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Scientific Research Paper Definitions

The section headings (Abstract, Introduction, etc.) should be centered and the body of each section should follow immediately below the heading. Do not begin each section on a new page. If one section ends part of the way down the page, the next section heading follows immediately on the same page.

One important general rule to keep in mind is that a scientific paper is a report about something that has been done in the past. Most of the paper should be written in the PAST TENSE (was, were). The present tense (is, are) is used when stating generalizations or conclusions. The present tense is most often used in the Introduction, Discussion and Conclusion sections of papers. The paper should read as a narrative in which the author describes what was done and what results were obtained from that work.

 

TITLE

Every scientific paper must have a self-explanatory title. By reading the title, the work being reported should be clear to the reader without having to read the paper itself. The title, "A Biology Lab Report", tells the reader nothing. An example of a good, self-explanatory title would be: "The Effects of Light and Temperature on the Growth of Populations of the Bacterium, Escherichia coli ". This title reports exactly what the researcher has done by stating three things:

If the title had been only "Effects of Light and Temperature on Escherichia coli ", the reader would have to guess which parameters were measured. (That is, were the effects on reproduction, survival, dry weight or something else?) If the title had been "Effect of Environmental Factors on Growth of Escherichia coli ", the reader would not know which environmental factors were manipulated. If the title had been "Effects of Light and Temperature on the Growth of an Organism", then the reader would not know which organism was studied. In any of the above cases, the reader would be forced to read more of the paper to understand what the researcher had done.

Exceptions do occur: If several factors were manipulated, all of them do not have to be listed. Instead, "Effects of Several Environmental Factors on Growth of Populations ofEscherichia coli " (if more than two or three factors were manipulated) would be appropriate. The same applies if more than two or three organisms were studied. For example, "Effects of Light and Temperature on the Growth of Four Species of Bacteria" would be correct. The researcher would then include the names of the bacteria in the Materials and Methods section of the paper.

 

ABSTRACT

The abstract section in a scientific paper is a concise digest of the content of the paper. An abstract is more than a summary. A summary is a brief restatement of preceding text that is intended to orient a reader who has studied the preceding text. An abstract is intended to be self-explanatory without reference to the paper, but is not a substitute for the paper.

The abstract should present, in about 250 words, the purpose of the paper, general materials and methods (including, if any, the scientific and common names of organisms), summarized results, and the major conclusions. Do not include any information that is not contained in the body of the paper. Exclude detailed descriptions of organisms, materials and methods. Tables or figures, references to tables or figures, or references to literature cited usually are not included in this section. The abstract is usually written last. An easy way to write the abstract is to extract the most important points from each section of the paper and then use those points to construct a brief description of your study.

 

INTRODUCTION

The Introduction is the statement of the problem that you investigated. It should give readers enough information to appreciate your specific objectives within a larger theoretical framework. After placing your work in a broader context, you should state the specific question(s) to be answered. This section may also include background information about the problem such as a summary of any research that has been done on the problem in the past and how the present experiment will help to clarify or expand the knowledge in this general area. All background information gathered from other sources must, of course, be appropriately cited. (Proper citation of references will be described later.)

A helpful strategy in this section is to go from the general, theoretical framework to your specific question. However, do not make the Introduction too broad. Remember that you are writing for classmates who have knowledge similar to yours. Present only the most relevant ideas and get quickly to the point of the paper. For examples, see the Appendix.

 

MATERIALS AND METHODS

This section explains how and, where relevant, when the experiment was done. The researcher describes the experimental design, the apparatus, methods of gathering data and type of control. If any work was done in a natural habitat, the worker describes the study area, states its location and explains when the work was done. If specimens were collected for study, where and when that material was collected are stated. The general rule to remember is that the Materials and Methods section should be detailed and clear enough so that any reader knowledgeable in basic scientific techniques could duplicate the study if she/he wished to do so. For examples, see the Appendix.

DO NOT write this section as though it were directions in a laboratory exercise book. Instead of writing:

Simply describe how the experiment was done:

Also, DO NOT LIST the equipment used in the experiment. The materials that were used in the research are simply mentioned in the narrative as the experimental procedure is described in detail. If well-known methods were used without changes, simply name the methods (e.g., standard microscopic techniques; standard spectrophotometric techniques). If modified standard techniques were used, describe the changes.

