WRITING A SCIENTIFIC PAPER

 

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Follow these links for general information concerning writing scientific papers.

Introduction

General Organization

 

Follow these links for discussion about specific parts of a scientific paper.

Follow these links for discussion about other considerations when writing a scientific paper.

The Abstract

Introduction

The Introduction

Text Citations

The Methods and Materials Section

The Use of Quotations

The Results Section

The Use of Tables and Figures

The Discussion Section

Computers and Scientific Writing

Acknowledgements

Final Thoughts

References

 

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Introduction.

Scientific activity is not complete until the results are shared with other scientists. Generally, this is done through scientific journals, and other refereed publications. The first step, however, is the preparation of a manuscript or written report based on your research. Type your paper using a word processor or personal computer.

 

In writing a paper one should describe the materials that were used and the results that were obtained. Additionally, one should relate the results to existing knowledge and suggest future study. Remember the reader should be able to duplicate the study from the information in your paper. The reader also should see a full presentation of results, free of any attached interpretations, in order to reach his or her own conclusions.

 

The organization of scientific reports has four main parts: introduction, materials and methods, results, and discussion. Of equal importance is the presentation of data in tables and figures and the style for citation of literature within the text and bibliographic entries.

 

Although there are several guides to technical writing (e.g., Alley 1987, Booth 1979, Katz 1986 and McMillan 1988) the standard references for organization and style used in biological, journals are the CBE Style Manual (1983), and Scientific Writing for Graduate Students (1986), both published by the Council of Biology Editors. Students also should examine several issues of the journal Ecology. The articles in this journal can be used as models for preparation of scientific reports in biology.

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GENERAL ORGANIZATION

As stated before, a scientific report is usually organized into the following sections:

 

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Materials and Methods
  4. Results
  5. Discussion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. Literature Cited

 

Abstract. This is a brief, concise summary of your results. For example, "the effect of pH on 10 aquatic plant species was studied for 10 weeks. Growth of Duckweed was reduced by 80% in pH . . ." The results suggest that Duckweed would not be suitable for remediation of acidic runoff in South Carolina lakes.

This section is written last and is a complete summary of all section of the paper. It is usually a short section and is intended to give the potential reader an overall view of the following paper. It is one of the most important sections in that it describes the not only the purpose of the paper, but how the work was carried out, the results, and the conclusions. These topics are then described in more detail in the body of the paper.

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Introduction. One way to begin an introduction is with an observation in nature, or a conclusion drawn from a survey of the literature that stimulated your interest. Then one should briefly recount the historical and current state of knowledge about the topic. The bulk of the introduction comes from your synthesis of previously published results, as a result, the majority of statements made in the Introduction must be referenced (see the Reference section on the proper format). The Introduction is written in third person using active voice (see Other Considerations).

 In the introduction one should indicate the specific objectives or testable hypotheses that will be studied. Your hypothesis should be either supported or refuted by the results of your study.

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Materials and Methods. This section answers the questions about the way the project was conducted: where, when, and how. This section should be written in past tense as it describes what you did to generate data.

Where. In field studies, give the location and features of the study site, e.g. vegetation, climate, and topography. In laboratory studies, give the location and identify the instrumentation used for the research. In both cases, explain why you chose the site for research.

When. When relevant, give the time periods of the study (year, month, day, time of day). Describe any special conditions that prevailed during the study period.

How. Explain how you collected the data, conducted experiments, and specify the equipment used. If previously published standard procedures and equipment were used you may reference these published descriptions, otherwise, give enough detail that the reader can duplicate the study. State the procedures used to record, summarize, and analyze the data, including literature citations.

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Results. Summarize the data and observations obtained in your study. Any data sheets or other raw data should be included in an appendix. Summarize the raw data utilizing written text, tables, and figures so the reader can observe any general patterns and gain a sense of the amount of variability within the data.

Begin with the most general features of the data and proceed toward the most specific. The text should relate your data to those of the literature. Text, tables, and figures will have their unique capabilities for presentation of results. In general, the presentation of data as a table or figure is sufficient. The same data should not be presented in both ways. Concentrate on general patterns, trends, and differences in the results.

When presenting information about your statistical results, combine statements about the significance of differences examined by statistical tests with a precise indication (commonly in parentheses) of the test used and the probability level chosen. For example, one might say, the difference between means of the two samples was highly significant (paired t test; t = 6.35, DF = 11, P < 0.01)". It is essential that the reader be able to ascertain all of the above information for each test utilized; however all of the information may not be needed in each parenthetical expression if it can be found elsewhere in the paper.

Finally, data is not interpreted in the "Results" section. Although it is tempting to tell why the data turned out as they did or what they mean, this is not the function of this section.

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Discussion. In this section, you should interpret the data in relation to the original objectives or hypotheses. Then, relate your interpretations to the present state of knowledge and future needs for research. Make this section genuinely interpretive and not just restated generalities from the Results section.

If you can answer "Yes" to the following questions you have written a good discussion section: 

  1. Did you reach conclusions about the initial hypotheses?
  2. Did you compare conclusions to those of others?
  3. Did you identify sources of error and basic inadequacies of technique?
  4. Did you speculate upon broader meanings of the conclusions reached?
  5. Did you identify further steps needed in research on the problem?
  6. Did you suggest improvements of methods?

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Acknowledgments. In this section, give credit to those who helped in the project by contributing work, advice, permission, technical assistance, funds for conducting the actual work, and help with preparation of the paper. It should not include those who contributed significantly to the paper and are listed as authors.

