Writing for Science Subjects
Writing Science and Technical Reports
A report is a factual account of something that has happened in the past, which can include the results of scientific or technical experiments, projects, or investigations.
- Structure: Stages of reports
Most science and technical reports can be categorised into two main groups: those involving investigation or enquiry of some sort; or those that present a summary or synopsis of an event.
Both types of report will be structured into five or six main stages (although each stage may be divided into sub-sections). The stages and key sub-sections of your report will normally have sub-headings that indicate to the reader what that stage or section of the report is about.
In a relatively short (non-dissertation) report the main stages are shown, as follows:Investigatory Report
- Background information
- Methods and Materials
- Background Information
- Main issues
You would also include a list of evidence and other source references, written in the referencing style adopted by your institution or department.
- Content of these stages
In the introduction section of your report you would normally introduce the aim and subject of the report to tell the reader what to expect: what issues are being explored or evaluated, and if necessary, why. It can also be helpful to summarize the main stages of the report and the focus of each.
In this section of the report you would present an overview of the main factors leading to the report. These can include historic, scientific/technical, economic, political or social influences, and other macro or micro factors that enable the reader to put the main report issues into a context or perspective. In some reports you may also want to summarize the findings of previous research or investigation in the topic area. In a long report, or dissertation, this often has its own section, i.e. titled ‘Literature Review’.
Main issues; Methods and materials
(a) Main issues:
In this broad area of a non-investigatory report, you would outline the main issues that are the central focus and concern.
In an investigatory or technical/scientific report you would present details about the research or experiment to allow others to replicate the work in the future. You would summarise in chronological order what you did, giving essential information, as in this extract from a student dissertation report:
“A CPD plan and record file composed by the RPSGB was obtained from a tutor, which was analysed. To gain some understanding with regards to views on CPD, a handful of local community pharmacists were then approached. However, this open and randomised method proved not to be very effective, as views were very limited in parts and broadened in others.”
The Items and elements you could include in this methods or materials section are, as follows:
- The research approach adopted and the reasons for this. If in retrospect you feel it was not the correct approach, you should say so, and state why;
- If applicable, the materials used in any physical testing process;
- The methods you used to gather primary and/or secondary data, and why you chose those particular methods;
- The criteria you adopted for collecting this data (e.g. target number, age, gender, occupational etc) giving reasons for your choice;
- The target sample number and type of sample, e.g. a random sample;
- The actual number you achieved and the reasons for any shortfall;
- Where you collected the data;
- When you collected it, if relevant;
- Who was involved in the collection, if relevant;
- How it was collected;
- The logistical or other problems encountered in collecting or analysing it, if applicable;
- How you collated and categorized the data.
The results section presents a summary of the data or other information you gathered. At this stage of the report you present and summarise the data or information without going into detailed discussion of the implications of your findings; this information goes into the next ‘Discussion’ section.
So, in the ‘Results’ section you could include the following information:
- Summary of the statistical data gathered;
- If applicable, how and why the results were affected by any event, situation or phenomenon within or outside your control;
- If there was a shortfall in the amount of data you gained, how you compensated or dealt with this;
- How the amount of data collected by you compares or contrasts with previous research in this area of enquiry;
This section explains, analyses,and discusses the result, including implications of your findings. It can present, if applicable, some resolution or answers to the main research questions. You may also want or need to connect the result in some way to the theories, models, and practices that you introduced in the earlier background sections.
You could include the following into a discussion section of a report:
- How the findings connect with your overall research aim and research questions;
- How and why your findings connect with previous research;
- What the findings mean in theory and/or practice;
- How unexpected/expected were some or all of the findings?
- How the findings might be applied;
- When they might be applied (the context);
- Who might apply them;
- Any recommendations you might make based on your research findings;
- What future research might be conducted to build on what you have done.
Conclusions, summary, or recommendations
The introduction of your report was the place to tell the reader what you are going to say. The conclusion is an opportunity to remind readers what you have told them. This may sound trite, but it is important to do this, as this reinforces the important points you made earlier in the report. An effective conclusion leaves the reader with a sense of completion.
Some additional sections you might include, depending on the length and nature of the report:
Abstract or summary
In longer reports it is common to have an abstract or summary page. This is a brief summary of the aim of the report, methodology, if applicable, and the results or conclusions reached. An abstract or summary would normally be no more than a page in length. Check with your tutor to see if you need to include this with your report. It would not normally be included in short reports, but would be expected in dissertation project reports.
In a lengthy report you would normally include a contents page, which would include main chapter headings, any sub-divisions within these and page numbers. These chapter headings can be numbered and given numerical sub-divisions, for example:
- Organisation Background
2.2 Geographical features
2.3 Current networks
2.4 Structure of organisation
- Current Challenges Facing Organisation:
3.2 Changes in Market
3.3 Technological Changes etc…
You may also be expected to link the headings and sub-headings to page numbers to assist a reader to quickly find a particular section of the report.
The Appendix, or appendices, is the place for lengthy and detailed material that would interfere with the easy flow of reading in the main body of the report. It may contain important data that you refer to in your report – but the main text should be used to summarise this key information.
The appendix items are there for readers to look at if they wish, particularly if they wanted to check the accuracy and validity of your report discussion or conclusions.
The appendix would, for example, contain detailed statistical data, computer programs, and examples of questionnaires used in any research project.
When writing scientific or technical report:
- Make sure of the meaning of every word; don’t use words that you don’t really understand.
- Use plain words when possible. You will need to use some technical terms, particularly when describing or analysing theories or models, but this doesn’t mean you need to adopt an archaic or jargon-filled style of writing.
- Do not fill your report with unnecessary detail.
- Be concise - get to the point quickly.
- Vary the length of your sentences. Aim for one clear point in each sentence.
- You can use bullet points – as shown here – to summarise non-contentious, factual points.
- You can also use (but selectively) illustrations, charts, diagrams in the main text of your report. If you do use them, always explain in your report why you have included them and what the reader should look for in the illustration, chart or diagram in question.
- Further Reading
Kirkman J. (2005). Good Style: Writing for Science and Technology. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.
Northedge, A., Thomas, J., Lane, A., and Peasgood, A. (1997). The Sciences Good Study Guide. Basingstoke: The Open University.
Silyn-Roberts, H. (2000). Writing for Science and Engineering: Papers, Presentations and Reports. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.
© Colin Neville
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