An introduction to structure and style

Wade B. Worthen
Biology Dept.
Furman University

This virtual manual is designed to help you write a successful research paper in the biological sciences. The first section summarizes the structural and stylistic requirements for research papers submitted in advanced biology courses. Most specifically, this includes Research and Analysis (BGY 31), Independent Study (BGY 80), and Research in Biology (85). However, your professors may expect this format in other courses, as well. Ask about the structure of research papers and lab reports when the assignment is made so you can get started on the right track.




I. What is a Research Paper?

There are two kinds of research papers. Primary or experimental research papers describe an experiment performed by the author. (I mean "experiment" in the broadest sense, as in a scientific investigation of a natural phenomena. The investigation may employ a rigorously controlled lab experiment, a controlled field experiment, a theoretical/mathematical investigation, or simply some new scientific observations. The key is that the body of the paper is about a novel investigation conducted by the author.) Secondary or review research papers summarize the research that has been done in a particular area. Reviews generally do not introduce much new information or new results, but rather synthesize a larger body of work, providing a new perspective on a field or question.

These different research papers have different structures that complement their function. Obviously, an experimental research paper stresses the results of the new experiment. However, the methods that were used to collect or produce the results must be provided (and justified as appropriate), and the results must be placed in perspective with regard to the other work done in that particular field. This type of research can demand large blocks of laboratory/field time (often at odd hours), and an appropriate amount of library research time to review and interpret the relevance of the results. Experimental research also demands creativity. Creativity and creative genius are not the sole property of the Fine Arts or Engineering/Industrial Sciences. It takes a particular type of 'genius' to recognize the most critical questions in a discipline, and a special creativity to design 'just the right experiment' to answer that question. Experimental research is not for everyone, but it can be rewarding and exciting.

A secondary research paper demands no less time or creativity. Keep this in mind if you choose a BGY 80. A review paper is not a 'book report' or an annotated list of experiments in a particular field. It is also a creative endeavor. A good review paper demands a considerable, complete literature review. However, beyond just reporting the results and conclusions of other studies, the review must integrate, interpret and expand these conclusions. Often, articles must be read over and over again to really understand the subtle relevance of a particular result or conclusion. Then, the independent conclusions of separate investigations must be woven into a cohesive presentation. They must be contrasted and compared; are there conflicting conclusions? Can apparent conflicts be resolved through a new outlook or interpretation? Review papers often take historical perspectives, describing how a field (and the major questions in that field) changed as more information was accumulated. Or, review papers may focus on 'the state of the art' in a particular field; interpreting divergent results and suggesting an appropriate avenue for future research. To gain an appreciation for the 'art' of writing a review paper, consult the Annual Reviews for a field that interests you (Annual Review of Genetics, or Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, for example).

Who writes review articles? Usually, it is the experts in a particular field. They have the experience and knowledge to critically evaluate experiments and organize them in a new provocative way; perhaps incorporating them into a new, unifying theory. Good review papers are not easy to write; if they were, more scientists would write them. Obviously, the faculty recognize that a student is not going to become an international expert on a topic in one semester. The probability of an undergraduate creating a unifying theory after one semester of research is remote (let's be honest, it is for faculty, too!). However, we do expect you to become a 'departmental expert' on a topic, able to 'wow' your fellow biology majors with your new knowledge about your field. We do expect to see a creative synthesis of the literature, rather than a jumbled regurgitation of facts. The outline for writing a secondary research paper begins in section VIII. However, read sections II-VII first; you will need to know how to cite articles in the text of your paper (section IV) and write a Literature Cited section (section V). In addition, there are helpful hints on writing style and structure that are worth reading.

II. Structuring an Experimental Investigation

An experimental research paper demands an experiment. How do you decide what to do? Usually, you ask members of the faculty what they are working on in their labs, and see if any projects interest you. It is also polite to ask if they are willing to sponsor a project; it's best to find this out early before you become too attached to a particular topic.

Your sponsor may hand you a 'ready-made' project to perform, or they may say, "sure I'll sponsor you, what do you want to do?" In either case, you must execute the following steps:

A. Ask a Question. Usually this is a broad, unrefined question; after all, you haven't researched the topic yet. If you have been 'given' a question, don't fool yourself into thinking you are ahead of the game. You are really no better off. You don't know why it is a relevant question, or how you are going to address it.

