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Transforming Libraries to Serve Graduate Students

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As sociologists Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar noted several decades ago, science is a literary enterprise, in which the unit of credit is the paper, and research communities collaborate and recognize each others' work internationally via journal-published papers. Papers, in turn, are parlayed into research grants, which sustain laboratories, graduate education, and research careers. But although careers in STEM require sophisticated reading and writing skills, STEM students generally begin graduate school with little writing training beyond rudimentary lab-report writing and one or two undergraduate courses in rhetoric and composition. Their advisors are scientists who may or may not have the time or aptitude for teaching writing well, and the general mode of learning is sink-or-swim. Students are expected to write comprehensive-exam essays, papers, applications, and theses, and this is often a source of frustration and anxiety for both students and faculty.

At the University of Iowa, a science librarian and a science-writing professor, both located in the Department of Chemistry, joined forces in the summer of 2015 to work with chemistry research groups on reading and writing projects. The groups have since met weekly, for no credit, informally but committedly. Under a gentle but continuous push for students to offer drafts for critique and discussion, students have produced successful theses, papers, and fellowship applications. Along the way, there have been ample opportunities to incorporate concepts from the Framework for Information Literacy. Discussion topics have included the business of scientific publishing, the purpose of scientific papers and their structure, the construction of authority in scientific communities, the critical reading and evaluation of scholarly and popular works, the influence of Congress on funding agencies, and communication of one's science to a broad range of audiences in various media. Key to the groups' work is the fact that neither facilitator is an expert in the research groups’ subfields, which requires students to discuss their work in clear language and broad outline.

We have so far run five Reading-Writing Groups ranging in focus from radiochemistry to chemical-education research. While they are often highly praised as helpful to students and faculty, we do not regard them as an unmixed success. This chapter outlines the structure of a successful RWG for STEM grad students, including our observations on best practices and potential obstacles, with suggestions for founding such groups in STEM departments.


chemistry, graduate students, reading, writing, scientific communication, scholarly publishing

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Scheib, S., & Charles, A. (2018). Reading-Writing Groups for Chemistry Graduate Students: A Three-Year Experiment in Finding the Interesting Thing. In C. Renfro & C. Stiles (Eds.), Transforming Libraries to Serve Graduate Students (125-138). Chicago: American Library Association.


Copyright © 2018 Sara Scheib & Amy Charles

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.