Types of Natural Sciences Writing

Scientists communicate among themselves using several types of writing, each with its own rules based on the writers' purposes and the readers' needs. Names for these types of writing may vary slightly depending on the instructor and the discipline, but some general rules are likely to be true. If you are unsure about what rules to follow, ask your instructor for a style sheet or a sample and pay careful attention to what you see there. Typical experiments involve three types of writing: raw observations on lab notebook data sheets; revised lab notebook entries; and formal reports, submitted as manuscripts to professional journals.  When you have read to the end of this page, but before you try to write your article, consult "How to Write a Scientific Article" for a "cookbook" approach to what the most important sections must contain and how your reader will interact with them.

1) Lab Notebook

Scientists use lab notebooks as a written record of their experiments, their materials, and their results. Other researchers who are familiar with the subject being studied should be able to use the lab notebook to reconstruct the experiment for themselves. The revised lab notebook entry probably will contain a mix of sentences, short phrases, and numerical data drawn from "data records" entered earlier in the notebook. Brevity and clarity are much more important than your prose style. Use the lab notebook to sketch pictures of things relevant to your research like an unusual piece of equipment, a "flow-chart" of your experiment's procedure, or something important which you see while conducting the experiment (changes of shape, color, size).

2) Data Records (part of the lab notebook)

While observing an experiment or collecting data in the field, scientists often record their observations in table format. Dated and well-organized data are an important part of a lab notebook because they hold your lab observations in a structured format that prepares you for later analysis. Data records contain only numbers and short phrases--don't worry about writing complete sentences or paragraphs. Of course, the categories and labels on yours will be changed to suit the experiment you conduct.

3) Scientific Articles or Reports and Their Composing Processes

Scientists publish articles to tell colleagues around the world about their work. Because the audience is international, all lab reports follow a very strict format. Most reports contain seven sections in this order: Title, Abstract, Introduction, Methods and Materials, Results, Discussion, Literature Cited. Only certain kinds of information belong in each section of an article. An article is based on the lab notebook and data sheets, but it is written in complete sentences forming coherent paragraphs within each section. In research articles, the Materials and Methods section usually is written first, then Results, Discussion, Introduction, Abstract, and Literature Cited. See pages 2 and 3 for more help with the article format.

A Condensed Guide to Research Article Format--<"What to do" instructions are in angle brackets like these! See the How to Write a Scientific Article for cookbook-style set of instructions.>

* * * * *

Mating Frequency in Butterflies of the genus Papilio

<On the first page, your title should be centered above your name, the course number and section, the instructor's name, and the date. The title should be very precise--see McMillan 6-9. Be brief but complete, and use correct scientific terminology. Specify the organism and/or chemicals studied and the effects and/or causes observed.>


<At the top of the second page, this section title begins a one- paragraph summary of what your experiment studied, its purpose, its methods, its most important results, and your main conclusions. Be specific and concentrate on your most important purpose, result, and conclusion. Most abstracts are six to ten sentences long. Note that all section titles are usually centered and entirely capitalized.>


<The Introduction tells the reader what scientists know about the subject of the research (the mating habits of Papilio, in this case) and explains why the experiment is important to our knowledge of the subject. Then the Introduction explains the scientific principles which the experiment uses to study the subject. The Introduction's reader should know why you are doing the experiment and why you are doing it this way. Move from general issues to the specific, focusing on your topic, your specific interest, your reasons for that interest, and in one sentence at the end, summarize your experiment's most important finding. Refer to important researchers by last name with date of publication in parentheses, and refer to others in parentheses by last name and date of publication like this (McMillan, 1988).>


<This section describes the experiment itself so that another scientist could reproduce it with a routine knowledge of lab procedure and basic science. Describe the order that should be followed, rather than errors or irrelevant events. If you follow a previously published method, don't describe it--cite it. Report brands and models of unusual apparatus (spectrophotometers, for instance). Materials (like Papilio butterflies) should be described by type ("six male and six female Papilio butterflies") including only details affecting the experiment's outcome. Assume the obvious. Be stingy with words, not chatty.>


<A Results section contains only results, only what happened that was significant to your experiment. Raw data from data sheets in your notebook should be turned into numbered Figures or Tables located just before the Literature Cited section. The Results section should describe your data clearly, and should refer readers to each relevant Figure or Table. Start with the obvious and tell the story of what happened. Cover all your most significant findings and don't include scientifically irrelevant events (lab partner's sore throat, frogs escaped). Report trends (increasing, decreasing, varying, comparisons with controls) or absence of trends--negative results are useful, too. Refer to Tables and Figures in parentheses like this (Figure 1).>


<Discussion reports your conclusions and speculations about what the results mean. They should follow the order of your results, and each result should be explained, though some conclusions will account for more than one result and some results may lead to more than one speculation. Mention implications afterward, including how your study relates to others' work. Make sure you've explained your experiment's significance for scientific knowledge of your subject as you summarized it in the INTRODUCTION.>


<Follow the format your instructor requires--there are many format styles. The most common is the Council of Biology Editors (CBE) which may be found in most college handbooks.>

* * * * *

General Advice About the Process of Research and Writing

Carefully think out experiment design! Consider alternatives and understand clearly the materials and methods before you begin. Talk to colleagues and compare experiments, a legal and necessary collaboration. The lab report is your individual work, but even that may be edited collaboratively.

Write the report in a logical order. Start MATERIALS AND METHODS first because you have to clarify these in writing before you can run the experiment. Until you get some results you cannot write the RESULTS section. Before you write the RESULTS, create accurate Figures and Tables to see trends you will describe in RESULTS. Then draft the DISCUSSION. Now that you know what you're introducing, write the INTRODUCTION and ABSTRACT. Finally, when you know what you've cited, write the LITERATURE CITED section. Bring sections in progress to the Writing Center (Froelicher Hall, ground floor entrance) for revision help.

Then revise your entire draft for clarity, reading every paragraph aloud!. Show the draft to a colleague or Writing Center tutor for comments or corrections. Check spelling on the semi-final draft. Make final draft changes in blue or black ink.