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Writing Scientific Reports and Research Papers

Lab reports and scientific papers should (1) persuade others to accept or reject hypotheses by presenting data and interpretations; (2) detail data, procedures, and outcomes for future researchers; (3) become part of the accepted body of scientific knowledge when published unless later disproved; and (4) Provide an archival record for reference and document a current situation for future comparison.

General Paper Structure/Outline


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


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


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

Materials and Methods

  1. List materials used, how were they used, and where and when was the work done (especially important in field studies)
  2. Describe special pieces of equipment and the general theory of the analyses or assays used
  3. 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.


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


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

Literature Cited / References

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

General Writing Style

  1. Strive for logic and precision and avoid ambiguity, especially with pronouns and sequences
  2. Keep your writing impersonal; avoid the use of the first person (i.e. I or we)
  3. Use the past tense and be consistent within the report
  4. note: “data” is plural and “datum” is singular; species is singular and plural
  5. Italicize all scientific names (genus and species)
  6. 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”).
  7. Write numbers as numerals when greater than ten (i.e. 156) or associated with measurements (i.e. 6 mm or 2 g)
  8. Have a neutral person review and critique your report before submission

Using Directives

These words are “directives” and ask you to answer, or present information, in a particular way. Review these, and most of all note that there are different ways of answering a question or writing a paper!

Examine qualities, or characteristics, to discover resemblances. “Compare” is usually stated as “compare with”: you are to emphasize similarities, although differences may be mentioned.

Stress dissimilarities, differences, or unlikeness of things, qualities, events, or problems.

Express your judgment or correctness or merit. Discuss the limitations and good points or contributions of the plan or work in question.

Definitions call for concise, clear, authoritative meanings. Details are not required but limitations of the definition should be briefly cited. You must keep in mind the class to which a thing belongs and whatever differentiates the particular object from all others in the class.

In a descriptive answer you should recount, characterize, sketch or relate in narrative form.

For a question which specifies a diagram you should present a drawing, chart, plan, or graphic representation in your answer. Generally you are expected to label the diagram and in some cases add a brief explanation or description.

The term discuss, which appears often in essay questions, directs you to examine, analyze carefully, and present considerations pro and con regarding the problems or items involved. This type of question calls for a complete and entailed answer.

The word enumerate specifies a list or outline form of reply. In such questions you should recount, one by one, in concise form, the points required.

In an evaluation question you are expected to present a careful appraisal of the problem stressing both advantages and limitations. Evaluation implies authoritative and, to a lesser degree, personal appraisal of both contributions and limitations.

In explanatory answers it is imperative that you clarify and interpret the material you present. In such an answer it is best to state the “how or why,” reconcile any differences in opinion or experimental results, and, where possible, state causes. The aim is to make plain the conditions which give rise to whatever you are examining.

A question which asks you to illustrate usually requires you to explain or clarify your answer to the problem by presenting a figure, picture, diagram, or concrete example.

An interpretation question is similar to one requiring explanation. You are expected to translate, exemplify, solve, or comment upon the subject and usually to give your judgment or reaction to the problem.

When you are instructed to justify your answer you must prove or show grounds for decisions. In such an answer, evidence should be presented in convincing form.

Listing is similar to enumeration. You are expected in such questions to present an itemized series or tabulation. Such answers should always be given in concise form.

An outline answer is organized description. You should give main points and essential supplementary materials, omitting minor details, and present the information in a systematic arrangement or classification.

A question which requires proof is one which demands confirmation or verification. In such discussions you should establish something with certainty by evaluating and citing experimental evidence or by logical reasoning.

In a question which asks you to show the relationship or to relate, your answer should emphasize connections and associations in descriptive form.

A review specifies a critical examination. You should analyze and comment briefly in organized sequence upon the major points of the problem.

In questions which direct you to specify, give, state, or present, you are called upon to express the high points in brief, clear narrative form. Details, and usually illustrations or examples, may be omitted.

When you are asked to summarize or present a summarization, you should give in condensed form the main points or facts. All details, illustrations and elaboration are to be omitted.

When a question asks you to trace a course of events, you are to give a description of progress, historical sequence, or development from the point of origin. Such narratives may call for probing or for deduction.

Transitional Words and Phrases

from drgwen.com-apa style tutorial and resources

Transitions indicate relations, whether from sentence to sentence, or from paragraph to paragraph. This is a list of “relationships” that supporting ideas may have, followed by a list of “transitional” words and phrases that can connect those ideas:

and, also, again, as well as, and then, also, besides, equally important, finally, further, furthermore, nor, too, lastly, what’s more, in addition, moreover, first (second, etc.)

