Term Paper Assignment

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Term Paper Assignment

The purpose of this assignment is to explore in depth an area of evolutionary biology that is particularly interesting to you and to present the results of this exploration in the form of a clearly reasoned review paper. By reading and synthesizing the primary literature you will gain experience in library research, critical evaluation, and clear writing. Evolution is a broad field with extensive primary literature. During the lecture portion of this course, it will not be possible to cover most topics in depth. The term paper will give you an opportunity to read and evaluate the primary literature in a field that has attracted your attention.

You are expected to form a claim (hypothesis) about a significant issue in evolutionary biology. The main purpose of your paper will be to support this claim using data from the primary literature. Your claim should be synthetic and rely for support or integration of data from a variety of sources. Your paper should be 4500-5000 words in length (about 15 pages) and cite a minimum of 8 references from the primary literature.

See "tips for getting started" for more information on choosing and researching a topic.

Organization of the paper

Because you are writing a review paper rather than presenting new results, the paper's structure will not follow the format of most of the papers you have read. Your paper should be divided up into sections as indicated below:

  • Title
  • Abstract
  • Main Text: The main text should be subdivided to help the reader follow the structure of your paper. All papers will have an introduction and conclusion. In between, the body of the text should be divided using headings that identify your main points.
  • Conclusion
  • Literature Cited

Title-The title should be brief and informative. This is the bait that lures the potential reader to continue, so it is worth choosing carefully.

Abstract-This brief section (less than a page) gives a concise, specific, balanced summary of the main points of your paper. It should present both your thesis (i.e. main claim) and major lines of argument. Write it after you have finished a full draft of the paper.

Introduction-This section will probably be one to several pages long. The purposes of the introduction are to present your specific question, create a general framework, and provide necessary background information. If your topic is a question, state the specific question and describe your explanatory plan. Place the topic in a general context so that your reader understands its interest and importance. For example, if your question is "Why do century plants reproduce only once, at the end of their lives, while oak trees reproduce every year throughout their lives?," then the context might be the ecological forces shaping the evolution of different life-history strategies.

Use the introduction to explain HOW you are going to go about addressing the topic. Having a clear structure will make it easier for the reader to follow your arguments. In the above example, you might state that you are going to 1) summarize several hypotheses specific to long-lived organisms, 2) place long-lived organisms in the more general context of the r-selection/k-selection, 3) briefly discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each hypothesis, and finally 4) argue for a particular one of these hypotheses to explain the century plant and oak patterns.

Body of the text-This section should present an objective, unbiased account of relevant information from the primary literature and your critical evaluation it. It will be most effective to present information organized around key points to support your hypothesis. Do not simply summarize the papers you discuss. Instead, give the reader enough information about the data to follow your arguments and evaluate your opinions. Being critical does not necessarily mean finding flaws. Rather, it involves expressing a reasoned opinion, and judging correctness, value, or significance.

Subheadings will help the reader navigate through your arguments. The main point of each paragraph should be clear and supported by evidence from the literature. You must use proper citation format when presenting data or conclusions from the papers you have read. (See citation format for more information).

Conclusions-Present your own conclusions or analysis of the information you have synthesized. The quality of your paper rests on how well you support your view, not on what position you choose to support. If there is no controversy, then use this section to synthesize the major conclusions of the papers you have reviewed. Be sure to return to the general context you established in the Introduction.

Literature cited-This is exactly what it says: a list of all the papers that you have cited in the body your paper. Be sure to include all papers that are mentioned by author/date in your text. It is not appropriate to list papers that may have something to do with your topic but that are not cited in the text. Follow the format of the journal Evolution (see also the example from Professor Schwenk, below.


In your research, you will be using primary literature as your main source of information. Review literature is also an acceptable source of information, but does not count towards the minimum of 8 required references. Here is a brief description of some of the kinds of literature you may encounter while thinking about your topic.

  • Primary literature consists of articles based on new data or presenting new analyses and interpretations of existing data, published in peer-reviewed journals. By "peer review," we mean that a paper submitted for publication has been reviewed and approved by several other scientists before publication. Primary literature in mainstream scientific journals should constitute the majority of the sources of information for your term paper. If an article includes a "Materials and methods" section, then it almosmt certainly belongs in this category. (Some book chapters in edited book volumes also fall into the primary literature category. Your instructor can help you determine whether this is the case for any book chapters you use).
  • Review literature is a kind of "secondary" or "derivative" literature, in the sense that review articles do not present new data or analyses but instead summarize and synthesize the information already available about a topic. These are also acceptable for use in your paper, as long as they have been published by established scientists in peer-reviewed journals or in book-type compilations of papers.
  • Unreviewed literature is found in popular magazines, newspapers, and on the web. In general, you should place little faith in any information presented in those forums, and in your term paper you should not cite information obtained that way. Some popular natural history magazines (e.g. Natural History, Discover, Scientific American, American Scientist) are good sources when browsing for term paper ideas, but are not appropriate sources for citation in the term paper itself. In general, if information in a popular source is scientifically accurate, there will be primary literature that reports the original data, which should be read and used for the term paper.
  • The web should be avoided except as a way to find links to confirmed information in journals and books. You must read the article in the journal or book, once located, to make sure it really says what the web suggests it says. In rare cases, it may be appropriate to cite a website in your paper. Check with your W instructor if you think you have one of these rare cases! (Note that peer-reviewed journal articles accessed through the web do not fall into this category as the citation is to the article, not to the website.)
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