B. Review Literature. With the advent of on-line search capabilities, most student head straight for the computer terminal to start their literature search. THIS IS A FATAL MISTAKE, BECAUSE IT FOCUSES YOUR ATTENTION ON THE PRIMARY RESEARCH LITERATURE BEFORE YOU HAVE A SOLID BACKGROUND IN THE FUNDAMENTAL ELEMENTS OF THE FIELD. Before you attempt an on-line search, HIT THE STACKS. Go to the library and find general references on your topic. Introductory textbooks can be a big help to you at this stage, providing important background information in language the non-specialist can understand. After you familiarize yourself with the background material that specialists assume you know, proceed to the technical literature; this includes both primary research articles and secondary research articles by scientists studying your topic. Your best bet here would be a review article. Again, before the computer search, go to the stacks and look for review series in your discipline. In ecology, for example, there is Annuals Reviews of Ecology and Systematics, Advances in Ecological Research, and Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Review articles are "gold mines" of relevant literature; the author has already compiled and integrated some of the major articles on the topic! By finding one good review article, you can save yourself hours at the computer terminal navigating through a complete on-line search. BE SMART! Even if you have to pull volumes down one by one and check the table of contents, you will probably find a review article that is relevant to your topic. A good review article will: 1) integrate lots of articles (even into the 100's!), 2) show you what major research directions in the field, and 3) summarize the major conclusions. It would take you hours at the computer to sift through searches to locate all these articles; you'd probably delete some you didn't think were relevant and print out a lot that you find to be irrelevant later. SO AGAIN, DO NOT START WITH AN ON-LINE SEARCH. I KNOW IT IS EASY, BUT IT IS A DECEPTIVELY INEFFICIENT WAY TO START A PROJECT. YOU WILL FIND YOURSELF COMING BACK TIME AFTER TIME, DOING NEW SEARCHES AS YOUR KNOWLEDGE IN THE FIELD MATURES. SAVE IT FOR LATER WHEN YOU CAN OPTIMIZE ITS POWER AND MAXIMIZE YOUR OWN EFFICIENCY.

Take notes in your own words. Keep the notes in a binder. Record the complete citation, so you don't have to look it up again. Relate their findings to your question.

C. Refine Question into a Specific, Testable Hypothesis. Now that you have a better feel for the work done on your particular question, you can refine your earlier idea into a specific hypothesis. Your hypothesis must be testable under the limitations of time, space and money. At this stage, bounce your hypothesis off your sponsor. He or she may have some suggestions to focus or expand your study.

D. Design the experiment. How will you test your hypothesis? Consider the following questions:

E. Do the experiment! Hey, this is supposed to be the fun part! Be meticulous; record everything you do in a laboratory notebook. Record any observations that you make, or neat ideas that you have for further work or interpretation. Put them on paper so you don't forget them! Finally, collect the data in an orderly manner. Record as many relevant variables as you can; you have put so much time into the experiment, make sure you get as much data as possible.

F. Analyze the Data. Examine the data with statistical tests to assess probability of error in drawing a conclusion regarding your initial hypothesis.

G. Make Conclusions.

H. Continue Your Literature Review.

I. Write the Report.

III. Structuring an Experimental Report

There are several quality texts available that should be used as structural and stylistic guides. Use them! One book, McMillan's Writing Papers in the Biological Sciences, is a required text for Research and Analysis. It highlights the structure of both primary and secondary research papers. There are excellent examples describing common mistakes. Another manual is Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Remember all those nitty little points about English grammar that you learned in eighth grade and forgot by ninth? Well, they are all in Elements of Style. Remember this: the quality of the writing reflects the quality of the research! At this stage in your academic career, writing and spelling 'count'; even in biology classes. Clear, direct prose that communicates your ideas in a logical manner is rewarded. The greatest experiment in the world is worthless unless the reader understands what was done.

Here is an outline of the proper structure of an experimental research paper. Although the sections should be presented in this order, they are not written in this order. Suggestions for writing sequence follow in section VII.

A. Title. The title should be informative, specific and short (13 word max., usually). These objectives are difficult to satisfy concurrently. Titles include: 1) the species studied (common and/or Latin names as space permits), 2) the variables addressed, and 3) the site, if it is important. Obviously, the space constraints will occasionally force you to exclude one of these parameters. Here are some examples:
1. Phenotypic and demographic variability among patches of Maianthemum canadense (Desf.) in central New Jersey, and the use of self-incompatibility for clone discrimination. Long! 23 words, but includes all three parameters. This is difficult to shorten, because two different questions were addressed in one study.
2. Fish predation on Notonecta (Hemiptera): relationship between prey risk and habitat utilization.
Nice length (12 words), but site has been omitted. Good description of the problem and mention of the organism (genus, in this case).
3. Foraging behavior of a western reef heron in North America.
4. Foraging behavior and food of grey herons Ardea cinerea on the Ythan estuary.
These include all three aspects within the standard space constraint. However, in order to fit the site into the title, the topic is rather general (foraging behavior).
The title should reflect the thrust of the paper. If site is important (maybe there are geographical differences in foraging behavior in these species), it should be included. If the study is a broad-based analysis of several foraging behaviors, then it is more appropriate to say 'foraging behavior' than to list every variable studied. Good titles are hard to write, and they take more time than you might think.

