Messages from Writers on Writing and Education
A Pedagogical Template for Preparing Undergraduate Student Scientific Laboratory Reports and First Submissions to Academic Journals
J. W. Simonson
This brief essay accompanies a template found on the next pages, which provides guidance to a student who is preparing their first laboratory report for an introductory science course. We teach students in these classes to think and to write like scientists, so much of the advice I offer here also applies to an advanced undergraduate student who is working with their faculty mentor to publish their first article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. In addition, many students will give their first posters and oral presentations at scientific conferences during their undergraduate years, and a conference typically requires a written abstract to be submitted in advance of the presentation. I hope that this template will support students in all three of these important endeavors, from struggling through their introductory laboratory experience in Science 101, to contributing a talk at their first professional scientific meeting, to pushing their capstone research experiences that extra mile towards publication. A weighty list of accumulated presentations and publications on a résumé or CV will do much to elevate a productive student’s job applications and graduate school applications above those submitted by competing students with otherwise similar academic credentials.
The advice here and in the following template is far from the first or the last word on this subject. Much of the advice on the language choices themselves comes from “Wheeler’s Rules” , which are available freely online and which I have found to be incredibly helpful in my career. In fact, I keep a printed copy taped up behind my office computer. In addition to Wheeler’s general ideas, a student writing a laboratory report for a college course must make sure they understand their grader’s expectations, much of which are hopefully documented in the course syllabus. On the other hand, writing for a scientific journal is actually easier in regard to identifying any of the publisher’s specific expectations. We begin this process by reading recently published articles in our target journal in order to gain an idea of their scopes, formats, and writing styles. For more specific details and questions, all publishers have a web page dedicated to providing information for authors, including manuscript content guidelines, as well as formatting and style guidelines, often all the way down to a list of correct abbreviations. Many journals even provide templates, not entirely unlike the one on the following pages. Since academic journals may be initially unfamiliar to students starting along this path, a research mentor is our greatest asset here.
Setting aside the time to think and to write is one of the first critical steps to success. For an academic course, a professor generally expects students to spend twice as much time working outside of class as they do in the classroom. So, it would be reasonable to spend four hours writing a lab report for a two-hour weekly laboratory session, including the often time-consuming task of creating the figures. For a journal manuscript, the timescales are much longer. It generally takes me one or two years to complete a project and then a month or so of focused time on the writing itself. Accordingly, an undergraduate student might work with a research mentor for two years before putting together a paper, the very writing of which might take place full time over the student’s final summer before graduating. Of course, there are some variations in these timescales from field to field. Speak openly with your research mentor about your expectations and theirs.
Publication is often a primary goal of a scientist, and authoring a peer-reviewed paper as an undergraduate student is a substantial accomplishment. A master’s degree program will likely expect an additional paper, and a doctoral program will typically expect three, though the expectations for research and publication outputs vary among academic fields and subfields. When we embark upon a scientific career, the writing skills we first encounter in laboratory courses and subsequently hone through authoring manuscripts in collaboration with our research mentors and doctoral and postdoctoral advisors will eventually lay the foundation for our independent career.
 J. A. Wheeler, Am. J. Phys. 67, 94 (1999).
Our title should be an original and descriptive statement about our results
The next line is a list of authors (you and your teammates): M. Howard1, S. Howard1, L. Fine1, and C. Howard2
Then provide a list of your majors or the departments in which you are doing research:
1 Department of Physics, Farmingdale State College, Farmingdale, NY 11735, USA
2 Department of Chemistry, Farmingdale State College, Farmingdale, NY 11735, USA
This first paragraph in a laboratory report or journal article is known as an abstract. It should briefly overview our work, and it should be typed as a single column. In three to five sentences, we should briefly summarize our experiment, its results, and their implications. Sentence 1: a general description of the biological, chemical, or physical process being investigated. Sentence 2: the theory, perhaps as discussed in class, that is behind this process. Sentence 3: should begin with the words similar to “we report here” and should give a broad overview of the outcome of our experiment. Sentence 4: should give some details of the results of the measurements we performed. Sentence 5: should tie our results back to sentence 1 or sentence 2. These example sentences are only general guidelines, and many abstracts are written following a different structure. Despite its brevity, the abstract is typically the hardest part of a paper to write, and we often write it last, only after we understand all of our results and conclusions.
Our introduction is the first section in the body of our paper, and everything should be two column format from this point on. The introduction should discuss why the experiment is important and should be written so that someone who has is not an expert in this field will understand it. If we are writing a lab report for a class, write the introduction for someone who has never taken that course. If we are writing a paper, write for a student who is in your major but has not done research. Write throughout in first person, active voice, and the present tense.
Three brief paragraphs is a typical good start for an introduction, with the first paragraph focusing on the importance of the biological, chemical, or physical process being investigated, the second paragraph focusing on the theory behind this process or on previous work in this specific area, and the third paragraph beginning with the words “we present here” and giving an overview of the procedure and results.
