Guidelines for scientific writing

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Guidelines for scientific writing

Courses for students in all areas of science usually involve a large proportion of practical training. This may come in a variety of forms, including formal practical classes, field excursions or research projects. All cases of practical work involve the collection of data, which are then analysed to produce the results of the study. Therefore, the development of the skills needed to collect and collate data, interpret results and to discuss the results in light of what is already known on the topic is an essential aspect of a sound scientific education.

The guidelines below are concerned with the techniques of scientific writing that is logical, precise, clear, concise and pretty much standard all over the world! It is obvious for prospective research workers that learning the skills to write effective scientific communications will provide valuable experience for the future. Perhaps it is not so obvious that this same training will be valuable for students who will not choose to continue to do research after finishing their degree. All scientists, whether they are advisers, technologists, consultants, or private practitioners, will read scientific communications in order to keep in touch with their chosen fields. An appreciation of what goes into a scientific communication can be best acquired through practice and criticism during your undergraduate course. For this reason, practical exercises and the consequent writing of scientific communications are an important part of the training of any science student.

These guidelines are non prescriptive. They apply to most scientific writing but refer to your lecturers’ instructions for specific assessments. For example, geological papers follow the same broad outline as a biological paper, but the context is much more free flowing with less definition among the sections.

Internal referencing, or the citation of literature, is an important component of any scientific writing. It serves the purpose to acknowledge the work done by others and to demonstrate how your thoughts were derived or modified by the work of others. All work of others needs to be cited in the text (e.g. “Petunia et al. 2005 reported that the cost of cut flowers was too high to offer these as presents to lecturers”), and must then appear in a full list of reference at the end of the assignment.

These guidelines deal with three types of scientific writing that most students will encounter throughout their careers in science:

1. Scientific reports

2. Reports based on modelling

3. Literature reviews

1. Scientific reports

A complete scientific report normally has eight elements. However, it is possible that sometimes you will be asked to write an abbreviated scientific report that only includes those elements that are critical to the learning outcomes of a particular practical or project. Therefore, these guidelines should be read while keeping in mind

the specific requirements of the task or assignment. If no special instructions are given, you should assume that specific training in scientific writing is an integral part of the assessment and that you will be expected to present all of the components.

The components of a standard scientific paper are:

1. Title

2. Summary (or Abstract)

3. Introduction

4. Materials and methods

5. Results

6. Discussion

7. Acknowledgements

8. References

1.1 The Title

The title of a scientific report should be catchy, yet informative, so that the reader, quickly looking through a group of reports, will be encouraged to read your report. In the title, always summarise what you found, and not what you did. For example, ‘Lamb loses more moisture during cooking than mutton’ is a better title than ‘Studies on the cooking of lamb and mutton’. Try not to have your title start as “The effect of ……”

1.2 The Summary or Abstract

The Summary or Abstract is the first section read by the reader so in this section you must entice the reader to read the whole report. The Abstract should be a complete summary of what you did and, most importantly, what you discovered. It is usually only one paragraph in length and is not the place for background information (keep that for the Introduction), nor speculation (that belongs in the Discussion). It is very important to stress the take-home message of what you discovered. The Abstract is often the only part of a scientific report that is read and so it must be completely self contained and separate from the rest of the report. Normally it has no references, and it should be an account of what was done and why (the hypothesis), how it was done (briefly), what were the main results (quantified), and what were the main conclusions from those results.

1.3 The Introduction

The Introduction to a scientific report should contain a hypothesis preceded by a series of logical statements that make this hypothesis a sensible thing to have tested. Remember that a hypothesis is an answer to a well-framed and testable question.

For example, if the practical class notes tell you:

The aim of today's experiment is to cook meat from old and young sheep -mutton and lamb -at three temperatures: 60°, 75° and 90°, and examine the degree of loss of moisture...

You would be expected to do much more than repeat this aim in your Introduction. You would be expected to think and read about the subject in order to come up with one or more hypotheses, which in this case might be:

The experiment was designed to test the hypotheses that meat from old animals loses more moisture than meat from young animals, and that the degree of loss depends on the temperature of cooking.

