How to write a scientific report

welcome everyone tuning in to this recording of the workshop on scientific report writing in the live version of this workshop i usually start by asking everyone to indicate your motivation for joining in and i wanted to leave these questions in this recording because i think it’s really useful to reflect on why you may feel the need to improve and it’s something that many of us never really stop feeling the need for so whether you’re listening to this because of feedback you have on previous assessments perhaps or simply because you want to make your writing sound more scientific you’ve definitely come to the right place this is an overview of what i’m going to be covering today quite simply we’re going to talk about the scientific writing style and for those of you who may have attended the introduction to academic writing workshop you’ll see some overlap with that content which of course is expected as science writing is academic writing the bulk of what we’ll be doing today however is looking at the sections of a scientific report and what goes into those sections the things i’m going to be talking about will be applicable to both quantitative as well as qualitative research reports but of course i would like to emphasize that it’s super important to consider any other information that i’m covering in this workshop as just another part of the puzzle and that you obviously also should always rely on and consider information which is given to you as part of your unit specific task information that’s very important so first of all what makes scientific writing scientific well it’s certainly written with a specific purpose which is most often to share the results from some research that was conducted and when considering audience well most science is written to an audience of other researchers or academics health professionals policy makers or students but because you a marker want to see evidence of your understanding of the research and the core concepts behind it it’s usually helpful to think of writing your scientific report as if you were writing to a student at the same level as you but just doing another unit so not your particular unit so core concepts will still have to be explained well you should not take too much knowledge for granted but you shouldn’t write as if you were drafting the report for your grandma to read either now something i’m going to speak about very soon is that it’s grounded in the scientific inquiry and that’s very important for how we write like all academic writing we use evidence and scholarly literature to back up any claims or statements that we make and more so than any other type of academic writing in scientific writing we are relying very heavily on this evidence another hallmark of scientific reporting is also that we are presenting our writing in a very structured way and that the language used adheres to certain conventions and that’s what we’ll be going through today as well now because the scientific inquiry is at the very core of science writing and forms the basis for how we construct reports and how we use language i thought it was just worth quickly touching on this so in science we are constantly building on previous knowledge thoughts research theories and so this is why you have to familiarize yourself with the research and the literature surrounding your topic in order to write to get a sense of how your research fits into that bigger picture of course at undergraduate level you are usually given your research topic or question or even sometimes the data that you are writing about by your lecturer but even though you may not have collected the data yourself as part of an experiment it should still be written up and treated as if you were the researcher and that the same rules apply so reading widely is a must in order to place your findings within the bigger picture of what is already known it’s also a form in the basis for the aims of the research and i’ll talk a little bit about later how that works in practice the findings or results or data you have will then be written up by you and add further to this collective body of knowledge and so it’s important that you in your reporting are placing your findings back in that body of literature and again that’s something i’ll talk about in a in

