Writing a Science Paper

 

Scientific research would be a virtually worthless pursuit were it not described in writing. Word of new discoveries and processes must be conveyed to other interested parties in a manner that differs from most other writing forms. While the purpose of science writing is to inform, it must, more importantly, allow the reader to repeat an experiment and verify published results and/or use published results as a guide to related research.

For these reasons, science writing is highly formalized. The writer must be clear and concise. To some degree the elements of style may be sacrificed toward these goals. Be to the point!

 

Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say,

abstains from giving us wordy evidence of this fact.

-George Eliot


The formal scientific paper is highly structured. Each paper consists of labeled component parts: Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Experimental Results, Discussion, and Literature Cited. This highly formalized structure is directly aimed at achieving the goals mentioned above. To a degree, this structure also facilitates the writing of the paper.

Abstract: The Abstract is a summary of the paper. Although the abstract is the first part of the paper to be read, it is the last part to be written. The purpose of the Abstract is to assist researchers in deciding whether to consult the full text of the paper. The Abstract must be brief and yet it should describe the scope of the paper, summarize its results and state its conclusions.

Introduction: The Introduction should include a general statement of the problem and a brief summary of background information. The opening sentence should be a specific statement and not include worthless or meaningless phrases such as:

Man has long been interested in blood.
The study of muscle contraction is of great importance.

An example of a good opening sentence is:

Hart found that horseshoe crabs in a high temperature environment developed a greater frequency of chromosome aberrations.

Notice that this sentence conveys specific information. A complete historical account of everything remotely related to your topic is not necessary. Include only information that directly relates to your topic. Be sure to give credit to all sources from which you have taken ideas. Science has long used an internal method of citation rather than footnotes. Documentation will be considered in another part of this manual (see page 74 ff). Traditionally, scientific writing is done in the passive voice. For example: "Six-inch segments were marked off...." rather than "I marked off six-inch segments...." This, however, is not a hard-and-fast rule and the active voice is sometimes used. Whichever voice you choose, it is important that you be consistent.

Materials and Method: This section should answer the question, "How?" Experimental design should be described in detail, including equipment and method. The key idea of this section is to describe the materials and methods so that a competent worker could duplicate your experiment. Details of concentrations and chemicals used are obviously important. It is not necessary, however, to give a recipe. Step-by-step procedures are generally not needed unless they are original. For example, a competent worker would be expected to know or be able to find out the procedure used to test for a simple sugar using Benedict’s Solution. It would not be necessary to give detailed directions in your paper.

Experimental Results: This section is described by its title. Quantitative results may be listed numerically in tables or shown in graphs. If the data shows a numerical trend, use a graph. STATISTICS MUST BE MEANINGFUL. The following, less than meaningful example, is taken from a paper submitted to the journal Infection and Immunity:

Thirty-three percent of the mice used in the experiment were cured by the test drug; 33% of the test population were unaffected...and the third mouse got away.

Discussion: The purpose of the Discussion is to show the relationships indicated by your results. Discuss, do not repeat, the results. While you may point out that a graph indicates that gas volume is directly related to temperature, you should try to indicate WHY this is so. Point out exceptions and unsettled points in your data. Indicate how your results agree or contrast with previously published or accepted data. State your conclusions as clearly as possible and summarize evidence for each conclusion. Keep in mind that the very nature of scientific research will limit the number of conclusions that you should expect from any experimental process.

Literature Cited: The bibliography is placed at the end of the paper and is labeled "Literature Cited." The method of citing reference sources will be considered in the chapter on documentation, beginning on page 74. In most cases your writing for science classes will not be a formal paper. Very often, your science writing will be in the form of a laboratory report. While there may be some instances when you will be expected to write a formal laboratory report, more frequently you will be asked to simply describe and analyze the results of a laboratory exercise. In writing most lab reports you will be called upon to describe WHY the exercise was done (purpose) and HOW the exercise was done (procedure). You will also be asked to describe results and draw conclusions from your data.

In writing such lab reports, keep your writing clear and concise. Understanding is the key element. If you do not understand what you have done, you can hardly expect to write a comprehensive report. If your report is well-written, the reader will not only be able to understand your results and conclusions but will also be able to duplicate what you have done. If your report fails this basic test, it has not been well-written.

One elementary lab that is done in some chemistry classes is meant to familiarize students with the correct use of the Bunsen burner and to introduce the concept of graphing to prove a point. In this lab exercise, measured volumes of water are heated at one-inch intervals above the burner for five-minute periods. The rate of heating is measured and graphed. The slope of each graph is then plotted to determine at which distance above the burner the water is heated most efficiently (fastest). Following are some examples of student lab reports of this exercise:

1. The purpose of this lab was to determine the best distance from a burner to place an object to be heated. Equal amounts of water were heated at different distances, with temperature taken at one-minute intervals. The rate of heating (actually cal/min) was graphed, with the highest being the best distance.

