Skip to Content
Skip to Case Study Report Navigation
Skip to Lab Report Navigation
Skip to Reflective Writing Navigaiton
Skip to Literature Review Navigaiton
Skip to Help Navigation

Lab Report Icon Lab Report
Prepared by University of Waterloo

Section C: Critical Features

In this section you should learn how to respond to crucial issues of writing, and how to make your lab report stand out.

What will I learn?

By the end of this section, you should be able to

  • incorporate data effectively,
  • integrate research through summary and paraphrase, and
  • apply key style issues as you write and format your report.

Overview

Once you’ve finished all the experiments in your lab, you’ll be asked to analyze and interpret the data you observed and to include your analysis in a lab report. Making sense of your data is the hardest part of a lab. Below, we suggest strategies for building effective visuals for your data and thinking critically about your results. These strategies should complement the tips we provide in this guide.

As you begin to organize and think about the data you collected, consider the following guidelines:

Pay attention to your reader

What do your readers expect to find in a visual about your data? What do they expect in descriptions of data? Where do they expect to find information? Readers grasp concepts better when the data is placed where they anticipate finding it. For example, a reader would be confused if they read about your results in the methods section of your lab report. In the same way, readers have certain expectations about how graphs should look and even how paragraphs and sentences are structured. If you can think about how you best understand information, then you’re on your way to thinking like a reader.

When to use visuals in your report

In your lab report, you will include visuals in the results section of your paper; however, writers may include visuals in their introduction, methods, and discussion sections as well. A visual can be a picture of a piece of equipment, an image of a flow chart, a graph, or other items.

The biggest challenge writers have is knowing when a visual is needed. In general, it is useful to remember that readers understand information better by looking at an image than by looking at numerical data and sentences alone.

Whether to use a table or a figure

Choose the visual form that best represents your material. For certain information, like describing an instrument, an image will be the clear choice.

Most writers have trouble deciding what to use when presenting their data: a table or a graph (pie chart, bar graphs, scatter plot, etc.). However, you may not have enough experience to know what to choose. Always ask questions and seek help if you need it. After all, lab work is a learning experience. To help you decide, a few key qualities of both graphs and tables appear below.

Tables

Tables are designed to be read and analyzed. Most readers scan across rows and down columns to process the information on their own. They are difficult because they are more demanding of the reader. Readers need more time to process the relationship between all the values listed in a table. Relationships are not quickly comprehended.

Help the reader to

  • compare individual values.
  • see nuances in the data.
  • search independently for patterns in the data.

Help the writer to

  • present the raw data.
  • provide the details of the data.

Graphs

Graphs are designed to show patterns and trends. Through graphs, readers “see” relationships among the data. They are difficult because they are more demanding of the writer. Graphs must correlate with a particular question being asked. A writer needs to think carefully about what type of graph (histogram, line graph, pie chart, etc.) she will use.They can also be misleading. Improper scaling, truncated axes, and visual distortions can suggest relationships that are not accurate.

Help the reader to

  • comprehend information quickly. Because the numerical data is compressed into an image, graphs are great for non-technical readers.
  • understand trends.

Help the writer to

  • summarize data inside the report.
  • tell a story.
  • give the big picture.

There are three methods for integrating information from research sources into your own writing:

  • Quotation (not acceptable in lab report writing)
  • Summary
  • Paraphrase

Summary and Paraphrase: A Comparison

When you summarize information, you put the ideas in your own words but include only the main points you need to convey. As a result, your summary is significantly condensed compared to the original source. Paraphrasing is similar to summarizing in that you put information in your own words. The main difference between a paraphrase and a summary is the degree to which you are condensing information. In a paraphrase, you take a smaller passage, a couple of paragraphs or less, and condense it to a lesser degree. Your paraphrase should be about the same length and have the same amount of detail as the original passage.

Writers often blend summary and paraphrase in their writing, but each can be used independently as well.

Now, let’s take a closer look at these two strategies.

Summary

When you summarize information, you include only the main points you need to convey.

When should I do it?

As a general rule, you should summarize information longer than a paragraph or two. In your lab report, you will likely use summary more than paraphrase.

How do I do it?

Use the following steps to help you summarize additional information from an article.

Decide what information is important to place in your report. Unless your assignment is a single summary of an article, the information you need to summarize is usually very specific – a particular method or the reasoning behind a hypothesis, for instance.

Decide how much space to give to the summary. When you write, you should have a sense of how long a section will be. Ask yourself how much of that section should be devoted to the summary.