more detail later so one thing i want to note here though is that your scientific reporting is only one piece of a larger puzzle and only one of many studies on that topic so your findings don’t prove the existence or absence of anything but rather it may aid in our understanding of the topic so this is one of the the main reasons that we’re very tentative in our writing and that’s reflected in how we write how we express ourselves in scientific report we want to write with a certain degree of uncertainty built into it so our results may suggest the presence of something they may indicate something so it’s often not appropriate to talk about our findings proving anything okay so i’m already starting to talk about language here and how we use it using tentative language but what are some of the other ways we make scientific writing sound scientific one important thing is being clear and succinct it means being straight to the point not waffling no redundant or unnecessary words if you read a good scientific paper from the landsat or bmj for instance where authors have to adhere to a very low word count you can see that they use very simple language no complex sentences with long elaborate unnecessary words so really to write science well is to try and not sound overly academic you can and should of course still use discipline specific language but all your sentences should convey a meaning every word should matter i’ve given you an example here of a very wordy description of the gender distribution and then below a much better clear and succinct wording carrying exactly the same meaning but with only a third of the words so that demonstrates this idea of of succinct writing it should also be specific and accurate which refers to not saying things like the sample consisted of over 100 students you should instead spell out exactly how many and report on that one of the main things we also sometimes see in beginning science writers is not being accurate or correct in their language of course this does tie in with only still having a developing knowledge of the field of study or perhaps not having done enough reading but it’s also a matter of writing and editing with care read it back to yourself or someone else very slowly the example in the slide here is a very common mistake of this sort so the poor example here states the study collected data from 112 samples but if you consider that carefully doesn’t make any sense studies are conducted they can’t do anything the researchers are collecting the data likewise a sample is a group of people who participated in research a better and more accurate way of of writing that would be data were collected from 112 participants or the sample consisted of 112 participants so reading widely will also help you develop a sense of how to use language accurately now i’ve also added a little reminder to everyone on the bottom of this slide that also relates to accuracy in writing oftentimes we see the inappropriate use of the word significant that’s a big one in science with the lay meaning being quite a bit different quite a bit or substantial that’s how we use the word significant but in science we reserve that word just for talking about results that are statistically significant so unless you are using the word as such and talking about some results with a p-value of below 0.05 for instance you should consider using another word such as important i probably left the most important aspect of scientific writing to the last slide here on that topic in a way of language so we’re aiming for our writing to be objective impartial and formal so what that means in practice is writing in third person passive voice and the examples on the slide here shows exactly that the first example we will administer the survey to all students in the unit is written in first person active voice present tense where the focus is on who did what but we want to shift that focus in good science

writing on to what was done and remove those personal pronouns it’s also highlighting the importance of the rule from the last slide about being accurate and specific we’re now telling the reader exactly how many people took part and where they were recruited from and lastly the better example is written in past tense and scientific writing writing is written almost exclusively in past tense as is reporting on research has already been conducted exceptions to that rule of course is when we talk about facts such as sandstone is a type of sedimentary rock that’s a fact and can therefore be written in present tense the do nots on this slide refer to some of the general academic writing conventions that also were mentioned in the introduction to academic writing workshop and one which is particularly common among students is using rhetorical questions which they then go on to answer so a student may write so how burned out austrian healthcare workers this report will explore blah blah in trying to avoid asking questions this is much better frames a statement so we could say things like the aim of this report was to explore the prevalence of burnout among australian healthcare workers where we’re saying the same thing but we are avoiding doing it as a question just like every other assessment at university it’s super important to not just start writing making sure that you have clarity about what you’re writing before you start gives clarity to your thoughts and clarity to your writing and that’s all give you the better marks so in scientific writing and scientific reports you will most likely start writing once your study is at least underway or you may have even finished your study and you have your data already whatever that may be like in an essay you will need to know your literature before you can start writing and you may want to make use of a synthesis grid for instance which you can find on the learning zone website which is just a way to make you organize your thoughts and your readings and the evidence you want to bring in and it also makes your referencing so much easier because it will be easy to locate who said what so your report plan much like like an essay plan will be consisting firstly of your headings and subheadings for your report so have a close look at your task description and any templates that are made available to you to make sure that you include all the sections that are required the easiest and first sections to start writing are usually the method and the results sections because they are factual and based in exactly what you did and what you found the areas of the report where it’s going to be most important to have a plan is for the introduction and a discussion and i’ll show you an example of a very basic plan for an introduction in a minute so to recap make sure that you have clarity about what your research question is how you’re going to answer it what your results mean and most importantly that you’re familiar with the relevant literature so when we start looking at the sections of a scientific report it’s helpful to think of that structure as an hourglass this is not necessarily a reflection on the amount of words you allocate to each section but rather how broad or narrow your focus is you open up broadly in the introduction narrowing it down to the specific aims of the research question and hypothesis the methods and the results are the very most narrow focus where you’re just looking at your study and what you did and what you found good papers then start to widen up again in a discussion and a conclusion where you’re connecting the study back to the existing literature and explaining how your study filled a knowledge gap it basically follows the structure of first telling your reader what did i set out to do what did i do what did i find and what did it mean so let’s go through those sections in a bit more detail your title is the main advertisement for your report there are two common mistakes that we see in titles and student reports one is promising something that is then not delivered so including things in the title that the paper is not about another common mistake is lack of accuracy or

