most importantly, it is the means for a scientist to get his or her work out to the world –
to explain the origin of the subject, its potential future, and why we all should care.
This ethnographic report aims to focus on what researchers need to know about scientific
writing through the perspective of an academic principal investigator (scientific researcher) in
the field of Psychology focusing on Behavioral Neuroendocrinology. In our report, we will
emphasize six major heuristics that aspiring scientific writers should consider in their work
context stated in chapter 15 of Solving Problems In Technical Communication: 1) amount and
quality of writing entailed and expected, 2) nature of writing, 3) genres and rhetorical strategies,
4) approaches to and processes for writing, 5) knowledge and skills, and 6) personal traits and
qualities (Johnson-Eilola & Selber). These heuristics would be applied through an analysis of
published papers, scientific protocols, two in office interviews, and observations of the
workplace. By using these methods and documents, we hope to enlighten and prepare new or
aspiring scientific writers who will delve in and embrace the scientific writing process.

Research Subject and Location
As a group of young women with a common interest in science-based writing, we
thought it would be beneficial to interview a female principal investigator, Dr. Erica Glasper. Dr.
Glasper is an assistant professor of Psychology as well as the Neuroscience and Cognitive
science graduate program here at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her lab explores
“structural plasticity in the adult and aging brain, its alterations by experiences and hormones
with a view towards understanding their functional relevance.” Her research is directed to
“interactions among rewarding experiences, parenting, mating, hippocampal plasticity, and
hippocampal function.” (Glasper, 2017). The hippocampus is an area of the brain that deals with
memory. Therefore, her findings contribute to research dealing with dementia, aging, and
Dr. Glasper has produced twenty-seven publications over the span of fourteen years.
Alongside these publications, she has written grants to support her research, guided dissertations,
and constructed protocols. Because of this wide breadth of experience, we knew she would be
able to highlight the pivotal aspects of scientific writing and how to prepare and produce
scientific documents. She shared this knowledge with us through two in-office interviews located
in her office in the Biology-Psychology Building at the University of Maryland.

Data Collection Methods
Our data collection methods included the two aforementioned in-person interviews,
workplace observations, and the analysis of one of Dr. Glasper’s published reports.
The most crucial part of our data collection was centered around the in-person interviews
we had with Dr. Glasper. Because Dr. Glasper is an assistant professor and the head of a
Behavioral Neuroendocrinology lab, we knew that her time was very valuable and we would
have to start planning ahead to decide when we were going to meet.
The planning of when and where our meeting would be began in mid- March to ensure
that we would have enough time to coordinate. We created a Doodle poll between her and the
four members of our group to determine the best time to meet. Based on the times that each of us
were available, we were able to divide ourselves into two pairs. If we all met with her
individually, it likely would have taken up too much time and would not have been as conducive
to our research, so going in pairs was an optimal route. Two of us split up to interview with Dr.
Glasper on March 28th and the other two met with her on March 31st. Both pairs planned to
spend an hour in her office in the Biology-Psychology building, each prepared with four to five
questions to ask.
During the interview, we asked any additional questions that arose from the responses
that Dr. Glasper provided. Thus, our interviews were semi-structured, a format which has been
found to yield more informations than a very structured interview (Johnson-Eilola & Selber,
The goal of our research was to learn about her writing approach and process in her
particular research fields. We knew that she conducted research through her Behavioral
Neuroendocrinology Lab in addition to gathering references for her publications, yet we ended
up learning so much more. In order to ensure that we were attentive to all that she had to share,
one person did the majority of note taking while the other made sure to engage interpersonally
during the conversation. Utilizing these roles was also a sign of respect because we never wanted
Dr. Glasper to feel like we were not interacting with her if both of us were both furiously writing
the entire time. After we finished asking the questions we had planned to ask and any others that
came up, we ended up learning more about her background and experiences as a writer. Research
and writing is something that she is clearly passionate about because of all the time and effort she
puts into it, although she wishes she could put even more time into her writing.
In addition to the interview we conducted with Dr. Glasper, we did workplace
observations. There was no conversation occurring at this time, so the two of us in each pair took
approximately five minutes to take observational notes of her office. It was a quiet and organized
functional workspace where she displayed a number of things including pictures of her family
and her awards, accomplishments, and recognitions.
Following the interview and workplace observations, we could tell that Dr. Glasper is
very dedicated and proud of the work that she does. We decided to read one of her recently
published pieces, which will be discussed in further detail later on in this report.
Throughout the process, including the planning of the interview and during the interview,
Dr. Glasper was very cooperative and willing to help our group. She was highly responsive to the
emails that were sent back and forth. During the interview, she provided very detailed responses
to our question that enticed a wonderful discussion.
In the end, time was a limitation in our data collection process. We gathered a sufficient
amount of information from Dr. Glasper, but we could have gone a step further. If we were able
to schedule a time to visit Dr. Glasper’s lab and even see her research assistants and her in action,
it would have been a great addition. However, we are satisfied from all that we gathered from our

