To navigate
choose an item below Photograph of M33 by JE Keeler (1908)
Overview News Lectures Coursework

This page contains information on the assessed coursework (the "News and Views" article and the essay). If you are looking for advice on the exam, go to the lecture notes page.

General Notes

The aim of these exercises is to test your ability to use primary research sources, assimilate information, and communicate scientific material effectively and in the proper form. Because of this, you will be penalised for poor spelling, grammatical mistakes, inappropriate style, inadequate referencing, etc. If you know you have problems in this area, you should consider using the University's Writing Advisory Service, which is intended to deal with exactly this issue.

If you are dyslexic or your first language is not English, please note this on your submitted coursework. Dyslexia or not being a native speaker may in some cases provide a reasonable ground for extension to the deadline for coursework. If you believe that you have good grounds for requesting this, please see the lecturer as soon as possible: your case will be much more convincing a month before the deadline than it is the day after the deadline!

Coursework should be submitted as a PDF file to Turnitin via MOLE. There are many freeware applications that will save a Word file as PDF – I use PDFCreator, which seems to work well, but there are many others. Check the resulting PDF file before submitting it – occasionally something does not convert correctly.


This tests your ability to retrieve and assimilate information from written sources and to communicate it effectively to a scientifically trained non-specialist reader. It will be assessed on:

All essays will be double marked "blind" (that is, the second assessor does not know the mark awarded by the first assessor) by me and one other person, to minimise the effects of individual taste. To give you a feel for the criteria used in marking the essay, you may download the guidelines issued to assessors.

Problems from previous years include:

A good essay will be based on extensive reading, including primary sources (i.e. original papers or reviews) where possible. (Obviously, it may not be possible for earlier periods: nobody is asking you to read Kepler in the original Latin! However, in such cases you should try to consult books by specialists, or perhaps papers on the history of astronomy, not just general texts.) It will tell a coherent story, with an introduction and conclusion and judicious use of subheadings. Ideally, it should show evidence of critical thinking, analysis and synthesis - i.e., the author is not simply summarising his or her sources, but weighing up their respective viewpoints and coming to a well argued conclusion. It will be written in good formal English and pitched at the correct level for a scientifically trained non-specialist. It is usually desirable to include illustrations: these should be well chosen (useful, rather than simply decorative!), numbered, and given an appropriate explanatory caption, including a reference to the source. Equations can be included if appropriate - whether this is necessary depends strongly on the topic (an essay on the development of astrophotography probably wouldn't need any equations, whereas one on Kepler's contribution to astronomy probably would).

Your chances of writing a good essay are greatly improved if you put a considerable amount of effort into the initial planning. The actual writing of the essay should take up quite a small fraction of the time you devote to the assignment as a whole. If you are not sure what planning an essay involves, take a look at these guidelines.


Sources should be properly referenced, and cited where appropriate in the text (that is, wherever the information they contain is used – not just for direct quotes). Citations in the text may use any of the standard conventions: numerical superscript1,2, numerical reference in square brackets[1,2] or author's name and date (Bloggs 1910, Smith et al. 1919). For the first two methods, references should be listed at the end in order of appearance; for citation by author's name, list the references in alphabetical order. In some of the old papers you may consult, you will find references cited as footnotes on the page on which they are used: this is no longer standard scientific style and you should not do this.

The aim of a reference citation is to provide enough information to allow your reader to locate the source of your information quickly and easily. This means that you must provide all the necessary information to pinpoint your source, including (for example) volume numbers of journals (no, I am not going to hunt through all 668 volumes of the Astrophysical Journal looking for a particular paper), page references in books (I'm also not going to read all 1325 pages of Carroll and Ostlie looking for one quote), and full URLs for websites ( will not do either). You will be penalised if your reference citations are inadequate.

Note that it is entirely proper to cite the same journal article more than once, using the same reference. Do not attempt to make your reference list look more impressive by giving every reference to, say, Bondi and Gold (1948) a separate entry! The case is a bit different for books, where a numerical reference to p23 and another to p227 do need separate citations. (If you are going to be strictly accurate, you should in that case say "op. cit." (Latin for "work already cited"), instead of giving the title, publisher, etc., to make it clear that both references are to the same book. But I don't really expect this level of pickiness!) In the (name,date) referencing style, you use a single reference but include the page number in the citation (Smith 1919 p23).