B. Abstract.This is a concise summary of the paper. Ideally, it should be short (roughly 3% of the length of the paper), and should include a sentence describing each of these topics:

Again, the space limitations may force you to be selective. In addition, the methods and result may be difficult to describe completely in single sentences, and may require a larger fraction of the space budget. Certainly, the results are the most important part of the abstract; they represent the 'meat' of the experiment and can not be slighted. However, you must also include a conclusion sentence; what did the results mean? If published, the abstract will appear in citation sources such as Biological Abstracts and Science Citation Index. It is the first thing someone will read, and it must be descriptive and interesting! The abstract demands clear, direct writing. When readers finish the abstract, they should be so intrigued by the experiment that they decide to read the entire paper. What search strategy do you use when you pick up a journal? You read down the titles. Like a fish at bait, you 'nibble' at an interesting one by flipping to the article itself. Then, you read the abstract. Here is where the author 'sets the hook'. If it's interesting, you read the article. If it is not, the author has lost you and you start to nibble on other titles again. Abstracts are also very difficult to write; it will take more time to write than any other paragraph in the whole paper.

C. Introduction. The introduction serves two functions. First, it provides the reader with the background information relevant to your experiment. Second, it presents the objectives of your study. These two functions are directly related; the background information that you provide should justify your experiment. The reader should understand why your question is significant. To write a good introduction, think of a funnel. Start with a broad background statement that provides some common ground for readers with different levels of expertise. Then, develop the information in the field that is important to your topic. Try and maintain the flow from broad to specific.

Perhaps your paper is on foraging strategies of insectivorous birds. You might start off with a general statement on foraging strategy, and then highlight some of the relevant theories applied to animals, in general. Then you might focus on the particular developments and applications of avian foraging behavior. Finally, you could specify the energetic constraints imposed on insectivorous birds, and discuss this material. This section should conclude with some indication about the gap in our knowledge in this area. You then present your objectives, showing how your study attempts to fill this gap. At this point, the reader knows how your study relates to the field and understands why your question needs to be addressed.

There are space constraints on the introduction. This space constraint may alter your presentation. You may not be able to start out as broadly as you had intended, or the transition from background to objectives may need to be more direct. Remember: the introduction must demonstrate a logical progression to your objectives. This demands logical transitions. The topics in your introduction must be linked effectively so the reader can follow your argument. Excess information or tangential paragraphs will throw your reader off the track. Don't use the introduction as an information dump to show the reader how much you found on a topic. Show the reader you understand the relevant issues in a field and know how your study complements this information. In some cases, your introduction may need to be long to place your study in perspective. In this situation, you would want to present your objectives early so the reader can relate your background information to your question. Finally, unlike papers in the Humanities, do not begin your introduction with a quote or hyperbole.

D. Methods. This should be the easiest section to write; you simply state what you did. It is written in the past tense; don't write a series of instructions, write a description of the experiment you conducted. In the course of the methods section, you should specify your experimental design, describing the levels of your independent variables and the variables you chose to measure (dependent variables). You should also justify why you performed these methods. Why did you choose these dependent variables to address your question? Why did you choose these levels of your independent variables for manipulation? Be sure to include the equipment that you used (manufacturer and model number, if unusual), and define the environment where the test was performed (temp, light, etc.). Finally, you should specify the tests you used to analyze the data, and any transformations performed.

E. Results. You may think the results should be easy, too; this is simply the information that your experiment produced. However, interesting results sections are very difficult to write. You usually have several specific statements that you want to make (the new 'facts' that you have found), but you also have statistical analyses to present and figures and tables describing your results. First, analyze your data. Which independent variables had significant effects on your dependent variables? Make your figures and tables describe these patterns (see part VI). Digest these patterns; interpret your results before you start to write. When you know what your results mean, you can try to explain them to the reader. Read it back to yourself, out loud. If you stumble over grammar or can't understand it yourself, the reader won't have a chance! When you are ready to begin, start out with a declarative statement:
"Hours in sunlight had a significant effect on plant growth."
Now, call the reader's attention to the table or figure that shows this effect to be statistically significant:
"Hours in sunlight... (Table 1)."
Table 1 might be the Analysis of Variance you performed, which documents that the hourse of sunlight had a statistically significant impact on plant growth at the p=0.0025 level. As such, you might include the test and the alpha level parenthetically (optional):
"Hours in sunlight... (ANOVA p=0.0025; Table 1)."
Now, describe the pattern, and tell the reader where this information is presented:
"On average, plant in the 'long exposure' treatment grew significantly more than the plants in the 'medium exposure' or 'short exposure' treatment;(Bonferroni t-test, p= 0.05; Figure 1)."
Figure 1 might be a bar chart comparing growth of plants in the three light exposure treatments. The appropriate mean comparison test documents that the means are significantly different at the p=0.05 level.
Next, present a conclusion statement for the paragraph.
"Evidently, plant growth was stimulated by increased exposure to sunlight".
So, here is your first paragraph: "Hours in sunlight had a significant effect on plant growth (ANOVA, p = 0.0025, Table 1). On average, plant in the 'long exposure' treatment grew significantly more than the plants in the 'medium exposure' or 'short exposure' treatment; (Bonferroni t-test, p= 0.05; Figure 1). Evidently, plant growth was stimulated by increased exposure to sunlight."
Important Don'ts!!

