How To Write A Laboratory Report

How To Write A Laboratory Report


















































Adapted by D. Mowshowitz from an article in Biochemical Ed. by D. Blackman, 7. 82 (1979).

It is extremely important that you understand the need for, and format of, a good report. Scientific work of any sort is useless unless its results can be communicated to others. Over the years a particular format, or general outline, has evolved for the preparation of scientific reports. It is this format which you should get accustomed to using. First of all, a report should have a title. If it is in the style of a scientific article, it should have an abstract. In addition, a scientific paper generally has five sections:

1) Introduction. Include a statement of the problem to be investigated, why the work was carried out, history and theoretical background of the problem, a brief statement of the general method of approach to the problem, and expected results.

2) Methods and materials. This section tells the reader how and with what the work was done. The methods and materials section of a research paper is often glossed over by many readers, but, in terms of the report as a historical document, this section is crucial. You should try to strike a balance between an over-detailed description of even the most trivial items and a very sketchy statement that provides insufficient information. The important guideline is that another worker of similar training and ability, following your description, should get the same results. Note that this section should be written as a description of what you did, not as a set of instructions.

3) Results. Here is the real meat of a report. In this section you should describe the important qualitative and quantitative observations is your work. Data should be tabulated and/or graphed and described. One of the common errors in report-writing is to say, "The data are plotted in Fig. 1" without saying something like, "As can be seen from the graph, absorbance at 260nm is relatively constant up to about 80 � C, after which a sharp rise is noted." Be aware that tables and graphs are not self-explanatory, and must be summarized for the reader.
All graphs and tables should be numbered and provided with a title. Additional information which makes the data more comprehensible should be provided as needed. It is a good idea to narrate the results, that is, to put each experiment in context (why? what’s the point?) as you go along, so the reader can follow your logic.

4) Discussion and conclusions. This section serves two functions. First, it provides a place where the data may be fully discussed and interpreted, and second, it allows the author to delve into the realms of speculation. Here one may address questions like "why did something unexpected happen?" ; "what would happen if the reaction were carried out at higher pH?"; "why did the expected results not materialize?" In this section the author may (discretely) pat him- or her-self on the back, criticize other workers results, suggest improvements in methodology, etc.

5) References. Some papers have no references, others have 200 or more. There is no correct number of references, but there is a correct philosophy and format: any time you refer to a previously reported idea, result, method, etc. you must insert a citation. Every quotation must be referenced. Not to do so is, at best, a violation of scientific and literary ethics and, at worst, plagiarism.
A. Where do the references go? References may appear at the bottom of the page on which they are first cited, or listed at the end of the paper. The latter seems to be more convenient; the bottoms of pages in the report may thus be reserved for other footnotes.
B. How do you designate & list references? In the body of a report, a reference may be designated in one of two ways — by name of author or by number. If you list the references at the end of the paper, the order depends on which method you use, as follows:

1. By Author & date: One method is to place the last name(s) of the author(s) and the year of publication in parentheses, immediately following the referenced thought. As an example, one might write,

"A phosphorylated histidine residue has been proposed as an important component in the mechanism of action of succinylcoenzyme A synthetase (Bridger, Millen and Boyer, 1968)."

If this method is used, the list of references at the end of the paper must be in alphabetical order, according to the last name of the first author.

2. By Number: In the second method a citation may be designated by a number in parentheses (not a superscript; superscripts are reserved for footnotes). In this case, one would write:

"A phosphorylated histidine residue has been proposed as an important component in the mechanism of action of succinylcoenzyme A synthetase (6)."

If this method is used, references are listed at the end of the report in the order in which they appear in the text, rather than alphabetically.

C. What is the format of a reference? With either method of citation the format of the reference list should be as follows:

1. For a periodical: A reference to a periodical should include, in the order given:

1. – Name(s) of author(s), (last name, first initial).

2. – Name of periodical (use standard abbreviations).

3. – Volume number, underlined.

4. – Page on which article begins (or where it begins and ends)

5. – Year of publication, in parentheses.

For example: Bridger, W.A. Millen, W.A. and Boyer, P.D. Biochemistry, 1: 3608 (1968).