You would first have to present reasons why you have these expectations, or hypotheses, about the outcome of the experiment. You might explain that water-holding capacity is related to tenderness (with a reference), and tenderness is related to age (with another reference). Then you would need to show (with references) why you think that more water would be lost at high, rather than at low, temperatures.

When you have done this, you will have constructed your series of logical statements, which, together with the hypothesis, will complete a good introduction.

1.4 The Materials and methods

The Materials and methods section details exactly what you did and how you did it, so that your experiment can be repeated and your results verified by others. In this section, you need to provide enough detail so that someone else in the same field of research (not just anybody) can replicate the experiment. In the case of a new method, you must document every detail that is important for replication. However, often you will use methods that have been developed by someone else. In this case, you need to state that you used the method and must cite (with references) the lab manual, book or journal article that sets out the details of the procedure. When citing a method developed by others, you should give an outline of what you did in the Materials and methods, but there is no need to go into the minute procedural details. It is also important not to write this section in point form or give a list of instruction but to include full details of the experimental design in the methods. This includes the number of treatments, replicates of each treatment, controls etc. Often the experimental design can be in the first paragraph of the Materials and methods section, where it can clearly demonstrate to the reader (or the assessor) how you went about testing the hypothesis. Any analysis of the data (calculations, transformations, statistical tests) should be outlined and explained here as well.

1.5 The Results

It is important to make a clear distinction between data and results. Data are the factual information gathered from your observations or measurements. Results are the products of the manipulation of the data. Results should be reported correctly and faithfully, but this does not mean that you should present all of your raw data. One of the most common faults in writing scientific reports is that the results have been presented in the form of a direct transcription from the collated data. Instead, you must think about the raw data that you have collected and process them into text and tables, graphs or diagrams which smooth the way for a logical Discussion section. As an example, a mean and its standard error are generally more valuable than the large number of individual records from which they may have been derived. You are not

hiding results or taking short cuts by leaving out the individual records. Instead, you are demonstrating your ability to discriminate and interpret, two very important qualities of any scientist. Another common fault in scientific report writing is the presentation of tables and figures without any text. The results section can, in fact, contain only text, but it cannot contain only tables or figures. Remember to use the hypothesis you presented in the Introduction as the guide to the way in which you process your data and always make sure your reader knows which findings are the most important. The final presentation should be in the form that most easily allows you to write a Discussion in which you will accept or reject the hypothesis.

Tables and figures (including graphs and diagrams) in any scientific report must be fully and correctly titled. They must be "self-supporting", which means that the table or figure, along with its title and legend, must allow the reader to understand and interpret the experiment without a need to refer to the text. Similarly, the text should be readable without the tables and figure but be complemented by them.

Where appropriate it is important to stress in your results the variance of the measurements obtained and how that variance was assessed.

The tables and figures must be referred to from the text. For example, “Rice was 5-fold more tolerant to salt stress than wheat (Table 1)”. By convention, the captions of figures go BELOW the figures while the titles of tables go ABOVE the table. There are NO other accepted categories of data presentation within a report. Raw data, calculations and statistical outputs (e.g. ANOVA tables) are not usually included but if they are necessary, they are presented as an Appendix. The appendix normally contains information that is not necessary for a full and clear understanding of the results.

You do not need to spell out in the text every single trend in the results – the text is a summary of the results – alerting the reader to the main trends of interest. You should not repeat in the text actual data that are given in tables or figures.

The Results section is not the place for speculation, rather, if speculation is needed it should be left to the Discussion.

1.6 The Discussion

The Discussion is where you discuss your results in the context of the information you presented and the hypotheses you made in the Introduction. Always structure your discussion with the most important points first. Of course, the most important point for discussion is whether or not the hypothesis was supported. This will occupy the opening paragraph of your Discussion. If there are other interesting points arising from your results that are not related to the discussion of the hypothesis, they should be presented in succeeding paragraphs.

It is important not to presume that there is just one correct result -there isn’t! – or that you know the result you should get – you don’t! You should always accept the results at face value and interpret them. The Discussion is a place to look critically at

your results, examine what things worked out as you thought they would and what did not and then to discuss why they did or did not.

