Creative Commons License Copyright © Michael Richmond. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Scientific Paper

Courtesy of
Dr. Frank Hensley
Coordinator of General Biology Laboratories
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Your scientific paper will be written in the same format that professional scientists use to report their research. Scientific writing is brief, concise, and specific. You can write an excellent paper that includes all the necessary details in about 4 or 5 pages. Before you write your first draft, make sure you Understand the Experiment.

Every scientific paper includes each of the following parts:

  • Title
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Literature Cited

    Once you've written your rough draft, fix it up using the Handy Checklist

    Don't make a Big Mistake. Avoid the pitfall of plagiarism.

    Understanding your Experiment

    The hardest part of understanding your experiment is knowing

  • What hypothesis you tested.
  • What the variables were
  • Whether your data support your hypothesis

    A hypothesis is a statement that can be tested by conducting an experiment or collecting data. A hypothesis is sometimes described as an "educated guess," but is really a specific prediction. A hypothesis can be proven FALSE, but is


    For example, suppose we want to study the effect of staying up late at night to cram for an exam. Does it help your grade, or hurt it? A simple hypothesis might be:

  • "The amount of sleep a student gets the night before an exam will affect her score on the exam."

    But scientists always try to make their hypotheses as specific as they can. So a better hypothesis would be:

  • "The more sleep a student gets the night before an exam, the higher her score will be."

    This statement is testable. All we need are some good data on student sleep patterns and exam scores. We could test our hypothesis by performing an experiment, but it might be tough to find students who would be willing to risk making bad grades just to test our hypothesis. So instead, we can use a survey to collect the data, and see if the data support our hypothesis or refute it.

    A good hypothesis deals with the relationship between two variables. In this case, one variable is the amount of sleep a student gets, and one is the student's grade on the exam. These two variables are expected to have a clear cause-and-effect relationship. We suspect that a lack of sleep will CAUSE the student's grade to be low. We call the grade the dependent variable because it depends on how much sleep a student gets. In any experiment, the scientist manipulates one variable to see how it affects the other variable. The one that the scientist manipulates is the independent variable , which causes changes in the dependent variable. When you look at a hypothesis, you should be able to quickly figure out which variable is independent and which is dependent.


    Your title should be about 8 to 12 words long, and should mention both the independent and dependent variables.

    A bad title: "Exam grades"

    A weak title: "Sleep vs. Exam Grades"

    A strong title:

    "Amount of Sleep Affects Student Performance on Biology Exams"

    Notice that both the independent variable (amount of sleep) and the dependent variable (exam score) are mentioned. It is clear that the grade depends on the amount of sleep.


    The purpose of the introduction is to set the stage for your hypothesis. Your introduction should begin with background information that is general. Imagine that you are writing your introduction for a friend who has never had college biology. Give a clear explanation of what your study is all about, defining any specialized terms you use. Organize your introduction carefully: start off very broad, and then narrow down what you are talking about. For example, if you are writing about the effects of sleep on exam performance, you should start with the basics: why people need sleep, what happens during sleep, and what are some known results of a lack of sleep. In this part of the paper you will want to use information from various sources that you look up in the library, and cite the sources correctly. Then, narrow down your introduction to the specific hypothesis you tested.


    Your methods section is pretty easy to write if you are careful about a couple of things:

  • Include enough detail so that your reader could repeat your experiment and test your hypothesis.

  • Eliminate unnecessary details. Your reader doesn't need to know everything you did, just enough to do the experiement. Ask yourself, "If I leave this out, will my reader be able to do the experiment and get the same results I did?" If so, then LEAVE IT OUT.

  • DO NOT simply copy the methods from some other source! That is a Big Mistake. Write the methods in your own words.

  • Keep it short and sweet. After you write the first draft of the methods, go back and look for ways to shorten it. Eliminate unnecessary details.


    The Results Section has two elements:

  • A text description of your results.
  • A graphical summary of your results


    The text should describe the pattern or trends seen in your data. It should be short, but should give your reader a mental picture of what your results show. The results should be so complete and clear, that the reader doesn't have to look at your graph to get a clear picture of what the data show.

