4 Writing for Science
Scientific articles are not literary works. Instead, they are meant to transmit information effectively and concisely. The need for clarity and brevity is especially important for other forms of science communication such as posters where the audience must be able to understand the significance of your research in just a few minutes, but the need is there for all forms of scientific communication.
There is an explicit format that scientific papers follow, with relatively small variations in style among journals. Papers are broken down into the following sections: title, abstract, introduction, methods, results, and discussion. Every section, except the title, should be labeled as such. Generally the section name is centered and underlined (or bold-faced) over the text. Although posters follow the same format as a paper, each section is abbreviated (once again, clarity is critical).
The title should give the reader a concise, informative description of the content and scope of the paper.
The abstract is a concise summary of the major findings of the study. It should be no longer than 9-10 sentences. It should summarize every subsequent section of the paper. It should state the purposes of the study, and then briefly summarize the methods, results, and conclusions of the study. The abstract should be able to stand-alone. Do not refer to any figures or tables, or cite any references. Because the abstract is a distillation of the paper, it is often written last. It is typically the hardest part of the paper to write.
In many journals, the introduction is also unlabeled, and simply starts after the abstract.
The introduction gives the rationale for the research. It answers the question “Why should anyone be interested in this work?” It usually includes background information, including the work of others, and a description of your objectives. If you are studying a particular species, give both the scientific (Latin) name and the common name the first time you mention your study animal. The scientific name is always underlined or italicized, and the genus name is capitalized while the species name is not. Cite only references pertinent to your study. Direct quotations are rarely used in scientific writing; instead state the findings of others in your own words. Furthermore, footnotes are rarely used in a scientific paper. Instead cite the author by last name, and the year that the source was published.
Smith (1987) found that male mice prefer the odor of non-pregnant female mice to that of pregnant female mice. Male mice prefer the odor of non- pregnant female mice to that of pregnant female mice (Smith, 1987).
When two people co-author a paper, both are cited:
When more than two people co-author a paper, cite only the first author, and refer to the other authors with the Latin phrase, “et al.”, indicating “and others”:
Undergraduate students who came to lectures were more likely to receive a high grade on the exams (Thatcher, et al., 2000).
Harrett and Garrett (1999) found no differences between male and female elephants in their response to the tape of a female vocalization.
The full reference for each work must be given in the literature cited section at the end of the paper. For references, select work from the primary literature: that is, work that is published by the same people who did it. In general, citing an encyclopedia or textbook is not appropriate for a scientific paper.
When organizing your introduction, begin with a general description of the topic, and then become more specific. For example, in a study of the olfaction in the reproductive behavior of mice, the skeleton of the introduction might be:
For reproduction to be successful, animals must be able to correctly assess the reproductive condition of a potential partner. Many different signals have evolved in animals to facilitate such assessment. Olfactory signals seem to be particularly important in mammals.
Mice are particularly suited for studying the role of olfaction in reproductive behavior. Odor cues are involved in several aspects of mouse reproductive behavior, including… The aim of this study was…
Each of these sentences would be a good topic sentence of a different paragraph in the introduction. References should be cited where appropriate.
In sum, an introduction should convey your overall purpose in conducting the experiment as well as your specific objectives.
This section is also often called Materials and Methods. This section is a very concise summary of the subjects, equipment, and procedures used. This section should contain enough information so that someone else could replicate your work. It is NOT a list, but a narrative description. Because it is a narrative, it should not include a list of your materials. Rather, they should be described in the narrative as required. For example, you could say: “We measured 5mL of enzyme solution into a test tube and heated it on a hot plate until it boiled.” From this, it is obvious that you used some sort of tool to accurately measure 5mL of solution, as well as a test tube, and a hot plate.
Only include information that is relevant to your experiment: do not include information that any scientist should know to do or that won’t affect the results (label the tubes, clean up afterwards, make a graph). If you are following the methods of another paper or a lab manual, simply cite the source. Then, you can concentrate on describing any changes that you made to that procedure. A common mistake is to let results creep into this section.
The results includes presentations of your data and the results of statistical analysis of your data. First, state the overall trend of the data. Did the majority of the data statistically support or contradict the null hypothesis?
Address each statistical test separately, often in separate paragraphs. For each type of data analyzed say whether your results are statistically significant, and in parentheses give the statistical test used, the value of the test statistic, and the probability level for that computed value. For example, “Male mice visited non-pregnant females significantly more often than pregnant females (chi square = 4.69; p < 0.05).”
Do not present your raw data. Instead, present data in an easy to read form. You will probably use a figure or a table to present your results. Refer to each table by a number (Table 1, Table 2, etc.) It should have a concise heading at the top. Graphs and diagrams are both called figures and are numbered consecutively (Fig. 1, Fig. 2, etc.) They have headings at the bottom. Axes on graphs should be clearly labeled. See the section on Presenting Your Data for more information.
