Writing a Research Paper

Written and oral communications skills are probably the most universal qualities sought by graduate and professional schools as well as by employers. You alone are responsible for developing such skills to a high level.

General form of a research paper

An objective of organizing a research paper is to allow people to read your work selectively. When we research a topic, we may be interested in just the methods, a specific result, the interpretation, or perhaps we just want to see a summary of the paper to determine if it is relevant to my study.  Many journals require the following sections, submitted in the order listed, each section to start on a new page. There are variations of course. For eg. Some journals call for a combined results and discussion.

General style

Specific editorial requirements for submission of a manuscript will always supercede instructions in these general guidelines.

To make a paper readable

Print or type using a 12 point standard font, such as Times, Geneva, Bookman, Helvetica, etc. 

Text should be double spaced on 8 1/2" x 11" paper with 1 inch margins, single sided

Number pages consecutively 

Start each new section on a new page


Adhere to recommended page limits


Mistakes to avoid

Placing a heading at the bottom of a page with the following text on the next page (insert a page break!) 

Dividing a table or figure - confine each figure/table to a single page .

Submitting a paper with pages out of order


In all sections of your paper

Use normal prose including articles ("a", "the," etc.)

Stay focused on the research topic of the paper 

Use paragraphs to separate each important point (except for the abstract) 

Indent the first line of each paragraph 

Present your points in logical order 

Use present tense to report well accepted facts - for example, 'the grass is green' 

Use past tense to describe specific results - for example, 'When weed killer was applied, the grass was brown' 

Avoid informal wording, don't address the reader directly, and don't use jargon, slang terms, or superlatives 

Avoid use of superfluous pictures - include only those figures necessary to presenting results




Title Page

Select an informative title as illustrated in the examples in your writing portfolio example package. Include the name(s) and address(es) of all authors, and date submitted. "Biology lab #1" would not be an informative title, for example.


The summary should be two hundred words or less

An abstract is a concise single paragraph summary of completed work or work in progress. In a minute or less a reader can learn the rationale behind the study, general approach to the problem, pertinent results, and important conclusions or new questions.

Write your summary after the rest of the paper is completed. After all, how can you summarize something that is not yet written? Economy of words is important throughout any paper, but especially in an abstract.

Include :

Purpose of the study - hypothesis, overall question, objective 

Model organism or system and brief description of the experiment 

Results, including specific data - if the results are quantitative in nature, report quantitative data; results of any statistical analysis shoud be reported 

Important conclusions or questions that follow from the experiment(s)



Single paragraph, and concise 

As a summary of work done, it is always written in past tense

An abstract should stand on its own, and not refer to any other part of the paper such as a figure or table 

Focus on summarizing results - limit background information to a sentence or two, if absolutely necessary

What you report in an abstract must be consistent with what you reported in the paper

Corrrect spelling, clarity of sentences and phrases, and proper reporting of quantities (proper units, significant figures) are just as important in an abstract as they are anywhere else





Your introductions should not exceed two pages (double spaced, typed).The purpose of an introduction is to aquaint the reader with the rationale behind the work, with the intention of defending it. It places your work in a theoretical context, and enables the reader to understand and appreciate it

Describe the importance (significance) of the study - why was this worth doing in the first place? Provide a broad context. 

Defend the model - why did you use this particular organism or system? What are its advantages? You might comment on its suitability from a theoretical point of view as well as indicate practical reasons for using it. 

Provide a rationale. State your specific hypothesis(es) or objective(s), and describe the reasoning that led you to select them. 

Very briefy describe the experimental design and how it accomplished the stated objectives.


Use past tense except when referring to established facts.

Organize your ideas, making one major point with each paragraph.

Present background information only as needed in order support a position.. 

State the hypothesis/objective precisely - do not oversimplify. 

As always, pay attention to spelling, clarity and appropriateness of sentences and phrases.


Materials and Methods

There is no specific page limit, but a key concept is to keep this section as concise as you possibly can. People will want to read this material selectively. The reader may only be interested in one formula or part of a procedure.

The objective is to document all specialized materials and general procedures, so that another individual may use some or all of the methods in another study or judge the scientific merit of your work. It is not to be a step by step description of everything you did, nor is a methods section a set of instructions.. 


Describe materials separately.

Include specialized chemicals, biological materials, and any equipment or supplies that are not commonly found in laboratories. 

Do not include commonly found supplies such as test tubes, pipet tips, beakers, etc., or standard lab equipment such as centrifuges, spectrophotometers, pipettors, etc. 

If use of a specific type of equipment, a specific enzyme, or a culture from a particular supplier is critical to the success of the experiment, then it and the source should be singled out, otherwise no. 

Materials may be reported in a separate paragraph or else they may be identified along with your procedures. 


Report the methodology 

 Describe the mehodology completely, including such specifics as temperatures, incubation times, etc. 

To be concise, present methods under headings devoted to specific procedures or groups of procedures 

Generalize - report how procedures were done, not how they were specifically performed on a particular day. 

If well documented procedures were used, report the procedure by name, perhaps with reference.


When writing up the methods most authors use third person passive voice.

Use normal prose in this and in every other section of the paper – avoid informal lists, and use complete sentences.

What to avoid 

Materials and methods are not a set of instructions.

Omit all explanatory information and background - save it for the discussion. 

Omit information that is irrelevant to a third party, such as what color ice bucket you used, or which individual logged in the data



The page length of this section is set by the amount and types of data to be reported. Continue to be concise, using figures and tables, if appropriate, to present results most effectively.The purpose of a results section is to present and illustrate your findings. Make this section a completely objective report of the results.


Summarize your findings in text and illustrate them, if appropriate, with figures and tables.

In text, describe each of your results, pointing the reader to observations that are most relevant. 

Provide a context, such as by describing the question that was addressed by making a particular observation. 

Describe results of control experiments.

Analyze your data,

Do not discuss or interpret your results, report background information, or attempt to explain anything. 

Never include raw data or intermediate calculations in a research paper.

Do not present the same data more than once.

Text should complement any figures or tables, not repeat the same information.

Please do not confuse figures with tables - there is a difference.


As always, use past tense when you refer to your results, and put everything in a logical order.

In text, refer to each figure as "figure 1," "figure 2," etc.  

Place figures and tables, properly numbered, in order at the end of the report (clearly distinguish them from any other material such as raw data, standard curves, etc.)

Regardless of placement, each figure must be numbered consecutively and complete with caption (caption goes under the figure) 



The objective here is to provide an interpretation of your results and support for all of your conclusions, using evidence from your experiment and generally accepted knowledge, if appropriate. The significance of findings should be clearly described.


Interpret your data in the discussion in appropriate depth. This means that when you explain a phenomenon you must describe mechanisms that may account for the observation. If your results differ from your expectations, explain why that may have happened. If your results agree, then describe the theory that the evidence supported

Decide if each hypothesis is supported, rejected, or if you cannot make a decision with confidence." 

Research papers are not accepted if the work is incomplete. Draw what conclusions you can based upon the results that you have, and treat the study as a finished work 

You may suggest future directions, such as how the experiment might be modified to accomplish another objective. 

Explain all of your observations as much as possible, focusing on mechanisms. 

Decide if the experimental design adequately addressed the hypothesis, and whether or not it was properly controlled.

Try to offer alternative explanations if reasonable alternatives exist. 

One experiment will not answer an overall question, so keeping the big picture in mind, where do you go next? The best studies open up new avenues of research 

Refer to work done by specific individuals (including yourself) in past tense.





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