The first in-person interview went very smoothly and uninterrupted. The second
interview, which occurred later in the week, also went very well as it provided a great
opportunity for a new findings with fresh pairs of eyes and ears. Dr. Glasper was very thorough
in her responses, so each pair left with a substantial amount of information.

Background in Writing
Dr. Glasper’s development in her writing stems from a combination of her undergraduate
and graduate career. She attended the small, liberal arts-focused Randolph-Macon College that
was writing and speaking intensive. This institution gave her a tremendous foundation as she
pursued her education and even into her current career. It was not until attending graduate school
at The Ohio State University, however, that she learned about scientific writing. She was able to
combine what she learned in boths levels of education to form the expertise that she has today.

Study Protocol
The specialization of Dr. Glasper’s research and writings is neuroendocrinology, so for
lab work she commonly uses non-human subjects. Writing a study protocol for animal use is
typically the first thing she has to do before she can proceed. This study protocol is sent to the
Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) to be reviewed and approved before she
can proceed with research. In the animal protocol, she must explain her research in less technical
terms because the committee is made up of both scientists and nonscientists. Therefore, she must
write in such a way that any one of the committee members would be able to fully understand
her protocol. To do this, she faces the challenge of pushing her scientific jargon to the side so that
she can speak in more plain language. She also has to ensure that she defines and explains terms
that a non-scientific person would not know. This causes the writing in the protocol to be much
more drawn out than it would be in any report she would produce. As a scientific writer, this
goes against her training because she is accustomed to writing in a clear and concise manner.

Research & Writing Process
Dr. Glasper’s writing process truly reflects the extremely busy schedule that she and most
other researchers have. She never has time to just sit down and write a research article, so instead
she will allocate herself fifteen to twenty-five minute intervals to just get out any ideas in her
head. She emphasized that she doesn’t try to be perfect in her drafts because she can fix those
imperfections later; instead her first goal is to just get her thoughts down on paper. Once her first
draft is all compiled (which usually takes several months), her finished article is around twenty-
five to thirty pages and is sent out to be peer reviewed as many as four times.

After completing the first draft, it can be as many as four to six months before Dr.
Glasper releases it. In the professional writing field that Dr. Glasper is in, there is often no
deadline other than her own internal deadline that she has to meet. This can make the process or
writing, revising, and publishing very lengthy. When she does send it out to be reviewed, it first
goes to her principal investigator (PI) and then to her peers. The peer review process begins by
having two peers who are familiar with her research review her work. Because there is a chance
they could be biased, they will usually bring in one or two more peer reviewers to go over the
article again. High ranking journals will have even more peer reviewers, ranging from five to
seven and possibly even more if necessary.

