|Writing research papers
Quick tabs to parts of a research paper (this page)
Writing Research Papers
Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank
sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
--- Gene Fowler
A major goal of this course is the development of effective
technical writing skills. To help you become an accomplished
writer, you will prepare several research papers based
upon the studies completed in lab. Our research
papers are not typical "lab reports." In a
teaching lab a lab report might be nothing more than
answers to a set of questions. Such an assignment hardly
represents the kind of writing you might be doing in
your eventual career.
Written and oral communications skills are probably
the most universal qualities sought by graduate and professional
schools as well as by employers. You alone are responsible
for developing such skills to a high level.
Resources for learning technical writing
Before you begin your first writing assignment, please
consult all of the following resources, in order to gain
the most benefit from the experience.
- General form of a typical research
guidelines (if any) for the assignment – see the
writeups on individual lab studies
- McMillan, VE. "Writing Papers in the Biological
Sciences, Third Ed." New York: Bedford/St. Martin's,
2001. ISBN 0-312-25857-7 (REQUIRED for Bioc 211, 311,
recommended for other science courses that include
portfolio examples (pdf)
As you polish up your writing skills please make use
of the following resources
For Biosciences majors the general guidelines apply
to future course work, as can be seen by examining the guidelines
for the advanced experimental sciences research paper (Bioc
General form of a research paper
An objective of organizing a research paper is to allow
people to read your work selectively. When I research
a topic, I may be interested in just the methods, a specific
result, the interpretation, or perhaps I just want to
see a summary of the paper to determine if it is relevant
to my study. To this end, many journals require the following
sections, submitted in the order listed, each section
to start on a new page. There are variations of course.
Some journals call for a combined results and discussion,
for example, or include materials and methods after the
body of the paper. The well known journal Science does
away with separate sections altogether, except for the
Your papers are to adhere to the form and style required
for the Journal of Biological Chemistry, requirements
that are shared by many journals in the life sciences.
Specific editorial requirements for submission of a
manuscript will always supercede instructions in these
To make a paper readable
- Print or type using a 12 point standard font, such
as Times, Geneva, Bookman, Helvetica, etc.
- Text should be double spaced on 8 1/2" x 11" paper
with 1 inch margins, single sided
- Number pages consecutively
- Start each new section on a new page
- Adhere to recommended page limits
Mistakes to avoid
- Placing a heading at the bottom of a page with the
following text on the next page (insert a page break!)
- Dividing a table or figure - confine each figure/table
to a single page
- Submitting a paper with pages out of order
In all sections of your paper
- Use normal prose including articles ("a", "the,"
- Stay focused on the research topic of the paper
- Use paragraphs to separate each important point (except
for the abstract)
- Indent the first line of each paragraph
- Present your points in logical order
- Use present tense to report well accepted facts -
for example, 'the grass is green'
- Use past tense to describe specific results - for
example, 'When weed killer was applied, the grass was
- Avoid informal wording, don't address the reader
directly, and don't use jargon, slang terms, or superlatives
- Avoid use of superfluous pictures - include only
those figures necessary to presenting results
Select an informative title as illustrated in the examples
in your writing portfolio example package. Include the
name(s) and address(es) of all authors, and date submitted.
"Biology lab #1" would not be an informative title, for
The summary should be two hundred words or less. See the
examples in the writing portfolio package.
An abstract is a concise single paragraph summary of
completed work or work in progress. In a minute or less
a reader can learn the rationale behind the study, general
approach to the problem, pertinent results, and important
conclusions or new questions.
Writing an abstract
Write your summary after the rest of the paper is completed.
After all, how can you summarize something that is not
yet written? Economy of words is important throughout
any paper, but especially in an abstract. However, use
complete sentences and do not sacrifice readability for
brevity. You can keep it concise by wording sentences
so that they serve more than one purpose. For example, "In
order to learn the role of protein synthesis in early
development of the sea urchin, newly fertilized embryos
were pulse-labeled with tritiated leucine, to provide
a time course of changes in synthetic rate, as measured
by total counts per minute (cpm)." This sentence
provides the overall question, methods, and type of analysis,
all in one sentence. The writer can now go directly to
summarizing the results.
Summarize the study, including the following elements
in any abstract. Try to keep the first two items to no
more than one sentence each.
