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If no use is made
of the labor of the past,
the world will always
remain in the infancy
of knowledge.
Cicero 106 - 43 BCE
Roman philosopher/statesman

Science and math learning series

Writing Lab Reports &
Scientific Papers

What lab reports and scientific papers do:

  • Persuade others
    to accept or reject hypotheses by presenting data and interpretations
  • Detail data, procedures, and outcomes
    for future researchers
  • Become part of the accepted body of scientific knowledge
    when published unless later disproved
  • Provide an archival record
    for reference and document a current situation for future comparison

Format:

The typical lab report includes: title, abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results, discussion, references and literature cited

Title:

  • Reflect the factual content with less than ten words in a straightforward manner
  • Use keywords researchers and search engines on the Internet will recognize

Abstract:

Summarize in a concise paragraph the purpose of the report,
data presented, and major conclusions in about 100 - 200 words.

Introduction:

  • Define the subject of the report: "Why was this study performed?"
  • Provide background information and relevant studies: "What knowledge already exists about this subject?"
  • Outline scientific purpose(s) and/or objective(s): "What are the specific hypotheses and the experimental design for investigation?"

Materials and methods:

  • List materials used, how were they used, and where and when was the work done (especially important in field studies)
  • Describe special pieces of equipment and the general theory of the analyses or assays used
  • Provide enough detail for the reader to understand the experiment without overwhelming him/her. When procedures from a lab book or another report are followed exactly, simply cite the work and note that details can be found there.

Results

  • Concentrate on general trends and differences and not on trivial details.
  • Summarize the data from the experiments without discussing their implications
  • Organize data into tables, figures, graphs, photographs, etc. Data in a table should not be duplicated in a graph or figure
  • Title all figures and tables; include a legend explaining symbols, abbreviations, or special methods
  • Number figures and tables separately
    and refer to them in the text by their number, i.e.
    1. Figure 1 shows that the activity....
    2. The activity decreases after five minutes (fig. 1)

Discussion

  • Interpret the data; do not restate the results
  • Relate results to existing theory and knowledge
  • Explain the logic that allows you to accept or reject your original hypotheses
  • Speculate as necessary but identify it as such
  • Include suggestions for improving your techniques or design, or clarify areas of doubt for further research

References & literature cited

  • Cite only references in your paper and not a general bibliography on the topic
  • Alphabetize by last name of the author
  • Follow the recommended format for citations

General style

  • Strive for logic and precision and avoid ambiguity, especially with pronouns and sequences
  • Keep your writing impersonal; avoid the use of the first person (i.e. I or we)
  • Use the past tense and be consistent within the report
    note: "data" is plural and "datum" is singular; species is singular and plural
  • Italicize all scientific names (genus and species)
  • Use the metric system of measurement and abbreviate measurements without periods (i.e. cm kg) spell out all numbers beginning sentences or less than 10 (i.e. "two explanations of six factors").
  • Write numbers as numerals when greater than ten (i.e. 156) or associated with measurements (i.e. 6 mm or 2 g)
  • Have a neutral person review and critique your report before submission

Science series

Following the scientific method | Studying text books in science |
Writing lab reports and scientific papers | How to write a research proposal |
Writing white papers | Lab safety


Writing assignments

Writing for the "Web" | The five-paragraph essay | Essays for a literature class |
Expository essays | Persuasive essays | Position papers | Open book exams |
Essay Exams | White papers | Lab reports/scientific papers | Lab safety
Research proposals

* adapted from
Biological Investigations, 5th ed. by Warren D. Dolphin 1999, published by McGraw-Hill."