Are you apprehensive at the thought of having to write a scientific paper? Don’t be; it’s not rocket science!
What’s most important to keep in mind is that the purpose of a scientific paper is not just to present information or ideas; rather, it’s meant to document and create excitement among other scientists about new, original research. As a writer, your job is to ensure that your audience receives the information and messages that you want them to receive. A large part of that is making your paper easy to read. Clearly, your readers are going to move far more easily through your paper if your information is well organized and presented in a logical manner.
To help achieve this, most scientific research authors use a standard format to present their results. The format typically includes a title, abstract, introduction, literature review, methods, results and discussion. You may decide, for practical reasons, to compose certain sections in a different order than they appear within the document. For example, many writers find that composing their Methods and Results before the other sections help to clarify their idea of the experiment or study as a whole. But all of these sections should be included in the final paper.
Your Title should use the fewest words possible while still being specific. Be sure to describe the subject matter of the paper, but not in such a technical manner that only specialists will understand. Many times, inferences in the paper are limited to particular populations, species, or regions … so be specific enough to convey that (e.g., “The Effects of Family Structure and Educational Attainment among Blacks and Whites in the U.S.).
When composing your Title, keep in mind key words that others might use to cross reference or index this paper when searching for research in this area. A poorly or improperly titled paper may not reach your intended audience! If they can’t find it, they can’t read it!
In general, Authorship is reserved to individuals who have made a significant contribution to the conception and design or the analysis and interpretation of data; participated in drafting the article or reviewing and/or revising it for intellectual content; and approved the final version of the manuscript.
The significance of the order in which Authors are listed varies widely, and can depend on common practice in the field or the policy established by the publisher and/or journal. Conventions differ greatly among disciplines and research groups. Sometimes the scientist with the greatest name recognition is listed first, while in other fields the principle investigator's name is always last. In some disciplines, a supervisor’s name rarely appears on papers, while in others the professor's name appears on every paper generated by the lab. Still other research groups and journals avoid these decisions by simply listing Authors alphabetically.
An Abstract summarizes the basic concept of your document clearly and succinctly, preferably in one paragraph. Its purpose is to give the reader a “preview” of what’s to come in the document, and to entice the reader to read the entire document. Keep in mind that the Abstract should be self-contained, as it may be the only section of the paper that others can see via electronic literature searches or published abstracts. As a result, it’s important to include enough key information (e.g., summary results, observations, and trends) to be useful for anyone referencing your work.
In general, an abstract should be kept to a maximum of 200-300 words (the standard length for journals). If you can state the essential details in 200 words, don’t use 300! Some journals or conferences limit you to 100 words; it’s not easy to pare down the Abstract to this few words. It is sometimes helpful to write a summary that includes whatever you think is important, and then gradually prune it down to size by removing unnecessary words and leaving only the necessary concepts.
Although it is the first section of your paper, the Abstract, by definition, must be written last since it will summarize the entire paper. If the objectives and the scope of the research are not obvious from the title alone, you should include a summary of the results and primary conclusions. Do not include figures or tables; avoid obscure abbreviations and acronyms. The Abstract should be able to stand alone without any footnotes.
You are writing a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation, not a mystery novel, so the reader should know right away what your document is all about. As such, the Introduction must capture the reader’s attention within the first four paragraphs of the document by clearly stating the essential research question you asked/answered in your experiment, and why that question is relevant and interesting to the scientific community.
Research is a cumulative process; few experts ever write or invent anything from scratch. Our thoughts and ideas come from what others have done (methods), written (results) or conceptualized (ideas). As such, your task is to build upon this tradition by connecting your research to what has already been studied and documented. The purpose of your Literature Review is to make clear the relationship of previous research to your thesis or dissertation, and should answer all of the following questions:
- What is already known about this problem, from both a broad perspective and more specifically? And why is the previous documentation insufficient to solve the research problem you have chosen?
- What other methods have been attempted to solve this problem? What is right about those methods, and what is wrong?
- How do gaps in the current literature contribute to the problem that you have chosen?
In science, it's not sufficient merely to design and carry out an experiment. Ultimately, others must be able to verify your findings. As a result, your experiment must be reproducible, to the extent that other researchers can follow the same procedure and obtain the same (or similar) results.
In the Methods section, you must provide enough information to allow another scientist to repeat your experiment/research. Address each of your research questions, and explain how you answered each one. If the protocol proves to be too complicated to explain in a set number of paragraphs, it may helpful to include a diagram, table or flowchart to explain the methods you used. More details can be presented in an appendix.
Don’t confuse results with procedures. The purpose of the Methods section is not to document the results but, rather, how you recorded them. In short, you’re simply stating how you went about testing your hypothesis. Relevant issues to include might be, data description, variable construction, genus, species, strain of organisms; their source, living conditions, and care; and sources (manufacturer, location) of chemicals and apparatus). It is also important to mention relevant ethical considerations … for example, if your human subjects consented to participate, how did you deal with confidentiality issues, or what measures did you take to minimize pain for animal subjects.
If you are replicating someone else’s methodology, (data, lab, or model) you should reference the original author/s in the Methods section.
The Results section is where you finally get to report the outcome of your research. Document – using the past tense – what happened and what you found in your experiments. Use graphs and tables if appropriate, but also summarize your main findings in the text. Do not discuss the results or speculate as to why something happened; that will occur in the Discussion section. Instead, just report the facts.
It’s important to keep in mind that you don’t have to include all the data you've gotten during the semester. This isn't a diary. If you have multiple results, list them logically from the most to the least important.
Be sure that you have documented the appropriate methods of showing data. Don't try to manipulate the data to make it look like you did more than you actually did. If you did not include all of the data tell us why. For example, "When measuring the dependent variable we eliminated respondents who did not answer the survey question."
TABLES AND GRAPHS
Tables and graphs can be extremely useful in providing a visual documentation of your work. However, don’t use them just to be "fancy.” If you can summarize the information in a sentence, then a table or graph is not necessary.
All tables or graphs should include a title describing what's in the table ("Percent of Respondents Attending College", not "My results".) For graphs, you should also label the x and y axes. Remember to be consistent with your level of numerical accuracy i.e. if you use 2 decimal places in one table use 2 throughout the document.
You finally get to interpret the results of your work in the Discussion: this is the section in which you outline what you learned, what your results mean, and what conclusions you can draw from the outcomes. It is also important to comment on whether the study achieved the goal(resolved the problem, answered the question, supported the hypothesis) presented in the Introduction.
It’s important to initially summarize and highlight the most significant results, but be careful not to simply repeat what you've written in the Results section. Instead, answer deeper questions like, do these results relate to the original question? Do the data support your hypothesis? Are your results consistent with what other investigators have reported? If your results were unexpected, try to explain why.
When drawing conclusions, it’s important to:
- Describe the patterns, principles, relationships your results show.
- Explain how your results relate to expectations and to literature cited in your Introduction. Do they agree, contradict, or are they exceptions to the rule?
- Explain plausibly any agreements, contradictions, or exceptions.
- Describe what additional research might resolve contradictions or explain exceptions.
An important part of the Discussion is also to place your results in the broader context, as follows:
- Suggest the theoretical implications of your results.
- Extend your findings to other situations or other species.
- Explain how your findings help to understand a broader topic.
The Discussion should end with a one-sentence summary of your conclusion that emphasizes why it is relevant. After writing your discussion, be sure to reread your introduction and revise it if necessary.
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