- Purpose of the study - hypothesis, overall question,
- Model organism or system and brief description of
- Results, including specific data - if the
results are quantitative in nature, report quantitative
data; results of any statistical analysis shoud be
- Important conclusions or questions that follow from
- Single paragraph, and concise
- As a summary of work done, it is always written in
- An abstract should stand on its own, and not refer
to any other part of the paper such as a figure or
- Focus on summarizing results - limit background information
to a sentence or two, if absolutely necessary
- What you report in an abstract must be consistent
with what you reported in the paper
- Corrrect spelling, clarity of sentences and phrases,
and proper reporting of quantities (proper units, significant
figures) are just as important in an abstract as they
are anywhere else
Your introductions should not exceed two pages (double
spaced, typed). See the examples in the writing portfolio
The purpose of an introduction is to aquaint the reader
with the rationale behind the work, with the intention
of defending it. It places your work in a theoretical
context, and enables the reader to understand and appreciate
Writing an introduction
The abstract is the only text in a research paper to
be written without using paragraphs in order to separate
major points. Approaches vary widely, however for our
studies the following approach can produce an effective
- Describe the importance (significance) of the study
- why was this worth doing in the first place? Provide
a broad context.
- Defend the model - why did you use this particular
organism or system? What are its advantages? You might
comment on its suitability from a theoretical point
of view as well as indicate practical reasons for using
- Provide a rationale. State your specific hypothesis(es)
or objective(s), and describe the reasoning that led
you to select them.
- Very briefy describe the experimental design and
how it accomplished the stated objectives.
- Use past tense except when referring to established
facts. After all, the paper will be submitted after
all of the work is completed.
- Organize your ideas, making one major point with
each paragraph. If you make the four points listed
above, you will need a minimum of four paragraphs.
- Present background information only as needed in
order support a position. The reader does not want
to read everything you know about a subject.
- State the hypothesis/objective precisely - do not
- As always, pay attention to spelling, clarity and
appropriateness of sentences and phrases.
Materials and Methods
There is no specific page limit, but a key concept is to
keep this section as concise as you possibly can. People
will want to read this material selectively. The reader
may only be interested in one formula or part of a procedure.
Materials and methods may be reported under separate subheadings within
this section or can be incorporated together.
This should be the easiest section to write, but many students
misunderstand the purpose. The objective is to document all
specialized materials and general procedures, so that another
individual may use some or all of the methods in another study
or judge the scientific merit of your work.
It is not to be a step by step description of everything you
did, nor is a methods section a set of instructions. In particular,
it is not supposed to tell a story. By the way, your notebook
should contain all of the information that you need for this
Writing a materials and methods section
- Describe materials separately only if the study is so complicated
that it saves space this way.
- Include specialized chemicals, biological materials, and
any equipment or supplies that are not commonly found in
- Do not include commonly found supplies such as test tubes,
pipet tips, beakers, etc., or standard lab equipment such
as centrifuges, spectrophotometers, pipettors, etc.
- If use of a specific type of equipment, a specific enzyme,
or a culture from a particular supplier is critical to the
success of the experiment, then it and the source should
be singled out, otherwise no.
- Materials may be reported in a separate paragraph or else
they may be identified along with your procedures.
- In biosciences we frequently work with solutions - refer
to them by name and describe completely, including concentrations
of all reagents, and pH of aqueous solutions, solvent if
- See the examples in the writing portfolio package
- Report the methodology (not details of each procedure that
employed the same methodology)
- Describe the mehodology completely, including such specifics
as temperatures, incubation times, etc.
- To be concise, present methods under headings devoted to
specific procedures or groups of procedures
- Generalize - report how procedures were done, not how they
were specifically performed on a particular day. For example,
report "samples were diluted to a final concentration
of 2 mg/ml protein;" don't report that "135 microliters
of sample one was diluted with 330 microliters of buffer
to make the protein concentration 2 mg/ml." Always think
about what would be relevant to an investigator at another
institution, working on his/her own project.
- If well documented procedures were used, report the procedure
by name, perhaps with reference, and that's all. For example,
the Bradford assay is well known. You need not report the
procedure in full - just that you used a Bradford assay to
estimate protein concentration, and identify what you used
as a standard. The same is true for the SDS-PAGE method,
and many other well known procedures in biology and biochemistry.
- It is awkward or impossible to use active voice when documenting
methods without using first person, which would focus the
reader's attention on the investigator rather than the work.
Therefore when writing up the methods most authors use third
person passive voice.
- Use normal prose in this and in every other section of
the paper – avoid informal lists, and use complete sentences.
What to avoid
- Materials and methods are not a set of instructions.
- Omit all explanatory information and background - save
it for the discussion.
- Omit information that is irrelevant to a third party, such
as what color ice bucket you used, or which individual logged
in the data.
The page length of this section is set by the amount and types
of data to be reported. Continue to be concise, using figures
and tables, if appropriate, to present results most effectively.
See recommendations for content, below.
The purpose of a results section is to present and illustrate
your findings. Make this section a completely objective report
of the results, and save all interpretation for the discussion.