confusion around variables and outcomes so for instance students may have conducted a survey on the academic support needs of mature age university students and we may say is see a student use a title such as the correlation between support and study now one thing here is only mention correlation if you actually perform a correlation as part of your study only mention differences between two groups if you actually are reporting on results which allow you to assess that difference between groups so this relates back again to accuracy doesn’t it also be specific in your mention of variables in our hypothetical study we did explore support did we explore support or did we explore academic support needs there are two very different things so be very specific here finally it’s also recommended that you mention your population and here it was mature age university students at scu okay so the title is often not allocated marks as such but it certainly does play a role in that important first impression so getting into the habit of spending a bit of time getting that right is really a worthwhile thing now abstract let me ask you first do you sometimes read the abstract and only the abstract to get a sense for whether you want to read the full paper i suspect the answer is yes in previous workshops almost everyone gives me a thumbs up on that question so this is also one of the reasons why it’s so important for you to get it right it’s useful sometimes to think of needing to tell the entire story of your report to someone who is deciding whether it’s worth reading the whole thing and it’s a challenging thing to do don’t expect you can do it in five minutes it’s challenging because it has to be exceptionally succinct often you only have 200 250 words to play with and at the same time it has to be very comprehensive the abstract is a little bit like a very structured executive summary it should accurately reflect the content of the entire report so nothing can be included in the abstract that does not appear in the body of the paper so it’s definitely advisable to write the abstract after you’ve written your report also make sure that you refer to actual results from your results section including your main findings and usually they’re the ones that you end up talking about in your discussion so introduction this is the first real section of your report this contains three major paths we sort of flow on from each other to form this coherent story this is my problem and this is why it’s fascinating you then go on to outlining the background to the problem so what have people tried to do or found out so far and you do that by reviewing the literature on the topic you then use that literature to highlight the current key issues or knowledge gaps that there are and how you are trying to close that gap or explore it with your study and you finish your introduction with outlining your aims and hypotheses obviously your background information in this section should only include material that is directly relevant to your research and fits into your story it certainly doesn’t need to contain an entire history of the field of study and obviously do remember to include in-text citations for all research and ideas and data from others that you cite just like you wouldn’t any other type of academic writing you may wish to attend one of our other workshops on referencing if you need help with that area so i want to give you an example of a writing plan for a hypothetical introduction this is by no means a complete comprehensive writing plan but i just wanted to at least give you an idea of what i meant when i talked about building up the rationale for your aims in the introduction we have a research question here looking at the prevalence of burnout in australian rural healthcare workers and perhaps you’re collecting some survey data about this which will form the basis for your results section you could open up the introduction by looking at the importance of this topic from a broad worldwide perspective including any current debates on definitions of burnout for instance diagnosis of burnout and so on you may talk about prevalence rates