1. Don't begin a statement with:

Statistical tests don't show anything. They just crunch numbers in a particular way. It is up to the experimenter to interpret the result of a statistical test. For instance, a Chi-square test may indicate that a particular set of data would only occur by chance 5% of the time. This information has no intrinsic meaning; some experimenters may interpret this pattern as significantly deviant from random chance while others may not. Make a declarative statement and refer to the statistical analysis that supports this decision.
2. Don't present a long list of significant results without interpretation.
"Hours in sunlight significantly affected growth (Table 1). Soil moisture significantly affected growth (Table 2). Soil nitrogen also had a signficant effect on plant growth (Table 3)."
You must develop each declarative statement; don't just refer to a table or figure. After you say that an independent variable has an effect on a dependent variable, describe the effect; how did the levels of the independent variable differ? What does this mean? Show the reader the significance of the result.
3. Don't number your tables and figures until after you write your results section! The first table that is referred to in the results section is, by definition, 'Table 1'. Likewise, the first figure referred to, even if it is after table 1, is called 'Figure 1'. You may not present the results in the sequence in which they were analyzed. Recognize that the logical development of your results may demand a different sequence, and the table and figure numbering should complement this new order.

The results section is where you 'present your case'. The logical flow is critical; you must convince your reader that your argument is sound. If the readers are confused by your results, or do not follow your interpretation, they will not believe you. They will not accept that your conclusions are correct and important, and they will not recognize the relevance of your experiment.

F. Discussion. The discussion is where you explain your results and interpret them in light of other work in the field. Usually, the discussion take the shape of an inverted funnel. Start by presenting the essential conclusions of your specific study. (This leads directly from your results section, and provides a natural transition.) Then, apply your conclusions to the body of background information you relayed in your introduction. You may broaden your focus as you proceed. Remember the background information you presented in your introduction? That was the information you felt was relevant to your experiment. Now, discuss how your new findings relate to this background information. Are the major hypotheses in the field support by your research, or contradicted?

The discussion also may include suggestions for future research, or disclaimers and explanations of methodological errors made during the course of the experiment.

G. Acknowledgments. Thank the people who helped you research the question, design or conduct the experiment, and review drafts. Also acknowledge any funding support, and the source (check a few acknowledgement sections for examples).

H. Literature Cited. This section contains bibliographical information on the references that were cited in the body of the paper. It is not a bibliography; only list the references that were actually cited in the body of the text. First, you must understand how to cite references in the body of the text.

IV. Citing References in the Body of the Text

A. Citing an article by a single author:
Research papers in the sciences use a simple format for alluding to work done by previous investigators. When you present information that you found in a published document, you cite the author and year of publication parenthetically, immediately after the information. For instance, suppose I was writing a paper on the effects of resource patchiness on community structure, and I read an article by J. Weins titled "Population responses to patchy environments" published in Annual Reviews of Ecology and Systematics in 1976. In this article, Weins states that foraging patch scale is determined by the perception of the organism searching for the resource, and is not an inherent quality of the resource. In my introduction, I might write:
"However, the relevant spatial scales of predictability and ephemerality are defined by the perceptual and dispersal capabilities of the foraging organism (Weins 1976)."
(Note: the use of present tense implies a fact which must be supported by a citation or your data.) Cite only the author of the immediate information. If you are citing a chapter authored by Burgdorff in a text edited by Crane, cite: (Burgdorff 1983).

B. Citing a direct quotation:
You must cite all information that was published elsewhere and is not original to your paper. Preferably, you paraphrase the information and present the citation at the end of the sentence (as above). Sometimes, however, the phrasing of the original information is particularly eloquent. Or, sometimes you want to stress the authority of the source. In these cases, you want to quote the information exactly. You must enclose the quoted material in quotation marks:
As Price (1984) stated, "it is noteworthy that so many of the hypotheses involve resources as the basis for understanding community organization, and that competition is not invoked as a major organizing influence"(p. 476).
Use quotations sparingly! Sequences of direct quotations are difficult to read because the style keeps changing. It also suggests that you don't understand the topic well enough to interpret the information in your own words. This is especially true of conceptual material; when you quote something that is not particularly eloquent or authoritative, it suggests that you could not understand it well enough to paraphrase.

C. Citing a series of articles at once:
Often, there are several citations that relate to a particular statement; simply list these in chronological order:
"These resources often support diverse insect communities (Elton 1966, Heed 1968, Beaver 1977, Schoenly and Reed 1987), yet they are packaged into discrete units that are typically perceived as patchy and unpredictable (Lacy 1984)."
Also, notice that the citations only accompany the clause that applies to them. Lacy (1984) did not suggest that these resources support unusually diverse communities so he is not cited after that clause. Obviously, citations can become cumbersome and can influence the structure of your sentence. If a long list of references comes between two clauses (as above), you might consider breaking the sentence in half. However, lots of short, single clause sentences are monotonotonous to read because they don't flow. Reading and rereading your drafts will help you recognize rough spots. Obviously, this can't be done overnight. You must give yourself ample time to write and rewrite your paper. A rough job will be noticed, and they haven't invented a "sentence-structure-checker" for the computer (yet!).