Writing a results section
IMPORTANT: You must clearly distinguish material that would
normally be included in a research article from any raw data
or other appendix material that would not be published. In
fact, such material should not be submitted at all unless requested
by the instructor.
- Summarize your findings in text and illustrate them, if
appropriate, with figures and tables.
- In text, describe each of your results, pointing the reader
to observations that are most relevant.
- Provide a context, such as by describing the question that
was addressed by making a particular observation.
- Describe results of control experiments and include observations
that are not presented in a formal figure or table, if appropriate.
- Analyze your data, then prepare the analyzed (converted)
data in the form of a figure (graph), table, or in text form.
What to avoid
- Do not discuss or interpret your results, report background
information, or attempt to explain anything.
- Never include raw data or intermediate calculations in
a research paper.
- Do not present the same data more than once.
- Text should complement any figures or tables, not repeat
the same information.
- Please do not confuse figures with tables - there is a
- As always, use past tense when you refer to your results,
and put everything in a logical order.
- In text, refer to each figure as "figure 1," "figure
2," etc. ; number your tables as well (see the reference
text for details)
- Place figures and tables, properly numbered, in order at
the end of the report (clearly distinguish them from any
other material such as raw data, standard curves, etc.)
- If you prefer, you may place your figures and tables appropriately
within the text of your results section.
Figures and tables
- Either place figures and tables within the text of the
result, or include them in the back of the report (following
Literature Cited) - do one or the other
- If you place figures and tables at the end of the report,
make sure they are clearly distinguished from any attached
appendix materials, such as raw data
- Regardless of placement, each figure must be numbered consecutively
and complete with caption (caption goes under the figure)
- Regardless of placement, each table must be titled, numbered
consecutively and complete with heading (title with description
goes above the table)
- Each figure and table must be sufficiently complete that
it could stand on its own, separate from text
Journal guidelines vary. Space is so valuable in the Journal
of Biological Chemistry, that authors are asked to restrict discussions
to four pages or less, double spaced, typed. That works out to
one printed page. While you are learning to write effectively,
the limit will be extended to five typed pages. If you practice
economy of words, that should be plenty of space within which
to say all that you need to say.
The objective here is to provide an interpretation of your
results and support for all of your conclusions, using evidence
from your experiment and generally accepted knowledge, if appropriate.
The significance of findings should be clearly described.
Writing a discussion
Interpret your data in the discussion in appropriate depth.
This means that when you explain a phenomenon you must describe
mechanisms that may account for the observation. If your
results differ from your expectations, explain why that may
have happened. If your results agree, then describe the theory
that the evidence supported. It is never appropriate to simply
state that the data agreed with expectations, and let it drop
- Decide if each hypothesis is supported, rejected, or if
you cannot make a decision with confidence. Do not simply
dismiss a study or part of a study as "inconclusive."
- Research papers are not accepted if the work is incomplete.
Draw what conclusions you can based upon the results that
you have, and treat the study as a finished work
- You may suggest future directions, such as how the
experiment might be modified to
accomplish another objective.
- Explain all of your observations as much as possible, focusing
- Decide if the experimental design adequately addressed
the hypothesis, and whether or not it was properly controlled.
- Try to offer alternative explanations if reasonable alternatives
- One experiment will not answer an overall question, so
keeping the big picture in mind, where do you go next? The
best studies open up new avenues of research. What questions
- Recommendations for specific papers will provide additional
- When you refer to information, distinguish data generated
by your own studies from published information or from information
obtained from other students (verb tense is an important
tool for accomplishing that purpose).
- Refer to work done by specific individuals (including yourself)
in past tense.
- Refer to generally accepted facts and principles in present
tense. For example, "Doofus, in a 1989 survey, found that
anemia in basset hounds was correlated with advanced
age. Anemia is a condition in which there is insufficient
hemoglobin in the blood."
The biggest mistake that students make in discussions is to
present a superficial interpretation that more or less re-states
the results. It is necessary to suggest why results
came out as they did, focusing on the mechanisms behind the
Please note that in the introductory laboratory course, you
will not be required to properly document sources of all of
your information. One reason is that your major source of information
is this website, and websites are inappropriate as primary
sources. Second, it is problematic to provide a hundred students
with equal access to potential reference materials. You may
nevertheless find outside sources, and you should cite any
articles that the instructor provides or that you find for
List all literature cited in your paper, in alphabetical
order, by first author. In a proper research paper, only primary
literature is used (original research articles authored by
the original investigators). Be cautious about using web sites
as references - anyone can put just about anything on a web
site, and you have no sure way of knowing if it is truth
or fiction. If you are citing an on line journal, use the journal
citation (name, volume, year, page numbers). Some of your papers
may not require references, and if that is the case simply
state that "no
references were consulted."