and problems associated with burnout you could then narrow the focus even a bit more by moving on to looking at the issue in an australian context focusing just on previous research and healthcare workers and perhaps go even narrower by looking at research conducted in rural context or this may indeed be one of the gaps that you identify in literature maybe the only study you can find is a small qualitative study in a rural population maybe very little research has been conducted which uses validated scales to enable a comparison with general population data so this is what is meant by a knowledge gap what do we need to know to further our knowledge and you would then move on to the last part of your introduction where you are telling your reader how your study is filling this knowledge gap and that’s your aims and hypotheses so as i said earlier the method section is certainly the most straightforward section to write it’s a factual outline of what exactly was done and should contain enough information so that others can replicate or recreate your study so the kind of questions we answer here are things like what was the population how did you sample from it what did you ask of your participants you will need to describe in detail any surveys or instruments or procedures you used and what did you do with the data you collected so the analyses you used and you certainly should have a good look at your task description as there’s a lot of variability in what is required for this section all result sections are different and depend on the type of research that you’re doing and the types of analyses you conducted so the hints on this slide here are very generic one important thing is to only present results which help answer your research question that’s number one make good use of tables and figures make sure you refer to all tables and figures in text before they appear in your report your text should guide the reader to the most important parts of your tables and figures not just repeat what is in there also make sure your tables and figure titles accurately describe the content so that means don’t title your figure frequency of students blah blah if the figure is actually showing proportions or percentages of students so that’s again relating to accuracy so results section provides the space to present your key findings in a purely objective manner and which then lay down the foundation for the discussion section where you are actually interpreting them so don’t interpret or discuss your findings in the results section just report them that also means that the results section almost never contain references to other people’s work it’s useful before you start writing your results section to identify which figures tables and data that are absolutely necessary for answering your research question so you already before you start writing have a bit of a a plan of attack for this section once you have identified what those key results are it’s often then a good idea to write a descriptive sentence or two that summarizes each result that way you’ve made sure that you know what your results actually mean before you start reporting on them the main purpose of the discussion section is to reflect on what has been learned from your research here you outline the meaning of your results and how they support or don’t support the statements that you made in your introduction or your hypotheses so you are discussing and evaluating the explanations for the results and what the implications are of your findings and how they fit into the body of literature that you mentioned earlier in your deduction for instance in the example i have been using other research that have um that you mentioned in your introduction may have found that rural healthcare workers fare better than their metropolitan counterparts and burnout and if your findings were not consistent with that you may then highlight those differences and speculate on why that is perhaps your sample consisted of different specialties so you offer explanations for your results here

so in terms of structure a discussion contains some major parts flowing on from each other firstly you are restating your hypotheses and answer your research question for your reader that’s the first thing you do you support those answers with the results and explain how those relate to the literature so you don’t mention t-test or p-values here you’re only interpreting your findings for your reader you’re not just restating them you will then identify limitations of your study and suggest some feasible solutions finally in a discussion you will then explain the importance and implications of your study and how they’ve influenced your knowledge of the problem that you examined sometimes there’s a separate conclusion sometimes as part of your discussion and that again will vary from task to task and from unit to unit finally just a few words about referencing because it’s so important in academic and scientific writing in most scientific writing at scu you are required to follow the apa referencing format so make sure that you indeed do that if you haven’t already done so i would really encourage you to visit the scu library site and have a look at their at the referencing libguide for your discipline and please also remember that in scientific reporting you are almost always required to provide a reference list not a bibliography now a workshop on scientific reporting would not be complete without mention of formatting because it’s so important that this follows the rules set out for you again do check that um that against a task description or unit guidelines but most often you’re required to follow apa formatting for science writing and apa is not just a referencing style but also a formatting style and on this slide here i have mentioned some of the specifics of that style but please have a look at the scuapa 7th lip guide for further information about that if you require it if you want or need to dig a little bit deeper to get your formatting just right you will also find on the scu library site some links to the official apa 7th blog site which also contains example reports formatted in the correct style and i’ve always found them very helpful which will show you exactly how to get it right it also shows you how to format tables and figures so it may be worthwhile really a worthwhile resource for you to look at and here on this slide you can see a section of that which appears on the um the apa apa blog so i know i have been harping on about this several times during this workshop i will say it again the very best way to develop a nice scientific writing and reporting style is to read scientific literature pay attention to how language is used and how they are applying the rules of style that we’ve covered today and it will also help you pick up this all-important discipline-specific language and expression and know-how of how to report results and how good science is written in your discipline if you’re doing a t-test as part of your study for instance look up some papers reporting on t-test and see how that is done even if you are required to follow some strict reporting styles in your unit this exposure to scientific writing is so important for you to develop as a writer yourself i certainly hope that you have found this workshop recording somewhat useful i do want to leave you now with just some other resources which you may find helpful in particular i want to point you to our other great learning zone workshops and workshop recordings as well as our quick guides on lots of different topics which are very relevant to what i’ve been talking about today i also want to point you to the studying in the sciences suite of resources as well

as obviously the apa referencing guide which i’ve been talking about a couple of times today so thank you very much for listening in today and hope to see you around