Use one of the following strategies to summarize:

Write-and-Condense strategy
  1. Rather than writing a summary in one move, try first writing one to three paragraphs that summarize the information you want to use.
  2. Revise those paragraphs, condensing them into fewer paragraphs or sentences.
  3. Continue revising until you have the number of sentences you want for your summary.
Piece-by-Piece strategy
  1. Summarize each paragraph in a single sentence.
  2. Bring your sentences together to form a single paragraph. Use transition words and phrases to guide the reader from one point to the next.
  3. Revise and condense the paragraph, as needed, until you have the number of sentences you want for your summary.

All information, whether quoted, summarized, or paraphrased and no matter the origin (this includes your lab manual!) needs to be cited. We cover more information about the rules of citation later in this guide.

Read through the following passage from the discussion section of an article investigating factors that affect the rate of hydrolysis in starch. Here, the writers note the limitations of their investigation.

Using a simple in vitro method we have studied a number of factors that influence the rate of hydrolysis of starch in cereal foods. This system does not closely resemble the intestinal environment during digestion except for the presence of the enzymes responsible for starch hydrolysis. It is a model for examining characteristics of the foods that could affect the rate of digestion of carbohydrate in those foods, but not one in which it is possible to study factors that directly affect the rate. Jenkins et al. (4) have recently described an in vitro system in which they incubated food and digestive enzymes in dialysis tubing and monitored the appearance of products of carbohydrate digestion into the medium outside the dialysis sack. Although this latter method is well suited to studying factors affecting rate of absorption, it may not be able to distinguish between a reduced rate of absorption due to decreased rate of intestinal hydrolysis of starch and one due simply to increased viscosity of intestinal contents (Snow & O’Dea, 1981).

Passage taken from Snow, P. & O’Dea, K. (1981, December). Factors affecting the rate of hydrolysis of starch in food. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 34, 2721-2727.

Example

Now, take a look at a summary of the above text. Try to note the changes that you see. Then, see our comments about this summary by clicking on the numbered items and reading our full discussion below.

Earlier research (Jenkins et al, 1980) tried to improve the resemblance of an in vitro environment to a digestive one. However, those attempts still fall short of mimicking the complex web of factors surrounding hydrolysis and digestion. Similarly, this study’s in vitro method for hydrolysis analysis is also not a close copy of the digestive system, and thus cannot be used to determine factors that directly affect carbohydrate digestion. However, the method serves as a first step for targeting certain food traits for further analysis in more realistic environments (Snow & O’Dea, 1981).


A paraphrase should be about the same length and have the same amount of detail as the original passage.

When should I do it?

Paraphrasing is most useful when you want to highlight key details in a longer document. In a lab report, for instance, you might paraphrase a researcher’s discussion of a key limitation related to your experiment. Or, you might need to paraphrase a complex procedure noted in your lab manual. To determine whether a paraphrase is needed, ask this question: how much detail do I need to convey the idea?

How do I do it?

In an effective paraphrase you change not only the words of the passage, but also the structure of the sentences themselves. However, simply trying to change and re-arrange sentences usually results in failure. The best way to think about a good paraphrase is to imagine how the information would be stated if you had said it yourself, in your own voice. Try the following strategy for paraphrasing information.

Paraphrasing strategy
  1. Read the passage and summarize the main idea in a sentence.
  2. Write down key words/details from the passage.
  3. Turn away from the passage.
  4. Think out loud or imagine that you are explaining the information to a classmate. As you do, re-state the passage — out loud — in your own words.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 until you can explain the passage easily. Then, write down your paraphrase.
  6. Double check to make sure your new passage is significantly different from the original.
  7. Remember to cite the source.

Read through the same original passage that we showed you above in our section on summary. The passage, remember, is from the discussion section of an article investigating factors that affect the rate of hydrolysis in starch. Here, the writers note the limitations of their investigation.

“Using a simple in vitro method we have studied a number of factors that influence the rate of hydrolysis of starch in cereal foods. This system does not closely resemble the intestinal environment during digestion except for the presence of the enzymes responsible for starch hydrolysis. It is a model for examining characteristics of the foods that could affect the rate of digestion of carbohydrate in those foods, but not one in which it is possible to study factors that directly affect the rate. Jenkins et al. (4) have recently described an in vitro system in which they incubated food and digestive enzymes in dialysis tubing and monitored the appearance of products of carbohydrate digestion into the medium outside the dialysis sack. Although this latter method is well suited to studying factors affecting rate of absorption, it may not be able to distinguish between a reduced rate of absorption due to decreased rate of intestinal hydrolysis of starch and one due simply to increased viscosity of intestinal contents” (Snow & O’Dea, 1981).

Passage taken from Snow, P. & O’Dea, K. (1981, December). Factors affecting the rate of hydrolysis of starch in food. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 34, 2721-2727.

Example

Now, take a look at a paraphrase of the above text. You can compare this paraphrase with the summary of the same passage. By clicking on the item numbers and reading our summary, you can read our discussion about the changes the writer makes.

