Compiled by Timothy T. Allen, revised 2000. This paper greatly expands upon a handout originally prepared by an unknown author for distribution to students in introductory earth science courses at Dartmouth College. The work is presented here without copyright, although acknowledgement is (of course) appreciated. This document is also available in in Adobe Acrobat Format
A scientific paper, whether it is a class term-paper or the publishable results of an experiment or investigation, should reflect the application of the Scientific Method. Recall that the Scientific Method involves asking questions, based on some initial set of observations. The creative scientist then proposes one or more hypotheses or possible answers to the questions, and then proceeds to design and conduct experiments to test these hypotheses. These experiments yield new observations that might both help answer the previous questions as well as lead to new questions.
A scientific paper should be well organized, normally including the sections listed below, which are clearly delineated by appropriate headings and sub-headings. Your textbook and the journal articles you read in your research could serve as role models for how you might organize your paper. Note also that these books and journal articles usually contain lots of figures, charts, diagrams, tables, or other illustrations--often a scientist creates the figures she will use to illustrate her point and then writes the paper around those figures! Finally, be aware that science progresses only by building upon the work of others. In order for this system to work well, however, scientists must give proper credit to the others from whom they've obtained ideas, facts or data.
It is in the body where you describe the observations and information, the data, you obtained from the experiments you conducted, as well as describing the experiments themselves. An experiment can include going to the library to look up information as well as going out into the field and making your own detailed observations of the environment around you. If you do conduct a controlled experiment in either a laboratory or field setting, you need to describe your procedures well enough that others could reproduce your experiment if they desired.
All figures should be neat and legible, should have a caption, and should be referenced from within the text of your paper (why include a picture if you don't discuss it in the body?). If the figure has been copied or adapted from another source, that source must be properly acknowledged in the caption and listed among your other references.
If other scientists do decide to read your paper further, their next step will likely be to read your abstract and look at your figures. The qualities of an abstract are best summarized by Landes (1951): "The abstract is of utmost importance, for it is read by 10 to 500 times more people than read the entire article. It should not be a mere recital of the subjects covered, replete with such expressions as 'is discussed' and 'is described'. It should be a condensation and concentration of the essential qualities of the paper." Although the abstract appears first in the report, it is usually written last.
The point in writing a scientific paper, or any paper for that matter, is to effectively communicate an idea or some information to your reader. A well-organized paper, with a logical flow to the discussion, an interdependent support between figures and text, and with appropriate acknowledgment of sources achieves this goal much more readily.
Council of Biology Editors, 1994, Scientific style and format : the CBE manual for authors, editors, and publishers, 6th edition, Cambridge University Press, New York. 825 p.
Day, R. A., 1979, How to write and publish a scientific paper, ISI Press, Philadelphia, 45 p.
Hansen, W. R. (editor), 1991, Suggestions to authors of the reports of the United States Geological Survey, 7th edition, U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C., 311 p.
Landes, K. K., 1951, A scrutiny of the abstract, Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, v. 35.