Writing Scientific Reports

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Writing Scientific Reports

  • Dr. Tamara O’Connor
  • Student Learning Development
  • Student Counselling Service
  • student.learning@tcd.ie
  • http://student-learning.tcd.ie

In this workshop we will

  • Review purpose and qualities of scientific writing
  • Look at the component parts of the lab report – structure and format
  • Explore the writing process
  • Consider the best approach to writing lab report
  • Show examples of strong student writing

Students often

  • Write “shorthand”
    • To sound scientific and objective
  • Focus on facts and details rather than analysis
  • Imply analysis and reasoning without making the argument explicit
  • Assume reader will read meaning into text
  • Ignore problems in usage, spelling, grammar and punctuation

Technical Communication- 5Cs

    • Clarity
    • Conciseness
    • Concreteness
    • Coherence
    • Context
  • From:http://www.eng.uwi.tt/engdocs/TechnicalReportWriting_2007.pdf

Lab Report: Component Parts

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • This is the order in which you read lab report
  • Not the order in which you write it!

Typical Report Structure

  • Title page
  • Abstract/summary
  • Introduction
  • Methodology
  • Findings/results
  • Analysis and discussion
  • Summary and conclusions
  • Recommendations
  • References/bibliography
  • Appendices
  • From: Study Guide 7: Reports, Learning Development, University of Plymouth (2008)

Lab Report Component Parts

  • Introduction
    • Background & objectives; scope & limitations; previous work/research
  • Methods
    • Procedures & materials
  • Results
    • Data presented; tables, figures, calculations
  • Discussion
    • Link to introduction; interpretation; alternative explanations
  • Conclusion – summary main point
  • References – sources referred to in report


  • Can’t change component parts
  • But can
    • Make interesting and readable by focus on internal structure of sections
    • Way sections flow together
    • What info included, left out, emphasized
  • Report tells a story!

Writing Process

  • Start with the data – not the introduction
  • Narrow them down to a few figures
  • Assemble them into a story board
  • Find the trends in the figures. Find the one thing that ties them together
  • Tell your readers how to read your figures and what the main point is
  • Then map out the story that tells what the main point is

Writing Process

  • Start with Methods and Results sections
  • Connect results with how you got them
  • Then connect your interpretation of results (Discussion) to scientific assumptions or principles (Theory)
  • Connect what you set out to do (Introduction) to what you found (Conclusion)
    • From Mya Poe, MIT, Technical Writing


  • “The introduction states the objective or purpose of the experiment and provides the reader with important background and/or theory to the experiment.”
  • See http://www.ecf.utoronto.ca/~writing/handbook-lab.htmlhttp://www.ecf.utoronto.ca/ writing/handbook-lab.html

Writing prompts for the introduction

  • What kind of problem did you work on?
  • Why did you work on this problem?
  • What should the reader know or understand when he/she is finished reading the report?

Student Sample

  • The purpose of this lab is to observe the conservation of momentum and energy in one dimension in a real life setting. We will study this concept through the motion of carts colliding on a track. The velocity for one or two carts will be determined before and after their collision.

Revised sample

  • The purpose of this lab was to observe the conservation of momentum and energy in one dimension in a real life setting. This concept was studied through the motion of carts colliding on a track. The velocity for one or two carts was determined before and after their collision.

Statement of purpose (in intro) should be reflected in conclusion

  • Overall this lab was a success. The purpose was to observe the conservation of momentum and energy in one dimension in a real life setting. The study of this concept was accomplished through the motion of carts colliding on a track. In addition, the experiment determined the velocity for one or two carts before and after the collision. During the course of the experiment the conservation of both momentum and energy was noted, and the final velocities of the carts was accurately determined.

Writing prompts for theory

  • Which research question did you set out to answer?
  • What was your expected answer or assumptions about the outcome of this investigation?
    • Hypothesis?
    • Designed to prove?
  • Relate assumptions to findings


  • Accurate and complete account of what you did in the lab and what materials you used
  • Usually a chronological structure
  • Past tense

Writing prompts for methods

  • How was the experiment designed?
  • On what subjects or materials was the experiment performed?
  • How were the subjects/materials prepared?
  • What machinery/equipment was used?
  • What sequence of events did you follow as you handled the subjects/materials or as you recorded the data?


  • Present data
  • State in verbal form as well as visual
  • Use sentence to draw attention to key points in graphs, figures, etc.
  • Number and title tables and graphs
  • Use appendix for raw data or complex calculations

Writing prompts for Results

  • What are your results?
  • Is the data presented so results are clear, logical and self-explanatory?
  • What is the main point – what ties results together?


  • “You show that you understand the experiment beyond the simple level of completing it.”
  • From http://www.ecf.utoronto.ca/~writing/handbook-lab.html
    • Explain
    • Analyse
    • Interpret

Writing prompts for discussion section

  • Analysis
    • What do the results indicate clearly?
    • What are the sources of error?
    • How do the results compare to the theory/hypothesis?
  • Interpretation
    • What is the significance of the results?
    • How do you justify that interpretation?
    • Suggested improvements for future research?


  • Usually short in student lab reports
  • State what you know as result of lab
  • No new information
  • Example:
    • “The Debye-Sherrer method identified the sample material as nickel due to the measured crystal structure (fcc) and atomic radius (approximately 0.124nm).”

Writing Process – stages

  • Planning
    • Purpose of section
    • Brainstorm, mindmap, outline
  • Writing
  • Revising
  • Submit!

Exercise (from www.learnhigher.ac.uk website)

  • After adding the solution, the mixture in the test tube went a bright scarlet red, which we did not expect, as this was not the same as the washed out pink colour it was supposed to go according to the book. We shook the test tube up and left it for awhile in the test tube stand. When we came back, the mixture had settled to the bottom and dried out, which it was not supposed to have happened; this was a bit of a problem.

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