Articles in journals:



In general, you should not be relying on websites. Web information is not always reliable and web references are volatile: a reference which was there when you wrote your essay may have vanished a month later when the assessor reads it. Usually, the best use of websites is as "suggestions for further reading" for yourself: most reputable websites (e.g. most scientific Wikipedia articles) provide references to published work. If you must cite a website (e.g. as the source of a figure – this is a legitimate use of the web), or if you acquired a journal article from online sources (which is perfectly OK):

Some general guidelines:

  1. Don't cite references you haven't read: in particular, don't cite references cited as references by a paper you have read, unless you have looked them up yourself. If you can't find the original paper, make it clear that you are using second-hand information, e.g. "Huggins, 1864, as quoted in A.M. Clerke, A Popular History of Astronomy during the 19th Century, 2nd Edition (1899), p178."
  2. Where possible, find and cite original sources (if a figure in a textbook is credited as "redrawn from So-and-so", try to find So-and-so's original version). This may not always be possible; if it isn't, use the reproduced figure, but (as above), make clear in the reference that the information is second-hand.
  3. Don't use standard phrases that you don't understand, or which do not in fact apply: illustrations in books often say something like "reprinted with permission from Smith and Jones (1963)", which means that the publisher of the book wrote to Smith and Jones, or to the publisher of Smith and Jones, and got permission to use their figure (possibly paying for the privilege). If you did not do this – and I don't expect you to – then don't claim that you did. Likewise, only use op. cit. or ibid. if you know what they mean and they do apply.
  4. Remember in all cases that citing a reference entitles you to use the information contained in that reference: it does not entitle you to use the same words, either exactly or with minor changes. In rare cases (when quoting a definition, when the exact wording is important to the point you are making, when you are quoting an opinion with which you do not necessarily agree, or when you are quoting the words of someone who was present at the event in question) it is legitimate to use a direct quote, properly signalled as such by quotation marks. Direct quotes should account for a very small proportion of your work (<5%), and should never be used as a substitute for understanding: if you don't understand something, don't use it. (If it's obviously crucial to your argument, look for an explanation elsewhere, or ask someone.)

The main errors that students make in references are:

In general, if you are not sure whether or not you need to reference something, then do reference it: since most students under-reference, the chances are that if you think you might need to cite it, you definitely do need to! With URLs, remember to check that your reference will do what you want it to – in some frame-based sites, the URL points to the head page and not to the page you need to reference (there should be a "View frame" command in your browser to let you single out the frame you want).

News and Views (PHY427 only)


Nature's "News and Views" articles are intended for the interested non-specialist. They aim to provide a summary of the paper and an assessment of how it fits into the context of its field. The questions that you need to ask yourself in writing a News and Views article are:

You will each be assigned a specific paper. Papers are allocated at random, to ensure fairness in allocation (I can't give particular people "easy" or "difficult" papers) and to maintain anonymity in marking (I don't know who is doing which paper). All the papers are fairly short, and I try to avoid very technical or mathematical work (you won't get any of Hoyle's papers!). Obviously it is essential that you read the paper carefully and understand it – if you have any difficulties in that respect, come and talk to me (after having read the paper carefully – if your question is answered on the next page of the paper, you will not look very good!).

The main errors in previous years have been

A good "News and Views" article would leave an interested non-astronomer of the time with an understanding of (a) what the article actually said, (b) why it was an important new development in its field and (c) what its likely impact on the field would be. Ideally, it would show some evidence that its author had read some contemporary papers on related topics (you can find these by doing a search on ADS with appropriate keywords and a suitable range of dates).


Here is a typical "News and Views" article from a modern edition of Nature, based on this paper. Note that the "News and Views" article is not simply a summary of the paper:

In fact, the proportion of the "News and Views" article that is simply a summary of the paper is really quite small – only a couple of paragraphs. The bulk of the article is devoted to explaining the background, the context and the importance of the results reported. Nevertheless, the article is clearly focused on the contents of the paper – it is not simply a general review of lunar composition. This is the balancing act that past students have tended to get wrong, usually in the direction of devoting far too much of their article to a detailed summary of their target paper.