 

RESULTS

Here the researcher presents summarized data for inspection using narrative text and, where appropriate, tables and figures to display summarized data. Only the results are presented. No interpretation of the data or conclusions about what the data might mean are given in this section. Data assembled in tables and/or figures should supplement the text and present the data in an easily understandable form. Do not present raw data! If tables and/or figures are used, they must be accompanied by narrative text. Do not repeat extensively in the text the data you have presented in tables and figures. But, do not restrict yourself to passing comments either. (For example, only stating that "Results are shown in Table 1." is not appropriate.) The text describes the data presented in the tables and figures and calls attention to the important data that the researcher will discuss in the Discussion section and will use to support Conclusions. (Rules to follow when constructing and presenting figures and tables are presented in a later section of this guide.)

 

DISCUSSION

Here, the researcher interprets the data in terms of any patterns that were observed, any relationships among experimental variables that are important and any correlations between variables that are discernible. The author should include any explanations of how the results differed from those hypothesized, or how the results were either different from or similar to those of any related experiments performed by other researchers. Remember that experiments do not always need to show major differences or trends to be important. "Negative" results also need to be explained and may represent something important--perhaps a new or changed focus for your research.

A useful strategy in discussing your experiment is to relate your specific results back to the broad theoretical context presented in the Introduction. Since your Introduction went from the general to a specific question, going from the specific back to the general will help to tie your ideas and arguments together.

 

CONCLUSIONS

This section simply states what the researcher thinks the data mean, and, as such, should relate directly back to the problem/question stated in the introduction. This section should not offer any reasons for those particular conclusions--these should have been presented in the Discussion section. By looking at only the Introduction and Conclusions sections, a reader should have a good idea of what the researcher has investigated and discovered even though the specific details of how the work was done would not be known.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

In this section you should give credit to people who have helped you with the research or with writing the paper. If your work has been supported by a grant, you would also give credit for that in this section.

 

LITERATURE CITED

This section lists, in alphabetical order by author, all published information that was referred to anywhere in the text of the paper. It provides the readers with the information needed should they want to refer to the original literature on the general problem. Note that the Literature Cited section includes only those references that were actually mentioned (cited) in the paper. Any other information that the researcher may have read about the problem but did not mention in the paper is not included in this section. This is why the section is called "Literature Cited" instead of "References" or "Bibliography".

The system of citing reference material in scientific journals varies with the particular journal. The method that you will follow is the "author-date" system. Listed below are several examples of how citations should be presented in the text of your paper. The name(s) of the author(s) and year of publication are included in the body of the text. Sentence structure determines the placement of the parentheses.

Tips on how to present the results of a study, and give it the best chance of publication.

Adapted with permission from a text developed by the Applied Ecology Research Group at the University of Canberra Australia, and prepared with the aid of 'How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper' by Robert Day (ISI Press, Philadelphia, 1979).
 
A scientific paper is a written report describing original research results whose format has been defined by centuries of developing tradition, editorial practice, scientific ethics and the interplay with printing and publishing services. The result of this process is that virtually every scientific paper has a title, abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion.
 
It should, however, be noted that most publications have rules about a paper's format: some divide papers into these or some of these sections, others do not, and the order may be different in different publications. So be prepared to revise your paper in to a publication's format when you are ready to submit.
 
One general point to remember is the need to avoid jargon and acronyms as much as possible. A second is the fact that some journals like papers to be written in the active voice - i.e. "we carried out a test to..." rather than " test was carried out to..." — but that this is not always the case.
 
Title
 
A title should be the fewest possible words that accurately describe the content of the paper. Omit all waste words such as "A study of ...", "Investigations of ...", "Observations on ...", etc. Indexing and abstracting services depend on the accuracy of the title, extracting from it keywords useful in cross-referencing and computer searching.
 
An improperly titled paper may never reach the audience for which it was intended, so be specific. If the study is of a particular species or chemical, name it in the title. If the study has been limited to a particular region or system, and the inferences it contains are similarly limited, then name the region or system in the title.
 
Keyword list
 
The keyword list provides the opportunity to add keywords, used by the indexing and abstracting services, in addition to those already present in the title. Judicious use of keywords may increase the ease with which interested parties can locate your article.
 
