Writing in the Sciences

Like all writing, the purpose of scientific writing is to communicate ideas.  It is very important to be clear and concise and to organize one’s thoughts very carefully.  There is no room for ornamentation or flowery prose, but that does not mean that papers are all dry and identical.

Typically, scientific writing involves passive voice written in third person.  If one is writing a research article describing his or her own work, first person plural or singular (dependent on the number of co-researchers) can be used.  Many scientific papers follow the APA general guidelines, but one should always ask.  Each field has its own citation style, often dictated by that field’s professional organization or scientific journals.

There are two main types of writing in the sciences: review articles and research articles.

Review articles are written to discuss and compare and contrast the work of others.  Consider the hypothesis of the authors, why the work is scientifically valid, what information the authors are trying to discover, and what other data is needed to solve the problem.

Research articles are written to present and add one’s own work to the scientific field.  These articles are often divided into sections that typically include:

    • Abstract.  The purpose of the abstract is to present the reader with an idea of what is contained in the paper.  It should include the objectives, basic methods used, results and conclusions.  It should be able to stand on its own without references to any figures, tables, or works cited.
    • Introduction.  The introduction clearly identifies the problems that justify the work and the hypotheses on which the work is based.  The introduction briefly refers to background material with proper citations to put the research in context.
    • Materials and Methods or Experimental.  Sufficient detail about the materials and methods should be provided so that other workers can repeat the work and obtain comparable results.  Materials should not be listed, but incorporated into an explanation of the methods.  Appropriate specifications, quantities, preparations, and modifications should be supplied.  Although all necessary details should be present, it is also important to be concise.  When using a standard method, the appropriate literature is cited and only the details needed are given.
    • Results and Discussion.  This is the most important part of a research article.  All results should be summarized through the text, using figures, graphs, and tables where appropriate.  The findings should all be completely explained.
    • Conclusion.  Put the interpretation into the context of the original problem.  Don’t repeat discussion points or include irrelevant material.
    • References.  Include complete information on all of the works that were cited.

Research articles are often presented as posters, which is a juxtaposition of a written and oral presentation.  Research posters contain many of the above sections, but should not be text-heavy.  All extraneous material should be eliminated and text should be arranged to be read and understood quickly by the audience.  The use of figures and tables is an effective way to present information.

Knisley, Karen.  (2004).  A student handbook for writing in biology.  Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates. W.H. Freeman and Company.
Coghill, A. M., & Garson, L. R. (Eds.).  (2006). The ACS style guide: Effective communication of scientific information.  New York: Oxford University Press.
Tarver Library, Subject Librarian Pages
“Literature Reviews.” http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/literature_review.html
“General APA Guidelines.” http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/01/