In earlier work, Jenkins et al (1980) tried to improve the resemblance of an in vitro environment to a digestive one by introducing incubated food and enzymes into dialysis tubing. They then observed results of the carbohydrate digestion, noting, in particular, the appearance of those products. Their method accurately targeted factors affecting the rate of absorption, but not those factors that affect the rate of hydrolysis. More specifically, their method cannot determine when a lower absorption rate is caused by a reduced hydrolysis rate and when it is caused by a higher viscosity of those products entering the digestive system. The authors note that, other than the enzymes used, their vitro method for starch hydrolysis analysis is also not a replica of the intestinal system during the digestive process. Thus, it cannot be used to determine factors in these foods that directly affect carbohydrate digestion rate. However, by observing the rate of hydrolysis in this simulated environment, their method serves as a first step for targeting certain food traits that, in the actual environment, might affect the rate of digestion (Snow & O’Dea, 1981).


All writing follows some rules or guidelines. In scientific writing, these conventions help you prepare a report that other scientists (including your instructor) can trust. Scientific conventions lend credibility to your writing. Below, you’ll find a brief discussion about the six major characteristics of scientific writing.

Logically Structured

Academic writing in the sciences follows an orderly, logical structure. Information is organized into distinct categories with clear headings and subheadings. These headings help readers more easily locate and read complex information.

When writing paragraphs, you should follow standard academic conventions.

Objective

Scientists maintain a neutral tone when they write to convey the sense that their conclusions are based on evidence rather than assumptions and bias. You can use a variety of strategies to create this objective tone.

  1. Avoid any adjectives and intensifiers that suggest a biased point of view.
    • Biased: Evidence clearly shows that people are much more apt to cheat when they are in a darkened room.
    • Objective: Evidence shows that people are more apt to cheat when they are in a darkened room.
  2. Don’t make sweeping statements that are not supported by your evidence.
    • Sweeping: Maggot therapy prevents hospital admission and surgery, shortens hospital stays, and reduces the need for antibiotics.
    • Objective: Maggot therapy contributes to a reduction in hospital admissions and surgeries, hospital stays, and the need for antibiotics.
  3. Use cautious language when writing about uncertainties.
    • Example: These results suggest that our method may be applied across multiple elements.
  4. Back up your arguments with evidence referenced in peer-reviewed sources

Analytical

Scientific writers adopt a questioning attitude towards information they encounter, constantly asking why and how. Throughout an experiment and as you write, you will analyze your subject in a variety of ways:

  • questioning currently accepted ideas
  • anticipating consequences of an action
  • explaining why a particular event occurred
  • considering alternative reasons for an outcome
  • discussing possible flaws in an experiment’s design, methodology, and results
  • drawing conclusions
  • making recommendations
  • suggesting possible applications of the findings and areas for future research

Accurate

Two hallmarks of scientific writing are accuracy and precision.

  • Accuracy means the ability to measure an item to reflect its true size.
  • Precision refers to the ability to perform an action multiple times and get the same result.

Accuracy and precision, then, play a role in how confident other researchers are with your results. And, of course, you communicate your levels of accuracy and precision through the language you use. You can do this through a number of strategies:

  1. Choose exact language. Quantify instead of employing vague language.
    • Vague: “Participant group A completed the task faster than group B.”
    • Accurate: “Participant group A completed the task 10% faster (9 minutes) than group B (10 minutes).”
  2. Look for the right word to describe actions.
    • Vague: “Next, we put the supernatant into a 300 mL BOD bottle.”
    • Accurate: “Next, we siphoned the supernatant into a 300 mL BOD bottle.”
  3. Avoid overgeneralizing.
    • Vague: It is universally understood that...”
    • Accurate: It is widely known that...”

Formal

To present a professional piece of writing, scientists use formal writing conventions. You should avoid the following:

  1. Slang
    • Slang: “all in all”
    • Better: “in conclusion”
  2. Contractions
    • Contraction: “shouldn’t”
    • Better: “should not”
  3. Rhetorical questions
    • Rhetorical: “And what is the significance of this result?”
    • Better: “These findings suggest...”
  4. Anthropomorphism
    • Anthropomorphism: “Bacteria invaded the cell”
    • Better: “Bacteria entered the cell”

Clear

By requiring clarity, scientific documents follow a typical goal of most writing. So, many of the following strategies that help create clarity in writing might be familiar to you:

  1. Avoiding overly long sentences (10-25 words per sentence is a useful average range)
  2. Keeping paragraphs to half a page at most
  3. Defining important terms for readers
  4. Placing the subject and the verb of a sentence as close together as possible
    • Less clear: “Three groups of animals under each condition were tested.”
    • Better: “Three groups of animals were tested under each condition”
  5. Eliminating phrases that contribute no information
    • Less clear: “It is interesting to note that sample A showed a higher value.”
    • Better: “Sample A showed a higher value.”

