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THE DOS AND DONTS OF WRITING A LABORATORY REPORT

Used and modified with permission of Dr. A.B. Lange. Original guideline by D. Nykamp.

The purpose of writing laboratory reports at the undergraduate level is to teach you how to prepare a scientific research article. You should review the information provided here before, during, and after you have finished writing your lab to make sure that all of these points have been followed. In addition, check all writing guidelines provided by your Instructor and/or Teaching Assistant. To further help you learn how to write good laboratory reports please pay special attention to primary journal articles. By reading original articles you will quickly learn the Dos and Donts of writing a good laboratory report. Although your lab report is expected to be thorough and detailed, you need to be able to present your information in a well-organized, well-written, and concise manner. TITLE The title should be descriptive and tell the reader what the paper is about DONT: DO:

make it specific use a title that includes the organism and/or


tissue being worked on

use Lab Report #1 as the title use the title in the lab manual use abbreviations

if the study consists of multiple parts, include


each in the title in the order of importance INTRODUCTION

An introduction should let the reader know what you are doing in the experiment and why you are doing it. You will need to review what is known about the subject area and how your experiment will contribute to what is known. A well-written introduction, while reviewing the literature, should draw the readers attention to the purpose of the experiment, resulting in a specific statement of the hypothesis(es). DO: DONT:

use properly formatted references (primary


resources preferred only reference information from the Results and/or Discussion of the primary resource)

introduce unrelated (irrelevant) topics explain materials and methods state any results or conclusions use the lab manual as a reference reference information presented in the
Introduction of a primary resource. Look for the reference the authors refer to in their Introduction and read it and interpret it yourself.

include general background information.


Introduce and explain the concepts and terms being studied in the experiment using references to the literature. Provide your reader with all the information he/she will require to understand your study.

Introduction continued... briefly review similar experiments from the


literature. What were they trying to demonstrate? What did they see? Use this information to lead into your purpose and hypothesis(es).

clearly state the objectives/purpose of your


experiment(s)

include hypothesis(es) which is/are supported


by the literature MATERIALS AND METHODS

If permitted (ask your Instructor or TA), make reference to the lab manual for the general
procedure.

In detail, describe portions of the experiment that deviated from the lab manual. For example,
methods and/or materials added or removed.

Write in full sentences and paragraphs. Use sub-titles if necessary. Include the names of lab partners and anyone else you worked with or obtained data from.
RESULTS: TEXT A detailed written description of your data describing the figures and tables. This should be done objectively without considering what the data means. The text should include pertinent numerical data and describe important trends, comparisons and relationships. Include statistical evidence where necessary. DO: DONT:

refer to every table and figure presented in


the report

make any type of interpretation, speculation


or conclusion about your results

include units whenever you state a value wherever possible use quantitative rather
than qualitative descriptions

describe results from another source (or use


references)

include any materials and methods include sample calculations, these are
included in an Appendix section at the end of your report

be detailed and specific describe important trends, relationships and


comparisons and support with numerical evidence (e.g. example data values, meansSE)

describe what you think the results should


have been

perform and present statistical evidence


when necessary

use ambiguous terms/statements that mean


little to the reader. For example; tube 1 was brighter than tube 2. What was in tube 1 and tube 2? how much brighter is brighter?

use the term "significant" in describing your


data unless a statistical test was performed and appropriate values presented

present your data as a list of Tables and


Figures. For example; Table 1 shows that... Figure 1 shows that... Figure 2 shows that...

present/list every single data point recorded


RESULTS: Tables and Figures The tables and figures should summarize the important data and should be clearly separated from the text portion of your results. Figures should be able to stand on their own. The reader should completely understand what is demonstrated in the figure without referring back to the main body of the report. DO: DONT:

place each table and figure on their own page number every table and figure (separate numbering is
used for tables and figures)

put a title above the graph write the coordinates of a data value
or the standard error value on the plot beside the point on a figure

label axes and include units use different symbols (squares, circles, triangles, etc.)
or colours for different plots on the same graph

omit data that does not fit your


expected result

explain the symbols or colours in either a legend or in


the figure caption

repeat the same data in a table and a


figure, this is redundant and makes the paper confusing and lengthy

if working with means, show the standard error and


note the sample size in the caption Captions should include:

Table or Figure number (e.g., Figure 1., or Table 1.) Introductory sentence describing what is demonstrated in the table or figure. o Label on x-axis vs label on y-axis, e.g. blood glucose vs weight, is NOT a descriptive
opening sentence. The effect of blood glucose levels on the weight of human males 20 to 25 years of age (n=120). tells the reader much more.

