Suggestions for Scientific Report Writing

A collection made before word-processing time by

László Bottyán, KFKI Research Institute for Particle and Nuclear Physics, Budapest

Characteristics of the scientific report

A scientific report is an important document for those who need to use it. Its success depends on careful planning to meet every possible requirement of service.

The aim should be to economize the readers attention, to save him all possible confusion, and to enable him to get the help he needs quickly and easily. It is essential, therefore, that a report of scientific research, development and test have certain characteristics:

  1. It should have such form that the general purport can be readily grasped.
  2. It should present all such material, and only such material, as is pertinent.
  3. It should present the material in logical order.
  4. It should reach and state, a logical conclusion based on the data presented.
  5. It should be written in a style that is simple, concise, and free from the possibility of misinterpretation.
  6. It should be readily understandable by all persons concerned even though they may not be thoroughly versed in the technical details.

Parts of the scientific report

The following list includes all the parts that ordinarily make up a scientific report. The order may be slightly varied to meet certain conditions.

  1. Title page
  2. Synopsis or Abstract [*]
  3. Table of Contents [*]
  4. Introduction
  5. Preliminary Section [*]
  6. Body
  7. Terminal Section
  1. Appendix [*]
  2. Bibliography or References [*]
  3. Letter of Transmittal [*]

[*] The parts so marked may sometimes be omitted.

Functions of parts of the scientific report

The functions of the various parts of a scientific report as indicated below have become quite standardized.

1. Title page

The title page gives the reader his first contact with the report. It indicates the subject, and, as far as possible, the character of the report and contains an effective display of the title, the name of the writer, the name of the organization or department, the date, and such other information as may be required for references or filing.

In formal short-form reports which are of sufficient length to warrant being enclosed in folders, a title page will relieve the first page of text of some details.

2. Synopsis or Abstract

The synopsis gives, in a highly condensed form, the substance of the entire report. It makes clear the purpose of the report and the general character of the conclusions or recommendations made. It is generally limited to a single brief paragraph, if possible, and is usually displayed on a page by itself.

In all reports of any considerable length, a synopsis is indispensable. In short-form reports, however, it is generally not required. In certain types of factual or statistical reports, it is difficult to use because it tends to become too heavy and detailed.

3. Table of Contents

The table of contents gives the reader, at a glance, the design of the report and its structural pattern in detail. It is so set up as to make clear the relation of the main and subordinate units in this design. These units are phrased exactly as the corresponding headings in the text.

The table of contents is usually omitted in reports of standard form such as test reports or progress reports, and in reports so simple as to require no such detailed layout. Short-form reports therefore seldom need such a table.

4. Introduction

The introduction gives the reader his first contact with the subject, and prepares him to receive what the writer has to tell.

It does three things: (a) states the subject of the report; (b) indicates the purpose for which the report is written; and (c) announces the plan of treatment.

Because of the great variation in the character of subject matter, and the wide diversity in the capacity and experience of the readers, all three of these simple functions have many variations.

5. Preliminary Section

The preliminary section is a special device for relieving the introduction of preliminary material which would require a statement too full to be treated adequately in the introduction itself where it logically belongs.

A statement of results would seem to be an integral part of any introduction that purports to be complete. The person most interested in the report will want to know as soon as possible the results of the investigation. If, however, this information cannot be stated briefly, it is placed in the first main section of the report.

The preliminary section in such a report gives the required fuller development of (a) the results of findings, (b) the conclusions reached, and (c) the recommendations. It does not necessarily rob the terminal section of its important function.

6. Body

The body of the report fulfills the promise made in the introduction; it contains the full statement of the investigation, describing the action taken and the equipment used, showing the details of what was discovered, and making an analysis of the facts. It presents only such facts as are pertinent, using charts, tables, diagrams, and drawings to supplement the written material when desirable.

When the amount of statistical data is excessive, and tends to make the body of the report cumbersome, supporting information is frequently placed in the appendix, where it can be referred to in the main text.

Throughout the body of the report the reader is kept aware of the structural pattern on which he can rely to direct him through the discussion. The two most obvious means by which this pattern is made apparent are the use of sectional headings and a consistent paragraph system.

