Academic Writing: Writing in the Sciences

Part 1: General writing tips for science students

  • Conciseness
    • Avoid repetition
    • Use the fewest number of words necessary to convey your point
  • Clarity
    • Keep your language simple and clear
    • Use headings and subheadings to help the reader follow your work
  • Jargon
    • Define key terms or technical terms the first time you use them
  • Figures
    • Refer to figures instead of describing in words everything the figure shows
    • Emphasize in your writing the main conclusions of a figure and what the data suggests
  • Absolutes
    • Avoid saying something had been “proven”
    • Consider that your data instead may “support,” “reinforce,” or “suggest” an idea or conclusion

Part 2: Writing a scientific abstract

An abstract summarizes the major aspects of the entire paper in the following sequence:

  • The question(s) investigated or the purpose of your study
  • The experimental design and methods used
  • The major findings of the study, including key quantitative results or trends
  • A brief summary of interpretations of the data and conclusions

Abstracts are typically one paragraph with 200-300 words. Assume readers will scan the abstract first to determine if they will proceed to reading the paper. Thus, the abstract is a self-contained unit that highlights the main points of your entire paper. Abstracts include concise but complete sentences. Use the past tense (since the experiments are already completed) and the active voice in your abstract.

An abstract should not contain:

  • Lengthy and detailed background information
  • References to other literature pieces
  • Abbreviations or terms that may be confusing to readers
  • Illustrations, figures, or tables, or any references to them

Part 3: Writing a lab report

A lab report summarizes a set of experiments and is typically presented in the following sequence:

  • Title
    • Should be specific and may mention key result or conclusion of the experiments
  • Abstract (described above)
  • Introduction
    • Provides the reader with background information and relevant terms
    • Describes the state of knowledge of the field – what is known and what is not known about the topic of interest by referring to previous research.
    • Summarizes the goals of your experiment and what you are trying to discover
  • Materials and Methods
    • Explains to the reader what equipment was used and what experiments were performed
    • Provides enough information to allow a reader to duplicate your experiment exactly
    • Refers to laboratory manuals or protocols followed to complete the experiments.
  • Results
    • Presents all the experimental results, but does not interpret them
    • Typically includes tables or figures to succinctly illustrate findings
    • Includes figures that require titles and legends. The legend should include key details needed for a reader to understand the figure without needing to refer back to the text.
  • Discussion
    • Interprets results and draws conclusions based on them
    • Addresses any failures in the experiments or ways to improve them
    • Predicts future experiments that would be useful or logical based on your results
    • Suggests the significance of the results in relation to the whole field of study
  • References

Many scientists find it easiest to write the abstract and introduction last, as these parts require an overall sense of the whole experiment and its conclusions.

Part 4: Writing a scientific literature review

A literature review not only tells the reader about the state of knowledge on a given topic, but also organizes and evaluates major parts or arguments of each source. You might comment on main conclusions each author made, or highlight their use of unique experimental methods. You might also introduce critiques of each literature piece, e.g. a low sample number or missing controls, which suggest further research might be required. A literature review typically conveys a point to the reader: for example, you might demonstrate how or what your own experiments add to the current body of research in the field. Literature reviews can be grouped many ways, depending on the findings you want to highlight. For example, literature can be grouped chronologically, by theme, by experimental method, or by key authors.

Revised and updated by Kaylee Magee (2014)