Enough of a description to understand the figure without referring back to the text. A sentence
or two on how the data was obtained will go a long way in the readers comprehension of the figure. Trends and comparisons can be included in the caption, but depends on the data presented.

If mean presented, an indication of the type of variability value presented should be included.
For example, meanSEM presented

If working with an organism include the name (usually latin name) in the caption. Captions are placed left justified above tables and below figures.

DISCUSSION The discussion is the portion of the paper where the data is analyzed for scientific meaning and significance, if any, to the body of knowledge in the area of study. You should be able to relate everything in your discussion (e.g., terms, concepts, previously published results) to your own results.

Clearly and directly state what you think the data demonstrated and explain why. To do this
you will need to refer extensively to the literature.

Whenever you explain a concept you should refer to a piece of data from your experiments to
illustrate the point. If you cant, you probably should not be discussing this concept.

Note: Do not use your entire discussion to explain the limitations of the experiment or to
explain why your data may be wrong because of experimental error. Although a brief discussion about the limitations of the experiment may be relevant (you should be able to judge if it is relevant or not), spending too much time on this sort of discussion indicates to the reader that you did not understand the purpose of the lab and did not read or understand the appropriate background literature. If you choose to include a brief section on experimental error, you MUST refer to erroneous data in your results. You also need to present evidence (literature) suggesting that the erroneous data is in fact inaccurate and not just indicating something else. New discoveries have been made from data that didnt initially make sense. DO: DONT:

use properly formatted references (primary


resources preferred only reference information from the Results and/or Discussion of the primary resource)

simply repeat concepts explained in the


introduction. You may expand on some concepts and relate them to your own results.

briefly refer to your results for point of


reference instead of referring to a table or figure number

draw conclusions not directly supported by


your data

explain the materials and methods explain data simply by stating experimental
error, this implies a lack of thought on your part. What if the data is not incorrect? What if something new has been discovered? is there potentially a biological reason for the data?

compare your values to those found in the


literature

explain why your values may be different


from your hypothesis or those previously published

if you are explaining differences in terms of


limitations of the experiment, refer to specific data and briefly suggest how improvements may be made

introduce new information that the reader


requires to understand the study

try to think of biologically relevant (e.g


ecological, physiological, cellular, molecular, genetic...) explanations for your data (use references for support).

expand on topics covered in the introduction


and relate them directly to your own results with references to support any conclusions/statements

REFERENCES It is always best to direct your literary research back to the original work (the primary journal article). This permits you to determine for yourself exactly what the author(s) was/were indicating, and not what many others (e.g. reviewers, book authors) interpreted. It is interesting to note how many results or theories presented in secondary resources are misrepresentations of the authors initial findings or thoughts. One way to recognize a piece of literature as primary is to see if it contains a materials and methods, and results section. Articles containing these two sections, in addition to the Introduction and Discussion are typically primary. Secondary literature such as review articles, textbooks, and other general reference books can be used for general information, and are typically only referred to in the Introduction.

If you make a statement that is not general knowledge, that isn't based on your data, or that isn't a result of your original thinking, you must reference it. Never submit another person's work or ideas as your own, this is an academic offence. Follow the in text citation and Reference section format indicated by your Instructor.

DO reference every statement in a paragraph if necessary

DONT

use direct quotations reference anything that is not published (such


as lab manual or lecture notes)

use primary resources as your main reference


material

use the Internet as a resource

APPENDICES The appendix or appendices are included in the lab report after the Reference section. DO DON'T

include raw data in its original state include sample calculations when necessary

include any Results figures re-type raw data unless otherwise stated