Scientific Writing


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This presentation explains some important aspects of writing scientific papers. It focuses on standard audience expectations for the style, organization (IMRaD), and goals of scientific writing. It also offers techniques to help students research their topics. Handouts related to the subject matter will be provided.

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  • All scientific writing has a primary goal of contributing to the sum total of knowledge about your topic. The results you obtain (based on the methods you use) will contribute to scientific understanding of your topic. This maxim will explain many of the decisions that one typically makes while writing a scientific paper. The quotation here speaks to that topic; The idea is that we progress by understanding and building upon the works and ideas of earlier people…

    …but you’ve probably noticed the “sort of.” That’s another general consideration in scientific writing – the importance of precision. So, let’s talk about this famous quotation a bit; Newton wrote this in a letter in 1676, and we have reason to suspect that he meant it sarcastically because he was writing to Robert Hooke. Hooke had earlier claimed that Newton stole his ideas. By the time Newton wrote this statement, it was relatively commonplace in England… and he seems to have really disliked Hooke. (Newton wrote this quotation in the letter after Hooke had accused him of idea-theft. It seems like Newton was being a real smart-ass.)

    The original metaphor goes back to a French philosopher in the 12th century named Bernard of Chartres, by the way.

    So, keep in mind this idea of making precise contributions to the sum of human knowledge, and let’s start with some other general considerations about scientific writing.
  • There are general considerations, and they agree with some general observations about scientific writing.
    If you don’t understand the work of earlier scientists with your topic, how well do you really understand your topic? Science is largely a collective endeavor, and all new work is based, to some extent, on previous work. Scientific writing, then, must take into account previous work.
    Evidence is the fuel for science. So, it’s not just important to have evidence, it’s also important to write about your evidence in a way that clarifies your assertions. For something to qualify as scientific evidence, it must be stated precisely – and this means making important distinctions about the quality of your evidence – does it establish or reinforce a “fact” or does it indicate a possibility? How much of a possibility?
    Who are you writing for? Scientific writing will change when, for example, it’s addressed to a casual reader instead of people with advanced degrees in nuclear engineering. Note the significant difference between something like the science page at and an article in The International Journal of Cloning Science. Undergraduate papers are, often, written for an audience of your peers, but even this isn’t set in stone. When you write a scientific paper, your audience has expectations concerning organization, style, and content. We’ll talk today about those expectations and how you can fulfill them.
    Everything you write should be clear and concise. You want to keep your phrasing direct, precise, and unambiguous. Stick to the point. You don’t want readers to have to dig to unearth your observations. In addition, you should follow the conventions of your field for things like abbreviation, punctuation, acronyms, and format. These may vary from one discipline to the next, but following established conventions (usually spelled out in style guides or in the guidelines for particular journals) will, at the very least, prevent your reader from spending time thinking about how you’re not following the proper format.

    Now, we’ll discuss each of these four general considerations in more detail…
  • The best way to show that you understand your subject is to actually understand your subject (shocking, I know).

    When you understand something thoroughly, you should be able to clearly explain it in your own words.
    It’s unusual for scientific writing to quote directly, or even to paraphrase. Instead, when discussing work from another source that is relevant to your own work, you’ll usually summarize it. A summary will be brief, and will only focus on those aspects of that work that are directly relevant to your own work. Don’t get too wordy here – if your readers are interested in the source you’re using, they’ll follow your citation and go read it themselves. The only important information from the source should relate directly and obviously to your current work.
    If something is unclear to you, ask! Professors would much rather have you write from a knowledgeable perspective than from an ignorant one. When you read, you want to ask questions yourself – if you don’t feel like you grasp something, try to formulate a question that, when answered, would clear up your misunderstanding. Failing to have a solid understanding of your sources could potentially make every one of your observations incorrect. (include a quotation here and ask: “What would you need to know to understand this quotation?”)

    (should anyone ask, that’s Carl the Anatomy Doll in the lower left corner)
  • From Pechenik

    Much like interrogating a uncooperative suspect, you’ll want to extract relevant and important information from the sources related to your subject.

    If you ask, and answer, each of these questions (or even some of them) about a source you want to use, you’ll likely have a pretty strong understanding of it. Once you have that understanding, you should be able to easily summarize the important information. If you can’t concisely summarize a scientific paper, that may be an indication that you don’t have a thorough understanding of it. If that’s the case, read it again and ask more questions, or ask your professor.

    Incidentally, you should always be able to answer these questions concerning your own work.
  • Let’s interrogate this block of text! Take a minute or so to read this abstract.

