Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Lab Reports for Grown-Ups

Grid notebooks, hand-written graphs, switching the carbon paper every time you turned a page. Such are the memories aroused by the mere mention of lab reports.*

To this day, I still remember the strict guidelines of high school lab reports: Hypothesis, Introduction, Materials, Methods, Data/Results, Analysis, and Conclusion.

Scientists write articles instead of lab reports. Articles are reminiscent of lab reports, but the formatting is slightly different, as we explore below.

Abstract (Lab report analogue-Hypothesis):
Scientists browse abstracts when deciding what papers to read. Similar to movie previews or the insides of book jackets. The main difference is that an abstract gives away the ending.

Remember trying to summarize your entire four-hour lab into 1-2 sentences? Now imagine summarizing four years of research into one paragraph.

In this small paragraph, the authors convey what they did, the new exciting result, and how the work is going to revolutionize the field.

Introduction (Lab report analogue-Introduction):
This section provides the motivation of the research and puts the work in context with past research. It usually ends with a description of the paper’s structure.

Introductions are a good place to start if you’re a non-expert. They are written for a broad audience, contain no math, and the best ones provide a good review of the field.

Results (Lab report analogue-Data/Results and Analysis):
Results are the meat of the paper, the section most likely to be read. And by read, I mean that someone will look at the figures.

The figures encompass the important findings and the results of the analysis. A figure is typically a graph (or multiple graphs) showing some trend in the data. Each paper is allowed a limited number of figures so researchers tend to cram as much information as possible into them.

The written part of this section ties together all of the figures into a coherent story.

Discussion (Lab report analogue-Conclusion):
First, the important results are reiterated (research articles are in no way subtle; authors want the reader to remember the main point of the article).

Second, researchers make bold claims about their results and the future impact.

The discussion section is typically the most imaginative part of the paper because researchers can make wild claims under the guise of ‘discussing’ their results.

Materials and Methods (Lab report analogue-Materials and Methods):
Don’t worry; this section is not out of place. Materials and Methods are placed after the rest of the paper and are sometimes in smaller font than the main text.

Think of these like the liner notes of a CD. Anyone can listen to the CD and enjoy the music, but only the big fans read the liner notes.

Similarly, readers should understand the main conclusion from the rest of the paper. Experts read the Material and Methods section to understand how the research was conducted.

If this post got you excited about reading research articles, here are two excellent open source journals: Public Library of Science (www.plos.org) and Frontiers in (www.frontiersin.org).

Next post: Tips on how to read research papers (a skill which should be taught more often).

*I apologize to any readers who have only typed lab reports. Back in the day, we used an archaic material called carbon paper to make hand-written carbon copies of our lab notebooks. (Fun fact: this is where the term “cc’ing” comes from.)

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