D. Citing several citations by the same author:
Different journals use different formats for citations; some separate authors' names from dates with commas and separate citations with semi-colons. Others separate citations with commas (as above). Use this latter format; it is "less busy" to the eye.

If you have several citations and some are by the same author, group the citations by author, separating authors by semi-colons:
(Jaenike 1978a, 1978b, 1986; Lacy 1979).

Notice that Jaenike's complete list goes first, even though his citations are chronologically split by Lacy's article. Also, if you refer to two citations by the same author in the same year, refer to the first citation cited as 'a' and the second one 'b'. Do not use the 'a' and 'b' designations that other authors used; those were dependent upon their order of use.

E. Citing multi-authored works:
If the citation has only two authors, present both their surnames followed by the publication date: (Schoenly and Reed 1987). If there are more than two authors, cite the first author's name followed by the words 'et al.' and the year. The book Insects on Plants by D. R. Strong, J. H. Lawton and R. Southwood is cited in the text as: (Strong et al. 1976).

F. Citing unauthored pamphlets, etc.:
Some government and corporate publications are unauthored. Cite these as 'anonymous', followed by the date of publication: (Anon. 1952).

G. Citing sources for equipment:
If you are using an unusual piece of equipment or material from an exotic source, you can cite the source directly so that others trying to replicate your experiment can get the same material:
"I counted the drosophilids and dusted the flies collected on each plot with a different color of micro-ionized fluorescent dust (USR Optonix, Inc., Hackettstown, NJ)."

H. Citing unpublished material:
Suppose you want to cite a manuscript that has not been published. You would cite (Author, unpublished).

I. Citing personal communications:
Suppose you want to cite an interpretation that someone else made regarding your data. You would cite (Author, personal communication). This situation may arise regarding a professor's lecture notes or a chat you had about your research. Be sure to get permission before citing the information.

V. Listing Citations in the Literature Cited Section

The complete citations of published work are presented in alphabetical order (by surname of first authors) in the Literature Cited section. Unpublished manuscripts (unless they are in press) and personal communications are not listed. The Literature Cited section follows your acknowledgments, and always begins on a new page. Consider the references cited in the examples above; here's how they would appear in the literature cited section.

A. Citing an article by a single author:

Weins JR. 1976. Population responses to patchy environments. Ann 
            Rev Ecol Syst 7:81-120.

A few key points:
1. Only the first word of the title and proper nouns are capitalized; this goes for articles and books.
2. If you are going to abbreviate the journal name, consult Biosis for the proper abbreviation. There are a lot of journals and abbreviations have been specifically created to eliminate redundancy and confusion.
3. You will notice that the citations in Biological Abstracts do not have this form; do not copy the Biological Abstracts structure! It includes the site of the research and other extra information that does not belong in a Lit. Cited section.
4. There is a standard procedure for including issue numbers in citations. (Issue numbers parenthetically follow the volume number of the journal, such as Ecology 56(4).) If the journal numbers the pages in issues consecutively (so that if issue 1 ends on page 214, issue 2 starts on page 215), issue numbers are redundant and should not be included. (The article can be found by its journal number and page.) However, if the journal numbers issues independently (beginning each issue with page 1), the issue number must be included in the citation so the reader can find the article without looking through every issue in that volume. Most professional journals number the pages in issues consecutively. Most popular publications (Natural History, for example), number each issue independently.

B. Chapter by a single author in an edited volume:

Burgdorff PT. 1983. A fictitious article in a fictitious book. In:
        Crane A, ed. Writing in biology. New York: McMillan. p 208-209.
Halliday TR. 1978. Sexual selection and mate choice. In: Krebs JR,  
        Davies NB, eds. Behavioral ecology: an evolutionary approach.
        Oxford: Blackwell Sci Pub.  p 180-213.
(Note that the publisher of the book and city are also presented.)

C. Citing a book by one author:
Price PW. 1984. Insect ecology. New York: Wiley. 859 p.

D. Citing a multi-authored work:

Schoenly K, Reid L. 1987. Dynamics of heterotrophic succession 
        in carrion arthropod assemblages: discrete seres or a continuum 
        of change? Oecologia 73:192-202.
Kitchener DJ, Stoddard J, Henry J. 1983. A taxonomic appraisal 
        of the genus Ningaui Archer (Marsupialia: Dasyuridae), 
        including description of a new species. Aust J Zool 31:361-79.

E. Citing several works by the same author:

Jaenike J. 1978a. Resource predictability and niche breadth in 
        the Drosophila quinaria species group. Evolution 32:676-8.
________. 1978b. Host selection by mycophagous Drosophila. Ecology 
________. 1986. Intraspecific variation for resource use in Drosophila. 
        Biol J Linn Soc 27:47-56.
________, Selander RK. 1979. Ecological generalism in Drosophila 
        falleni: genetic evidence. Evolution 33:741-8.