2. For a book: A reference to a book should include, in the order given:

1. – Name(s) of author(s), as above.

2. – Title of book, in quotation marks.

3. – Edition, if more than one have been published.

4. – Name of publisher

5. – City of publication

6. – Year of publication

7. – Volume number (if necessary)

8. – Page(s) on which the point cited is found.

For example: Lehninger, A.L. "Biochemistry", 2nd ed. Worth Publishers, Inc. N.Y. 1975, p.224.

Finally, there is a note about form and style. Philosophically, science should be independent of scientists, their times, and places of work. That is the actual discoverer of a principle is less important than the principle itself. If, for example, Watson and Crick had not developed the structural model of DNA, then surely someone else would have done so. In conformance with this philosophy scientific writing should be impersonal. Thus, reports should be written in the third person, rather than the first. It is also traditional to write scientific papers in the passive, rather that the active, voice. For example, it is customary to avoid statements like, "I heated the protein solution to 100 � C and formation of a precipitate was noted." However, it is important to state that some current scientists prefer reports that are written in the first person, in the active voice. When writing a report, you should determine what the instructor or editor prefers.

Reports should be written with care, typed (& spell checked) if possible, but in any event, completely legible, as soon as possible after completion of the experiments described. The actual recording of data in the laboratory should be done in a notebook. Loose leafs are often the most convenient, but never write your data on loose scraps of paper or paper towels and always put your data sheets into your notebook immediately.

More information that is specifically designed for undergraduate researchers is linked to the SURF website,


This is a general guide for writing most basic biology laboratory reports. The format may vary depending on the class and the teacher so it is important to check with the professor when there are any questions. A very good reference is the book Writing in Biology by Jan A. Pechenik, and page numbers referring to each of the five sections of a laboratory report are given. For details on writing a particular section, click on the appropriate link.

All citations from Pechenik, Jan A. A short guide to writing about Biology. pp. 54-102, Tufts University: Harper CollinsCollegePublishers. 1993.

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How to Write a Science Lab Report

Get a head start on your lab report as soon as possible. You may have difficulty fighting the urge to procrastinate, but keep in mind that feedback and revisions can sometimes take up to a week. Having a rough version of your report at the ready a month in advance can save you from unnecessary stress and from having to turn in unpolished work.

  • You may have perform supplemental experiments/simulations, or repeat your initial experience after receiving your first round of feedback.
  • Feedback should go through the following stages ideally:
    • (a) Self-review and revision
    • (b) Peer review and constructive feedback
    • (c) Advisor/instructor review and feedback

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Write your report with the primary goal of readability. The goal of your experiment or the goal of proving or disproving certain hypotheses are essentially unimportant when you are writing a lab report. The data contained in it could be anything, and you may very well have to write lab reports in the future that seem silly or unnecessary. The goal of your lab report is to be read and evaluated by another person, like your instructor. [5]

  • It can help to remind yourself of this goal at the beginning of every section before you start writing.
  • When you finish a section of your report, read it through carefully and at the end of it, ask yourself: was that easy to read and understand? Did I succeed in my goal?

Determine your present audience, and potential future ones. The narrowest purpose of your lab report is to enable your seniors, advisors, and/or an evaluation committee to confirm your ability to consistently and clearly produce a report. [6] But once you start devising and performing labs of your own, its quite possible that your peers or juniors will utilize it as a resource.

  • If you believe your paper might be of use to researchers in another discipline, like a social science, you may want to include definitions or explanations for the more technical jargon used in your paper.

Outline the general structure of your lab report. Take a piece of scrap paper and pencil and list the necessary sections of your lab report in order. Under each section, jot a few sentences that summarize what must be covered in that section.

  • Due to the fact that different instructors have different preferences, you should check your lab report handout or course syllabus to verify expectations for the order and content of your report. [7]
  • Most lab reports are organized, first to last: problem, hypothesis, materials, procedure, data, and conclusion.

Break sections of your report into subsections, if necessary. Technical aspects of your paper might require significant explanation. This may necessitate the use of subsections so that you can appropriately delve into and explain those nuanced aspects of your lab problem.