    What specific questions were asked?
    How was the study designed, and how did the design of the study address the question posed?
    What are the specific results of the study? How convincing are they?
    What assumptions were made? Did they seem reasonable?
    What contribution does the study make toward answering the original question?
    What aspects of the original question remain unanswered?

    So, let’s ask these questions here.

    [go through the questions, or some of the questions, above. They may not all apply. You’re modeling how one would use these questions to understand more about a source]

    Now, you’ll note here how the scientist used evidence from the soil surrounding the grave (a bit morbid, right) to support his conclusions. This is an integral part of all scientific writing – an assertion that lacks evidence is better suited to youtube comments than scientific writing…
  • You should expect that your audience will be made up of attentive and careful readers. It may not be, but you should always work from this assumption. So, with that condition, you want to make sure that you provide evidence for your assertions, particularly when those assertions are important to the goals of your work. Even if you state an opinion, you want to present an informed opinion, and not just a statement like “my favorite dogs are poodles and chihuahuas.” Much of the support you’ll use for you assertions will come from the work of other scientists.
    Peer-reviewed scientific journals are often the most credible sources for scientific literature. “Peer review” means that the work submitted to the journal has undergone a rigorous analysis by other recognized (and usually credentialed) experts in the field – they decide whether the work lives up to the standards of evidence for the journal. In the process, they often reject work.
    Depending on the assignment, you may also use your textbook or lecture notes to support your statements.
    You may use data collected from other sources, or even your own data, as support.
    Census, USDA, CDC. Easy to find online, generally recognized as credible sources of support. Typically used in social sciences, but not always.
    Be wary of using sources from the internet. Remember how, earlier, I mentioned that peer-reviewed journals often reject submissions that don’t measure up to the standards of the journal? As an example, those rejected submissions can still end up online. (not a good example really). Wikipedia,, and so on.
  • Before something can become a scientific “fact,” it needs to have some sort of established consensus. If you’re asserting something that, from your perspective (or your professor’s), has not reached this consensus, then your writing should make it clear that you’re discussing a possibility. Now, some of your possibilities may have a very high probability, but that alone isn’t enough to establish them as facts. Depending on your field, scientific writers may be hesitant to use the word “fact” at all because it implies a single, true, unchanging assertion.
    Opinions are like … (no, don’t say this). It’s one thing to say “Bagels are delicious!” and quite another to say “According to our data, 1 out of every 3 Texas A&M undergraduates eats one or more bagels per week.”
    Suggest, seem, appear, show (?), exhibits (as in “characteristics of”), indicate, point to, express, assert – using verbs like this is particularly important when you making judgments from a set of data because it’s just one type of support for an assertion and rarely directly supports something. While the data may be accurate, you still have to interpret what the data means.
    When using your own data, you’ll want to be careful to indicate that it seems to suggest (something).
    You can still make assertions based on possibilities, but these assertions may often have the form of “If [x] is true, then [y].” You don’t have to say exactly this, but it’s useful to acknowledge from time to time in your writing that you’re working with possibilities instead of facts.
  • Judging simply from the way these three statements are phrased, is the writer indicating facts or possibilities?

    (the third one is a little murky because someone may assert that it’s an opinion, and this could introduce a bit of discussion. Take advantage of that to expand on the idea, if you can.)

  • Don’t imply important information, because readers may infer different things – and once they infer something other than what you implied, you’ve lost them.
    If you leave it to your readers to figure out how you’re moving from one point to the next, you’re asking too much of them.
    Clarity, and correctness, are important here – no matter how groundbreaking your results may be, if your paper is littered with grammar errors and indecipherable sentences, it won’t matter because no one will read it.
    Flowery, fluffy writing may help fill the bare minimum of pages for your assignment, but it’s much better suited for liberal arts papers (probably don’t want to say this either). Scientific writing needs to be efficient, direct, and precise. You may have to alter your writing habits considerably if you’re used to just filling up space until you reach page ten.

  • Scientific writing has a rather single-minded goal – to directly give the reader precise information.

    Anything that interferes with that goal is a hindrance.

    Let’s look at an example of this sort of hindrance…

  • So, what’s going on in this sentence?
  • No important information was lost, and the important information became much more clear and direct.

    Let’s have a look at another one…
  • Note that this refers to information that is illustrated in a figure in the text.
  • You can remove things like “it was found,” particularly when referring to a table, chart, or some data. If you’re talking about something, it’s rather obvious that it was found. The phrase “tend to be larger” can easily be replaced by “typically.”

