Writing Scientific Papers
For any scientific research project, the job is not done until the findings have been
communicated to others. Consequently, it is essential that all scientists be able to
compose concise, intelligible reports about their research. This ability requires both a
sound understanding of the form of a scientific paper and a clear, compact writing style.
Scientific papers generally include the following sections:
• Literature Cited
Not all journals follow this format, but most do, and that makes it easier for the reader to
find the parts of interest to them. You should write your lab reports for this class in the
format of a standard scientific paper. The best way to learn how to write a scientific
paper is by using published papers as examples to emulate. For this class, your
papers should follow the format of the journal Ecology. The following is a brief
description of what you should include in each section.
The title should be informative: it should allow the reader to determine what the paper is
about. It may contain information on the question, the system, and the organisms
studied. It should not be “cutesy” and it should not be inane. For example, “Lab Writeup
#1” is not an acceptable title, nor is “All washed up: life in the intertidal zone”.
This section is a concise summary of the research question, the general approach
(methods) used to answer it, the results, conclusions, and implications. Abstracts vary
in length, but you should try to keep yours to less than 200 words. Most scientists read
the abstract of a paper first, and from that they often decide whether to read the paper
or not. If the abstract isn’t interesting and well written, then the rest of the paper might
not be read.
The introduction is where you familiarize the reader with the general topic of your paper.
In this section you should state what general question(s) you are addressing, and what
specific hypotheses you will test. First, you should state the general issue of interest
and then briefly summarize previous work that has been done on this subject. Next,
describe unresolved problems or ambiguities and explain how your study will resolve
them. Finally, state the specific questions or hypotheses your work tests.
To write a good Introduction (and Discussion) you will need to be familiar with (and cite)
the scientific literature on the topic of your study. This requires “library” research, which
these days is typically all done online with database searches and paper downloads.
Methods (“Where, When, and How?”)
In this section you tell the reader how you went about testing your hypotheses,
explaining in detail how and where the research was done. You should give a brief
description of your study area (including its location and any pertinent physical and
biological features), note when you did your study, and describe what kinds of data you
collected, how you collected them, and what types of statistical analyses you performed.
Enough detail should be given that someone who wanted to repeat your study could do
so. Only mention details relevant to what you will present in the Results section. All
reference to what you did and found in your study should be written in the past tense
because you are describing work that has already been completed.
This is the part of the paper where you present your data and the results of your
analyses using tables and figures. The data should be organized into a coherent
sequence, and presented in the form of tables, graphs, or other sorts of figures. Include
only those data that are relevant to the hypotheses being tested. In the body of the
paper you should give a written description of the important patterns and trends in the
data (citing appropriate tables and figures to support your claims), and explain what the
data tell you in relation to your hypotheses. Do not interpret your data in light of the
larger issues raised in the Introduction or give conclusions in this section – leave that for
the Discussion. Label tables in order as Table 1, Table 2, etc., and all graphs and
drawings as Figure 1, Figure 2, etc. With each table and figure you must also include a
short, written title (tables) or legend/caption (figures) describing what is shown. As a
general rule, if data can be presented as either a figure or a table, a figure is better – it
has more impact and normally is easier to decipher. Don’t duplicate data by placing the
same data in both a table and a figure.
Discussion (“So what?”)
This is the section where you interpret your data in light of your hypotheses and
questions and make conclusions about the implications of your findings. Do this by
comparing your results to those from other published studies, discussing any similarities
and differences between them, and describe how these similarities and differences
relate to general theory in your field of study. This section is the place for some
creativity in evaluating of your results. You should consider alternative hypotheses that
could explain your findings. You should acknowledge weaknesses and limitations of
your study, but do not make the common mistake that inexperienced scientists make of
over emphasizing the weaknesses of their study. Even the best studies have
weaknesses. You may discuss better ways to study the question(s) that motivated your
study, and you may suggest other interesting questions for future studies, but don’t
overdo it. End with a brief summary (no more than a few sentences) of the most
important findings and implications of your study.
In this section you should:
1. Reach conclusions about your initial hypotheses
2. Compare these conclusions to those of other researchers
3. Identify sources of error and inadequacies of the techniques used and suggest
4. Identify the next steps needed in research on the problem
5. Speculate on the broader meaning (implications) of your work
In this part of your paper you should list (alphabetically by author) all of the papers that
you cited in your paper. You should include the author’s name(s), date of publication,
title of the article, and the journal’s name, volume number, and page numbers of the
article. For papers in edited books, in addition to the author’s name, date, and title, give
the title of the book, name of the editor, and name of the publishing company.
When citing a paper in the text of your manuscript, use standard format, e.g., “Connell
(1961) found that the lower limit of the distribution of the barnacle Chthamalus stellatus
was set by competition with another barnacle.” Refer to published papers for other
For a journal article (one author):
Hurlbert, S.H. 1984. Pseudoreplication and the design of ecological field experiments.
Ecological Monographs 54:187-211.
For an article/chapter in a book:
Chesson, P.L. and T.J. Case. 1986. Nonequilibrium community theories: chance,
variability, history, and coexistence. Pp 229-239 in J. Diamond and T.J. Case,
editors. Community ecology. Harper and Row, New York, New York.
Your papers must be typed with a 12-point font, lines should be double-spaced, and the
margins should be 1”. All pages should be numbered. Scientific names should be
Refer to all tables and figures with parenthetical citations. For example, “the
bluebanded goby (Lythrypnus dalli) reached its highest density in rocky areas with high
rugosity (Fig. 1; Table 2).” Do not write a weak sentence like “Table 2 contains the data
on bluebanded goby distributions.”
When you finish your paper, proofread it carefully to eliminate any grammatical,
typographical, and spelling errors. Make use of software that checks spelling and
grammar, but don’t rely on these to catch all your errors. Study each sentence to see if
you can make it more concise, without sacrificing clarity. Although you are striving for a
compact style, a longer but clearer sentence is better than a short but confusing one. A
short but clear sentence is best. Try to critique your own paper as you would one from
a scientific journal. Although you are always limited by the quality of the data, when you
turn in your paper, you should feel confident that you did a good job of presenting your
findings in the context of their importance to the field of study.
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