Note that listings are ordered by the set of authors writing the article, not just by the first author. For instance, because Jaenike and Selander is behind Jaenike alphabetically, it does not fall before Jaenike's single authored 1986 article on the basis of chronology.

F. Citing unauthored works:
Anonymous. 1952. Flies of Morris County. Morris County Publ #4,
       Morristown, NJ.

G. Unpublished material and theses:
If the work has been accepted for publication but has not been published yet, refer to it as 'in press'.

Funk DB. 1989. New stuff about plants. New Phytol. (in press).
Funk DB. 1988. New stuff about plant chemicals. M.S. Thesis, 
        Furman University, Greenville, SC.

VI. Tables and Figures

You should choose your tables and figures carefully; they will form the backbone of your results section and should present your results in a way that clearly describes the patterns in your data. Don't include figures and tables that are extraneous to your report. Every table and figure must be referred to somewhere in your paper. Also, only use tables and figures to summarize the patterns in large sets of data; do not include tables of raw data. If you are only comparing two responses, a descriptive sentence in the results section might be sufficient. Don't be redundant! Use either a table or a figure to summarize a particular pattern, do not use both. Tables and figures should be appended to the back of the report, after the Literature Cited section. Each table and figure should be presented on a different page. Table legends appear at the top of the table; a figure legend is commonly presented on a separate page that precedes the figure. Also, do not use multiple colors on tables or figures.

A. Legends

Each table and figure must have a descriptive legend. The legend should be complete; the table/figure should be comprehensible without reference to the paper.

As such, you need to include:


Table 2. ANOVA measuring the effects of patch, pollination treatment (pollen added vs. natural) and raceme density (high vs. low) on two measures of fruit set in seven patches of Maianthemum canadense in central New Jersey: 1) the percentage of flowering ramets that bore fruit; and 2) the mean number of fruits/infructescence. Percentage data were transformed with an arcsin square-root transformation before analysis (Sokal and Rohlf 1981).

Table 1. The effect of replicate and plot density on mycophagous flies captured on experimental plots. ANOVA results for species richness and number of individuals (both log transformed; **** = p < 0.0001). Density means are significantly different; Bonferroni t-test, p < 0.05).

Figure 1. Fruit set in pollen added (solid bars) and naturally pollinated control quadrats (open bars) in seven patches of Maianthemum canadense in central New Jersey. The results of one-way ANOVA's are also presented (* = p < 0.05; ** = p < 0.01; *** = p < 0.001).

B. Figure Presentation

The type of variable that you measure may dictate the appropriate type of figure, especially if you are presenting a frequency distribution. For discontinuous data (where only certain values were possible, such as counts, states, attributes), a bar chart is appropriate. In this chart, the bars do not touch. For continuous data (measurements), histograms are appropriate (where the bars touch). If you are presenting means, margins of error (standard deviation, standard error, or confidence intervals) should be presented around each mean.

VII. Suggested Writing Sequence

After you have done a thorough literature review, analyzed your data and drawn your figures, you can start to write.

Start with your methods; this is the easiest section to write and it will get you into writing and thinking about the project. You will feel good that you have started the paper and have not left the whole thing for the last minute.

After you analyze your data, make your figures, and draw conclusions, write your results section. Again, have everything straight in your mind before you start to write! It may take a couple tries to get your points in a sequence that flows.

Now that you know what you found, you can write the introduction or discussion. By delaying this step until after your results section is done, you know which results were important and you can stress the relevant background information appropriately.

Some people like to write the discussion immediately after they write the results; this keeps their results fresh in their mind as they develop links with the background information. However, it is probably a good idea to have an outline of the introduction at this stage. This forces you to integrate the background material and really digest it, so the arguments you make in the discussion are logical and relate to the points you raised in the introduction. Remember, in the introduction you presented the background information that justified your question; in the discussion, you need to show how your results fit into that body of work you introduced as relevent.

Well, the body of the text is finished! You might want to do the Literature Cited section next. Although there is no particular logic to this, when literature cited sections are left until the end they tend to be done in a sloppy fashion with typo's and omissions. It is very important that the Literature Cited section be correct; it must contain all the citations and each must be presented in the appropriate format. This is busy work, but it must be done correctly so the reader can find your sources. If it is left until the end, you may make lots of typo's as you rush to finish.

Tackle the abstract and the title next. These take time (especially the abstract) and should not be rushed.

Finally, after all the work is done, acknowledge the help that others have provided.

One final comment about papers. Drafts are a necessary step! Poor writing detracts from the quality of the presentation, and reflects upon the quality of the experiment. If time is pressing, get your methods and an outline to your introduction written before your results are produced. After you write the results section, write an introduction. When you are all done, set it aside for at least one day. Re-read your paper, sentence by sentence, as if you were reading it for the first time. Read it out loud; then you will really know how it sounds. Be hard on yourself; any improvements that you make at this stage will directly enhance the quality of your paper and your grade.

