BISC 111/113:Science Writing Guidelines

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General Instructions for Writing Scientific Papers or Lab Reports

Prior to writing a report, you may discuss the laboratory experiment with your peers or your instructor. However, the final content, organization, and wording of the report must be of your own design. You may not use figures and graphs or statistical analyses prepared by others and presented to the class in the oral presentations. All data analysis must be your own.

Late reports will be penalized 5% per day.

How to get started? Our suggestion for writing a lab report is to start by analyzing your data and working on the Results section’s presentation of these data. You should finish with the abstract. It is best to start with the Results section, since you must thoroughly understand your results to form conclusions. When you know what you are able to conclude about the plants or beetles, it is easier to see what background information is appropriate for the introduction. The Methods and Materials section, which should be fairly straightforward, can be written at any point. Use the checklist below after you have written your first draft.

You might also refer to the Carlton College lab report guide as an additional source for science writing suggestions ([1]).

Lab Report Format

A report written in the correct format in most courses will have the following sections, in this order:
Methods and Materials
Results: Tables, Figures and separate results text
Acknowledgment (optional)
References (or Literature Cited)

However, you will only be asked to include a title, methods, results, discussion, and references sections in the sole report in this course.


Compose a title that provides specific information about the variables being tested and reflects the major conclusion of the paper. The major conclusion is often called "the take-home message".

Compare and contrast these potential titles:
"Response of patients to different doses of ice cream"
"Frequent administration of ice cream boosts patients' morale"
“Morale in hospital patients is improved by serving more ice cream”

As you analyze the titles consider these questions:

  1. Can you easily identify the main topic and the variable that was tested?
  2. Is the take home message clear?
  3. Think about the word choices: Are any words in the titles ambiguous e.g. What was the patient response? What doses were used?


In this section, use paragraphs rather than lists, to accurately summarize the final procedures/methods that were employed to collect and analyze your data. The materials (your plants or insects, controlled conditions, equipment used, etc.) are incorporated into the narrative. Provide enough detail so that a reader following this section can evaluate and repeat your experiment.

The Carlton College lab report guide is a great reference if you are struggling with this section. ([2])

Subheadings: Using subheadings helps organize your method section particularly in big experiment with multiple parts such as the plant lab. Again examine the reference articles you have read for lab for ideas on organizing a methods section. Have a separate paragraph (not a list!) for each subheading. The actual dial settings of equipment used, final concentrations of solutions, number of initial beetles, greenhouse conditions etc. are reported in the methods section, as they will influence the results and their interpretation. It is impossible for your reader to evaluate the results if s/he cannot figure out how you did the experiment. It is more important to be honest and accurate than that you followed the correct procedure. Many experimental errors can be explained by “mistakes” made in methodology.

One subheading, often forgotten is Data Analysis: a section on the mathematical calculations and statistical analyses you used. Tell your reader the variables that were compared, the types of statistical tests used, and for what they were used. What alpha level (threshold significance probability) was used? Were the data transformed in any way (by taking their logarithms, etc.)?

Citations: If you followed a procedure EXACTLY as described in the lab manual you may cite the lab manual for that procedure (don’t forget to include the lab manual in the references cited section).

For example, a subheading identified as photosynthetic rate might be written: “The photosynthetic rates of leaves were measured at 25 degrees C and light intensities between 0 and 1000 µmol photons m-2 s-1 using a Qubit Model 3750 Infra red gas analyzer (BISC 111, 2009).”

Note: An appropriate reference section citation for the lab manual is:

BISC 111. 2011. Introductory Organismal Biology Lab Manual. Wellesley College Biological Sciences Department. Wellesley MA. Labs 3-5.