Common mistakes to avoid when writing a research report

Mistake #1: Writing a report with no clearly defined purpose.

The central scientific purpose will supply a scaffold for the entire report. It is not possible to write a clear introduction if you have no idea what the purpose of your report is. Similarly, the discussion will have no focus if you are not clear on what you were trying to determine. Even the results section will be easier to put together if you clearly know what you are trying to show the reader. To stay focused, try writing the central purpose on an index card and keep it in front of you while you are writing. If you are struggling to fit what you want to present to the central purpose, it means either you are getting off track or the central purpose is not complete. In the latter case, rewrite the central purpose to better encompass what you want to present.

Mistake #2: Writing the report in the order it is presented.

If you attempt to start with the first sentence of the introduction and end with the last line of the discussion you will not only end up with a poor quality product but you will probably spend more time writing than is necessary. See this report writing flowchart for the writing order most people use. Note that the first step is to complete the results. You could tackle methods first or simultaneously but you cannot write a good introduction until you clearly understand what happened in your study and what it means.

The bulk of your time should be spent on your results, first analyzing the data to determine the key findings and then working out the best way to present the results so your reader will clearly grasp the key findings. Once you have hammered this out and written a good draft of the results then you are ready to write the rest of your report.

Mistake #3: Assuming the purpose of the experiment/study is the same as the learning goals.

Obviously your instructors had learning objectives in mind when they selected this particular study for you to complete. However, when you are writing a research report, the central purpose or question must reflect the scientific purpose of the study. For example, your lab instructor may ask you to test the accuracy and precision of a pipette so that you can learn how to use the device correctly and understand what precision and accuracy mean; however, the purpose of the study itself is not to understand how to use a pipette.

Mistake #4: Including information that is not clearly related to the study being presented.

When writing a scientific paper you are not writing a mystery novel or a clever allegory. Your reader should not need to sift through mountains of superfluous details to understand what you did, why you did it, what you found and what you think it means.

Mistake #5: Confusing analysis and interpretation (i.e. mixing up results and discussion).

A well planned, carefully executed and properly analyzed study will produce results that are valid forever. What might change over time is what we think the results mean (i.e. the interpretation). This is why scientists carefully separate results from interpretations when presenting a study. Analyzed data goes in the results and interpretations in the discussion (some journals combined results and discussion but authors are still careful to distinguish between what they saw and how the interpreted it). Pointing out a trend in the data is not interpretation, telling the reader what the trend means is interpretation.

Mistake #6: Presenting raw data in the results and/or not writing about the results.

Rarely is raw data useful for drawing scientific conclusions. Data must be analyzed in order to answer the questions we have posed. The analysis may take many forms, such as graphing or tabulating, to examine relationships or to reveal trends. Fully analyzed data is presented in the results and it is your job to make sure your reader can easily see the trends and important observations. This will require you to use actual sentences.

Mistake #7: Writing a discussion that has no interpretations.

When you interpret results you are giving your opinion about what the results mean. Interpretation includes: explaining how the results relate back to the central question or purpose of your study, discussing the meaning of unexpected or unusual results, making suggestions for further studies, making suggestions for improving the current study, and relating the results to a bigger context. The bigger context is what you know about your topic in general. For example, if you found that measurements made with your pipetter were not 100 percent accurate, what does that mean for experiments conducted using this measuring device?

Mistake #8: Assuming unexpected or unusual results are due to human error.

Unusual and unexpected results are what make science so interesting. When considering unexpected results assume that you did collect representative data and look for biological/scientific explanations for what you see. You will know you are on the right track if you can think of ways to test your interpretations further.

Mistake #9: Writing the entire report the night before it is due.

There are two problems with this approach. The first is that after a week you will have forgotten much of what you did in the lab. The second problem is you will have no time to reflect on what you have written and you will essentially be handing in a first draft. At the very least, complete the analysis of the results and write the materials and methods within a day or two of your lab.

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