    For example:

    "The data from my survey show that students who get very little sleep before exams generally make grades less than 70%. Students who sleep less than 3 hours do not benefit greatly, but students who sleep 6 or more hours improve their exam scores by 150n average. In general, the more sleep a student gets before the exam, the better their exam grade will be. The pattern is the same in Biology 111 and 112. Students in Biology 112 generally score higher than students in Biology 111."

    Note that the results section describes the general pattern, but does not list every data point. The data points are presented in graphs and tables.


    Unless the nature of your data prevent it, you should graph your results. You are not required to use a computer - but you must use graph paper or a ruler to produce neat, accurate graphs. Colors are nice, but not required. Neatness counts!

    A good graph has:

  • The independent variable on the x-axis (horizontal axis)
  • The dependent variable on the y-axis (vertical axis)
  • Each axis labeled with the name of the variable and the units of measure
  • Different colors or symbol shapes for different data sets
  • Axes that are scaled appropriately

    This is a good graph:

    The red labels on the graph above are to show YOU what to include in your graph.
    Don't put these red labels on the graphs you turn in!


    The Discussion section is the hardest one to write, but is the most important. You can't write a good discussion until you have the rest of your paper in good shape.
    Your discussion may or may not answer all of the following questions:

  • Was your hypothesis supported, or did you reject it? Why?

  • How do your data compare to data collected by others with the same methods? Why?

  • Why did you get the results you did? What principles of biology or biological processes explain what happened?

  • What experiment should be done next? Science never ends. Can you think of ways to do this experiment over, and get better results. Or can you think of other experiments that should be done? What hypotheses would you test next?

    Literature Cited

    In your Literature Cited section, you must list every source you used in writing your report. The correct format is:

    Author, date, title, publication information.


    Horton, M.L., Kirchoff, B.K. and E.P. Lacey (1996). Enzymes. Pp. 35-48 in Principles of Biology: Molecules to Organisms, M.L. Horton et al, eds. Edina: Burgess International Group, Inc.

    Citations from the Internet (World Wide Web) are somewhat different:

    Author (date of message or visit), title of Web page or article, name of Web site, complete path.


    Beeman, Richard (May 9, 1997). Insecticide Resistance in Tribolium. Tribolium Home Page,

    Handy Checklist

    I. General

    __ Title includes both independent & dependent variables
    __ Organization (correct material under each heading)
    __ Appropriate use of past tense
    __ Appropriate use of personal pronouns (I, he or she...but never "you")
    __ Appropriate use of active voice
    __ Literature is cited correctly in text
    __ Spelling checked
    __ Grammar checked

    II. Introduction

    __ Scientific terminology defined.
    __ Factors that might affect the experiment are introduced.
    __ Hypothesis stated clearly.
    __ Independent variable identified correctly.
    __ Dependent variable identified correctly.

    III. Methods

    __ Written in your OWN words (not copied from the manual).
    __ Written in paragraph form (clear & understandable).
    __ Methods described adequately (important details included, unnecessary details eliminated).
    __ Lab manual cited as the source of your methods.
    __ Species you studied identified by its proper scientific name.
    __ Purpose of each essential supply, chemical, or instrument explained.
    __ Measurements and tests explained clearly

    IV. Results

    __ Data trends clearly described.
    __ All data sets graphed.
    __ Graphs neat & legible.
    __ Graphs built and labeled correctly (variable & units of measure)

    V. Discussion

    __ Do the data support the hypothesis?
    __ Results compared to the class average?
    __ Why did you get the results that you did? What caused things to turn out the way they did? Can you explain the chemistry, the physiology, or the evolutionary biology that produced the pattern you saw?
    __ Discussion of the results of other students in the class? (What was their hypothesis? Was it supported or refuted? Why?
    __ What further experiments might be interesting to perform? What would the hypotheses be?
    __ How do your results matter to living organisms? (at the cellular level, or the whole-organism level)

    VI. Literature Cited (5)

    __ Complete citation for each source used (author, year, title, and publication information).
    __ Have you cited the required number of sources?

    Creative Commons License Copyright © Michael Richmond. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.