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Writing Biology Papers

As in many fields, published literature in the field of Biology often undergoes peer-review, a process in which an author’s work is submitted to a journal editor, who then asks two or three experts in a related field to read and comment on the quality of the submitted work.  Peer-reviewed publications can take one of several forms: research article, literature review, or book. Some published work may not be peer-reviewed and often appears in popular science magazines, such as American Scientist or National Geographic.  An undergraduate in Biology is most often asked to write review papers (essays) and formal lab reports.  Review papers most closely resemble literature reviews. Formal lab reports, on the other hand, most closely resemble a peer-reviewed research article, which will be the focus of this guide.

Writers in the field of biology must consider not only the form but the style of writing in biology papers.   As in all fields, there are conventions "typical" of the discipline. Writing in the sciences, for example, is concise, yet provides sufficient detail to allow the reader to follow the author’s argument. A research article or lab report is also frequently written in first person and in an active voice.  For example, rather than stating, “Bird songs were collected using…”, it is less cumbersome and more direct to state, “I collected bird songs using…”.   That said, be sure to clarify with your professor, as some prefer third-person and passive voice.

Components of a Biology Lab Report

Contributed by Krista Patriquin

A research article or lab report in Biology can be recognized by the following components.

 Title

The title should incorporate the purpose of the study as well as key words on the topic. For example, if your purpose was to offer an assessment or a comparison, these words might appear in the title. If the object of study was a particular species or experiment, these objects would appear in the title.

Abstract

You should provide a very brief summary of the entire document. The main idea from each section of the paper should be included. Using a sentence or two, you should highlight each of the following:

o    rationale/importance;

o    objectives/hypotheses;

o    how the study was conducted (methodology);

o    main findings;

o    conclusions.

Introduction

You should draw on relevant published work to provide the following:

o    Background to justify your objectives, hypotheses, and predictions;

o    Statements of your objectives, hypotheses and predictions;

o    An explanation of why your study is important in the field.

Methods

You should provide enough detail such that the reader could duplicate the methods of your study.  You should address several key questions:

o    Where was the study performed?

o    When was the study performed?

o    On what organism/structure was the study performed?

o    What instruments were used in the study?

o    What was the experimental design?

o    What variables were measured? (A variable refers to any biological feature that may be manipulated or observed. For example, arm length, eye colour and singing rate are all variables.)

o    What controls were used? (In experimental design, when manipulating a variable to test for a response, a control must also be performed where no manipulations are made. Data obtained from controls allow us to determine whether the results we obtained through manipulation were due to the experiment or some other factor.)

o    What statistics were used to analyze your data?

Use figures, flow-charts and tables to help illustrate locations and complicated experimental designs. Refer to these illustrative tools within the text.

Example: "I studied the mating behaviour of song sparrows on Vancouver Island, British Columbia (Figure 1)”.

Results

You should summarize the measurements you obtained in your study. Typically you should not provide the raw data, but instead present trends and statistics from your analyses (i.e., means, variance, p-values). Example: Male birds sing at a higher rate in June (mean 10.8±1.5 calls/min) than in July (mean 4.3±1.2 calls/min; χ2 = 1.5, p < 0.05).

Be sure to include figures and tables to illustrate major findings. Also be sure to refer to figures and tables within the text.  

DO NOT INTERPRET RESULTS. Leave this for the discussion.

 Discussion

You should discuss what your results mean with respect to your hypotheses and the field of interest. Consider the following questions:

o    Do your results support your hypotheses?

o    What are possible causes of the observed patterns?

o    Are there alternative explanations for the observed patterns?

o    How do your results compare to other studies?

o    What were some of the limitations of your study?

o    What are the implications of your study?

SUPPORT YOUR WORK WITH OTHER SOURCES!

 

Conclusion

The conclusion is either presented as a separate section or as the final paragraph of the paper. You should summarize the key points of your work, highlighting the importance of your findings and how they relate to the field of interest.  Often, you may also introduce possible future research.  Where suitable, you may also offer practical recommendations, as in the case of environmental management papers, for example.

 Literature Cited

You should provide the complete references for all sources cited in your paper.  Unlike other disciplines that strictly follow prescribed formats such as MLA or APA, the exact format of references in Biology varies with each journal. Therefore, professors will often indicate which journal style you should use in your own paper or report.

Example Paper

Dr. Marty Leonard, Associate Professor, and Dr. Andrew Horn, Research Associate, conduct research in the field of Behavioural Ecology in the Biology Department at Dalhousie University. They are primarily interested in parent-offspring interactions in tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor).  With over 50 publications in peer-reviewed literature, they have been cited hundreds of times, which demonstrates the relevance of their work in biology. 

Most recently, the research pair has focused on the influence of noise on bird communication, and they were the first to demonstrate that young birds modify their begging calls to make themselves more audible in noisy environments. Not only does this work contribute to our understanding of the evolution of bird signals, it also has important implications for understanding the potential impacts of anthropogenic (human-made) noise on animal communication. This work, entitled “Ambient noise and the design of begging signals“, was published in 2005 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, which is regarded as a high impact journal in the field of biology.

This particular paper exemplifies the fine balance between concise and clear writing. The copy in the attachment has been marked to illustrate their writing techniques with comments in a sidebar as well as topic sentences in bold. In the introduction, the authors set the stage for their question of interest by providing sufficient background on key concepts to rationalize the importance of their work.  Take note of the progression of the authors’ justification as they begin with the broad topic (evolution of animal signals) and gradually lead the reader through increasingly more specific topics (begging signals, obstacles to displaying or receiving begging signals, vocal begging signals, noise as an obstacle to vocal begging signals), ultimately concluding with their question (Do young birds adjust their begging calls in the presence of noise?).  Similarly, the authors introduce the reader to a broad taxonomic group (animals) and gradually narrow their focus (altricial birds), concluding with their study animal (tree swallows). The annotations serve as guidelines for effective writing in biology. 

Useful Links

Other useful resources

  • A Short Guide to Writing About Biology by Jan A. Pechenik
  • How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper by Robert A. Day, Barbara
    Gastel
  • Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That
    Get Funded by Joshua Schimel

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