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.
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:
An example of a good opening sentence is:
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 Benedicts 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:
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Dont 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.
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 thinkand that is what good writing is all about.
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