How to write a scientific paper


The following is essential information for writing the papers for Bio 140L, and for good writing in general. Read and follow the guidelines carefully to structure your papers — points (lots of them) will be taken off for not following these guidelines! Once you have read through this guide, go and check a couple of actual journal papers to see some real examples. You can use real papers as an additional guide for writing your own papers.


Title: The title should be descriptive but concise.


Introduction: This section provides background, specifically the conceptual motivation for your study, as well as a very brief statement (2 to 3 sentences) of the focus of your study. The introduction should start with the general framework and end with your specific questions/hypotheses and study system. NEVER start the introduction with a focus on the specific study organism (keep the focus on the general concept of interest) and NEVER use phases like "little is known about..." because it is not a good reason to motivate a scientific study.


Methods: This section should contain all of the essential information necessary for someone to replicate your study. Do not, however, include minor details that have no bearing on the results (e.g. what color pen you used, what type of paper you recorded data on). Methods are written in the past tense and the active voice (e.g. We took measurements on..). Include information on techniques, sampling method, any unusual data analyses that require justification, when and where the study was conducted, and perhaps a bit of information on the study animal if it is useful. For well-established techniques you can refer the reader to an article that describes it. Do not include data or results in the Methods section.


Results: In this section, describe your findings (the patterns, statistics, with reference to tables or figures) but do not interpret what the results mean (that goes in the Discussion). Think carefully about how your data can be most efficiently and clearly conveyed to the reader (graphs, tables, written text). Use Figures and Tables to summarize data, not to present your raw data. Only present data that you plan to interpret in the discussion. Present your results in a narrative form, but refer to graphs and figures where possible. (example:  Alpha males were more likely to be involved in chases than beta males (Fig. 1).)

Do not describe every single finding in narrative form — instead describe key comparisons in the data and unusual or surprising results. Make sure to present your results in a clear logical order.


When describing statistical results, present (1) the basic information being compared (e.g. means and standard deviations when comparing across groups, percentages when doing a Chi-square type comparison, or a slope if doing a regression (2) some statistical parameter (t value, chi square, etc) and a P value (probability). Example: Alpha males were significantly larger than beta males (800 ± 25 kilos (N = 25) for alpha males, 550 ± 31 kilos (n = 41) for beta males; t = 4.21, P < 0.001).


Figures (graphs): Make sure you label both the Y and X axis. Also, every figure must have a figure caption, at the bottom, that explains very briefly what the figure is about. Check out figures in published papers to see some examples.

Tables. Each table starts with a table legend that briefly says what the table is about. Try to keep the table as simple as possible — humungous tables are confusing and hard to read.


Discussion: In this section present your interpretation of your results and put them in the context of (1) your original hypotheses, (2) current/background theory, (3) other similar studies or (4) future directions and new questions that need to be answered. Make sure you bring enough detail to your arguments so that they are clear and logical. Also ensure that you structure your discussion so that your results build upon each other and the overall flow is logical. Pay special attention to how results of different observations integrate with respect to one body of theory. If possible discuss alternative hypotheses and either why they are inconsistent with your data or what future study needs to be done to test an alternative hypothesis. In some cases, by answering one question, your study then leads to a new set of questions (i.e. what to do next) and this is fine material for a discussion.


Literature Cited: In the main text, cite papers by author and year, typically in brackets, and separate references by a coma (Wilson 1978, Gould 1980). Papers with more than three authors get cited as the first author et al. in the text (e.g. Orians et al. 1969) but all authors get listed in the Literature cited section. In the literature cited section, papers are listed alphabetically by first author's last names. Include authors, year, title, journal volume and pages. Examples (note how a book chapter is cited in the Petrie reference):

Perone, M., and T.M. Zaret. 1979. Parental care patterns of fishes. Am. Nat. 113: 351-361.

Petrie, M. 1986. Reproductive strategies of male and female moorhens (Gallinula chloropus). Pp. 43 - 63. in D.I. Rubenstein and R.W. Wrangham, eds. Ecological aspects of social evolution. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ.


General Tips for Clear Writing:


Clear Writing:  Clear and concise writing is essential in order to communicate your ideas and findings to the wider community (both scientific and non-scientific). Don't try to make your writing sound scientific by using jargon or important sounding phases that don't really say anything — the clearest writing is the simplest. At the same time, do not use too informal a style (like, you know, it's not a letter to your buddies, Dude!) as this is unprofessional.  Clear, simple and straightforward — it's how you use the language that matters, not the fancy words you use.


Organization:Make sure there is a logical flow throughout, both between and within paragraphs (as in conversation, a sudden change of topic in mid paragraph is very distracting). Use TOPIC SENTENCES!!  A topic sentence is the first sentence of a paragraph that provides a guide or roadmap for the entire paragraph. With a good topic sentence, the reader knows what the paragraph is about in advance and is primed to read what you have written.


Spelling and Grammar:  Spell check and proofread your grammar – there is no excuse for these types of errors.