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Guidelines On How To Write A Formal Report

Scientists and engineers routinely have the need to express themselves clearly, concisely and persuasively in applying for grants, publishing papers, reporting to their supervisors, communicating with their colleagues, etc.; in experimental science, formal reports are the primary means by which experiment lists communicate the results of their work to the scientific community. In the Formal Lab Reports, which are meant to be written in the style of a scientific journal article, you will have an opportunity to begin developing the skills required. Whereas the complete record of an experiment is kept in the lab book, the formal report is a summary of the experiment. Check out the Physics Library for examples – the American Journal of Physics is particularly useful and easily available. If you have doubts about your ability to write in clear English, you should check out the Writing Labs available in most of the Colleges.

In a formal report the single most important thing is to write from the point of view of the reader. In the case of the scientific formal report you can safely assume that scientific journal readers are somewhat knowledgeable about science; perhaps for your own report you can assume that your readers will be first year physics students who have not done the particular experiment you are reporting. The reader of your report should understand from your report what you have done, why you have done it, and what you have concluded. The reader is not interested in going through the details of how you multiplied, divided, etc., and is unlikely to have any interest in long tables of numbers. You will have to use your judgment to determine what to include and what to exclude. For example, most common measuring apparatuses do not have to be described. However, any ingenious or novel method or tool in your experiment, should be explained in sufficient detail that the reader can understand what you did.

In general the scientific paper is a very condensed, compact and brief presentation of scientific results. The report should be no more than 800 words, (3 pages of double spaced type) and 2 pages of graphs and/or diagrams. We will deduct marks if the report is longer than this!

Please include your name, section and group, as well as your demonstrator’s name.

We recommend the following general structure:

1.) Title: This should be short, but precise, and convey the point of the report. It could be either a statement or a question. For example, a title like “Voltage-current relationship of a transistor” is good, as is “Does the transistor obey Ohm’s Law?”. But simply “The transistor” is too vague and is not a good title.

2.) Abstract: The abstract summarizes, in a couple of sentences, the content of the report. It provides a brief (5-10 lines) outline of what the report is about; it should include a statement of what it is you measured and its value (Warning! — students often make abstracts too long — note that an abstract is not an introduction.)

3.) Introduction: The role of this section is to state why the work reported is useful, where it fits in the bigger picture of the field (or of science in general), and to discuss briefly the theoretical hypotheses which are to be tested (e.g. for the Absolute Zero experiment, state the meaning of absolute zero and how it is to be measured, mention the equation PV = nRT and discuss its verification, and under what circumstances you expect it to be valid).

4.) Experimental Method: Describe the apparatus and procedure used in the experiment. Remember that a picture (or simple diagram) is often worth a thousand words! Enough details should be provided for the reader to have a clear idea of what was done. But be careful to not swamp the reader with insignificant or useless facts.

5.) Results and Discussion: In this section, you present and interpret the data you have obtained. If at all possible, avoid tables of data. Graphs are usually a much clearer way to present data (make sure axes are labeled, and error bars are shown!). Please make sure the graphs and diagrams have concise figure captions explaining what they are about! Do not show the details of error calculations. The derivation of any formulae you use is not required, but should be referenced. Explain how your data corroborates (or does not corroborate) the hypotheses being tested, and compare, where possible, with other work. Also, estimate the magnitude of systematic errors which you feel might influence your results (e.g. In the Absolute Zero experiment, how big is the temperature correction? Does this alter your results significantly?).

6.) Conclusion: In a few lines, sum up the results of your experiment. Do your data agree (within experimental error) with theory? If not, can you explain why? Remember that the conclusion is a summary; do not say anything in the conclusion which you have not already discussed more fully earlier in the text.