    I’m sure you can tell how much more smoothly something like this reads – it contains the same information, but is much more concise.

    Now, this sentence is (in this format) just an isolated fact. You’ll want to avoid long blocks of isolated facts, so you’ll need transitions between them…
  • In the writing center, we see a lot of students concerned with the “flow” of their paper – their movement between one point and the next. “Flow” is important in most writing, but it’s particularly important in scientific writing because it shows the relationship between sentences, the progression of thought, and so on.

    The example above contains no transitions – the writer may have expected the audience to just know how the sentences are related, but it’s not automatically clear, and you don’t want to rely on implication … As this stands now, it’s just three disconnected facts about sea otters with no obvious relation between the three facts.

    Let’s see how transitions and additional words can make these three sentences “flow” …
  • Note how these bolded expressions connect the previous collection of sentences into a chain of thought – this is the “flow” that you hear people talking about.

  • [Your audience is often your peers. Write your paper to them. – (originally included as the first point, abandoned in favor of a more malleable statement.) You can write your paper to yourself as well. Write to explain things to yourself a few years ago – remember what you knew then, and explain the things that you’d need explained.)]

    Writing about science and scientific writing are not the same thing. There are many popular magazines and websites and books and tv shows that talk about science, but they do so with the attention of appealing to a popular audience. It’s pretty unlikely that your intended audience is a popular audience (though who knows!), so you’ll want to target your writing to a specific group of people and not all people.
    As you’ll do with all things science, if you don’t know your audience, ask! Your professor will often have a particular group of people in mind. Are you writing to your peers? To your professor? To an advisory board? (this may be obvious, but remember that some assignments require writing as if you’re communicating with a particular audience, but really the only person reading is your professor or TA).
    You can get into trouble by assuming that your readers know something– it’s difficult to follow, we miss the important points, and sometimes we just give up. Don’t do this to your readers!
    We’ve already discussed a bit about the tone and style you’ll use in scientific writing, so let’s discuss the format – the organization – that readers expect from scientific papers …
  • Remember how I said that scientific writing tends to be formulaic? One of the most important formulas for writing a scientific paper concerns organization.
    IMRaD is, more or less, the established pattern that readers will expect to find in a scientific paper. In addition to this overall formula, there is, to a greater or lesser extent, a recipe for each of these sections – they’re made up of certain ingredients.
  • [HIDDEN – if the requester does not want an extended look at the typical organization of a scientific paper, this slide will be hidden – this applies to the following slides as well. The class assignment may simply be writing an introduction, so a brief overview of the other slides would suffice in that case]
    Depending, as always, on the requirements for your assignment, introductions in scientific papers are usually brief, often just a couple of paragraphs. But, they impart very important information and will influence how, and sometimes even if, readers will read your paper.
    You’ll write in present tense because you’ll be referring to a topic, a problem, and a justification that currently exist.
    A “preview” for the upcoming paper – your introduction should foreshadow everything you will discuss in your paper.
    There are three main things you want to do in your introduction – to introduce your topic and address the problem your paper will deal with, offer a justification for the paper, and a few lines about your conclusions. The justification can be many things, but you’ll usually explain how your research on this problem will add to the sum total of scientific knowledge in a useful way. You’ll often (briefly) mention how your work relates to other work in the field.
    You must use a scraper, a shovel, a pick, a vacuum, and possibly a blowtorch, to remove every single bit of fluff from your introduction. Every single thing needs to be obviously and directly relevant to the topic of your paper.
    Many scientific writers will write their introductions last if they’re not entirely sure where the paper will take them, or if they want to wait until they’ve had time to fully examine their results. But, whatever order you write things in, remember that you can always alter your introduction to make it more precisely summarize your paper.
  • Writers often write this section first! This section is the recipe for how you obtained your results. If you kept lab notes, you may just paraphrase.
    Since you’re retracing the steps you took, you’ll write this section in past tense. “We correlated our results…” or “Measurements were taken…” and so on…
    This can be a bit tricky, but you need to find a balanced level of detail. Readers, if they choose to, should have enough information to replicate your results. But, there may be a certain amount of information that your audience already possesses, so you don’t want to add a bunch of material related to that common knowledge. Know your audience!
    Precision is important in scientific writing, and it’s particularly important in the methods section. You need to present enough information that readers can replicate your results, so write about your methods with that goal in mind. In addition, you may take steps that may not have been typical, or you may have encountered problems that required you to alter your methods – explain things like this! When you made a decision that may not have an obvious justification, you’ll need to explain your reasons.
    It’s important to consider everything that may have influenced your results, but you probably won’t need to write all of them. It’s unlikely that your mismatched socks had any significant influence on your results. Use your judgment here – remember that you need to include enough detail for readers to replicate your work, but not so much that they have to unearth the important information from a giant mound of text.

