10 Oct 2012

Writing lab reports

I've had this post sitting in draft form since 19th January 2010. Jemimah was just beginning AO3. What a long time ago that seems now.  Today the topic of lab reports was raised on the AO Forum, so I thought it might be time to dust this off and let it finally see the light of day. And here it is. Ta Da!!
Does the title of this post make your eyes glaze over? Thought so. I'll try to liven it up with a personal anecdote...

I think I've told you I am a science boffin. Genetics and biochemistry were my joint double majors at University, and I have an Honours Degree in Human Genetics. Woo Hoo!! I'd always done pretty well in science in school - generally better than pretty well, in fact. I had certainly never received a 'fail' for a report in my life...in any subject.

You can imagine my abject horror then when I discovered that I had failed my first term lab assignment in Biology 101. Learning that 80% of the class were in a similar position didn't lessen that feeling of abject horror either, though it did make me feel a little less like committing harikari.  What the experience did do rather, was to reinforce the novel idea that Uni was going to be quite different from school and that I was actually going to have to work if I were going to maintain my grades.   In this case it turned out that the problem was that nobody in 13 years of school had ever taught me how to write a laboratory report using correct scientific writing. Of course I didn't know how to do it.  And of course I failed.   I began my crash course in scientific writing that very day.

The ability to write clearly and concisely is, of course, the objective of all writing, however scientific report writing differs in style from other written reports for a number of reasons, the main one being that scientific reports and papers must convey scientific information in a clear and accurate manner without ambiguity. Scientific papers are written reports describing original research results. Their format is bound by centuries of tradition, and there is no place for personal style in the finished product.

The facts.  Science is interested in the facts.  The discoverer of the fact is less important than the fact itself.  Eventually the fact would have been discovered, if not by you then by somebody coming after you.  In line with this philosophy, scientific papers are written in what is called the Passive Voice.  This is where I came unstuck in biology 101. When you use the passive voice there are no personal pronouns - no I, you, he/she/it, we, the experimenter, one, the scientist, and so on. Passive voice shifts the focus from the person who did the experiment to the process and results, and implies less bias in the reporting of the scientific findings. It is traditional to write laboratory reports in the passive voice. (Some current scientific journals prefer reports written in the active voice, or first person, but this is still uncommon. My sister-in-law recently had to rewrite her doctoral dissertation three times changing it from the passive to the active and back to the passive before her supervisors were satisfied.  Grrrr.)

Despite being only in AO3 this year, Jemimah's introduction to simple scientific experiments this year using Bob Friedhoffer's Science Lab in a Supermarket seemed an ideal time to introduce her to the specifics of simplified scientific writing at the same time. As Maria said, Let's start at the very beginning...a very good place to start.

Accordingly, at the end of her first experiment lest week investigating the use of food packaging to keep the contents fresh, she wrote up her first laboratory report.

For the sake of those of you who never suffered through science in first year Uni and thus have until now successfully avoided procuring this highly valuable skill, I present the important components of a well written lab report...

Firstly, a scientific paper should consist of Title, Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion in this order. References come last. The abstract is to all extents and purposes a summary. It includes the principal objectives and scope of the investigation, and concisely summarises the results and conclusions. This is the bit you read first if you ever find need to refer to a paper for your own use. It is as easy for my almost 8 year old to write up her paper in the correct format as it is to use the wrong one. Correct format it will be, therefore.

Secondly, write in simple, precise language. Jemimah is all for this. She will never write two words when on will do. (Oral narration is a different matter all together. There she waffles for pages.)

Thirdly, use the passive tense. Generally.

Here's what Jemimah wrote under Methods in her report, for example:
Four bags of chips were put on the table. Three were opened. One of these was put in the fridge, one was made air-tight with a peg, one was left open.

Can you see that the focus is not on Jemimah, but on what she did? (This was her first attempt at passive tense. I thought she did rather well!) 

