Academic writing in Science – Your final year report

Have you hit writer’s-block yet? Don’t worry, we have all been there!

For this second instalment on science writing, I try and give some practical help and guidance to those writing their final year report.  This will also include what your supervisors are looking for – so will hopefully help you improve your grade 🙂

  1. Aiming for Perfection.  This is a difficult word to live up to so I will explain. Your assessors of your final year report, myself included, expect a certain level of “perfection” with various aspects of your report. No excuses!  This includes your references and your spelling.  The formatting of your in-text citations and your reference list should be perfect. You have reference managers, so use them. You also have spell checkers (and grammar checkers) so use them! Badly formatted references and spelling mistakes convey sloppiness, which gives a bad impression and will drag down a good report.

So, while you may think that formatting references and spelling is not too important,  you don’t want to give your supervisor any sense of sloppiness.  Aim for perfection with these two things.


2. Your opinion in the Discussion is very important….but it must be backed up! Anyone could write a science report, including my 10-year old son. But what makes your final year report super-impressive will be the inclusion of your ideas and your insight in your Discussion. If you think:surely nobody wants to hear my opinion?” then don’t worry this is normal. But your scientific opinion, your ideas, your hypotheses, your future directions and your criticisms (of your own project too) are so important. It is your report after all.

However, there are 2 small caveats: You must continue to write in the third person because scientific etiquette dictates it, and your ideas and hypotheses should be backed up by scientific evidence. So avoid “I” or “I think” and instead write “the data suggests….”. Here are some other useful third person sentences that you might find useful:

  • “based on the findings in this report, it seems clear that….”
  • “the analysis presented here suggest that….”
  • “the hypothesis put forward in this report strongly supports…”

You get the idea. Your ideas and hypotheses are important, but should be clearly linked objectively to the evidence.


3. Figures and their importance. The Figure(s) that you create and include in your report will definitely improve your grade. But there are some common mistakes that you should avoid……..

  • Figures should be self-created and not simply copy and pasted from another source (unless your are specifically critiquing the figure or data).
  • Figures should always be self-contained. This means that the reader should be able to understand each figure fully based on the annotations and the Figure Legend, with little reference to your text.
  • Figures (particular schematic figures) should be colourful!! Gone are the days when science illustration was boring and black and white (I was there you know).  You now have access to excellent graphics software on campus, so make use of it.
  • Figures should be clearly indicated and referred to in the text. It is a common mistake to include a Figure in your report and then forget to refer to it!! This is a definite negative and should be avoided. Check your text to ensure you have referred to your figure.
  • Figures and human nature! While assessors will always be as objective as possible, a well-crafted and impressive Figure will give a great sense of pride and a positive impression to the overall report. Bottom line: make your own Figures and make them impressive. Show your peers and your supervisor and ask them for truthful feedback.

4. Without statistics, your data is less meaningful. OK, this is not always true, but it is very common for students to claim something based on data that has not been statistically tested. If you have only done an experiment once and have one data point, you cannot test any hypothesis. It is not possible and is unscientific, so be careful! You could say “the data suggests….” but you cannot claim much else.

So, be careful not to overstate what your data means and do the correct statistical analyses to support your claims.  SPSS or Minitab are very user-friendly software programs and so statistics can often be done quickly.

Without correct statistics, your report may become unscientific if you base your conclusions on untested datasets or where experiments were only done once. So remember: Repetition and statistics and go hand-in-hand with good scientific practice.


5. Methods are easy to write, or are they?  The Methods section of your report often gets neglected and you may lose marks on this. Your methods section should be comprehensive, understandable and well structured…..

(a) Methods must be comprehensive enough so that another scientist could come along and repeat what you have done. Period. Don’t take your lead from authors of scientific papers as they are often terrible at writing out full methods. Your methods, however, should be in full.

(b) Methods must be understandable by a lay-scientific reader! Ask yourself, would you understand the methods if you read them before you knew anything about your project. Ask your peers and your supervisor if they could repeat the work based on your writing.

(c) The structure of a methods section seems to be an unwritten rule……. Always start with the simplest and most basic, and always finish with the most complex. Similar methods can be grouped together under one subheading so look in the literature if you are unsure. Finally, most scientists usually finish their methods with statistical analysis as it is clearly different to the rest of the methodology.

I hope this helps. Good luck with the writing!

Send me an email if you need help.

 

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