Consequence, Causality and Conclusion:
accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, hence, finally, in closing, lastly, otherwise, since, so then, therefore, thus, thereupon, to conclude

Summarizing and Concluding:
after all, all in all, all things considered, briefly, by and large, in any case, in any event, in brief, in conclusion, on the whole, in short, in summary, in the final analysis, in the long run, on balance, to sum up, to summarize, to conclude, summing up, finally, in retrospect, as I have shown (said), hence, therefore, accordingly, thus, as a result, consequently

as a rule, as usual, for the most part, generally, generally speaking, ordinarily, usually

Emphases and Proof:
because, for, since, for the same reason, definitely, extremely, obviously, in fact, evidently, furthermore, moreover, besides, indeed, in any case, absolutely, positively, naturally, surprisingly, always, forever, perennially, eternally, never, emphatically, unquestionably, without a doubt, certainly, undeniably, without reservation

Restatement and Explanation:
in essence, in fact, in other words, namely, put another way, simply stated, in essence, that is, that is to say, in short, in brief, to put it differently

Contrast and Comparison:
although, whereas, where, contrast, in contrast, conversely, by comparison, compared to, up against, balanced against, vis a vis, by the same token, conversely, instead, likewise, otherwise, on one hand, on the other hand, on the contrary, to the contrary, rather, similarly, yet, but, however, still, meanwhile, while, after all, nevertheless, nonetheless, in contrast, in spite of, despite, although this may be true, in the same way, in the same manner, similarly

after, at first, before, earlier, first of all, to begin with, in the first place, at the same time, for now, for the time being, the next step, in time, in the meantime, in turn, later, later on, meanwhile, next, now, prior, then, since, soon, subsequently, then, later, while, simultaneously, afterward, in conclusion, immediately, thereafter, finally, previously, formerly, first (second, etc.),

by the way, incidentally

Illustration and Exemplification:
for example, for instance, in this case, in another case, on this occasion, take the case of, namely, specifically, particularly, to illustrate, as an illustration, to demonstrate, for one thing

likewise, similar, moreover

here, there, over there, beyond, nearly, opposite, under, above, to the left, to the right, in the distance

Commas and Modifiers

from study guides and strategies

Using Commas:

Do these sentences need commas?

  1. My father went to the store for some dessert and bought ice cream.
    No.  Two verb phrases describing the action of the same subject does not need a comma if the conjunction separating them is “and.”
  2. My father went to the store for some dessert, bought ice cream, and came home in time to see his favorite TV show.
    Yes.  Three or more verb phrases describing the action of the same subject need commas to separate them.
  3. The text Who Built America? describes Reconstruction as a noble failure.
    Yes and no.  Technically, the phrase Who Built America? can be set off by two commas (not just followed by one comma) because it is describing the word “text.”  Since it looks awkward to place a comma immediately after a question mark, it is okay to leave the commas out.  If readers understand that Who Build America? is a text, it might be best to edit out “The text” and have the sentence read:
    Who Built America? describes Reconstruction as a noble failure.

Practice using commas:

Insert commas where needed in the following sentences; then read the explanations below.

  1. The restaurant dessert tray featured carrot cake coconut cream pie and something called death-by-chocolate.
  2. Because I was three hours short of graduation requirements I had to take a course during the summer.
  3. The weather according to last night’s forecast will improve by Saturday.
  4. Students hurried to the campus store to buy their fall textbooks but several of the books were already out of stock.
  5. My sister asked “Are you going to be on the phone much longer?”

  1. The restaurant dessert tray featured carrot cake, coconut cream pie, and something called death-by-chocolate.
    The comma separates the items in a series.
  2. Because I was three hours short of graduation requirements, I had to take a course during the summer.
    The comma separates an introductory phrase or dependent clause from the rest of the sentence.
  3. The weather, according to last night’s forecast, will improve by Saturday.
    The phrase “according to last night’s forecast” interrupts the main clause, so it is set off by commas.
  4. Students hurried to the campus store to buy their fall textbooks, but several of the books were already out of stock.
    The comma separates an independent clause from a dependent clause.
  5. My sister asked, “Are you going to be on the phone much longer?”
    The comma separates a direct quotation from the rest of the sentence.

Misplaced/dangling modifiers:

A modifier is a word or group of words that describes another word and makes its meaning more specific. Often modifying phrases add information about “where”, “when”, or “how” something is done. A modifier works best when it is right next to the word it modifies. For example, consider the modifiers in the following sentence:

The awesome dude rode a wave breaking on the shore.
The word “awesome” is an adjective (or, a one-word modifier). It sits right next to the word “dude” it modifies.  The phrase “breaking on the shore” tells us where he rode the wave; thus, “breaking on the shore” is a modifying phrase that must be placed next to the “wave” it modifies.

Below are some examples of poorly placed modifiers. See if you can identify the problems:

  1. Roger looked at twenty-five sofas shopping on Saturday.
    Obviously twenty-five sofas were not shopping on Saturday. Because “shopping on Saturday” is meant to modify Roger, it should be right next to Roger, as follows:
    Shopping on Saturday, Roger looked at twenty-five sofas.
  2. The woman tore open the package she had just received with her fingernails.
    Had the woman really received the package with her fingernails? The writer meant that she tore open the package with her fingernails.
    With her fingernails, the woman tore open the package she had just received.
  3. The waiter brought the pancakes to the table drenched in blueberry syrup.
    What’s drenched according to the sentence? The waiter, the table, or the pancakes?  Actually, the pancakes were drenched:
    The waiter brought the pancakes, drenched in blueberry syrup, to the table.
  4. Lying in a heap on the closet floor, Jean found her son’s dirty laundry.
    It sounds as if Jean was lying on the closet floor when she found her son’s laundry!
    Jean found her son’s dirty laundry lying in a heap on the closet floor.

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