A guide for scientific writing

Bachelor Earth Sciences

 

Preface
Scientific writing is an art and skill that must be learned by repetitive practice of reading,
writing and revising. Throughout the bachelor’s programme of Earth Sciences, there are
various moments during which you train your writing skills. These skills are not only
necessary to successfully complete the final course of the bachelor programme, the
bachelor thesis, but are also a prerequisite for effective communication with colleagues
or the general public in your academic or professional career.
This document aims to provide concise guidelines and instructions for content, structure
and style of scientific reports with examples of do’s (in green) and don’ts (in red).
Scientific reports can take the form of a fieldwork report, a literature review or a
research paper, which all share a similar basic structure. Students are encouraged to use
this document to structure and evaluate their text before submission. For teachers, this
document may be useful to give consistent instructions, feedback and grades. Note that
all instructions should be interpreted as guidelines and not as absolute laws; there may
be good reasons to deviate from them. In such cases, it is advised to consult your
supervisor.
This guide has been largely based on a previous version developed by the Centrum voor Onderwijs
en Leren at Utrecht University (COLUU) and input and feedback from colleague lecturers and
professors of the bachelor’s programme of Earth Science at Utrecht University.

Dr Marcel van der Perk
April 2015

 

 

1 Introduction

1.1 Why scientific writing?
Scientists write to communicate their research results and findings with other scientists
or experts. In this way, information is shared in a systematic manner, so that
researchers can build upon the work of others. Although there are different ways to
share information amongst the scientific community, such as oral or poster presentations
on scientific conferences, science blogs, or data warehouses, written reports, especially
those reviewed by peer scientists and published in international journals, are still the
most effective way to add your research outcomes to the body of scientific knowledge.

1.2 Plagiarism and scientific misconduct
Plagiarism encompasses copying of someone else’s work or ideas without proper
reference and present it as an own piece of work. It is considered as academic
misconduct. To avoid plagiarism, do not literally copy any phrases from source materials
(article, book, or report) and always give a proper reference to the original source from
which you borrow insights and knowledge.
Scientific misconduct is broader defined as "Intention or gross negligence leading to
fabrication of the scientific message or a false credit or emphasis given to a scientist"
(Danish definition) and includes, besides plagiarism, data manipulation and fabrication.
It should be obvious that in the academic community, any form of scientific misconduct
is considered to be a very serious offense and will be treated as such. More information,
further explanation, and examples of fraud and plagiarism can be found on the
university’s website1 or the plagiarism.org website2

 

2 Structure and content

2.1 Reporting according to the IMRAD structure
Scientific writing has a long tradition and since the first half of the 20th century, the
IMRAD structure has become the dominant structure for scientific reports reporting
original research (most journal articles, congress papers, bachelor and master theses,
etc.). IMRAD is an acronym for introduction, methods, results, and discussion. These
four elements are the main ingredients for a scientific report and are preceded by an
abstract and followed by conclusions. They also usually form the main headings for the
successive sections of a scientific report or paper.
The IMRAD structure reflects in a way the process of scientific discovery through the
empirical cycle. Although the empirical cycle is often complex and involves many
iterative feedback loops (Fig. 1), the IMRAD structure seems to reduce it to an
oversimplified, linear, and stepwise process. This is also why the IMRAD structure has
been criticised in the past for being too rigid and too simplistic (e.g. Medawar, 1964).
Nevertheless, the IMRAD method has been adopted by the majority of journals across a
wide range of disciplines.

 

2.2 Other necessary content
Title
The title of a paper or report reflects the content of the report and is informative and
short (approximately 15 words at maximum). Omit any redundant phrases, such as “a
study of..” or “a report of...”. For reports, a subtitle may be added. An example of an
appropriate title is “Assessment of soil erosion in Africa using remote sensing”, because
it informs the reader about 1) The subject (assessment of soil erosion), 2) the location
(Africa), and 3) the research method (remote sensing).
In a paper, the title is placed on top of the first page, followed by a list of authors. In
reports, the title is on the cover page. The cover page also includes the names of the
authors (and student number, if applicable), date and location of publication, name and
code of the course and supervisor (if applicable).

