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Writing Assignment: Compare/Contrast Paper (in the field of Biological Sciences)

Module by: The Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication. E-mail the author

Summary: This assignment, given in the upper-level Ecology course at Rice University, is a good example of a compare/contrast assignment. Students compare and contrast two related articles from the primary ecology literature. Although the assignment is very specific to this course, it may be adapted for other courses.

Due dates:

  • 1st assignment draft to mentor:
  • 1st assignment for grade:
  • 2nd assignment for grade:
  • 3rd assignment for grade:


2.5 to 3.5 pages double-spaced in 12-point font (not including literature cited section).


Find two current scientific articles (no more than 4 years old) in the primary ecological literature. The two papers you select should be on a similar topic in order to make their comparison useful, but they should be written by different authors. I suggest that you identify a hypothesis or concept in ecology that interests you and find two articles that test the hypothesis in different ways. You may browse the current issues section of the library (generally QH-QK call numbers) or search the Web of Science for particular keywords. The subject matter should be relevant to the lecture material we are discussing. For example, the first assignment could cover any aspects about adaptations to the environment, population dynamics, life history variation, or competition. You should choose examples/organisms/systems that interest you. You should synthesize the material critically, not just regurgitate it.

Below is a suggested list of journals that publish ecological papers.

  • Ecology
  • Journal of Ecology
  • Oecologia
  • American Naturalist
  • Conservation Biology
  • Ecology Letters
  • Ecological Applications
  • Journal of Tropical Ecology
  • Global Ecology and Biogeography
  • Science
  • Nature
  • Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
  • Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (B)

If you select articles from journals not on this list, email me for official approval of the source.


Write an essay in your own words (do not copy sentences out of the paper) that compares the articles you have read for an audience of graduate students in ecology. These papers must be researched and written individually (no group work). Be sure to begin by stating the hypothesis, question, or concept that ties the two articles together and provide any background necessary to understand why this hypothesis, question, or concept is of interest. Next, write a synopsis of the two studies, comparing and contrasting the studies in their methods, analyses, results, and interpretations. Conclude by speculating about broader implications or perhaps future directions for study. A suggested plan for your essay is as follows:

  • First 1 – 2 paragraphs (3 or more sentences per paragraph): Summarize the ecological question, hypothesis, or concept explored by both studies. You may add in background discussed in the papers or from other sources.
  • Next paragraphs: Compare and contrast the methods used to test the hypothesis, the results found, and the conclusions drawn from the results. Did they both find support for the hypothesis? Why or why not? Did their methods affect their findings? Was their study limited by their experimental design?
  • Final paragraph: Provide a general conclusion about both studies and then speculate about the broader implications of the research. Try to identify future experiments that could be conducted to expand this research.


DO NOT copy any portion of these papers or any other published or unpublished material (for example, information on the Internet). Plagiarism impairs your ability to synthesize and explain the articles and violates the Rice University Honor Code.

Internal citations:

The first time you refer to your research articles, reference them parenthetically using the author(s)’ name(s) and year of publication, as shown below. This internal citation method is used by the journal Ecology. Do not include the title of the paper or page numbers in the text. That information will go in the “Literature cited” section (see below).

  • For one author: (Jones 2008)
  • For two authors: (Jones and Hamrick 2008)
  • For three or more authors: (Jones et al. 2008)

For example, in the text you might write: “The exotic invasive shrub Clidemia hirta had higher survivorship in Hawaiian than Costa Rican forest understory (Jones et al. 2008).”

Literature cited: At the end of your essay, provide the complete citation of each article you cited under a section called “Literature Cited”. You should provide the full list of authors, year of publication, article title, journal name, journal volume, and page numbers as shown below. Use the format used by the journal Ecology:

Harms, K. E., S. J. Wright, O. Calderón, A. Hernández, and E. A. Herre. 2000. Pervasive density-dependent recruitment enhances seedling diversity in a tropical forest. Nature 404:493-495.

For more examples of the style used by Ecology, examine an issue of the journal.


  1. Hand in a stapled printed copy in class (see late policy below)
  2. Include at the top of the first page of your paper
  • Your name
  • Short title
  • BIOS 325
  • Date
  • At the end of your paper, place complete citations in a “Literature Cited” section. At a minimum this section must include the two papers you are comparing and contrasting.

Writing mentors: At the beginning of the course, you will be assigned to a writing mentor, a trained upper-level student who can work with you on drafting and revising your papers. Writing mentors may help you work through problems and revise your own writing, but they will not give you words. The papers must be written in your own words.

To introduce you to your mentor and the mentoring process, I am requiring that your first paper be submitted as a draft one week before the paper’s due date to be evaluated by your writing mentor. You will not be graded on this draft, but failure to submit the draft on the due date will result in a 50% reduction in total points on your graded essay. To be considered a draft, each major section of the paper (as described in the suggested plan for the essay) must be at least partially completed. You may contact your mentor before the draft due date if you would like guidance in preparing your draft. Your mentor will contact you a few days after the draft submission with suggested ways to improve your essay.

Your mentor will be available to help you write and revise future papers, but after the first essay, you will not be required to submit a draft to him/her.

Late paper policy:

For each day the paper is late, the maximum points will be reduced by 20%. This does not include the draft of the first paper due to your writing mentor (see policy above). No papers submitted four or more days late will be accepted.

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