In a Discussion it is important to be positive and to emphasize what the study told you rather than dwelling on what it did not or could not tell you. Your findings may not fit your predictions, and, if so, it is quite acceptable, indeed very desirable, to offer alternative theories to explain your results. The explanations you offer must be rational and it is important that you also offer some way to test your explanations. However, it is important not to resort to meaningless explanations. For example, attributing an unexpected result to experimental error says nothing except that you don’t know what happened! Pointing out limitations of the information gathered is commendable, whether or not your results fitted the predicted pattern.

Remember to reference other research works in the Discussion, as well as in the Introduction. Generally, after you have discussed your results in relation to the hypothesis, you should compare your results with those from similar studies, for example: “Unlike Smith (1994), I found no evidence of that mutton dried less than lamb when cooked at 90°C.”

In scientific research, inadequacies in experimental data are often points for discussion. While reports are often rejected for publication due to these inadequacies, it is sometimes impossible to avoid the inadequacies and they must be acknowledged. The problem of inadequacies in the data is much greater in student exercises where time limits prevent perfect data sets from being obtained. For example, there may not be sufficient results to ensure that differences between treatment means are statistically significant, or short-cuts may have to be made in the design that confuse the results. While such inadequacies would not be tolerated in a research project destined for publication in a journal, they are perfectly understandable in the context of a practical exercise and should be discussed. If necessary acknowledge that you were not able to fulfil the technical aspects as well as you would have wished. Perhaps you will have to accept a lower order of probability than 5%, or admit that there could be confounding data. When acknowledging shortcomings in your results, always describe clearly how the experiment might have been done better had you had more time or materials.

Occasionally you may have reason to doubt some of your results because, for example, of your lack of experience in the appropriate techniques. Ordinarily you would repeat the part of the work in doubt, but this is generally not possible in practical classes due to lack of time. You may decide to leave out those doubtful results in order to make your conclusions clearer. Take care to explain fully your reasons for omitting these data. Without such explanation, it will appear that you were simply trying to make your results fit preconceived conclusions.

1.7 The Acknowledgments

The Acknowledgements section is where you thank colleagues or other sources for information (data, results), materials or help (typing, editing, discussion) that they provided.


The References

The references should be handled exactly as set out by a scientific journal or Science IRIS. All references cited in the text should be quoted in full in the list of references. They should be exactly formatted with correct abbreviations according to a specified format and cited in both the text and in the References section. The Harvard style of presenting references is widely adopted at UWA but ensure that you follow your lecturers’ instructions or the journal instructions if you are writing an article to be submitted to a peer reviewed journal. Articles and books that have been consulted as background reading but which have not been cited in the text of the report itself should not be included in the Reference list. Personal communications are not refereed publications and should not be cited in the list of references.


Reports based on Economic Modelling

Understanding how to manage a system usually requires a model. Trying to explain a model and its results in a standard scientific report is frustrating for authors and even more frustrating for readers. Modelling papers use a different format.

Usually the purposes of a modelling study are to find the best strategy for managing a system and assess its robustness. Instead of one or two hypotheses to test, there may be many, too many to list, and the introduction contains the aims of the study instead. It is not enough to simply list the materials and methods. Readers will not have a clue what the study is about. Instead, the structure and assumptions of the model are explained. This often involves equations. Sometimes the equations and explanations are so detailed they overflow into an appendix, which serious readers must consult if they intend to replicate the results. And, of course, the purpose of the model is to get results. Usually, there are lots of results, often overflowing into appendices. The discussion is never separate, otherwise readers will get hopelessly lost. Instead, the results and discussion are intermingled to tell a story about the best management strategy and its robustness. After the story is told, the conclusions give the moral of the story.

The components of a modeling paper are:

Title Summary (or Abstract) Introduction Model Application Conclusions Acknowledgements References Appendices

Compared with a scientific report, ‘Model’ replaces ‘Materials and Methods’ and ‘Application’ replaces ‘Results and Discussion’. These two sections are often quite long and are split into manageable chunks by using subsections. One of the difficulties with this format is where to explain how the model was estimated. Sometimes another section called ‘Data and Estimation’ is inserted but, more typically, this is a subsection at the beginning of the ‘Application’ section. Then follows an additional section—‘Conclusions’.