  • The organization of the body of your lab report will be specific to your problem/experiment.
  • You may also have a separate section for the statement of your design methodology, experimental methodology, or proving subsidiary/intermediary theorems in your report.

Familiarize yourself with the top-down approach. The idea behind this style is that you should begin with the most important elements (the “head” points) and refine each of those all the way to the basic level. [8] This can be divided into roughly three stages:

  • The section-level outline
  • The subsection-level outline
  • The paragraph-level outline

Write your initial outline in top-down style. This will give you a better idea of how to get from a blank page to a finished report. [9] Begin with each of your section headings, leaving plenty of space between headings for subsection and paragraph-level information. Avoid being too wordy at this stage, the goal of your outline is to capture the flow and form of your report.

  • Bullet points are invaluable when you reach the paragraph level of your report. These will allow you to note important terms, phrases, and data that will need to be integrated with the text of your report.
  • Take special note, at the paragraph level, of important symbols, protocols, algorithms, and jargon.

Remember figures, tables, and graphs at the paragraph-level. [10] [11] You will need to weave these into the text of your report in a way that is logical and intuitive. Use a unique bullet to indicate where an image must be integrated into your report.

  • You might also consider using using simple figures as a way of cutting down unnecessary wordiness.

Use organizational tools, like highlighters and sticky notes. Highlighters can help you color code and coordinate sections of your outline with supplemental papers, like research, print-outs, and hand-outs. A colorful sticky note, on the other hand, can alert you to something you’ve forgotten or have yet to do, like making a graph from your data.

Craft your title and abstract carefully. These two items are the most visible parts of your lab report, and will therefore receive the most attention. [12] A bland title or incomprehensible abstract can limit the impact your report has with your peers.

  • The title of your report should reflect what you have done and bring out any eye-catching factor of your work.
  • The abstract should be concise, generally about 2 paragraphs or about 200 words in length. [13]

Refine your abstract down to crucial information. Your abstract should contain the essence of your report. This can generally be conveyed by the following points, in varying amounts of detail, as is appropriate for your case:

  • (a) Main motivation
  • (b) Main design point
  • (c) Essential differences from previous work
  • (d) Methodology
  • (e) Noteworthy results, if any

Devise your introduction. Nearly all reports should start with an introduction section. After the title and abstract, it is generally accepted that the introduction and conclusion are the second most widely read part of any given report. This section should answer the following questions:

  • What is the setting of the problem? This is, in other words, the background. In some cases, this may be implicit, and in some cases, this question may be merged with the motivation of your paper.
  • What is the problem you are trying to solve? This is also known as the problem statement of your report.
  • Why is your problem important? This is the motivation behind your report. In some cases, it may be implicit in the background, or even the problem statement.
  • Is the problem still unsolved? The constitutes the statement of past/related work, and should be conveyed succinctly. [14] [15] [16]

Model your intro off your top-down outline. Since the introduction of your report is little more than a short summary of your lab in words, your outline can be an excellent guide your writing here. In many cases, the rest of your report will have the same, or a similar, flow. [17]

  • Each section of the body of your report can be thought of as an in-depth look at the points mentioned in the introduction.

Include substantiation and critical details in your intro. [18] The intricacies of the lab experiment you are writing about in your report may not be clear to every reader. To prevent confusion and create a strong logical chain throughout your report, you should, if applicable to your situation, also consider answering the questions:

  • Why is your problem difficult to solve?
  • How have you solved the problem?
  • What are the conditions under which your solution is applicable?
  • What are the main results?
  • What is the summary of your contributions? This, in some cases, may be implicit in the body of your introduction. Sometimes it helps to state contributions explicitly.
  • How is the rest of your report organized?

Provide a background section, if necessary. [19] In the event that vital background information needs to be expressed to your readers early in the paper, this information can be expanded into its own sub-section. It is common to state that “the reader who knows this background can skip this section ” at the beginning of this section.

