Biology Scientific Writing Guide
A high standard of writing is an essential skill in the professional work force. It is wise to develop writing skills as quickly as possible because it will benefit you throughout your academic studies and beyond.
With report writing, it is important that you communicate clearly and precisely your findings and ideas. The report therefore needs to be kept simple with regard to logic, language, and structure. This is a skill that requires much time and practice, so do not underestimate the time and effort required.
Any reader should be able to reproduce the study based on the information you have provided. If someone cannot read your report and reproduce the study without outside knowledge, then it is incomplete. It is imperative to show:
- Why it was done (Introduction)
- What, and how it, was done (Materials and Methods),
- and What was learned (Results and Discussion)
A formal lab report should follow the general format used for a research report published in a scientific journal. Although different journals require different formats, all papers have a roughly similar outline. They reflect the basic scientific method of:
- recognising a pattern
- asking a question,
- formulating hypotheses,
- conducting experiments to test the hypotheses, and
- interpreting the results.
You may want to go to the library to look at articles in journals such as Canadian Journal of Zoology, Canadian Journal of Botany, or Canadian Journal of Microbiology to get an idea of how to write a scientific paper. (Popular science publications such as Scientific American or National Geographic are not considered scientific journals because their purpose is not communication among research scientists engaged in related work, and, perhaps more importantly, they are not peer-reviewed).
Know the differences among plagiarism, quoting, and paraphrasing. The former is a SERIOUS, PUNISHABLE offence that will result in rejection of your laboratory report, or assignment (a mark of zero), or worse (quite possibly expulsion from Acadia). To quote the Acadia University Registrar (2006): “Plagiarism is the act of presenting the ideas or words of another as one's own. While it may be argued that few ideas are original, instructors expect students to acknowledge the sources of ideas and expressions that they use in essays. To represent them as self-created is dishonest and academically reprehensible.” Your assignments should be entirely in your own words. Paraphrasing does not mean taking a sentence and changing a few words around; it should be a result of you reading something and regurgitating it without referring to the original text. You must refer to all the sources of information that you used in your report to avoid plagiarism and to properly cite quotations and paraphrased ideas.
Articles, Newspapers, Brochures, Websites and Advertisements
There are many forms of scientific writing not specifically covered by this document. Nonetheless, those forms will conform to many, if not all, of the guidelines presented herein. Even websites require proper tables and figures to be effective! Grab a copy of Nature or Scientific American or the science section in the Globe and Mail and you will see that the authors are employing, in one form or another, the core elements presented to you here.
Course Specific Instructions
Some courses will require you to write or format your report in a slightly different manner than what is presented here. In those cases, your instructor will provide you with a list of “Course Specific Instructions” to the Essential Scientific Writing Guide. If you have any questions, ask your instructor.
Although not all journals require authors to divide their papers into clearly labelled sections, this practice will help you develop good habits in reporting your findings. Therefore, you are asked to label clearly each section in your paper (except for the title). However, there is no need to start sections on a new page. It is just a waste of paper.
Depending on your course, you may follow a strict style governed by an organization or style manual. For courses without strict formatting rules, the general rules below apply.
- Use a 12 point Times New Roman font.
- Normally sentences are double-spaced unless specific subsection formatting states otherwise.
- Place page numbers at the top right of each page.
- Write in the past tense, not present or future: "Two rats were anaesthetized and went into a bar ..."
- Use SI (metric) units (gram, meter, litre, second) and the degree Celsius temperature scale.
- Most foreign (e.g. Latin) phrases, terms (including scientific names), or abbreviations must be underlined or italicized (not both; italics preferred). For example, always underline or italicize the genus and species names of organisms such as Stentor coeruleus or Stentor coeruleus. Exceptions (although some journals require these to be italicised as well):
- Scientific taxonomic terms at the family level or higher.
- Latin abbreviations such as: ibid., et al., i.e., or e.g.
- Common abbreviations such as sp. (for species).
- i.e. stands for ‘id est” which means “it is”. Use this abbreviation when you mean “in other words”
- e.g. stands for “exempli gratia” and should be used when you mean “for example”
- Use correct abbreviations without periods (for more information see Rowlett [2005 ] http://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/units/index.html), for example:
5 microlitres=5μL 10 millilitres=10mL 12 litres=12L 3 micrograms=3μg 7 grams=7 g 24 kilograms=24kg 663 nanometres=663nm 8 micrometers=8μm 21 centimeters=21cm 9 meters=9m 52 kilometers=52km 37 degrees Celsius=37°C
- If you start a sentence with a number, write out the number e.g. "Twelve grams of minced toad brain were ....", otherwise, digits are fine e.g. “There were 15 people in each group.”
- For solutions, use molarity rather than normality:
- 5 molar = 5 M
- .005 molar = 5 x 10-3 M or 5 mM
- .000005 molar = 5 x 10-6 M or 5 µM
- If a solution is given as a percent, indicate whether it was made on the basis of weight or volume:
- 5 g glycerol + 95 g H20 = 5% glycerol (w/w)
- 5 mL glycerol + 95 mL H20 = 5% glycerol (v/v)
- 5 g glycerol brought up to 100 mL with H20 = 5% glycerol (w/v)
- Always provide the scientific name along with the common name the first time you use the common name.
- When the name is not known completely, write “sp.” after the generic name (e.g. Oscillatoria sp.), or when there are more than one species within the genus, use the plural “spp.” (e.g. Oscillatoria spp.).
Nothing in science is “proven”; we say things like “these data are consistent with the hypothesis” or if we’re feeling particularly confident “the weight of evidence for this hypothesis is overwhelming”. The latter statement could certainly be made about the hypothesis of evolution by natural selection.
For biology, the word “theory” is seldom used; we work with hypotheses and predictions. Several hypotheses may be proposed to explain a pattern; they are often not mutually exclusive, so avoid painting one as black and the other as white. For example, a breeding site may be chosen because it is free of predators; this doesn’t mean that the site wasn’t also chosen because food was nearby.