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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Biology Writing Projects

The Biology Department offers a lot of general education students "W" courses that are also lab courses—specifically, Bio 103W, Introduction to Biotechnology, and Bio 105W, General Biology I. Writing in Biology at this level is almost exclusively writing up lab reports, reporting on what you’ve read, what you hypothesized, how you tested your hypothesis in the lab, and what you found out.

Lots of people think that writing is for the humanities or the social sciences, but that it’s not so important in the "hard sciences." But actually, as you’ll find out, writing in the sciences—in biology classes—is just as important. It just calls for a little different array of writing skills: for example, clearly describing your lab set-up and the steps you took in your experiment as well as describing (both in words and graphs) what you observed. There are also some writing skills used in lab reports that will call on academic writing skills you’ve practiced in other courses: summarizing and synthesizing (bringing together) the relevant information in your preliminary readings, stating a clear hypothesis based on your reading, and critically analyzing the evidence, the results of your experiment.

You’ll find that you won’t always be totally correct in your hypothesis. The important thing is to make a reasonable hypothesis, to carefully carry out your experiment according to the process you have set up, to carefully observe what happens and analyze why things happened as they did. Failures can sometimes be as important as successes when they lead to new understandings.

Common Writing Assignments for "W" Biology Courses

Writing Scientific Papers in "W" Biology Courses

General Description of the Lab Report

In most courses in the Biology Department, you will be asked to write papers that describe projects you have performed in the laboratory. Like papers in non-science courses, we expect them to be well-written, creative and thoughtful. Unlike papers in other courses, we expect them to conform to a format common to biological journals, which is best described below. It is critical that you understand the details of this format and particularly that you do NOT confuse these papers with "lab reports" required by other science courses.

A scientific paper in Biology should be organized as follows:

Writing Tip:
This doesn't mean that you should write the paper in this order. Some suggest writing the paper in this order: (1) Materials and Methods, (2) Results, (3) Discussion, (4) Introduction and (5) Title. That way when you write the descriptions of the results, you will be thinking them through and preparing to later write the Discussion and Introduction.

What to Include in Each Section

Title Page

  • Title of your paper
  • Your name
  • Course title and your lab section
  • Your TA/instructors’ names
  • Due date

The title tells what the paper is about. A title should be informative, specific and concise. Since you are not writing a murder mystery, it is all right to tell the "ending" in the title. It is often this information that helps a reader decide if the paper is something he/she wants to read.


The introduction should briefly explain why the research was done. It provides a context for your experiment, including the methods you will use. It should include the following two parts:

  • Background: Relate this research to other relevant work and mention the major issues that arise about your topic and/or methods. This background information should present the logic behind your hypotheses and predictions. A good way to organize the introduction is to begin with the general and proceed to the specific. Assume that the reader is at least moderately familiar with the general subject of the paper. However, unless you are studying a model organism (e.g., Drosophila, E. coli, etc.), it is important to describe enough aspects of its natural history so that the reader can appreciate why it was chosen for the study.

  • Hypothesis and prediction: The introduction should end with the purpose of the experiment/research, your hypotheses and predictions. The background should contain the reasons for choosing the hypothesis to be tested. It is important to distinguish between a hypothesis about how something works or happens and predictions: based on your hypothesis, about what you should you see that will indicate your hypothesis is correct.

Writing tips:
Since a good introduction will mention the major issues that will be considered in the Discussion section, it may be a good idea to write this section after finishing the other sections.

Don't start the paper with the phrase: "The goal of this experiment was ..." This is not a general statement about the subject.

Material and Methods

This section should carefully explain how the research was done. Organize the sections logically using subheadings if there are more than several paragraphs. Include

  • all materials used, including composition of solutions, media
  • the exact conditions employed
  • how you gathered the data; describe your procedures precisely.

You may cite the lab manual (or another source) for a common technique. If you develop your own technique, you should explain it in sufficient detail so that another person can replicate your work. Commonly-used statistical tests generally need no explanation or citation.

Writing Tip:
Don't present your materials and methods as a list. Write in complete sentences and organized paragraphs. You must use past tense grammar for this section (the actions were done in the past during your lab). It is customary to use passive voice here, since it the action completed is what is important, not who did the action. For example:   The incubator was preheated to 37° C.


The results section should summarize but not interpret the results obtained. One good way to approach the writing of the Results section is to develop a set of questions about the data you gathered. Don't use any questions that begin with "Why"

because these necessarily involve interpretation, so they should be addressed in the Discussion section. Write your Results section by answering each of these questions in logical order.

Refer to Figures and Tables as you describe the results. Figures and tables will help the reader to understand your results more easily than a written description. They should not duplicate text; text should only tell the reader the major points to be noted on the figures or tables (that is, they should tell the reader what you think is particularly important about the data presented). Obviously the same data should not be presented in different forms, so decide which form helps you tell your reader what you want him/her to know.

Graphs of any kind, as well as other pictorial materials, are referred to as "Figures" in the text and are numbered. Tables are called "Tables" in the text and are numbered separately from figures. Figures and Tables may either follow the first reference to them in the text (NOT BEFORE), or all may be collected at the end of the paper. All figures and tables must be referred to (or "called out") before they are explained in the text.