Authors of a scientific report repeat themselves twice, first in the summary and then in the rest of the paper. Authors of a modelling paper repeat themselves three times. Each repetition tells the whole story. The ‘Summary’ is the shortest version of the story. The ‘Model’ and ‘Application’ are the longest version. The ‘Introduction’ and ‘Conclusions’ are the medium version, like an executive summary. A casual reader will read the ‘Summary’. An interested reader will also read the ‘Introduction’, skip the details in the middle, and read the ‘Conclusions’. Only a keen reader will read the ‘Model’ and ‘Application’ sections, as well.

Writing a modelling paper is a messy process. Here is a rough guide.

The very first thing to do is start your list of references. There are enough stresses without having to chase a reference you misplaced.

Next write a very rough draft of the ‘Introduction’ with a vague idea of where the study might end up. If you try to write a polished introduction from the beginning, you will go crazy.

Rather, move on to develop the model and do the computer runs. You will go around in a many circles.

Once the model seems to work, you are ready to write the long version of your story—the ‘Model’ and ‘Application’ sections. The model can be explained in one of two ways. You can first explain separate bits and then build the bits into a whole model, or you can first present the whole model then explain each of the bits. Both ways work. Use whichever way you find easiest.

As a rule of thumb, you will throw away ¾ of your results but what’s left over will still overflow into the ‘Appendices’. You should first present the best management strategy and then present your investigations into the robustness of that strategy. Present the results in graphs or tables. Either works. The only rule is to present the results in the way you find easiest to explain. That will also be the way your reader finds easiest to understand.

Once you have the long version of the story written, you will find it easier to write the medium version in the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Conclusions’. The ‘Introduction’ begins with the big picture, funnels down to the aims of the study, and briefly mentions the model you are using to achieve the aims. The ‘Conclusions’ reiterate the main results, their importance and limitations.

As almost the last task, take the first sentence out of every paragraph in the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Conclusions’, tidy them up a bit and call it the ‘Summary’.

Now write the ‘Acknowledgements’. Be sure to mention financial support and the main people who have helped you, with this particular study, that is.

Revisit the title. Modelling studies usually have turgid titles, something like “Optimal Management of Patagonian Toothfish in the Southern Ocean.” Rarely do they try to summarise the whole study in one sentence such as “Rice seeds are more salt tolerant than are wheat seeds.”


Literature reviews

Another form of scientific communnication is a literature review where the research is carried out principally in a library, seeking and studying original references. Good reviews should contain a substantial proportion of new and critical thinking based on the cited work. Simple lists of facts and references do not constitute a review. Not only that, they are dull to write and even more dull to read.

How can you avoid writing catalogue-type reviews? Almost all scientific research is characterised by the variability that exists between individual measurements, means and, in the case of biological systems, populations. Conclusions and generalisations made from different sets of data about one subject often differ, simply because data vary enough to suggest different interpretations. In your reading, you will encounter different points of view or apparently conflicting data. You may not have the experience of the authors whose work you are reading, but you do have the advantage of hindsight. You can look at work done several years ago in the light of knowledge that is more recent, while the original author had to assess the original work in relative isolation. This gives you the opportunity to reassess the original conclusions and to compare them with those of later researchers. You may even see results, that the author thought little of at the time and failed to discuss adequately. These results may appear to you to be very significant in the light of later work. If so, you have an excellent chance to make an original contribution by drawing attention to its significance.

Thus, when reading the literature for your review you should be alert for opportunities to:

compare results and conclusions of different authors;

contrast results that appear to lead to different conclusions, and

reassess results in light of new information to the original author.

In each case you should be prepared to make a statement that:

rationalises, explains, confirms, or refutes

the work that you are going to cite in your Review. Not all information is amenable to such analysis but if you can find just a few examples, it will lift the quality of your Review. Assessors are attracted by original thinking. Even if you are not always considered correct, you will make a good impression if your review is characterised by completeness and your thinking is seen to be logical.

The key to a good literature review is an effective introduction. Here is where the reader learns what to expect and (just as important) what not to expect from the review. In most instances, the topic you write about will allow some latitude in scope and emphasis so that you must define for the reader the exact limits of the material you will be covering. If the assessors’ interpretation of the title is different to yours, they may expect to find information that will not be in your review. By carefully defining from the beginning what you are going to discuss you can avoid

disappointing your readers. You can help them even further by indicating the order in which you intend to discuss your ideas.