7. Terminal Section

The terminal section lifts the essential points out of the mass of detail and displays them as the things to be remembered. It indicates that the task has been completed according to the preconceived plan.

Although this section develops no new material, it is an organic part without which the report would be incomplete. It reinforces the conclusions drawn and the recommendations made, and indicates that the goal announced in the introduction has been reached.

The terminal section is the final check-up which makes sure that the essential ideas and the purpose in presenting them are understood by the reader.

8. Appendix

The appendix relieves the body of the report from congestion. It presents pertinent data that are too detailed to be given in the text, and displays supporting data, computations, tables, graphs, and other material which the reader may wish to use in confirming the soundness of the report.

A system of numbering makes this additional material easily accessible when reference is made to it in the main text.

The appendix is usually unnecessary in a short report, but is an indispensable part of a report that is bulky or involves the use of considerable statistical information.

9. Bibliography or References

A bibliography or list of references is added when the report is based on material from the literature of the subject, or when it is assumed the reader will wish to supplement the report by further reading.

10. Letter of Transmittal

For formal reports a letter of transmittal is often required, to detail circumstances of authorization or execution, or to make the delivery of the report official. When included in a report, this letter, of course, precedes the title page.

Steps in writing the scientific report

The writing of a good scientific report involves a definite procedure consisting of four steps:

To any writer, experienced, or in experienced, such a procedure is indispensable. If he follows it, not slighting any one of the periods, nor confusing any two of them, his reports will give evidence of intelligent planning, and will do what is expected of them.

Step I - Study

Master the material for the report; determine its possibilities and limitations; decide, what can be done with it.

  1. Collect all pertinent material.
  2. Check details
  1. Consider the purpose of the report:
  1. Draft a thesis sentence

This sentence states the main objective, the most important point the report will emphasize. It is a working sketch, a lead sentence. It tests the writer's grasp of the subject, guides the planning of the report, and prevents him from including extraneous material of exceeding the limits of the subject.

The thesis sentence will rarely appear in the text of the report

Step II - Plan

Arrange the assembled material into a structural plan that will support the thesis sentence.

  1. List, preferably on cards, the topics to be covered.
  2. Test these topics against the thesis sentence, and against the purpose and limits of the report.
  3. Arrange the topics into their main groupings. These groupings will provide the subject matter for the major sections of the finished report.
  4. Organize the material within each of these groups into a logical order, possibly into second- and third-order groupings.
  5. Arrange these major organized sections into a logical sequence.
  6. Write out a working outline for the body of the report.
  7. From the working outline lay out the main and subordinate headings for the finished report.

Step III - Write

Write rapidly and uncritically, as much as possible at one sitting. Aim to get it all said, to reach the end, being concerned not at all about defects or phrasing and crudities of expression. (Note that the logical order of composition given below bears no relation to the order of parts in the report as finally assembled.)

1. Introduction

If the introduction becomes longer than one page or two, the summary should be transferred to the preliminary section - the first main section following the introduction.

Some of the special problems met in preparing an introduction are as follows:

2. Body

Follow the outline of headings prepared in Step II. If this outline does not work, revise it, make a new outline, and start over, but do not muddle through by changing the plan as the writing progresses.

3. Terminal Section

If the summary of results or conclusions has been made in the introduction or in a preliminary section, it may be omitted in the terminal section; or it may be restarted more fully in the light of subsequent discussion.

4. Synopsis or Abstract

5. Prepare the Table of Contents

6. Appendix and Bibliography or References

Step IV - Criticize

When the rough draft has been completed, lay it aside for a day or so, if possible, until it can be criticized as though it were the work of another.

  1. Make a general examination of the report as a whole.
  1. Consider the title, table of contents, introduction, and synopsis.
  1. Analyze the terminal section.
  1. Check the system of headings.
  1. Examine the text.
  1. Finally, consider whether as a whole the report accomplishes what it is expected to do.

Before preparing the final draft, consider submitting the report to another person, qualified to give constructive criticism.

Check the final draft for typographical errors.

Budapest, September, 1981