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Writing

This Guide was created as a joint project of the Academic Resource Center and the William H. Hannon Library.

Writing a Lab Report

Writing a scientific lab report is significantly different from writing for other classes like philosophy, English, and history. The most prominent form of writing in biology, chemistry, and environmental science is the lab report, which is a formally written description of results and discoveries found in an experiment. College lab reports should emulate and follow the same formats as reports found in scholarly journals, such as Nature, Cell, and The American Journal of Biochemistry.

Report Format

Title: The title says what you did. It should be brief (aim for ten words or less) and describe the main point of the experiment or investigation.

  • Example:  Caffeine Increases Amylase Activity in the Mealworm (Tenebrio molitar).
  • If you can, begin your title using a keyword rather than an article like “The” or “A.”

Abstract: An abstract is a very concise summary of the purpose of the report, data presented, and major conclusions in about 100 - 200 words.  Abstracts are also commonly required for conference/presentation submissions because they summarize all of the essential materials necessary to understand the purpose of the experiment. They should consist of a background sentence, an introduction sentence, your hypothesis/purpose of the experiment, and a sentence about the results and what this means.

Introduction: The introduction of a lab report defines the subject of the report, provides background information and relevant studies, and outlines scientific purpose(s) and/or objective(s).

  • The introduction is a place to provide the reader with necessary research on the topic and properly cite sources used.
  • Summarizes the current literature on the topic including primary and secondary sources.
  • Introduces the paper’s aims and scope.
  • States the purpose of the experiment and the hypothesis.

Materials and Methods: The materials and methods section is a vital component of any formal lab report. This section of the report gives a detailed account of the procedure that was followed in completing the experiment as well as all important materials used. (This includes bacterial strains and species names in tests using living subjects.)

  • Discusses the procedure of the experiment in as much detail as possible.
  • Provides information about participants, apparatus, tools, substances, location of experiment, etc.
  • For field studies, be sure to clearly explain where and when the work was done.
  • It must be written so that anyone can use the methods section as instructions for exact replications.
  • Don’t hesitate to use subheadings to organize these categories.
  • Practice proper scientific writing forms. Be sure to use the proper abbreviations for units. Example: The 50mL sample was placed in a 5ºC room for 48hrs.

Results: The results section focuses on the findings, or data, in the experiment, as well as any statistical tests used to determine their significance.

  • Concentrate on general trends and differences and not on trivial details.
  • Summarize the data from the experiments without discussing their implications (This is where all the statistical analyses goes.)
  • Organize data into tables, figures, graphs, photographs, etc.  Data in a table should not be duplicated in a graph or figure. Be sure to refer to tables and graphs in the written portion, for example, “Figure 1 shows that the activity....”
  • Number and title all figures and tables separately, for example, Figure 1 and Table 1 and include a legend explaining symbols and abbreviations. Figures and graphs are labeled below the image while tables are labeled above.

 Discussion: The discussion section interprets the results, tying them back to background information and experiments performed by others in the past.This is also the area where further research opportunities shold be explored.

  • Interpret the data; do not restate the results.
  • Observations should also be noted in this section, especially anything unusual which may affect your results.

For example, if your bacteria was incubated at the wrong temperature or a piece of equipment failed mid-experiment, these should be noted in the results section.

  • Relate results to existing theories and knowledge.This can tie back to your introduction section because of the background you provided.
  • Explain the logic that allows you to accept or reject your original hypotheses.
  • Include suggestions for improving your techniques or design, or clarify areas of doubt for further research.

Acknowledgements and References: A references list should be compiled at the end of the report citing any works that were used to support the paper. Additionally, an acknowledgements section should be included to acknowledge research advisors/ partners, any group or person providing funding for the research and anyone outside the authors who contributed to the paper or research.

General Tips

  • In scientific papers, passive voice is perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, using “I” or “we” is not.

          Incorrect: We found that caffeine increased amylase levels in Tenebrio molitar.  Correct: It was discovered that caffeine increased amylase levels in Tenebrio molitar.   

  • It is expected that you use as much formal (bland) language and scientific terminology as you can. There should be no emphasis placed on “expressing yourself” or “keeping it interesting”; a lab report is not a narrative.
  • In a lab report, it is important to get to the point. Be descriptive enough that your audience can understand the experiment, but strive to be concise.

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