Formatting: Use double spacing (or 1.5), 12 pt. new times roman, and one inch margins. Page numbering in upper right is preferred.

VIII. Writing a Review Paper

If you just skipped down from part I, read parts II-VII. That information will not be repeated here and you are responsible for much of it. In addition, read Chapter 2 of McMillan's Writing Papers in the Biological Sciences.

Your paper will have the following sections:

Most of these sections appear in experimental reports, and have been discussed already. Read these sections. However, there are a few notes on these sections that are specific to the structure of review papers.

Although you are not conducting an experiment in the physical sense, you should consider your paper a 'thought' experiment. You are going to read a body of information and provide a new outlook on a topic. You will not reveal a new scientific 'fact' as an experimenter would, but you will reveal a new idea or interpretation. As such, build your paper the way an experimenter would: 1) research a topic and find a particular set of issues, results or opinions that seem in conflict; 2) research this area in more detail, and then think independently. Build an argument or thesis that either supports one side of the conflict or resolves it. This is the 'experimental' part of the work, and it is as unique as a new experiment.

Next, mold this argument, this synthesis, into the body of your paper. As you read above, the experimenter writes his methods and results first. Liken the body of your paper to these sections; this is the new information and interpretation that you are presenting. It may be largely descriptive, but it should have a unique perspective. Outlines will be a big help to you at this stage. Don't be afraid to write your ideas done before they are perfectly formed! If you can get them down on paper, you can place them in a logical sequence and develop them into a flowing presentation. After your body is complete, you can move on to your introduction and conclusion.

Your introduction will be short; perhaps a page in length. It is not labelled with a separate heading, it just focuses the reader on the issues you will describe or contrast in the body of your paper. It is not a review of the field (this review takes shape in the body), it merely establishes a common point of departure for readers with different levels of expertise. It should provide some justification for the paper (why the issue is important), and it should present the objective of the paper. Again, as in the experimental paper, an easy way to create a logical introduction is to "funnel" the reader from broader background information to the specific issues that you will address.

Likewise, the conclusion section is usually not separated from the body of the paper (although it can be, if it is particularly long). In the conclusion, you should redefine the objective of the study and show how you satisfied these goals. It should strengthen the relationship between the ideas you have built in the body of the paper. Again, read your McMillan for more ideas.

Consult the instructions for writing experimental papers for information on the other sections. When you are all done, set it aside for at least one day. Re-read your paper, sentence by sentence, as if you were reading it for the first time. Be hard on yourself; any improvements that you make at this stage will directly enhance the quality of your paper and your grade.

Formatting: Use double spacing (or 1.5), 12 pt. new times roman, and one inch margins. Page numbering in upper right is preferred.

IX. Commonly Misused Words

The following list of commonly misused words was initially prepared by the Iowa Experiment Station Publications at Iowa State University, and was modified by the editors of the Journal of Mammalogy.