We can think of the first paragraph expanding upon the first sentence of the abstract, the second paragraph expanding upon the second sentence, and the third paragraph expanding upon the third sentence. It is good practice to include citations in the first two paragraphs. Citations should be endnotes and should have roughly the format shown at the end of this article . If we are writing for a scientific journal, they all have their own citation styles. Be sure to check the guide for authors posted on the journal’s website or other articles published in the same journal.
Here we describe what we did in one or two brief paragraphs in sufficient detail that someone else could recreate our process. We write in first person, active voice, in the past tense. “We assembled…” “We measured…” If we are doing a lab report for class, we must not simply copy and paste from the lab manual. Please do not give a numbered list of procedural steps. We are looking for something more general here. “We measured the position of the carts with photogates and cart picket fences” is specific enough. Often, an author will describe the specific model of any equipment they used. This section should probably be our shortest. If it is our longest, something is very wrong with our report, and we should ask our professor or research mentor for advice before turning it in.
Often the methods section is the easiest to write, making it a great place to start. This way, we at least have some words down on paper, and the task of writing is somewhat less imposing.
Describe each result with its own paragraph written in first person, active voice, and present tense. Attach each paragraph to a figure, and spend the paragraph describing the figure. If we are writing for a scientific journal, our manuscript will probably have between four and ten figures. If we are writing a weekly lab report, we might produce between one and three figures. In either case, ask your professor or research mentor for advice on what they feel is appropriate.
The results section is often the best section to write second, after the methods section is complete. We begin by making the figures. We start by making just one figure, following the guidelines given in the caption on this page. We play with how the data are presented in our plotting software until their physical meaning is most clearly presented. Now we know what the figure says — perhaps we have even learned why we did this measurement in the first place. Once we arrive at this key understanding, we write a paragraph about this figure. Then we move on to the next figure.
We begin each paragraph in the results section with a sentence that summarizes the main point of the paragraph. We then spend the body of the paragraph hashing out the details before ending each paragraph with a sentence that summarizes again the key result and also transitions to the next paragraph. The overarching theme for describing our results in this format can be summed up as “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them.” The next paragraph has an example. As we read, we notice how it follows this very format.
“Figure 1 shows that the emission spectrum of our hydrogen gas tube consists of four peaks in the visible range and one peak in the infrared range. The peaks correspond to wavelengths λ = 434 ± 2 nm, 485 ± 2 nm, 656 ± 1 nm, 779 ± 1 nm, and 845 ± 2 nm. The 656 ± 1 nm peak is the most intense, in excellent agreement with the observed red color of the lamp. We explain these wavelengths as arising from discrete electronic transitions according to the Rydberg formula of the Bohr model: 1/λ = R(1/n′2-1/n2). We summarize our Rydberg calculations in Table 1, which provides putative values of n and n′ for each line. The first three spectral lines clearly correlate to members of the n′=2 hydrogen Balmer series, while the last two lines do not match well, suggesting that the hydrogen tube may have an impurity, the nature of which we describe in the next paragraph.”
Once we complete the results section, it is often natural to write the conclusion section next, because it should flow naturally from the understanding we have just developed in building and describing our figures. Our conclusion summarizes the results of the experiment while communicating why they are important. We write in first person, active voice, present tense.
Developing a quantitative understanding of experimental uncertainty is an important goal in many introductory science courses. If we are writing our report for such a course, our conclusion should also (1) list several sources of experimental uncertainty, (2) estimate how large these sources of experimental uncertainty are, and (3) indicate whether these sources of experimental uncertainty are statistical or systematic in nature. We can find definitions of these terms in your laboratory manual in one of the first few experiments or by talking to your professor. Generally, this construction is not present in peer-reviewed articles, though a similar discussion is common in some fields.
In my experience, the conclusion section is where a student generally misses points in their lab report, so it is likely that a professor knows to pay attention here when grading. Please be aware that mistakes we make while performing the experiment and analyzing our data are not experimental uncertainties and should not be documented along with the statistical and systematic uncertainties we discuss in the previous paragraph. If we list sources of error like “human error” or “calculation error,” we are just describing mistakes, and we are going to lose points. We must instead fix these errors rather than listing them in our report!
This section is perhaps the easiest of all and is becoming more common in peer-reviewed publications, particularly when it comes to acknowledging the contributions of early career scientists like undergraduate students. In this section, we simply describe what everyone did. We refer to each group member by initials, and we write in third person, active voice, and past tense. For example, “M. H. operated the LabQuest 2 for data collection, S. H. collected data by hand in the notebook and positioned the magnetic field sensor, L. F. set up the apparatus and coordinated all work by following the lab manual, and C. H. manipulated the carts on the track during data collection. All authors contributed equally to writing the manuscript.” Be honest here. Everyone will contribute in different ways to the final product.
 T. Author and T. Co-author, Journal Name Volume No., Page No. (Year).