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Literature Cited. List authors alphabetically that are referred to in the text. Although the format for references has not become fully standardized in the scientific literature the format recommended by the CBE Style Manual is followed by many American journals. We recommend the format adopted by the journal Ecology. It is perhaps the simplest format that provides all the essential information. The format for three types of common references follows:

Journal

Meeting Proceeding

Edited Volume

Book

Each of the preceding types of references has their own particular format. Moreover, many journals have specific formats that must be followed. If you are sending a manuscript to a journal for publication, the proper reference format can be obtained either directly from the journal publisher or from "instructions to authors" found in the front or back of many journals.

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Journal Article:

Steward, K. K. and W. H. Ornes. 1975. The autecology of sawgrass in the Florida Everglades. Ecology 56:162-171.

(This reference includes the name of the author or authors, the year of publication, the article title, the fully spelled journal name, and the volume and page numbers of the article itself.)

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Article from Proceedings of a Meeting:

Sajwan, K. S., W.H. Ornes, and T. V. Youngblood. 1996. Feasibility of using fly ash with sewage sludge and animal wastes as a soil amendment. Pages 459-462 in Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Heavy Metals in the Environment Vol. II, September 18-22, 1995, Hamburg, Germany.

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Article in Edited Volume:

Ornes, W. H. and R B. Wildman. 1979. Effects of cadmium on aquatic vascular plants. Pages 304-312 in D. D. Hemphill, editor. Trace substances in environmental health-XIII. University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, USA.

(This reference includes the article author, date of publication, article title, pages in volume, names of volume editors. volume title, and the publisher's name and location.)

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Book:

Sokal, R R, and F. J. Rohlf. 1981. Biometry. W. H. Freeman, New York, New York, USA.

(This reference gives the author, date of publication, title, and the publisher's name and location.)

For the format for citing other types of publications, see either the CBE Style Manual or a current issue of Ecology.

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OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

One of the major considerations when writing a scientific paper (or any paper for that matter) is the idea of plagiarism. While it may be seem to be simple to use the words of another, it is a very serious offense and is a violation of the USCA Academic Code of Conduct. Because the path of scientific advancement is based on the work of others, one must be careful to give credit to those whose work is used as a basis for any current work. Any statement made in a scientific paper that is not an original thought by the author must be referenced to give credit to the original author. Most original thoughts are created in to Discussion section for obvious reasons - this is the one place where the author of the paper must explain his/her interpretation of the data. In contrast, very little in the Introduction is original and must therefore be referenced. There are various ways to use text citations to give credit to the original author. Some of these ways are shown below

Text Citations.

Scientific papers do not use footnotes. Sources of information are referred to in the narrative or text of the paper. This may be done in several ways:

"Ornes (1996) found that...."

"Aquatic plants can help clean up water (Ornes 1997)...

"In aquatic plants (Ornes et al. 1995), mineral uptake..."

(This last form is used when more than two authors exist. The abbreviation et al. is for the Latin phrase meaning "and others".)

When reading scientific papers, take time to notice the ways in which the author cites the work of others within the text. There are other types of citations that are included in the text of a paper. For example, in the Methods section specific reagents or instruments used are normally cited. These citations include the name and location of the supplier. (e.g., ...polybrene (Sigma, St. Louis, MO)...). Finally, notice the way in which citations are noted in the Reference section of the paper. These are all useful ways in which to learn how to write a well-formatted scientific paper.

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Quotations.

 

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 Tables and Figures.

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The Use of Computers in Writing Scientific Papers

The ability to put together a scientific paper containing text, tables, figures, and other information has been greatly enhanced by the availability of word processing computer programs. These programs such as Microsoft Word and Claris Works allow one to integrate text with figures generated in spreadsheets (e.g., Microsoft Excel). Moreover, spreadsheets allow the manipulation and analysis of large amounts of data, which can then be integrated into a scientific paper with very little difficulty.

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Some Final Points

  1. All pages should be numbered.
  2. Italicize all scientific names (indicate by underlining in typed manuscript when italic type is unavailable).
  3. Use the metric system and other international units whenever possible.
  4. Write numbers as numerals whenever they are associated with measurement units (e.g., 3meters) or are parts of dates or mathematical expressions. In other cases, spell them out for numbers less than 10 (e.g., five rabbits), and give them as numerals for larger values (e.g., 14 rabbits).
  5. When citing sources such as Ornes (1996), vary your style in the following manner:

Ornes(1996)

studied

Ornes (1996)

spoke of

 

checked

 

considered

 

investigated

 

described

 

examined

 

warned

 

looked at/into

 

felt

 

evaluated

 

contended

 

catalogued

 

agreed

 

listed

 

formulated

 

recorded

 

complained

 

tabulated

 

wrote

 

indexed

 

asserted

 

tallied

 

cautioned

 

filed

 

stated

 

indicated

 

pointed out

 

inventoried

 

demonstrated

 

denoted

 

conceived of

 

signified

 

approached

 

designated

 

held that since

 

specified

 

proposed

 

manifested

 

admitted

 

implied that

 

referred to

 

revealed

 

has shown

 

disclosed

 

suggested

 

exhibited

 

thought that

 

presented

 

questioned

 

characterized

 

accounted for

 

scheduled

 

reviewed

 

intimated

 

created

 

clarified

 

observed that

 

experimented with

 

distinguished between

 

raised the question as to

 

made the distinction

 

compared the mean scores

 

observed that

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University of South Carolina Aiken

Copyright Ó 2000 by the Trustees of the University of South Carolina

Comments to billJ@aiken.sc.edu 1.6.2000

URL: http://www.usca.sc.edu