  • Bad example: "The results are shown in Graph 1." This is not a summary of the results, and the graphs should be referred to as "Figures."
  • Another bad example: "Growth rates under low fertilizer had an average of 3.2 g, and growth rates under high fertilizer treatment had an average of 6.5 g (see Figure 1).
  • Good example: "We found that higher levels of fertilizer resulted in significantly greater growth rates (Figure 1).


  • Use a graph to illustrate a relationship or pattern in your data.
  • Be sure that the type of graph you choose is appropriate for the type of data you wish to display. What assumptions are you making by using a particular type of graph? For example, a line graph with the points connected indicates that the variables are continuous over the range display.
  • By convention, the independent variable (the one you manipulated) is on the Xaxis and the dependent variable (the result of the manipulation) is on the Y-axis.
  • The axes of a graph must have clear, concise labels. If there is more than one line or bar on the graph, each must be clearly identified.
  • All figures must have clear and specific captions. A caption is usually written as an incomplete sentence with only the first word capitalized and should being with "Figure 1. The ...." If required for clarity, you may include several more sentences. It should be placed below the figure. [Note for EXCEL users: In EXCEL's very nice "Chartwizard", a "legend" refers to the part of the graph that explains what various lines/colors refer to. You will add your caption as ordinary text after the figure has been created.]


  • Tables are used to present matrices of data. If it is important to show a pattern or trend, use a graph instead of a table.
  • Do not present raw data and expect your reader to do the arithmetic before s/he can understand the contents of a table. Printouts of EXCEL worksheets with raw data are not acceptable tables.
  • Try to avoid large tables - no one will read through them. Perhaps the information can be presented better in several smaller tables.
  • All tables must have captions that explain their contents sufficiently so they can stand alone (much like figures). Captions should be placed above the table and should begin: "Table 1. The ... "


The discussion should interpret and explain the meaning of your results and usually proceeds from specific to general. Begin with a summary of your results in a sentence or two. Remind the reader of important trends, etc. Then relate your results to your own initial hypothesis, arguing for a particular interpretation of your data. Don't forget that "negative" results can be important too, since they may suggest that your hypothesis was incorrect (after all, it is just possible that you did not introduce any experimental error into your proceedure). State whether or not your results supported your hypotheses and predictions. Relate your results to other papers or published hypotheses if appropriate. Any biases or flaws (experimental errors) in your experiments should be mentioned in the discussion.

The discussion should end with a summary - the "take home lesson" that you want your reader to remember about your work. It may also raise further questions for study. However, if you end the discussion with the phrase, "but of course more work needs to be done, " you will receive a lower grade! Please let me know what kind of work would be most informative and why.


Acknowledgements are used to thank any persons who contributed any significant help during the study. Such contributions include, but are by no means limited to, help in experimental design, collection of data, preparation of graphs, drawings or the manuscript, critiquing a draft of the paper or in financial or physical support of the work. Your partners in a group project must certainly be acknowledged!


Reference List

The references include only the papers or other publications that were directly referred to in your paper; they are not a bibliography. The following are examples of how articles should appear in the References section. Articles should be listed in the section alphabetically according to the first author.

Form for a journal article:

Brown, J.M. and D.S. Wilson. 1992. Local specialization on sympatric hosts: phoretic mites on carrion beetles.
Ecology 73:463-478.


Brown, J.M. 1999. How I became rich in academia—a fantasy . Harper and Row, New York, NY.

In-Text Citation

References should be cited in one of two ways in the text:
  • Mention the authors' names as part of your sentence followed by the year of publication in parentheses: "Brown and Wilson (1992) performed a set of experiments demonstrating variability in host specialization ..."
  • OR, Place authors' names and the year of publication in parentheses following ideas or results from the study: "A phlogenetic tree of the yucca moth family indicates the important role of host plant association in the evolution of this group" (Brown et a!. 1994).

What's Valued...

...and What's Not

General Comments
  • NEVER copy another person's written work—this is plagiarism. If you quote someone, you must put the quoted passage in "quotation marks" and you must cite the source of the quote. At the university level, plagiarism may result in anything from receiving an F on an assignment to flunking the course to expulsion.
  • Biological editors recommend using the active, rather than the passive, voice in scientific reports. Thus, instead of writing, "The plants were measured ...", you should write, "We measured the plants ..." Note that this convention may not be true in other disciplines (e.g., chemistry).
  • Use the past tense when describing your experiment and its results. Use the present tense when discussing general properties of organisms.
  • All papers must be typed, double-spaced with 1 inch margins on all sides.
  • Pages must be arranged in the correct sequence, numbered and stapled together.
  • Report all important aspects of the study, but remember every word costs money to print, so keep it as short as possible in order to be consistent with a good job.
  • Never apologize for lack of data; always assume that you have done the best job possible.

    (Adapted by Kristin Herrmann from Writing Papers in the Biological Sciences (1998)
    by Victoria E. McMillan, St. Martin's Press, N.Y.)

Sample Assignments

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Sample Papers

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The Summary Paper

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Citing Sources

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