Being able to write different types of scientific text is important, both as a student and after your education. Scientific texts should be written in a certain way to clearly and objectively present information and conclusions, and it can be difficult to know what to do. This page contains information on different types of scientific texts and tips for your own writing.
To write is a process that is different for everyone. The best method for producing text for you is something you will have to figure out yourself, but generally there are some tips that are good to remember:
- No one writes a finished piece of text on their first draft. Start with a rough draft and work from there.
- Feedback is important, it is good if someone else can read your text before you hand it in. If you are writing together with someone else try reading each other's work several times. It can feel difficult to let someone else read an unfinished text that you have written, but feedback from each other, already at an early stage, is often very valuable and will help you produce a more cohesive text.
- If you are writing a lab report or similar, where the text is based on work you have performed, try to start writing early, before the lab has finished.
- All parts of the writing process take time. This covers not only writing, but things like proofreading and feedback. Make sure to give yourself time for all parts of the process.
When you are writing scientific text you should generally avoid using the word "I" since, in practice, you have never done anything completely by yourself. You may also be advised to avoid using "we", since it is the results, not your achievements, that are in focus. However, "we" is becoming increasingly accepted. To write without using "I" or "we" is something that becomes easier with practice. If you find it difficult try flipping the sentence around. For example, "We diluted 0.5 M NaCl to 0.5 mM NaCl" can instead be written "0.5 M NaCl was diluted to 0.5 mM NaCl".
The common types of scientific text you as a student are most likely to encounter and be expected to write are abstract, poster, lab reports and degree project reports. The latter two are similar in form and language to scientific papers.
An abstract is a summary of your work. It is always present at the start of a scientific paper and should commonly be included in your lab reports. An abstract should generally not be longer than 200-250 words and it is important to include the aims of your work, how you carried it out and what the results were. The abstract is the part of your text that the most people will read and should make the reader interested in reading the text in its entirety by presenting the main points in such a way as to make the reader curious about the details.
A scientific poster should summarise you work in a visual and easily accessible way and are common at conferences, for example. A spectator should in a few seconds be able to get a sense of what you work is about and should not need to spend more than a couple of minutes to understand your main points. It is difficult to make a clear and easily accessible poster that can be grasped in a short time, but good guidelines are to focus on images and avoid large blocks of text.
Lab reports and degree project reports have the same format as scientific papers and should be written for your peers, meaning students at the same level and education as you. The exact format for such a report varies between different divisions, but generally includes title, name of all authors, introduction, methods, results, discussion and reference list. You are often required to also include an abstract and sometimes also a theory section.
The introduction should present the aims of the lab or degree project and the necessary background information to understand your work. The aims must always be included and it is important that you have understood what the goal of your work was. For degree projects, where you are generating new results for a research group, you should also include why you have chosed to investigate this?
Sometimes you should then include a theory section, check what is expected at each course. The theory section should explain the main principles behind your work, without going into the details of your work specifically. For example, if you are measuring kinetics you should explain what kinetics is, how it is determined and any related equations that are important for the method.
The materials and methods section should desribe what you have done in details, you should be able to give this section to someone else as far along in their education as you and they should be able to repeat what you have done. If you have followed a lab compendium or other protocol it is important to reference that protocol. If you have followed a protocol it is very important that you note down all changes that you have made to that protocol. Thorough notes in your lab journal are essential for this.
Regarding calculations: to be able to follow your work it is very important that you always show your calculations, but how to do that varies heavily. You should thus check with those responsible for the lab your are doing, or with your supervisor, what is expected. Remember units and significant figures! One of the by far biggest errors when correcting lab reports is that the units are wrong or missing. Unit analysis is your friend!
The results should describe what you have done, as objectively as possible with text, figures and tables, and without conclusions. All figures and tables should have accompanying text and it should be possible to understand what you are looking at with looking at anything else in the report. The results section should also contain running text that describes what your see in the figures and tables and should be possible to understand with looking at those figures and talbes.
In the discussion you should analyse your results, for example by comparing your different results, discuss sources of error or compare with previous work. You can write the discussion and results as one section and in those cases the analysis is performed as the results are presented. You should also present the conclusions drawn from your work, which may be its own section.
There should always be a reference list at the back of the report where you reference your sources. All sources must med referenced where relevant in the running text of the report. You may not include any source in your reference list that you have not referenced in the running text.
To present your work to the public requires practice, but is important to be able to explain it to future employers, coworkers and others. You quickly forget that what you consider obvious is not necessarily obvious to others. The following things are good to think about when writing popular science:
- Use technical terms very sparingly, limit yourself to a couple that are key to your work and take the time to explain what they mean.
- To understand you work a larger amount of background information is often necessary, and this is often the main bulk of your text.
- Do not get bogged down in details, focus on main points and conclusions.
- It is very helpful to let someone else read your text, preferrably someone at the same level as your target audience.