Scientific work is useless if its results cannot be conveyed to others.  To me writing in this precisely defined style is an exercise in composition that translates to all subjects.  We might not write in the passive voice, but we should always write clearly, concisely and accurately, whatever we are writing upon.

Writing a lab report  is the way that we narrate our experiments.  By putting pen to paper we cement the concepts and ideas in our brain, just like oral narration fixes the ideas in a story.  In this way the facts and principles that we are demonstrating in the experiment are set in our memories for us to access at later times and while performing more advanced studies. 

A reading not narrated is a reading wasted.  The same goes for experiments in my book.

This page on writing lab reports has more useful information that I could offer here.


  1. Oh Jeanne! Been here, done this ~ only, as my Star pointed out when I yawned for the umpteenth time, it was not only repetitive it was dull & could we now move on to Harry Potter? Please? I must say, I knew exactly where she was coming from.

    I hope Jemimah is enjoying the process better than Star did.

  2. She's been doing them for a couple of years now. Scientific writing is a skill. I see it as an alternative form of narration and as such it is compulsory. I don't know whether she likes it, but she doesn't complain about it anyhow! That says a lot!

  3. Ah yes. I suspect the Star & I are less inclined to the necessary detail the scientific method requires. No dragons. No faeries. No wicked witch of the west. And now it is Dr Who.

    We will exterminate you.

    I'm now helping Star save the world. See you in the next galaxy....

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this information! My oldest is very interested in science and my own background is sadly lacking in this area. This is something I will be certain that he learns very soon.

  5. Hey, I actually learned how to do a proper lab report in high school (part of the International Baccalaureate program.) I also remember having to go to the University bookstore to buy a proper lab book... (Don't remember what was different from it...)

  6. Very true. Though in public school, I have one in high school biology and one in high school chemistry and they talk wildly about what is done in the experiments that they've had to write up (I hear about the experiments, of course, because they COMPLAIN about the "stupid" way you have to write about them). I asked once "what other stuff have you done?" "Oh just dumb stuff he shows us" Like?? "Oh I don't know....[followed by either] they won't be on the test [or] we didn't have to do a stupid report on those...."

    Coincidentally the SCIENCE LAB/PHYSICS LAB books are fondly remembered......

  7. This is something we don't do but should (which is an ever-growing list of things, by the way). You make several good points about the necessity. I know I'll be referencing this post in the near future!

  8. Well, normally I would have glazed over but you held my interest Jeanne:) I'll have to remember this for AO3 as I'm in a similar boat to Sarah, non-science loving mum to a science crazy dd:)

  9. Claire in Tasmania26 October 2012 at 22:34

    On the subject of 'centuries of tradition', have you ever seen the books 'A Random Walk in Science' and 'More Random Walks in Science'? They're compilations of fun and interesting stuff from science journals, lots of spoof articles like the Mathematical Theory of Big Game Hunting. You can also find in one of them the critique of Shelley' Ozymandias from the POV of a scientific journal, which every science-and-literature-loving person should read ;)... but also some more serious historical papers showing how things were done a century or two ago. I was really surprised how recent these rules actually are. An example that comes to mind is the man who made his cat one of the authors of his paper so he didn't have to make his secretary re-type it all to change the first-person language from plural to singular! That, I think, was quite recent - 20th century, but I have a baby sleeping on my lap so I can't get up and check.

    I'm not so sure that I'll make my kids write their reports the 'right' way, because fashions might change again before they grow up... maybe I'll get them to write 'in the style of x journal' every now and again. Certainly do at least some lab reports in the standard format but probably not all of them... Might depend a bit on DH too. He's the biochemist in our family but also something of a rebel against rules... I imagine he might be in charge of the science when/if we start doing stuff beyond nature study...

  10. nice post and encouraging for science students


I'd love you to leave me a message. Tell me what you like - and what you don't. Just remember that this is what we do in our family - it doesn't have to be what you do in yours...