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Write Lab Reports or Research Reports

1. Title

  • The title of a report should indicate exactly what you have studied.
    • Example: The Effects of Light and Temperature on the Growth of the Bacterium Escherichia coli. 
      • This title explains the environmental factors manipulated (light and temperature), the parameter measured (growth), and the specific organism used (E. coli).
      • If a large number of variables or organisms were used, the title could say "Several Factors..." or "Various Chemicals...."
  • Other examples of effective titles could include the following:
    • Morphological studies on the effect of methyl mercury on black duck liver (biology)
    • Relationships between perceptual mechanisms for color and pattern in human vision (psychology)
    • Relationship between mineralogy and trace element chemistry in sediments from two water deltas and one marine delta within the fresh Fraser River Basin (geology)

2. Abstract

  • The abstract is a condensed version of the entire lab report (approximately 250 words).
  • A reader uses the abstract to quickly understand the purpose, methods, results and significance of your research without reading the entire paper.
  • The material in the abstract is written in the same order as that within the paper, and has the same emphasis (i.e., a result that is emphasized in the abstract should be indicated as an important result within the report as well).
  • To reflect the content (especially results and conclusions) of the paper accurately, the abstract should be written after the final draft of your paper is complete, although it is placed at the beginning of the paper.
  • An effective abstract should include a sentence or two summarizing the highlights from each of the report’s sections.
  • Begin the abstract with a brief, but specific, background statement to introduce your report.
  • State your main purpose or objective and hypothesis.
  • Describe the most important points of your methodology (species/reagents/ingredients, the number of subjects or samples, and techniques or instruments used to make measurements).
  • Summarize the main results numerically and qualitatively (include standard errors and p values as required).
  • Summarize the major points from the discussion/conclusion. Focus on the points that directly relate to your purpose/hypothesis.
  • For each type of information, use the same tense as in the corresponding section (i.e., typically past tense for methods and results, present tense for theory and conclusions).
  • Do not include any information that is not in the report.

3. Introduction

  • This section of the lab report should answer: Why did you study this problem?
  • The introduction should first identify the topic area as well as the problem or issue that is the focus of your experiment.
  • The introduction contains a brief literature review to describe previous research conducted on the problem or issue as well as research that has not yet been conducted or that has not been conclusive (referred to as “the gap” in research). The aim of this information is to help the reader understand how your experiment will help to fill that gap. 
  • The introduction should end with a purpose statement (sometimes in the form of a hypothesis or null hypothesis and prediction). A purpose statement is one sentence which specifically states the question your experiment was designed to answer.
    • Examples of purpose statements/hypotheses and predictions:
      • “The purpose of this investigation was to determine the effects of environmentally realistic exposures of acid precipitation on yield of field-grown and chamber-grown peanuts” (written as a purpose statement).
      • “If acid precipitation inhibits plant growth, then we predicted that environmentally realistic exposures of acid precipitation would affect the yield of both field-grown and chamber-grown peanuts” (written as a hypothesis and prediction).
      • “If acid precipitation does not inhibit plant growth, then we predicted that environmentally realistic exposures of acid precipitation would not affect the yield of either field-grown or chamber-grown peanuts” (written as a null hypothesis and prediction).
  • Use resources such as your textbook, lab manual, lecture material, course notes, and journal articles (as approved by your instructor) to provide the background information, using examples of similar experiments/results that support or contradict your hypothesis (a contradiction can show that there is a gap in research).
  • Don't forget to document your sources using the appropriate referencing style for your discipline.
  • You will likely use the present tense for much of the information in the introduction (for current or accepted theory), but the present perfect (e.g., Studies have been conducted) and the past (e.g., The authors measured…) where logic demands.

4. Materials and methods

  • This section of the lab report should answer: What did you do? How did you do it?
  • In this section you will describe how and when you did your work, including
    • experimental design, experimental apparatus, methods of gathering and analyzing data, and types of controls used.
  • Include complete details and write this section clearly enough to allow readers to duplicate the experiment if they so wish. Note: In writing lab reports for undergraduate courses, you may not always be required to write a detailed materials and methods section because the methods are already described in the laboratory manual; check with your instructors about how much information to include in the written report.
  • Write in past tense because you have already completed the experiment. 
  • Use complete sentences, and do not write in the form of instructions or as a list of materials as in a laboratory manual.
  • Use either first person active voice or passive voice to describe what you did.
  • Check whether your professors will accept the use of the first person (I or we) in your report.
    • Examples:
      • (first person active voice) I filled six petri plates with agar.
      • (passive voice) Six petri plates were filled with agar.
  • Provide references for any methods adapted from other sources.
  • Use photographs, maps, and diagrams as needed to describe the experimental setup.
  • Describe any procedures that you altered compared to the lab manual or published procedures.

