Writing in Science
Characteristics of Scientific Writing
Most scientific writing is expository. Although scientists write in many different modes and use various styles, perhaps the most important and challenging writing they do is for research reports. <p><strong>research report</strong><br /> A formal document reporting scientific findings. For students, the most familiar form of a research report is the lab reports they write based on their own lab exercises. Throughout these units, the term “research report” or “formal research report” is used to describe the published scientific literature. In practice, scientists refer to published scientific reports using various terms. The most popular term is just to call it a “paper,” as in, “Have you read my latest paper?" Other common terms are journal article, technical report, and, simply, “article.”</p> The format of scientific research reports has developed over decades to match the scientific method. Even though scientists do a lot of writing in addition to formal research reports, the discipline of writing research reports influences their other writing, with the primary goals of high fidelity in describing or analyzing data; being conservative in interpreting data, including considering alternative explanations; and being concise.
Most published research reports include some version of the following sections:
- A title that informs the reader of the specific research result that is being reported. This is typically a one-sentence statement of the main finding. Readers use the title as a first-order filter for deciding whether to read the report.
- An abstract that is a brief summary—typically between 50 and 400 words—of the question or problem, the method used, the data obtained, and the conclusions drawn. Readers use the abstract as a second-order filter to decide whether to read more of the report or add it to their personal list of reference reports.
- An introduction that explains what questions and problems the experiments were intended to address and provides background for the broader context and importance of the experiments. This section is often very useful for a reader who is less expert in the topic and typically contains good background references.
- A methods section in which the experimental approach is described in careful but succinct detail. This section is intended to make it possible for a reader to understand exactly how experiments were done and to even replicate the experiments independently for themselves. Some techniques in modern science have become so complicated and sophisticated, or routine, that the methods section often refers to other publications that have more detail and provides links to supplementary materials that are archived online. Methods can be tedious to write and hard to read.
- The results section presents the data that were obtained from experiments and typically contains data tables, graphs, illustrations and images. Each graphic element is called a figure, and it has a short legend that’s a succinct description of what the figure shows. Accompanying text gives a fuller description of the data. One challenge of writing the results section is resisting the impulse to include conclusions from the data; however, strictly speaking, the only interpretive statements that should be made in this section pertain to analysis like statistical significance.
- A final section of the research report is typically called the discussion section and includes more conclusive statements from the researchers’ interpretation of the meaning of the data. Importantly, limitations of the data will be discussed, along with alternative explanations of what the findings may mean. Comparisons to other related research findings, and to what degree the findings change thinking in the broader research field, are often included. This section is likely to include statements about future experiments and research directions.
Reflect: Think about the lab report rubric that you use with your students. Does the rubric follow the form of published reports? Do you require students to state a hypothesis? Research reports from across the science disciplines are readily available online. Consider collecting various reports to see how the sections are titled and organized. Consider changes to the form you use.
It must be acknowledged that even scientists find much of the scientific literature unappealing to read and aspects of the writing style to be awkward. Scientists don’t want to lose the original intent of the style, which is to be highly objective, but there is significant interest in the scientific community to change the tone and form of scientific writing.
Whatever future direction the form of research reports takes, scientists can agree on several important mandates for scientific writing:
- Be precise; write what you mean to say, staying as close to the data as possible.
- Don’t let your language leave the reader with uncertainty or a lack of clarity. If there is genuine uncertainty or alternative interpretations, state that explicitly.
- Clearly differentiate—as in the sections of a research report—the presentation of facts, data, background, context, inferences, conclusions, and speculations.
Use the specific vocabulary of your discipline. However, depending on the context, avoid jargon or provide plain English explanations.