ABOVE - (the above method, as mentioned above) - often used 
  in reference to something preceding, but not 
  necessarily above; a loose reference, convenient to 
  writers but not for readers.  Also, remember that if 
  something was mentioned previously, to do so again is 
ACCURATE - (an accurate estimate) - accurate implies 
  complete freedom from error or absolute exactness.  An 
  estimate is an approximation.  Try "a reliable 
AFFECT, EFFECT - Affect is a verb that means to influence.  
  Effect, as a verb, means to bring about; as a noun, 
  effect means result.
ALIQUOT - aliquot means "contained an exact number of times 
  in another."  Commonly misused to mean subsample.
ALL OF, BOTH OF - Just 'all' or 'both' will suffice.
ALSO SEE - (also see Jones 1950) - Often unnecessary.
ALTERNATE, ALTERNATIVE - alternate implies occurring in 
  succession or every other one; alternative implies a 
  choice among two or more incompatible objects, 
  situations, or courses of action.
AMONG - used when comparing more than two items.
AND/OR - use one or the other.
AND THEN - use one or the other.
APPARENTLY, APPARENT - means obviously, clearly, plainly 
  evident, seemingly, ostensibly and observably.  
  Consider using one of these more specific terms.
APPEAR - not synonymous with seems.  He always appears on 
  the scene, but never seems to know what to do.
AS - do not use to mean because, or inasmuch as.
AS WELL AS - =and.
BELOW - (see 'above'; direction does not change ambiguity).
BETWEEN - used when comparing only two items.
BY MEANS OF - just 'by'.
CARRIED OUT - colloquial; use 'conducted', 'performed' or 
  'was studied'.
CASE - if necessary, use 'in this instance'.
CHECKED - (The traps were checked). imprecise. use 
  'examined' or another more precise word.
COMPARE WITH, COMPARE TO - 'compare with' means to examine 
  differences and similarities; 'compare to' means to 
  represent as similar.  Usually, one compares with or 
  contrasts to. 
COMPRISE - means to contain or include, not constitute.  
  "The whole comprises the parts, the parts do not 
  comprise the whole."
DATA - plural. "These data, data were, too few data."
DIFFER FROM, DIFFER WITH - One thing differs from another, 
  although you may differ with a colleague.
DUE TO - implies causality when only a relationship may be 
  intended.  Try 'related to' or, if causality is 
  intended, 'because of'.
  'in' will usually suffice.
EITHER...OR, NEITHER...NOR - apply to no more than two items 
  or categories; similarly, former and latter refer to 
  the first and last of only two items or categories.
ETC. - avoid entirely!
FELT - (it was felt that...) - One feels cloth, but believes 
GIVEN - (at a given time) - fixed, specified or specific are 
  more precise.  Given has numerous meanings.
HIGH(ER), LOW(ER) - Commonly used imprecisely or ambiguously 
  for greater, less, larger, smaller, more, or fewer.
HOWEVER - do not use with another conjunction at the 
  beginning of a sentence or independent clause 
  ('However, because...' or 'However, since...').
IN FACT, AS A MATTER OF FACT - usage tends to weaken 
  preceding and subsequent statements by implying that 
  they might be less than factual.  If a lead word is 
  needed, try 'indeed'.
IN ORDER TO - 'To' will suffice.
INTERESTING, INTERESTING TO NOTE - presumption; let the 
  reader decide what is interesting.
IRREGARDLESS - no such word!  Use regardless or 
  delete completely and make the point emphatically!
IT WAS FOUND, DETERMINED, DECIDED - delete, and state 
  observation declaratively.
LESS(ER), FEW(ER) - 'less' refers to quantity, 'few' refers 
  to number.
NON - a prefix, usually not hyphenated.  Avoid overuse. 
  'Non' defines things negatively and is not descriptive 
  of what they are.  Do not use as a substitute for 
  established prefixes or where 'not...' will serve. 
  (incorrect, unreliable, not reliable).
ONCE, WHEN - avoid the use of 'once' for 'when', as 'once' 
  can mean: one time, formerly, simultaneously, and 
OUT, IN - (...14 out of 17; to find out if) - in most 
  instances, these can be omitted without altering 
PARTIALLY, PARTLY - 'partially' implies bias in favor of one 
  or the other.  Partly is more precise when portion or 
  proportion is meant.
PERCENT, PERCENTAGE - use percent (%) with numbers, use 
  percentage in reference to proportion expressed in 
PREDOMINATE, PREDOMINANT - predominate is a verb, 
  predominant is an adjective.  The adverb is 
  predominantly, not predominately.
PREVALENCE, INCIDENCE - prevalence is the number per unit of 
  population at a specific time ( 23 per 1000 individuals 
  in 1989).  Incidence is number in a population per unit 
  time (23 cases per year).
PRIOR TO, PREVIOUS TO - adjectives that modify nouns; prior 
  or previous events. Replace 'prior to' or 'previous to' 
  with 'before'.
PROVEN - be careful of this word; rarely is anything proven 
  in science.  We test hypotheses and sometimes fail to 
  reject one, but this is not proof.
PROVIDED, PROVIDING - 'provided that' is a conjunction; 
  providing is the participle.
RESPECTIVE, RESPECTIVELY -  omit if possible.
SAID - (Jones (1978) said that...) - use wrote, noted 
  suggested or some other term, as nothing was 'said'.
SINCE - denotes a relationship in time.  Do not use as a 
  synonym for because.
  redundant in repetition.
TAXA AND VERB AGREEMENT - species and subspecies take 
  singular verbs whereas genera and higher taxa take 
  plural verbs. Peromyscus maniculatus is common in 
  northern Illinois. Peromyscus are widely distributed in 
  North America.
THAT, WHICH - two words that can help, when needed, to make 
  intended meanings and relationships unmistakable, which 
  often is important in scientific writing.  If the 
  clause can be omitted without leaving the modified noun 
  incomplete, use which and enclose the clause within 
  commas or parentheses; otherwise use that.
THIS, THESE - commonly used to begin sentences when the        
  antecedents to which they refer are unclear.  
  'Elephants, whales, and bats are mammals although bats 
  fly like birds.  These animals are endothermic.' 
  Mammals? Birds? Mammals and Birds?
TO BE - (the differences were found to be significant) - 
  frequently unnecessary.
TO SEE - replace with 'to determine' or another more precise 
TOTAL - (a total of ten squirrels were observed) - usually 
  synonyms.  Varying amounts or differing conditions 
  imply individually changing amounts or conditions 
  rather than a selection of various amounts or different 
VERY, QUITE, CONSIDERABLE, SOMEWHAT - avoid modifiers that 
  impart indefinite measure.  'A very large bear' is as 
  undefined in size as a 'large bear'.
VIABLE ALTERNATIVE - it would not be an alternative if it 
  were not viable.
WHERE - implies a locality; do not use as a synonym for 'in