Notice that the purpose of the laboratory exercise is not clearly stated. The writer assumes that the reader will understand that the "best distance" has something to do with the rate of heating water. The writer fails the basic test of scientific writing since the reader will be unable to duplicate the experiment. How much water was heated? In what size container? What distances were measured? What setup and equipment were used?

2. The purpose of this experiment was to discover at what point of the flame is the most heat produced. We did this by heating water at different distances from the burner and recording the rate at which it heated up.
We set up the ring stand and iron ring one inch from where the top of the burner came to. We got 600 ml. of water and poured 100 ml. into a 400 ml. beaker. We put the wire gauze on the iron ring and put the beaker on top. Amy took the temperature of the water and recorded it.
We lit the burner and put it under the beaker at 00 seconds. After every half minute Amy stirred the water with the thermometer for 30 seconds and then recorded the temperature for five minutes....

The writer has misunderstood and/or misstated the purpose of the lab since the flame itself was not directly investigated. More details have been given so that the reader has a better chance of duplicating the procedure. Some of the details require further explanation. For example, "We got 600 ml. of water...." so that each trial would start with 100 ml. of water at the same temperature.

3. The experiment had two purposes. Firstly, it provided an opportunity to practice graphing. Secondly, by reading the graphs, it was possible to determine the distance at which the water was heated fastest.
The experiment involved the heating of waters in a beaker which was placed at different distances from a Meeker burner. In the experiment, 100 ml. of water was heated 6 different times, at distances of 1,2,3,4,5, and 6 inches from the top of the burner. This was accomplished by measuring the distances on the ring stand and marking them with chalk. An attempt was made to keep the temperature of the flame and all other variables constant by rinsing the beaker, the stand and the gauze pad with cold water after each of the trials. Once properly adjusted, the burner settings for gas and air were not changed in order to preserve the accuracy of the results.
During each trial, the temperature of the water was taken at one-minute intervals for 5 minutes. Data from the trials were recorded on tables and then plotted onto a graph....

This write-up provides a much more thorough description of the purpose and procedure of the lab exercise than did the first two reports. Other than the omission of the beaker size, the reader would be able to duplicate the procedure with little difficulty and with some degree of accuracy. Notice that although the description is concise, it is not short. Give enough information so that the reader is thoroughly informed.

In addition to purpose and procedure, most lab reports in science will require the student to make a lab analysis that leads to clearly stated conclusions. In a formal science paper this would occur in the Discussion section. The writer would be expected to use the data gathered and recorded in the Experimental Results section to draw valid conclusions. Even in less formal science papers the drawing of valid conclusions from data is a skill that students must master.

Following are some concluding statements from the same "Rate of Heating" exercise considered previously. The students were asked to graph their results and use the graphs to verify their conclusions.

1. The water heats fastest when it is 1 inch away from the flame because then it is closest to the hottest point in the flame.

While this conclusion is correct, it makes no reference to the graph and therefore the effort expended on collecting data and organizing it has counted for naught.

2. The peak of the slope curve indicates where the greatest heat was present, therefore, that increased the water temperature the most.

This conclusion gives no specific information. The reader is left to wonder about the significance of the peak in terms of distance from the Bunsen burner.

3. The peak of the slope is 33. The significance of the peak is that this is where the water heats the fastest.

This is close, but the reader needs more information. The conclusion must clearly relate the slope of the curve to distance. The reader is not able to relate the slope to inches above the burner and therefore this conclusion has little practical value.

4. Generally, as distance increases, the slope decreases. However, at 5 inches, the slope increases temporarily, where the tip of the outer cone is. The point where the slope is highest (at 1 inch on this graph) is where the water heats the fastest.

This is excellent. The writer establishes the relationship between slope and distance, explains an apparent discrepancy in the data, and clearly states the distance at which the most efficient heating takes place.

While no mention has been made of grammar and other aspects of style, writing in science should follow all the rules for good writing. It is apparent that in certain areas of scientific writing (e.g., Materials and Method), some elements of style must be sacrificed. Verbal flourishes must not get in the way of the how and why of the experimental write-up. That does not mean that science writing must be dull. If you take the time to be interested in your topic, then your writing is more likely to be interesting. Don’t fall into the "jargon trap" in an attempt to make your writing more impressive. Consider some examples from "A Glossary Report for Research Reports" by C. D. Graham Jr.

It is suggested that... (I think)
It is generally believed that... (A couple of other guys think so too)
It is clear that much additional work will be required before a complete understanding... (I don’t understand it)
Unfortunately, a quantitative theory to account for these effects has not been formulated... (Neither does
anybody else)

Try to express your ideas clearly but in an interesting way. In their short published paper announcing their discovery of the structure of DNA, Watson and Crick wrote, "It has not escaped our attention that the specific pairing that we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." Every biology student now studies this concept of base pairing. But that sentence still forces the reader to think—and that is what good writing is all about.

 

References

Ambrose, Harrison W. and Ambrose, Katharine Peckham. A Handbook of Biological Investigation, Hunter Textbooks Inc.: Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1987.
Day, R. A. How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, ISI Press: Philadelphia, 1983.

 

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