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Section5.2Writing for Biology

Some students initially believe that writing is not important to science; however, lab reports are actually vital to understanding the context and the relevance of the science you are doing in lab and learning about in class, and their format allows scientists to communicate findings concisely and succinctly. After learning the specific skills that are needed, many students learn that they particularly enjoy writing for the natural sciences. Read this guide to learn about how writing for biology can be helpful and meaningful to you!

Genres

As in most science classes, the vast majority of the writing you do will be in the form of lab reports. Lab reports are papers based on an investigation that follows the standard template of an introduction, a methods section, a presentation of results, and a discussion of those results. In most biology classes you will be asked to write both full-length lab reports as well as individual sections of one for practice. Other kinds of writing that you may be asked to do include abstracts, critical reviews (in which you synthesize the primary literature on a topic) or, in upper-division classes, research proposals, and research papers.

Purpose

We spend so much time in lab on the methods portion and results portion, but lab reports are really helpful because they make us put our results in the greater context.

It's entirely too easy to become myopic in lab (both figuratively and literally—goggles don't help anyone's eyesight). Because of this possibility, lab reports become not only effective ways to communicate the results of an experiment to other scientists, but also good places to help you understand the science you have done more fully and in the context of biology as a discipline. Further, while the prescribed format may seem constraining, there is a reason why it has lasted: it can help you organize your own thoughts and give you the space to “step back” and find the larger frame for your experiment. In this way, lab reports are actually great opportunities to rethink what you've done in lab and learned in class on your own and to understand the larger import of the experiment you conducted.

Traits and Characteristics

I like to think of science almost like a coral reef you can build on: you build on what's beneath.

The purpose of doing an experiment is never just to have done the experiment; rather, as the quote marking this subsection indicates, the purpose of a lab is not to repeat something already known but to build innovatively on what you've learned, allowing you to explore the emergent properties of scientific knowledge. This idea is particularly important to remember when you're writing for biology because writing in biology requires that you frame any experimental description with the “why” behind your research.

Further, because biology is a natural science, it adheres to the principles of the scientific method, requiring objectivity, reproducibility, and quantitative results. For these reasons it's important to communicate clearly and efficiently in a style that reflects this objectivity and relies on quantitative values rather than vague words like “more” or “greater.”

While there is a convention-driven style to a lot of science writing in which you follow established norms, a good scientist thinks creatively about the field, where the gaps are, and where they can contribute. In this way, there is always room within the individual sections and their connecting links to explain ideas in an innovative way, ask creative questions, and propose new ideas for future research.

Evidence

Because biology is a natural science, the only kind of data you should use is empirical, reproducible data you have collected yourself or data from a peer-reviewed, secondary source published in a scholarly journal. Quoting is generally discouraged, although there are exceptions for research papers, proposals, or grants.

  • Don't write your paper in the order it's presented to you in the template. It's easier to reverse-engineer your paper by starting with figures, tables, and the methods and results sections, and then working your way through the discussion, finishing with your title and introduction. This approach will allow you to focus the information that you include in your introduction so that it is relevant to the rest of the experiment rather than wasting time writing about things that aren't relevant.

  • Rely on the formatting given to you by your professors. Specifically ask your professor about whether they prefer active or passive voice—this issue is still up for debate in science writing, and different professors (and different branches of the field) have different policies.

List5.2.1Conventions and Tips
Additional Resources

“Writing in Biology” by Karin Knisely; “The Science of Scientific Writing” by Kathleen Fisher; and “The Art of Scientific Writing” by Claus Bliefert, Hans Friedrich Ebel, and William E. Russey are all great resources for additional writing guidelines.