Artifact Analysis
To finalize the findings of our interview, we read one of Dr. Glasper’s more recent
published reports. This is crucial to our research because it grounds what we know about Dr.
Glasper’s process in a final product. By reading the final article, we can see how she executes her
approach to scientific writing.
We chose the article, “Adult neurogenesis: Optimizing hippocampal function to suit the
environment,” which was published by Dr. Glasper and her colleagues in the journal
Behavioural Brain Research in 2011. This article is 4 pages long, which is on the briefer side of
empirical journal articles. Doctoral psychology thesis papers, which often follow similar formats
to journal articles, can be hundreds of pages long. This goes to show the wide range of formats
that publications in the field can use.
The structure differs a bit from the classic scientific report, which normally follows the
sequence of “Abstract”, “Introduction”, “Method”, “Results”, and “Discussion”. Other
components, such as “Participants” or “Limitations” are often common. The reason that this
particular article deviates quite a bit from this format is that this article proposes an
understanding of neurogenesis that is based on the literature created by Dr. Glasper and other
researchers, instead of one isolated study. Dr. Glasper chose to divide the report to follow the
logical flow of her explanation, going from each aspect of the proposed theories and examining
the information we know about each. Her headings are as follows: “Abstract”, “Experience and
adult neurogenesis”, “New neurons as substrate for fine-tuning behavioral responses to the
environment”, and “Dorsal versus ventral hippocampus” (Glasper, Schoenfeld, & Gould, 2011).
It is clear from reading the paper that Dr. Glasper has a very consistent approach to field
vocabulary. Audience is an important consideration in choosing what level of vocabulary to use.
Dr. Glasper’s paper is specifically targeted to individuals familiar with the basic jargon of
neuroscience, so Dr. Glasper chooses not to define terms such as neurogenesis, hippocampus, or
neurons because she is assuming that the audience for this article would already have at least a
baseline knowledge of these terms, as they would be considered integral concepts in her area of
That being said, Dr. Glasper’s writing is not too haughty as to suggest intellectual
pretension. It is clear that this article is meant to inform clearly and concisely. There is very little
fluff which is perhaps why the article can afford to be so brief. Even transitions serve to only
further the reader’s understanding of each concept.
One strategy that Dr. Glasper uses frequently in the article is to bring up a limitation or a
contradiction in the data or literature, and then make sense of it with theory, or by explaining
certain confounds in the research process that could account for the confusion. For example, after
discussing two nearly opposing theories to anxiety reduction through experiences that increase
neurogenesis, she acknowledges that “it is difficult to reconcile these two sets of findings”
(Glasper, Schoenfeld, & Gould, 2011). She then goes on to explain the different neuron theory
that can account for this “paradox” in neuron activity.
We also analyzed the information design component of the paper, as it incorporates an
explanatory graphic. The paper is written in serif font, perhaps Georgia, as is this paper, because
both are formal reports. This small choice helps to legitimize journal articles. Whether or not the
journal or Dr. Glasper herself made this decision, it says a lot about the culture of written pieces
in psychology and neuroscience. Conversely, the labels in Dr. Glasper’s Figure 1 are in sans serif
font. The goal of incorporating a graphic is to visually illustrate the rhetoric outlined in the
article. Sans serif font make the graphic easier to discern. The graphic is also very well designed
as it uses intuitive color coding (green to indicate a “High-Reward” situation, red to indicate
“High-Threat”) and an appropriate left-to-right flow of images to represent a chronological
sequence of circumstantial cause and neurological effect.
It’s important to note that this brief report has fifty-six separate references to support the
suggestions outlined. This seems baffling, but keeping Dr. Glasper’s writing process in mind, it
makes sense. Dr. Glasper, as noted in the interview, is constantly keeping herself aware of new
articles being published in her field. To write an effective report, she must use her own research
to form hypotheses, and then incorporate other theories to flesh out the possible causes and
predictors of these hypotheses. Even if some literature contradicts the research that she
conducts,s he must incorporate it into her reports so as to be able to counter argue the research,
or explore limitations in her own research. Much of the time it takes to write a psychological
paper is actually spent researching and consolidating the findings, and the fact that Dr. Glasper
was able to make sense of and consolidate fifty-six soures into four pages just supports the idea
that she is well-versed in her field.
Inspecting this final report was instrumental in our investigation of Dr. Glasper as a
professional writer and as a researcher.

Although we only interviewed one individual in particular in the field of scientific
professional writing, from our two interviews with Dr. Glasper we still managed to gain quite a
bit of insight into the field. From the information we gathered through our research we learned
what goes into the research and writing process of a scientific professional writer, what skills are
utilized in this field of writing, and the obstacles or difficulties that can affect the writing
process. These two short interviews alone gave us so much information about our informant, Dr.
Glasper, showing us the importance that things like location or types of questions we ask serve.
The next step we could take in the research process to gain further insight into Dr. Glasper’s
processes would be to shadow Dr. Glasper during a typical day of work, research, and writing.
Although it would be very difficult to schedule this, by following Dr. Glasper in a typical day, we
would have a firsthand look into how she balances her research and her writing and it would give
us an even greater understanding of the world of scientific professional writing.
Works Cited

Glasper, E. R., Schoenfeld, T. J., & Gould, E. (2011). Adult neurogenesis: Optimizing hippocampal
function to suit the environment. Behavioural Brain Research,227(2), 380-383.

Johnson-Eilola, J., & Selber, S. A. (2013). Solving problems in technical communication. Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press.

Glasper, E. (2017, March 28th & 31st). Personal interview.

Glasper, E. (2017, April 15). Erica Glasper, PSYC, Psychology Department, University of Maryland.
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