Abstract
 
A well-prepared abstract enables the reader to identify the basic content of a document quickly and accurately, to determine its relevance to their interests, and thus to decide whether to read the document in its entirety. The abstract concisely states the principal objectives and scope of the investigation where these are not obvious from the title. More important, it concisely summarises the results and principal conclusions. Do not include details of the methods used unless the study is methodological, i.e. primarily concerned with methods.
 
The abstract must be concise; most journals specify a length, typically not exceeding 250 words. If you can convey the essential details of the paper in 100 words, do not use 200. Do not repeat information contained in the title. The abstract, together with the title, must be self-contained as it is published separately from the paper in abstracting services such as Biological Abstracts or Current Contents. Omit all references to the literature and to tables or figures, and omit obscure abbreviations and acronyms even though they may be defined in main body of the paper.
 
Introduction
 
The introduction begins by introducing the reader to the pertinent literature. A common mistake is to introduce authors and their areas of study in general terms without mention of their major findings. For example: "Parmenter (1976) and Chessman (1978) studied the diet of Chelodina longicollis at various latitudes and Legler (1978) and Chessman (1983) conducted a similar study on Chelodina expansa" compares poorly with: "Within the confines of carnivory, Chelodina expansa is a selective and specialised predator feeding upon highly motile prey such as decapod crustaceans, aquatic bugs and small fish (Legler, 1978; Chessman, 1984), whereas C. longicollis is reported to have a diverse and opportunistic diet (Parmenter, 1976; Chessman, 1984)". The latter is a far more informative lead-in to the literature, but more importantly it will enable the reader to clearly place the current work in the context of what is already known.
 
Try to introduce references so they do not interfere with the flow of your argument: first write the text without references so that it reads smoothly, then add in the references at the end of sentences or phrases so they do not interrupt your flow. Note that not all journals use author's names in references some use numbers in the text with a list of citations at the end of the article. Check the publication's style when you are ready to submit your paper.
 
An important function of the introduction is to establish the significance of your current work: Why was there a need to conduct the study? Having introduced the pertinent literature and demonstrated the need for the current study, you should state clearly the scope and objectives.
 
Avoid a list of points or bullets; use prose.
 
The introduction can finish with the statement of objectives or, as some people prefer, with a brief statement of the principal findings. Either way, the reader must have an idea of where the paper is heading to follow the development of the evidence.
 
Materials and methods
 
The main purpose of the 'Materials and Methods' section is to provide enough detail for a competent worker to repeat your study and reproduce the results. The scientific method requires that your results be reproducible, and you must provide a basis for repetition of the study by others.
 
Equipment and materials available off the shelf should be described exactly (e.g. Licor underwater quantum sensor, Model LI 192SB) and sources of materials should be given if there is variation in quality among supplies. Modifications to equipment or equipment constructed specifically for the study should be carefully described in detail. The method used to prepare reagents, fixatives, and stains should be stated exactly, though often reference to standard recipes in other works will suffice.
 
The usual order of presentation of methods is chronological. However, related methods may need to be described together and strict chronological order cannot always be followed. If your methods are new (i.e. unpublished), you must provide all the detail required to repeat them. However, if a method has been previously published, only the name of the method and a literature reference need be given.
 
Be precise in describing measurements and include errors of measurement. Ordinary statistical methods should be used without comment; advanced or unusual methods may require a literature citation. Show your materials and methods section to a colleague. Ask if they would have difficulty in repeating your study.
 
Results
 
In the results section you present your findings: display items (figures and tables) are central in this section. Present the data, digested and condensed, with important trends extracted and described. Because the results comprise the new knowledge that you are contributing to the world, it is important that your findings be clearly and simply stated.
 
The results should be short and sweet. Do not say "It is clearly evident from Fig. 1 that bird species richness increased with habitat complexity". Say instead "Bird species richness increased with habitat complexity (Fig. 1)".
 
However, don't be too concise. Readers cannot be expected to extract important trends from the data unaided. Few will bother. Combine the use of text, tables and figures to condense data and highlight trends. In doing so be sure to refer to the guidelines for preparing tables and figures below.
 
Discussion
 
In the discussion you should discuss what principles have been established or reinforced; what generalisations can be drawn; how your findings compare to the findings of others or to expectations based on previous work; and whether there are any theoretical/practical implications of your work.
 
When you address these questions, it is crucial that your discussion rests firmly on the evidence presented in the results section. Refer briefly to your results to support your discussion statements. Do not extend your conclusions beyond those that are directly supported by your results.
 
