Science Reports Part 1: Structure and Formatting

How do you structure and format a science report? Plus tips from my experience as a student and a marker. Read on to avoid common (and easily corrected) mistakes…

A science report tells the reader why you did your experiment, how you did it, and what your findings mean. The following is the general convention (at least for physical geography) on how to write one, including headings, the type of content within each heading, formatting, and writing style. This may vary between universities, disciplines and/or your lecturers, so always clarify the correct structure and format with your lecturer before submitting your assignment.

Throughout the writing process, always keep in mind that your report must effectively communicate information to your reader (in other words, be as clear as you can). Adhering to the accepted structure and format will definitely help you achieve that.


Quick links

Structure 

Cover page and title 

  • The title of your report. A good title describes the main scientific theme of the report, and perhaps the name of the study site if relevant. Please note that a title such as “Lab 1” would not be good enough!
  • Your student details

Headings 

  • The correct order for headings are: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion and References.
  • If you are confined by a short word limit, the number of headings can be reduced to: Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion, Conclusion, References.
  • Subheadings. They are great for clarity, but do not have too many or else it would ruin the narrative flow of your report.
  • Table of contents. Not necessary to include for short reports.
  • Appendices. Not usually needed unless requested by the lecturer.

Where types of content go 

Information should always flow to the subsequent heading, creating a unified narrative throughout the report. That being said, certain types of content usually exist under specific headings.

  • Abstract (if applicable). Here, the entire report is condensed into a short paragraph. This means that includes a little bit of every section from the Introduction to the Conclusion, so it’s best to write this at the very end.
  • Introduction. Why are you doing this experiment? Mention the study site(s) and the type of data you need, although remember that you are about to go into more detail in the Methods section.
  • Methods. Where did you do your experiment (brief background and possibly a map and coordinates)? What did you do? Do not write in list form, write in paragraphs. Write this in the past tense, since you are writing in the context of already having collected your data.
  • Results. What data did you get? Present all of your figures and tables here. A brief description (not analysis) of your data in paragraph form would be ideal, if not confined by a word limit. Data description belongs to the Results section, data analysis belongs to the Discussion, unless the Results and Discussion sections are combined.
  • Discussion. What do your Results mean? Make in-text references to the graphs and tables already presented in your Results. State your final take-home message at the end of your Discussion. Graphs and tables of data do not belong here.
  • [If the Results and Discussion were combined, you would just dive straight into the data analysis, with your figures and tables embedded into the text]
  • Conclusion. Just like the abstract, this section condenses the entire report (from Introduction to the Discussion) into a short paragraph. The final take-home message is again included here. No new information should be included here, only things that have already been mentioned in the report.
  • References (Read more).
  • Appendices (if applicable). Only include this if specified by your lecturer. This is a place for “extra stuff” that is not necessary for your analysis. This may include raw un-manipulated data or extra information on something mentioned in the report.

References 

Click here for details on how to find sources and how to cite in reports.


Formatting 

Layout 

Check with your lecturer for their preference on layout formatting such as margins, font, font sizes and line spacing. Many lecturers may request the usual combination of 1 inch (2.54 cm) margins, size 12 Times New Roman font, and double spacing. Personally, I am not particular about the layout as long as it is easy to read, neat and professional.

Figures and Tables 

  • Labels. Photos and graphs are labeled Figures, tables of data are labeled Tables.
  • Captions. All figures and tables must also be captioned with a detailed description of the data.
  • In-text reference. All figures and tables need to be referenced in the text. Do not assume the reader knows why the photo or table is there.
  • Maps. If you refer to specific site locations, there should be a map showing where there are (with coordinates, if possible).
  • Clear photos. Ensure that the focus of the photo is clear when printed. If colour is important, then it should be printed in colour. Photos should neither be too small nor unnecessarily large.

Writing style 

  • Objective writing. Avoid writing in the first person (i.e. I, we, they, our)
  • Paragraphs. Each paragraph should be at least 3 sentences. “Floating” single sentences are not appropriate (i.e. a “paragraph” with only one sentence).
  • Abbreviations. The first time an abbreviation is mentioned, the full phrase must be mentioned e.g. “National University of Singapore (NUS)” and from then on, “NUS” will suffice.
  • Numbers. Click here to find out which would be most appropriate to use – text (e.g. “three”) or numerals (e.g. “3”).

TIP 1: Common mistakes 

  • Paragraphs should be at least three sentences.
  • Confusion on which content belongs to the Results or Discussion sections.
  • Not labelling and captioning figures and tables.
  • Including new information in the Conclusion.
  • Inconsistent citation formatting.

TIP 2: Things to ask your lecturer 

As previously mentioned, the accepted way to structure and format your report may vary between universities, disciplines and/or your lecturers. To avoid making mistakes, it is useful to clarify the following with each lecturer:

  • What headings should I use?
  • Which citation style should I use?
  • How should I format my paper?
  • Should an Appendix be included?
  • Is there a marking criteria?
  • Other preferences?

Science Reports Part 2: referencing

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