So, you just took on a scientist’s most difficult job: conducting an experiment. Your methods and technique were sound, your notes comprehensive. Writing a report on it should be easy, right? Organizing and presenting scientific findings, however, is rarely a simple task.
Let’s try to make it one.
If you’re reading this resource, then your reason for writing a lab report is most likely because, well…your instructor told you to. Nonetheless, professional scientific writing serves the same purpose that your lab report should. Good scientific writing explains your experiment in terms of:
What the goal of your experiment was
How you performed the experiment
The results you obtained
Why these results are important
While it’s unlikely that you’re going to win the Nobel Prize for your work in an undergraduate laboratory course, tailoring your writing strategies in imitation of these professional journals is easier than you might think, since they all follow a very consistent pattern. Nonetheless, your instructor has the final say in determining how your report should be structured and what should appear in each section. So, please use the following explanations only to supplement your given writing criteria, rather than following them exclusively.
The traditional experimental report is structured using the acronym “IMRAD” which stands for Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. The “A” is sometimes used to stand for
Abstract. For help writing abstracts, please see Sweetland’s resource entitled “What is an abstract, and how do I write one?”
The introduction should accomplish what any good introduction does: drawing the reader into the paper. To simplify things, follow the “inverted pyramid” structure, which involves narrowing information from the most broad (providing context for your experiment’s place in science) to the most specific (what exactly your experiment is about). Consider this example.
Introduction: “What am I doing, here?”
Most broad: “Caffeine is a mild stimulant that is found in many common beverages, including coffee.”
Less broad: “Common reactions to caffeine use include increased heart rate and increased respiratory rate.”
Slightly more specific (moving closer to your experiment): Previous research has shown that people who consume multiple caffeinated beverages per day are also more likely to be irritable.
Most specific (your experiment):
This study examines the emotional states of college students (ages 1822) after they have consumed three cups of coffee each day.
At this point, your reader is fascinated by the promise of your study, and you can end your introduction. See how that worked? Each idea became slightly more focused, ending with a brief description of your particular experiment. Easy enough, right? Here are a couple more tips to keep in mind when writing an introduction.
In your introduction, you should include:
- An overview of the topic in question, including relevant literature o ex: “In 1991, Rogers and Hammerstein concluded that drinking coffee improves alertness and mental focus (citation 1991).”
- What your experiment might contribute to past findings o ex: “Despite these benefits, coffee may negatively impact mood and behavior…This study aims to investigate the emotions of college coffee drinkers during finals week.”
Including these elements is important so that your reporting is grounded in current science, which shows why someone else might care about your experiment. It’s hard to call something “science” if it isn’t relevant to other scientists.
Keep the introduction brief: There’s no real advantage to writing a long introduction. Most people reading your paper already know what coffee is, and where it comes from, so what’s the point of giving them a detailed history of the coffee bean?