A brief paragraph of speculation about what your results may mean in a general sense is usually acceptable, but should not form the bulk of the discussion. Be sure to address the objectives of the study in the discussion and to discuss the significance of the results. Don't leave the reader thinking "So what?" End the discussion with a short summary or conclusion regarding the significance of the work.
 
References
 
Whenever you draw upon information contained in another paper, you must acknowledge the source. All references to the literature must be followed immediately by an indication of the source of the information that is referenced, for example, "A drop in dissolved oxygen under similar conditions has been demonstrated before (Norris, l986)."
 
If two authors are involved, include both surnames in this reference. However if more authors are involved, you may use 'et al', an abbreviation of Latin meaning 'and others'. In general you should not use the abbreviation in the full reference at the end of the article, although some journals permit this. If two more articles written by the same author in the same year are cited, most journals ask you to add suffixes 'a', 'b' etc in both the text and the reference list.
 
If you include in your report phrases, sentences or paragraphs repeated verbatim from the literature, it is not sufficient to simply cite the source. You must include the material in quotes and you must give the number of the page from which the quote was lifted. For example: "Day (l979: 3l) reports a result where '33.3% of the mice used in this experiment were cured by the test drug; 33.3% of the test population were unaffected by the drug and remained in a moribund condition; the third mouse got away'".
 
A list of references ordered alphabetically by author's surname, or by number, depending on the publication, must be provided at the end of your paper. The reference list should contain all references cited in the text but no more. Include with each reference details of the author, year of publication, title of article, name of journal or book and place of publication of books, volume and page numbers.
 
Formats vary from journal to journal, so when you are preparing a scientific paper for an assignment, choose a journal in your field of interest and follow its format for the reference list. Be consistent in the use of journal abbreviations.
 
Appendices
 
Appendices contain information in greater detail than can be presented in the main body of the paper, but which may be of interest to a few people working specifically in your field. Only appendices referred to in the text should be included.
 
Formatting conventions
 
Most publications have guidelines about submission and manuscript preparation, for online or mailed submissions. Most journals require the manuscript to be typed with double spacing throughout and reasonable margins. Make sure you read the guide to authors before submitting your paper so that you can present your paper in the right format for that publication (refer to submission of paper article in this series).
 
Finally — and perhaps most importantly — ALWAYS read the journal's guide to authors before submitting a paper, and ALWAYS provide an informative cover letter to your submission.
 
Constructing tables
 
Include a caption and column headings that contain enough information for the reader to understand the table without reference to the text. The caption should be at the head of the table. Organise the table so that like elements read down, not across.
 
Present the data in a table or in the text, but never present the same data in both forms. Choose units of measurement so as to avoid the use of an excessive number of digits.
 
Don't include tables that are not referred to in the text, or be tempted to 'dress up' your report by presenting data in the form of tables or figures that could easily be replaced by a sentence or two of text.
 
Don't include columns of data that contain the same value throughout. If the value is important to the table include it in the caption or as a footnote to the table.
 
Don't use vertical lines to separate columns unless absolutely necessary.
 
Constructing figures
 
Include a legend describing the figure. It should be succinct yet provide sufficient information for the reader to interpret the figure without reference to the text. The legend should be below the figure.
 
Provide each axis with a brief but informative title (including units of measurement).
 
Don't include figures that are not referred to in the text, or be tempted to 'dress up' your report by presenting data in the form of figures that could easily be replaced by a sentence or two of text.
 
Don't fill the entire A4 page with the graph leaving little room for axis numeration, axis titles and the caption. The entire figure should lie within reasonable margins (say 3 centimetre margin on the left side, 2 centimetre margins on the top, bottom and right side of the page).
 
Don't extend the axes very far beyond the range of the data. For example, if the data range between 0 and 78, the axis should extend no further than a value of 80.
 
Don't use colour, unless absolutely necessary. It is expensive, and the costs are usually passed on to the author. Colour in figures may look good in an assignment or thesis, but it means redrawing in preparation for publication.

Adapted with permission from a text developed by the Applied Ecology Research Group at the University of Canberra Australia, and prepared with the aid of 'How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper' by Robert Day (ISI Press, Philadelphia, 1979).

This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's e-guide to science communication and has been reformatted to become this practical guide.

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