  • Many scientific writers consider this the most important part of their paper. Since you’ve already presented your methods, your results may have a bit of permanence to them – meaning, if a reader ten years from now uses the precise methods and materials that you did, they’ll still get the same results.
    -Since you have already obtained the results, this section is usually written in past tense. You also want to do this because you’re just discussing your results, and not some general observations about all things related to your research.
    So, this is the main question you’re answering here – you’ve informed your readers of your methods and your materials, so now you’ll let them know what you found out.
    In keeping with the usual conciseness of scientific writing, you only want to discuss your results in this section. This isn’t the place to discuss why you asked this question (that’s for the introduction), how you arrived at your results (that’s for the material and methods section), or how you’re interpreting your results (that’s for the upcoming discussion section). If you find it necessary to summarize some of your earlier points, focus on brevity.
    Remember that the overall point of your paper is to add to the sum total of scientific knowledge. Because of that maxim, you’ll want to include all of your results. Remember that all the information you collect, if you performed your methods correctly, is real and relevant, even though the interpretation of that information can change. If some result surprised you or didn’t match up with your expectations, you’ll mention that in the next section…
  • The discussion section is where you’ll interpret your data, evaluate how well (or even if) it answers your question, and connect it to earlier work by other researchers of your topic.
    Since you’re just presenting these ideas now, and suggesting how your results may play out, you’ll want to use present tense here.
    ..and, since this is the section in which you’ll interpret your data, your main goal here is explaining what the data means. Asking, and answering, the questions on this slide should help.
    If you had expectations, you’ll want to state precisely what they were.
    So, did your results match your expectations? Did you find anything surprising or unusual?
    Were your expectations based on the work of earlier researchers? Did they confirm any results that have already been established elsewhere? Did they contradict any of those results?
    Can you suggest any avenues for future research? Are there any implications from your results that may impact previously established knowledge?
    It’s particularly important in this section to avoid presenting possibilities as facts, so make sure you know what you’re talking about at every point.
  • To recap….(recap here! Include points you felt people could use a reminder for – you’ll probably be able to judge by class reaction. Otherwise, a brief run through of major considerations)

    Since scientific knowledge is built on the ideas that came before it, remember that it’s important to understand your sources. Ask questions!
    You need evidence for your assertions, and an idea must go through a long process before it can be accepted as a “fact.”
    Your audience will have expectations about style and format, from individual sentences to the overall organization of your paper.
    Write clearly and directly. Don’t make people guess your points, and be concise!

    [ask if anyone has any questions]

    If you have any more questions, remember that you can always stop by the University Writing Center.

    (probably going to remove the cockroach, regardless of how amusing I find it)
  • For more help with your, make an appointment or check out the resources on our website:
  • Scientific Writing