Thus, the introduction of your review plays an essential role in guiding the reader. Because of this, you may find that you cannot construct it satisfactorily during the actual writing until the main body of the material, or at least a detailed outline of it, has been completed.

Often writers are overwhelmed by the sheer number of publications existing on a subject and do not know where to start and what to include. This happens to experienced writers as well as beginners, so don’t panic. A simple guide to what should be included could be summarised in the sentence “include all information that is relevant to the hypothesis, and only information that is relevant to the hypothesis”. This is particularly true for the literature review that you may write for a 4th year project or for an honours thesis. A literature review should provide a compelling case demonstrating that the work needs to be done. This could be because there is a gap of knowledge in this area, or because there are contrasting results requiring clarification.

So you will need to weed out what is not necessary and be ruthless about it. For example, if you are writing a review on how nutrition affects wool growth it could be daunting to decide what to include since there have been thousands of publications written on this. One way about it is to find…a good review article and quote that. This is not cheating but simply acknowledging what has been done so far and continuing on from that. Even when citing review articles the amount of work published could be daunting. Again, keep in mind what is relevant, and you will find that things become more manageable.

When writing a review it is helpful to think of a theme or a thesis that you want to support and use this as your guide. For example, if you are writing a review on the issue of whether it is ethical to use culled kangaroos to supply meat for human consumption you would need to search for the relevant literature. You may already have formed your own opinion on this or you may form an opinion as you do the reading. Either way while you write you should keep this in mind and include works that support that opinion as well as works that do not and show why your view is valid using rational arguments.

The conclusion of a review is also important. In it you can emphasise the main points you feel you have made in the review. If these points have been foreshadowed in the Introduction, the review will have a sense of coherence. The impact of your review will be very much greater if these main points to which you refer in the concluding paragraph are the ones which you developed yourself, rather than those taken from cited references.

As with all writing, editing, re-reading and re-drafting are essential if you want to submit a review that you are proud of and that will have a strong impact. Generally a review will have more references than a scientific report and these, as always, must be checked for accuracy. In addition, you should make certain that you have not, consciously or unconsciously, been guilty of plagiarism -the uncited use of the words or work of others. Sometimes when making notes you may write down, without change, expressions used by authors and incorporate them later in your own version

without attributing them correctly. If such expressions are essential to your review you must use quotation marks and cite the author, and you must be very careful that the quotation is accurate. Quotations are often very useful where a particular explanation has been expressed well, or where an author appears to have been prophetic. It is nonetheless


a good idea to have too many quotations of this sort. They detract from your earlier efforts of originality by emphasising that you are not even using your own words, much less your own thoughts.

The essential ingredients in a review, then, are originality and the expression of your own ideas. These ingredients make the difference between a dull catalogue of facts and an interesting account of a field of study. Your overall aim should be to inject evidence of your own clear thinking into the introduction, the body, and the conclusion of the review. If you succeed your value as a scientist will be unquestioned.

Avoid simple errors

The hallmarks of a good scientist are precision, clarity and brevity. It is simply not possible to give the impression of having any of these attributes by being satisfied with and submitting an unchecked rough draft of a scientific report. Reading your own report to check for obvious errors and matching it against the checklist below will take a small amount of time compared with the improvement it will make. A second step, requiring no more time and often yielding a similar degree of improvement, is to ask a class-mate to read your report and comment on it. Perhaps you can do the same for that person. This is not cheating and is a simple way of introducing a higher level of scientific rigour to a report. To use the criticism of colleagues to produce a scientifically acceptable report -provided it is you who make the eventual corrections and changes! -is eminently scientific and laudable. The giving and receiving of criticism is also an excellent way of learning.


Before you submit your written communication make sure that:

  • you have proof read it

  • it has a title

  • it has a summary/abstract

  • you have included aims and, if possible, testable hypotheses in your introduction

  • your results section includes text, not just tables or graphs

  • tables and figures have titles and captions and are self supporting

  • you have cited all literature in a list of references

Further reading

Lindsay D.R. (1994). A guide to scientific writing. Longman Sand-Jensen K. (2007) How to write consistently boring scientific literature. Oikos116, 723-727.

Report Writing Working Party April 15, 2008

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