5. Results

  • This section of the lab report should answer: What did you find?
  • In the results section, you present your observations and data with no interpretations or conclusions about what they mean. A well-written and well-organized results section will provide the framework for the discussion section.
  • Record all your results, using complete sentences, usually in the order the observations were made.
  • Use tables and graphs to supplement the text and to present the data in a more understandable form (see Tables and Figures in this guide [link to that section below]). Raw data will probably be most effective in table format, with the highlights summarized in graph form.
  • The written text of the results section may be as short as one sentence summarizing the highlights and directing the reader to specific tables and figures.
  • Include results that went "wrong" or were unexpected. This may be useful information for someone trying to repeat the experiment.
  • Use both words and numbers to describe your results, and use proper terminology.
  • Use past tense to describe your results.
  • Include sample or detailed calculations for a lab report assignment in a separate section titled Calculations or in an Appendix at the end of the report (check with your instructor about whether this is acceptable).
  • Check with your course instructors for specific requirements in a particular course.

6. Discussion

  • This section of the lab report should answer: What does it mean? How does it relate to previous work in the field? Explain what you think your data mean.
  • Describe patterns and relationships that emerged.
  • Discuss why you observed what you did, how it happened (or the most likely reason), and how it relates to the purpose of the experiment.
  • Compare these observations to trends described in the literature and to theoretical behaviour.
  • Support your interpretations with references to course material, the lab manual, and comments from the TA or instructor during the lab. You may also be asked to use other resources (peer-reviewed journal articles) for a more in-depth discussion; if you do, remember to reference properly.
  • Remind the reader of your own results, when relevant, without repeating endless details from the Results section.
    • Example:
      • The temperature increased during the second phase because of the drug treatment. (as a statement in the discussion that reminds the reader of the results) 
      • NOT The temperature increased during the second phase. (not recommended in the discussion section - it is just a repetition of a statement from the results).
  • If your results section was well organized, you can follow it as a guide while you are writing the discussion. You can refer to the same tables and figures to explain the changes/trends/unexpected results.
  • Accept or reject your hypothesis and explain why. It is acceptable to reject your own hypothesis as long as you can demonstrate it to be untrue and explain why the results did not turn out as you predicted. You can't argue the results, but if something went wrong or was damaged, disturbed, or contaminated; if there were changes to the experimental procedure; or if equipment was faulty, you need to include this information and explain how it may have affected the results.
  • If your lab manual includes questions to be answered in the discussion section, integrate your responses into a logical discussion, rather than answering them one by one. And don't include only the answers to the questions; use them as a guideline for supplementing your discussion, not limiting it.
  • If your lab report doesn’t include a conclusion section, the final paragraph of the discussion can be considered the conclusion. Include a brief restatement of the purpose and the main results and how they are relevant to the field of study. Also include any future directions for experimentation or changes you would make the next time to produce results that are more significant or noteworthy.
  • Write this section using past tense when you are referring to your experiment, and present tense when comparing to current theory.

7. Tables and Figures

  • Tables and figures are often used in a report to present complicated data. Use the following guidelines to incorporate them effectively.
  • Tables are referred to as tables, and all other items (graphs, photographs, drawings, diagrams, maps, etc.) are referred to as figures.
  • All tables and figures must be numbered. 
  • Tables and figures are assigned numbers in the order they are mentioned in the text.
  • Tables and figures are numbered independently of each other (i.e., Table 1 and 2, and then Figure 1 and 2 as well).
  • All tables and figures must have self-explanatory titles so that the reader can understand their content without the text.
    • Example:
      • Table 1. Percent of soybean plants exhibiting visible injury after exposure to acid precipitation.
  • Tables are usually labelled at the top and figures at the bottom
  • Each table or figure must be introduced within the text, with a comment that should point out the highlight(s) or significant trend(s), not every piece of data that is shown.
    • NO: The plant was 4.0 cm on day 1, 4.2 cm on day 3, and 5.0 cm on day 4.
    • YES: The plant increased in height over a 4-day period (Figure 1).
  • Tables and figures may be placed at the end of the paper, or within the text as soon as possible after they are mentioned without interrupting the text (i.e., at the end of a paragraph or section). Check with your professors for their preference.
  • Refer to the specific table or figure number, and the readers will always be able to find the information. (Avoid referring to “the table below” because you may not know exactly what the final placement of the table will be.)
  • The tables and figures should enhance the report, but the reader should be able to understand and follow the most important results even if the tables/figures were removed.

8. References

  • Also called "Literature Cited" or "References Cited," this is a list only of papers and resources actually mentioned (cited) within the report. 
    • NOTE: A "Bibliography," on the other hand, refers to a list of all materials used to get background knowledge on a subject; you will not usually be required to include one of these in a scientific lab report.
  • Scientific lab reports are written for the sole purpose of sharing information. If readers want more information about something, they need to be able to find the exact source. References also give credit to the person who did the work and provide your work with authority.
  • The reference list is usually provided on a separate page at the end of the report.
  • Most of the information you include will be paraphrased or summarized, rather than quoted. (Quotations are rare in scientific writing.) Remember that all information within the report that is not your original work or ideas should be referenced.
  • Reference your lab manual, textbook, and any journal articles used.   
  • In-text citations usually occur in one of two places in the sentence: Smith (1999) has also found that E.coli is one of the only microbes to . . . . or E.coli is one of the only microbes to . . . (Smith 1999).
  • There are several standard styles for documenting references. Check with your lab manual, your professors, or your TA for their preference. You may be asked to follow the format of a particular journal in your field. If so, follow that format exactly.

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