You must refer to every table and figure at least once in the text. Often this can be done parenthetically: “Male mice visited non-pregnant females significantly more often than pregnant females (chi square = 4.69; p <0.05; Fig. 2).”
Do not use the word “significant” unless it can be supported by statistical evidence. A common mistake is to discuss the implications of your findings. Save that for the discussion section.
Here you are to give a reader the “take home” message of the study. Begin by briefly summarizing the major findings of your study. Then discuss each finding one at a time (usually in separate paragraphs).
Interpret your results in light of the biology you are studying. Your discussion section should parallel your introduction: if you discussed the role of reproductive biology of the mouse at the beginning of your study, come back to it again here. The paper should come full circle.
Use references throughout your discussion to support your points. Compare your findings with those of similar studies.
Do not make statements that cannot be supported by the data, and be sure none of your conclusions are contradicted by the data. Discuss unexpected results or possible errors in the experiment, but don’t focus on “what didn’t work”. We all know this was a classroom research project!
Each academic discipline uses a different format to cite the references they use. These differences can be dramatic (English vs. Science, for example) or small (Psychology vs. Biology), but they are based on what information is seen as important. In this course, we follow the format of the most biology journals by using CSE format. See the section on Citing Your Sources for more specific information.
For stylistic hints, browse one of the many books in the library on scientific writing. Remember, being a good writer in English “121” doesn’t mean your skills will translate to science writing without work (though you have a great start!).
Outline your paper. Use topic sentences for every paragraph. You should be able to go back and underline each topic sentence after you are finished.
Keep your report as short as you can, consistent with clarity and completeness. Do not “pad” with a lot of irrelevant information just to show you know a lot.
A note on Plagiarism: Plagiarism is a serious academic offense. However, most instances of plagiarism are the result of a lack of care and effort, and not intentional misbehavior. Here is a general rule to follow: Don’t Cut and Paste! Accidental or not, any occurrence of academic dishonesty will be treated seriously. Ignorance is no defense.
Be sure to proofread for typographical errors, poor grammar, or unclear sentence structure.
Try to start paragraphs with a topic sentence or a summary statement. Then follow it with supporting statements. This technique makes your writing clearer and easier to follow. Ideally, someone could read the first sentence of each paragraph and still understand the gist of our paper.
PLEASE avoid dull scientific writing, particularly the use of the passive voice. As much as possible, use an active voice. Passive writing takes up more space and is dull, dull, dull. Look at the example here; see how this is more exciting and can lead to an interesting ecological observation about the importance of the predator – prey relationship involved?
BAD: Mussels are eaten by sea stars. GOOD: Sea stars eat mussels. BETTER STILL: Sea stars are voracious predators of mussels.
Make sure the object to which words such as “this” or “it” refer is clear.
Combine sentences with low information content into one sentence. This will make your writing more streamlined and less repetitive. But don’t write run-on sentences either!
Always refer to work people have done in the past in the past tense. Refer to species attributes or other on going, continuing states in the present tense.
The word “data” is plural. Say either “these data are…” or “this datum is…”
BAD: Wentworth (1985) studied vegetation in Arizona. He found that tree species distributions followed gradients. GOOD: In the Huachuca Mountains of Arizona, both elevation and the amount of light influenced tree species distributions (Wentworth 1985).
Scientific names of animals and plants are underlined or italicized (as are most Latin words), such as Homo sapiens or Homo sapiens (genera and all higher taxa are capitalized, species names are lowercase).
Do not anthropomorphize. A honeybee or a dandelion does not have the same consciousness or emotional life as your roommate. In extreme forms, this type of writing is appropriate for the tabloids in supermarket checkout lines…
Try varying the length of your sentences, and keep in mind that a sentence with 4 words is probably too short, and one with 20 too long.
BAD: Kudzu, an Asian super weed, intends to dominate and conquer the entire southeastern United States. GOOD: Kudzu is a noxious weed introduced from Asia that has quickly spread from its point of introduction throughout the southeastern United States.
Avoid using too many clauses in one sentence. If you see that you have a lot of commas, that is a clue that you’ve overdone the number of clauses in the sentence.
Try reading your work out loud. Anything that is written poorly will be difficult to read. This technique will alert you to problem areas in your writing.
BE PREPARED TO WRITE SEVERAL DRAFTS! Good, hard editing will turn you from a mediocre to a good writer. And with good writing, you are able to show your GREAT thinking!
These instructions are adapted by Walter Shriner. Originally from Jakob, E. 1995. Laboratory manual for animal behavior. Bowling Green University and Muller, K. 1991. Ornithology laboratory. University of California, Davis.