Preface
In a longer research report, you may include a preface in which you the framework in
which you carried out the study (e.g. part of your study programme or larger research
project), acknowledgements to persons and institutes who have contributed to your
research (e.g. for assistance during fieldwork or laboratory analyses, for providing data,
for providing of funding, or for feedback on an earlier draft of your report or paper). The
preface is not a chapter, so it is not numbered.

Table of contents
In research reports or bachelor theses, a table of contents comes at the beginning of
your report. It contains a list of all chapters and sections, and if applicable subsections.
The chapter and section titles should be short and each title should cover the contents of
the item concerned. The table of contents reflects the logical order of the chapters and
section and for each item, the table of contents refers to the respective page in the
report where this item starts.
Furthermore, a complete list of figures and tables and a list of appendices is included
with reference to the pages they appear. Both tables and figures are numbered
consecutively (do not use Roman numerals), but in research reports or bachelor theses it
is also allowed to number the tables and figures consecutively per chapter (e.g. Figure
1.1, 1.2 or Table 3.1, 3.2, .3.3, 3.4).

Summary or abstract
For a fieldwork report or a bachelor thesis, a summary of about 1 page is provided at the
end of your thesis. The summary briefly summarises the context, research aim or
question, research approach (methods and materials), and main findings and conclusions
(in this particular order). It should inform the reader about the highlights of your work.
In a research paper, a more concise abstract is provided at beginning of your paper
before the introduction section. An abstracts contains the same ingredients (and, ideally,
the same information) as a summary, but is more concise.

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The summary or abstract is not a chapter, so it is not numbered. For both research
reports and papers, include a list of 5 key words that are related to your study. These
key words should be mentioned at the end of the abstract.

References
At the end of the report or paper (after the conclusions section or chapter), you include a
reference list, in which you list all literature, to which you have referred to in your main
text. Conversely, all references in the reference list should appear in the main text. The
reference list is not a chapter, so it is not numbered. Just as the summary, the reference
list is ordered in alphabetical order. For a correct formatting of the references in the
main text and in the reference list, we refer to chapter 3.

Appendices
An appendix contains materials that would obscure the structure and message of the
text if it is included in the main text. Examples include tables of all quantitative research
results, examples of field observation forms, or computer code. All appendices should be
given an appropriate title and numbered consecutively.

3 Style
3.1 General
Not only the structure and content of scientific texts are important, but it is also
essential to choose the appropriate wording, syntax, and style in your text. After all,
your text should be easy to read and comprehensible, especially for your target audience
that mainly consists of colleagues and educated laymen. This chapter provides a number
of useful tips and considerations with respect to style.
In the degree programmes of Earth Science, in general we follow the style manual by
the American Society of Agronomy (ASA)1

. We refer to this document to find general
information about the use of abbreviations, punctuation, and units in your text. For
further information about the correct use of punctuation, see the Wikihow website2 about
this topic.

3.2 Structure and lay-out
3.2.1 Page numbering
You should always insert page numbers in your document.
• For the body text or the entire document, use consecutive page numbers in
Arabic numerals at the bottom of the page.
• In reports, you may use a different style and page numbering for the front matter
(i.e. title page, preface, table of contents) (often Roman numerals) and the body
text (Arabic numerals).
• In reports, page numbers are not printed on blank pages (e.g., blank even pages
preceding a new chapter).

DO’s DON’T’s • Insert page numbers in your document • Do not insert page numbers on blank

pages

3.2.2 Chapters and sections
The chapters and sections reflect the global structure of a text. They often have a
standard title such as “Introduction” or “Methods”, which allow readers to find
information readily and quickly. All titles should have the same logical hierarchy. For
example, if you describe the geological formations found in your study area, name the
consecutive sections accordingly, but do not mix up the geological formations with
chronostratigrahic units or geomorphologic units either in the titles or text.
Furthermore, the titles at the same hierarchical level should be formatted in the same
manner (font type and size). These styles can be defined in your word processor (for