    1. 1. Scientific Writing Style & Structure
    2. 2. Scientific Writing “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton … sort of.
    3. 3. General Considerations for Scientific Writing • Thoroughly understand your sources. • Support everything with evidence, and distinguish fact from possibility. • Know your audience. • Never make your readers work harder than they have to.
    4. 4. Using Your Sources • Scientific writing rarely uses direct quotation. • Extensive paraphrasing often indicates a lack of understanding. • Information from other sources, if used, will usually be summarized. • Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
    5. 5. Questioning Your Sources • What specific questions were asked? • How was the study designed, and how did the design of the study address the question posed? • What are the specific results of the study? How convincing are they? • What assumptions were made? Did they seem reasonable? • What contribution does the study make toward answering the original question? • What aspects of the original question remain unanswered? -from A Short Guide to Writing about Biology by Jan A. Pechenik
    6. 6. In this paper, preliminary investigation was conducted to evaluate the potential ecological risk of heavy metals contamination in cemetery soils. Necrosol samples were collected from within and around the vicinity of the largest mass grave in Rwanda and analyzed for heavy metal concentrations using total digestion- inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry and instrumental neutron activation analysis. The preliminary results revealed that the associated cemetery soils are only contaminated to a low degree. On the other hand, assessment of the potential ecological risk index (RI) revealed that cumulative heavy metal content of the soil does not pose any significant ecological risks. These findings, therefore, suggest that, while cemetery soils may be toxic due to the accumulation of certain heavy metals, their overall ecological risks may be minimal and insignificant. -from “Potential Ecological Risk of Heavy Metal Distribution in Cemetery Soils” Amuno, SA. Water, Air, & Soil Pollution 224. 2 (Feb 2013): 1-12.
    7. 7. Support Everything with Evidence… • All statements, whether fact or opinion, require support. You may, for example, use…  Peer-reviewed Journals  Quantitative Results (including your own data!)  Government/Academic Reports • Be critical of the sources you use to support your assertions.
    8. 8. … and Distinguish Fact from Possibility. • Statements in a scientific paper need a significant consensus to meet the requirements of a “fact.” • You may form an opinion, but can you support it to scientific standards? • Use verbs like suggest, seem, appear, exhibit, indicate, point to, express, and assert. • “If [x] is true, then [y].”
    9. 9. Fact or possibility? 1. Anecdotal evidence suggests that cockroaches respond to electrical appliances or outlets. 2. Cockroach infestation was found in 45 (65.2%) institutions and 558 cockroaches were collected. 3. Disgust and fear are basic emotions that protect humans against pathogens and/or predators.
    10. 10. Never make your readers work harder than they have to. • Don’t make your readers guess the significance of your assertions. Tell them! • Move logically from one point to the next, and make sure your writing shows the progression of your ideas. • Be clear, be correct, and be concise! • Seriously. Be concise.
    11. 11. “Write to illuminate, not to impress. Use the simplest words and the simplest phrasing consistent with that goal.” – Jan A. Pechenik
    12. 12. Concise Writing In order to be able to examine and analyze our data, we utilized a number of computer software packages dedicated to conducting statistical evaluations. - sentence from a graduate science paper
    13. 13. We used statistical software to analyze our data. - suggested revision
    14. 14. Concise Writing It was found that the shell lengths of live snails tended to be larger for individuals collected closer to the low tide mark (Fig. 1).
    15. 15. Snails found closer to the low tide mark typically had larger shells (Fig. 1).
    16. 16. Transitions The energy needs of a resting otter are 3 times those of terrestrial animals of comparable size. The sea otter eats about 25% of its body weight daily. Sea otters feed at night as well as during the day.
    17. 17. The energy needs of a resting otter are 3 times those of terrestrial animals of comparable size. To support such a high metabolic rate, the sea otter must eat about 25% of its body weight daily. Moreover, sea otters feed continually, at night as well as during the day.
    18. 18. Know Your Audience • Who are you writing to? The answer to this question should help determine the choices you make while writing. • Make your paper self-sufficient: define terms, explain abbreviations, clarify details. Don’t assume pre-existing knowledge that your readers might not have. • Your audience for a scientific paper will have certain expectations for format, tone, and style.
    19. 19. Audience Expectations • Your audience will usually expect a specific organization for your paper: IMRaD Introduction, Methods/Materials, Results and Discussion • “The text of an article … will usually be some variation of the IMRaD form.” -from Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers by The Council of Science Editors
    20. 20. Introduction • Generally written in present tense • Establishes the framework for the entire paper.  Background information that leads to a clear statement of the specific issue(s) your paper will address (the topic)  An argument that justifies the study – why did you write this paper/conduct this research? How does it relate to other research?(the justification)  A (brief) explanation of your results and conclusions. • Stick to the point! Only include information that is directly relevant to the paper.
    21. 21. Methods/Materials • Generally written in past tense • A balanced level of detail–enough to replicate your results without overwhelming your reader • Remember–be precise! • How did you collect your information, and what did you do with it?  Include formulas, measurements, software, locations, test subjects, alien invasions … everything!  Consider any factor that may have influenced your results.
    22. 22. Results • Usually written in past tense • What did you find out? • Present your results without interpretation. • Don’t exclude information, even if it conflicts with your expectations or with your hypothesis.
    23. 23. Discussion • Typically written in present tense • What do the results mean?  What did you expect, and why?  Did the results match your expectations?  How do your results compare to the work of earlier researchers?  Based on your results, what questions would you ask next? • Remember to clearly distinguish facts from possibilities.
    24. 24. • Thoroughly understand your sources. • Support everything with evidence, and distinguish fact from possibility. • Know your audience. • Never make your readers work harder than they have to. Review
    25. 25. For More Help… Visit our website or call us to schedule an appointment. We can help you find answers to any of your scientific writing questions!