Keep in mind that clarity comes not only from the choices you make in your sentences, but also in the degree of attention you give to your readers. Asking yourself the same questions that a reader might ask can help you to include information necessary for clarity:

  • What does the writer mean by this statement?
  • How do these two ideas relate?
  • Why did the writer come to this conclusion?
  • Where is the evidence for this statement?

If you want more help improving the clarity of your writing, check out our revision section.

In addition to considering these six characteristics, you also achieve a scientific writing style by paying attention to sentence-level detail, like the language and the sentence structure. These are discussed in our PDF resource below titled Sentence Style in Scientific Writing.

Worksheet: Sentence Style in Scientific Writing

Use this helpful worksheet for your Lab Report.

Download PDF

Preview: PDF Worksheet
Previous Next

Applying Scientific Writing Conventions

Effective Paragraph

This paragraph shows an effective use of scientific writing conventions. Click on item numbers in the paragraph to see where this paragraph succeeds.

The sources of error in this experiment resulted from the precision of the distance measurement with the odometer. Measurement with the odometer gave a distance within 100m with the uncertainty estimated to be distance = plus/minus 0.1 km. An attempt was made to take the measurement reading at timed intervals. However, the precision of time was affected by reading error because the reaction time required to start and stop the stopwatch varied. Connecting a computer to an odometer to automatically record the distance and time at preselected intervals would increase accuracy and precision.


Ineffective Paragraph

This paragraph shows an ineffective use of scientific writing conventions. Click on item numbers in the paragraph to see where this paragraph could be improved.

Errors happened in this experiment because the odometer did not work accurately enough. The odometer gave a distance of 100m with the uncertainty estimated to be distance = plus/minus 0.1 km. An attempt was made to take the measurement reading at time intervals. The time was affected because we were not able to start and stop the stopwatch consistently. If a computer were linked to the odometer, and then automatically recorded the distance and time in intervals that we selected and input into the computer beforehand, then the measurement would be more accurate.

Formatting your report — whether you’re providing consistent labels, font styles and page numbers — is one of the last steps in writing. Because formatting gives a uniform, consistent look to your paper, it allows readers to easily find and read the different parts of your report.

What do I need to include?

A fully formatted lab report covers every section of your report. In particular, formatting rules govern the following:

  • The title or cover page
  • Abstract
  • Page numbers
  • Page margins
  • Headings and subheadings in the text
  • Typeface and font style and size
  • Figures and tables
  • Appendices
  • In-text citations
  • References

What formatting do I choose?

All reports follow a specific style guideline for formatting, usually related to your course’s discipline. These style guides have names such as APA, Chicago, or ACS.

Always check with your instructor about what style guide is preferred. Check out the website for your school library, which often offers links to style guide information. Or, talk to a librarian or writing centre specialist about resource guides for your formatting and citation style.

List of commonly used style guides in the sciences

American Anthropological Association (AAA)

American Sociological Association (ASA)

American Chemical Society (ACS)

Chicago

American Psychological Association (APA)

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)

American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)

Turabian

Vancouver

Council of Science Editors (CSE)

Key Takeaways

  • Choose visuals carefully.
  • Write about research in your own words.
  • Remember to include reference citations.
  • Pay attention to scientific writing styles.

References

Books

Northey, M. & Jewinski, J. (2012). Making sense: Engineering and the technical sciences. (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Northey, M. & Timney, B. (2002). Making sense: Psychology and the life sciences. (3rd ed.). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Rubens, P. (Ed.). (2001). Science and technical writing: A manual of style. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Online resources

Harvard College Writing Program, Harvard University. (2015). Harvard guide to using sources. Retrieved May 25, 2015 from http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k70847&pageid=icb.page350378

iParadigms, LLC. (n.d.). Plagiarism prevention: Guidelines for students. Retrieved June 12, 2015 from http://www.plagiarism.org/resources/student-materials

Plotnick, J. (n.d.). Paraphrase and summary. Retrieved June 3, 2015 from http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/using-sources/paraphrase

Tufts University. (n.d.). Avoid plagiarism: Take good notes. Retrieved June 12, 2015 from http://www.library.tufts.edu/researchpaper/takeGoodNotes.htm

University of California, Davis. (2006). Collaboration: When you can and when you can’t work with others. Retrieved June 15, 2015 from http://www.academicintegrity.org/icai/assets/unauthorizedcollaboration.pdf

Next Section Overview

When you're ready, move on to Section D: Parts of a Lab Report.

Images © Thinkstock