Write your section on materials and methods. The key to writing this section is not overwhelming your readers with too much information. [20] If you need to describe or explain specialty equipment or theory that is used, you should:

  • Describe the equipment or theory in a short paragraph.
  • Consider including a diagram of the apparatus for equipment.
  • Theoretical elements should be included in both natural and derived forms. [21] [22]

Consider a section interpreting related work. If there have been similar experiments performed, or if you are expanding upon or applying a new approach to past research, interpreting how that research informed and directed your own will naturally highlight differences between your experiment and others. One possible placement is toward the beginning of the report, after your intro and background sections. Another idea is to place it in the end of the report, just before your conclusion. This is a matter of preference, and depends on the preferences of your instructor or, potentially, the following aspects:

  • A large quantity of work closely related to your work would likely be best closer to the beginning of your report. This will allow you to point out differences best.
  • Relevant work that is substantially different from your own is probably best toward the end of your report. However, this placement risks leaving your readers wondering about differences until the end of your report.

Differentiate your report from past and/or related work, if necessary. It is common to have this as a separate section where you explain what makes your experiment novel. Here, you must try to think of dimensions of comparison with regard to other work. For instance, you may compare your lab in terms of:

  • Functionality
  • Performance
  • Approach
  • Note: each of these comparisons can be further distinguished by:
    • 1. Functionality
    • 2. Metric
    • 3. Implementation
    • 4. Etc.

Use a table or graph to clearly indicate differences. Although this may not be necessary in your particular case, many lab reports use graphics to juxtapose differences between your work and that of others. This helps to illustrate the differences between the two at a glance for your readers.

  • If you decide to use a chart, it is general convention that you include your own work in either the first or last column.

State your results in your data section.. The results section of your report will change according to the kind of lab you have performed, its goals, implementation, and so on. In this section, you will need to lay out all data from your experiment without making subjective comments or discussing opinions. Figures and tables should be used to organize your data as clearly and succinctly as possible. [23]

  • All figures and tables should be titled descriptively, numbered sequentially, and include a descriptive legend for symbols, abbreviations, etc.
  • The columns and rows of all tables and the axes of graphs should be labeled. [24]

Summarize your main points for data heavy results sections. If your lab has yielded abundant results, the important points in that data can be missed. Your readers will stand a better chance of remembering these if you include a summary of the indispensable information in a separate sub-section at the end of your results section.

Define your data and its purpose impartially and clearly. Even if your data has confirmed your hypothesis beyond your wildest expectations, the results section of your report should be objective. To ensure that your data and its purpose are both clear to your readers, you might ask the following questions:

  • What aspects of your system or algorithm are you trying to evaluate? Why?
  • What are the cases of comparison? If you have proposed an algorithm or a design, what do you compare it with?
  • What are the performance metrics? Why?
  • What are the parameters under study?
  • What is the experimental setup?

Part Five of Six:
Concluding Your Lab Report Edit

Interpret your data and results in the discussion section. This will require you to logically connect your results to existing theory and knowledge. Any improvements to technique or equipment that you may have realized over the course of your lab should also be included here.

  • Predictions are expected in this section, though these should be clearly identified as such.
  • Future experiments that might clarify your results should be suggested. [25]

Address any other weaknesses in your discussion section. [26] Even if your natural inclination is to gloss over weak points in your lab report, this can be harmful to your credibility. If you state these explicitly, you can create trust and professional respect between you and your reader.

Add a separate conclusion section for longer reports. For labs that are data heavy or incorporate highly complex principles, you might need to use your discussion section to speak on those results independently. Your conclusion should look at your results with regard to the entire experiment. [27]

Make your conclusion count. It is generally accepted in academic communities that readers focus most attention on the title, abstract, introduction, and conclusion of a lab or academic paper. In that sense, this section is quite important.

  • Precisely and in as few words as possible, state the main findings of your lab.
  • Answer the question: How has the reader become smarter, or how has the world become a better place because of your work?

List all sources used in your lab report. This is the final section of your lab report, and is separate from your bibliography. [28] Your section on literature cited should only include references that appear in your written report. You should alphabetize this list by author’s last name, and then format the remaining information according to the source requirements. [29]

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