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Report Writing: Scientific Reports

Scientific and lab reports

A good scientific report has a clear and accurately organised structure, divided into headings and sub-headings. The paragraphs are the fundamental unit of reports.

Structure

The structure and scientific conventions you should use in your report will be based on your department or subject field requirements. Therefore, it is always best to check your departmental guidelines or module/assignment instructions first.

The following is a general structure for a typical scientific report also known as IMRaD or introduction, methods, results, analysis and discussion.

 

  1. Abstract

The abstract is a short summary of your project. Here, you should state your research questions and aims and provide a brief description of your methodology. It also includes an overview of your most significant findings. It is best to write this last after finalising the report. 

 

  1. Introduction

This is where you set the scene for your report. The introduction should clearly articulate the purpose and aim (and, possibly, objectives) of the report, along with providing the background context for the report's topic and area of research. A scientific report may have an hypothesis in addition or in stead of aims and objectives. It may also provide any definitions or explanations for the terms used in the report or theoretical underpinnings of the research so that the reader has a clear understanding of what the research is based upon. It may be useful to also indicate any limitations to the scope of the report and identify the parameters of the research.

 

  1. Methods

The methods section includes any information on the methods, tools and equipment used to get the data and evidence for your report. You should justify your method (that is, explain why your method was chosen), acknowledge possible problems encountered during the research, and present the limitations of your methodology.

 

  1. Results

If you are required to have a separate results and discussion section, then the results section should only include a summary of the findings, rather than an analysis of them - leave the critical analysis of the results for the discussion section. Presenting your results may take the form of graphs, tables, or any necessary diagrams of the gathered data. It is best to present your results in a logical order, making them as clear and understandable as possible through concise titles, brief summaries of the findings, and what the diagrams/charts/graphs or tables are showing to the reader.

 

  1. Discussion

This section is where the data gathered and your results are truly put to work. It is the main body of your report in which you should critically analyse what the results mean in relation to the aims and objectives (and/or, in scientific writing, hypotheses) put forth at the beginning of the report. You should follow a logical order, and can structure this section in sub-headings.

 

  1. Conclusion

The conclusion should not include any new material but instead show a summary of your main arguments and findings. It is a chance to remind the reader of the key points within your report, the significance of the findings and the most central issues or arguments raised from the research. The conclusion may also include recommendations for further research, or how the present research may be carried out more effectively in future.

 

  1. References

Similar to your essays, a report still requires a bibliography of all the published resources you have referenced within your report. Check your module handbook for the referencing style you should use as there are different styles depending on your degree. If it is the standard Westminster Harvard Referencing style, then follow these guidelines and remember to be consistent.

Scientific Writing Style

Scientific report/lab writing and essay writing differ in style. Compared to essay writing styles, scientific report writing styles expect the following:

  • A lean and direct approach to the words chosen: do not use words unnecessarily, be concise, and always consider the purpose of each and every word.
  • Each sentence must serve a purpose, so treat each sentence as important in the role it performs within the report.  
  • The focus is on measurement and observation, and conveying the evidence with clarity, we therefore want to avoid using our opinions or suppositions: be objective and avoid the use of superlatives, emotive language, or wishy washy phrases, such as 'somewhat,' 'potentially,' 'possibly,' 'nearly,' and 'may be.' 
  • It is important to not only begin with a question, but also the method by which you will answer that question: pre-plan and be sure of the methods you're using so that your approach is organised and systematic. Your way of answering the question must be reproducible in order to check the validity of the results and conclusions, and produce 'intersubjectively accessible knowledge.
  • It is important to show your evidence, as this is what your conclusions will be based on. Be critical of the evidence, don't just tell the reader, but show the reader what it means by questioning how the evidence supports the answer to the question. 
  • Maintain a rigid structure to your writing that reflects the scientific method that underlines the report: check the specific guidelines of the assignment and thoroughly follow these. If, however, you are not provided with a required structure, consider following the IMRaD structure and adapt where needed.

Recommendation: Check out the further resources for more advice, AND also take a look through scientific articles and research - use your reading effectively

Reading scientific papers is an excellent way of not only developing your knowledge of a subject, but also developing your scientific writing practices and gaining a greater understanding of what is to be expected. When reading, be sure to keep in mind the author's use of language and phrases, ways of presenting and discussing evidence, and ways of organising, structuring, and formatting material, as you may wish to emulate or imitate (NOT plagiarise or copy) the styles you read.

Further Resources

Websites:

Science Writing Resources for Learning by The University of British Columbia

Scientific Writing Resource by the Duke Graduate School

Scientific Writing by the Royal Literary Fund

Books:

Successful Scientific Writing by Janice R. Matthews, John M. Bowen and Robert W. Matthews

Writing for Science Students (Palgrave Study Skills) by Jennifer Boyle

The Scientist's Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career by Stephen B. Heard

Writing for Biomedical Sciences Students (Macmillan Study Skills) by Harry Witchel

Successful Scientific Writing: A Step-By-Step Guide for the Biological and Medical Sciences by Janice R. Matthews

Date Handling and Analysis (Fundamentals of Biomedical Science) by Andrew Blann

How to Write a Scientific Paper: An Academic Self-Help Guide for PhD Students by Jari Saramäki

Free and Purchasable Courses:

Writing in the Sciences run by Coursera

Science Writing run by The University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education