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BIOL/ESCI 304 - Ecology

A guide for BIOL/ESCI 304 students researching environmental topics in the library and on the internet.

Writing Lab Reports

This page provides guidelines that you will use to write your lab reports for the pollination lab, competition in ants and allelopathy in plants. You will apply many of these guidelines (use of citations, references, summarizing data, discussing conclusions) in other writing assignments.

All research papers in the field of biology follow the same basic format. There are almost always five sections: An Introduction, a Materials and Methods, a Results, a Discussion, and a Literature Cited section. Your lab report is a scientific paper and will follow this format.

Additional and more detailed information is also found in A Short Guide to Writing About Biology by Pachenek. Page numbers refer to specific pages in the 9th edition of the book, which provides additional information that you may need.

Species Name and Taxa Format (p. 11)

First mention in introduction: Give both the species common and scientific names (e.g., potato aphids (Macrosiphum euphorbiae)).

After first mention: You can refer to your species by: its common name or an abbreviated scientific name (e.g., potato aphid or M. euphoribiae).

Additional tips: Common names are never capitalized unless it is a proper name. Scientific names above the species level (genus, order, family) are always capitalized. In the scientific name, species name is NOT capitalized, genus is capitalized (see page 11 in a Short Guide).

Materials and Methods (p. 152-157)

Overview: In this section you will describe the procedure you used to gather data. (1) You will provide information on the study area, how much/many samples were gathered, and how samples were gathered; (2) a concise description of the procedures and rationale used to gather the data (including a description of sample size and how data was gathered) — for both experiments; and (3) a concise description of the statistical analyses that were used to analyze the data.

Writing style example: "We gathered 4.82 g of boxelder tree leaves from the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus natural area and prepared a leaf extract solution following the procedures outlined in Reibesell et al. (2001).

To test if boxelder inhibited seed germination, we sterilized 75 radish (Raphanus sativus) seeds with 10% bleach solution, etc."

NOTE: It is appropriate to cite the lab manual in instances where you did not alter the directions from the lab manual at all. The key to a good materials and methods section is concise writing and making good decisions about the level of detail to include.

NOTE: You will want to describe your data analysis (p. 155), but you do NOT need to explicitly state a null hypothesis. Your null hypothesis is implied.

Results (p. 158-188)

Overview: This section has two parts —

(1) You will verbally summarize the data that you collected and verbally summarize your statistics. Be very careful not to interpret your results, just report them. Also, be sure to report your data and statistics (see below). You will reference your table and/or figures in this section (see below).

(2) You will also display your data in either a figure or a tabular format (whichever is appropriate for your data). Tables and figures are visual summaries of your data and should complement your verbal description. Tables and figures should be properly referenced in the narrative that summarizes your data. Tables should have a table caption above the table. Figures should have a figure legend below the figure. (See a Short Guide for what information should not be in a figure legend or table caption.)

Writing style example: "Significantly more rye seeds germinated in the control treatment (n = 48) than in both the strong and weak extracts (n = 12, 13 respectively; Chi-square = 10.28, P-value = 0.001; Table 1)."

NOTE: Do NOT write this section without reading the accompanying pages in a Short Guide. Sentence phrasing is very important when writing about results and statistics. It helps with clarity and helps avoid interpretation. Reading the Short Guide will help you understand how to properly phrase your sentences.

NOTE: This is where students make the most stylistic mistakes. There are specific guidelines for presenting numbers, statistics, figures, etc.

NOTE: Tables and figures should be sequentially numbered according to the order they are discussed in the text of the results section. The best way to ensure they are numbered correctly is to number them AFTER you have written the results section. Then you can go back and number each in the order it was referenced in the text portion of your results.

Discussion (p. 188-195)

Start this section by stating your conclusion. Be sure to state your conclusion in reference to your original hypothesis (expectation). Then discuss what this means — this is where you will interpret your data. In this section, you will discuss and interpret your data. You will discuss the "why" of the pattern of your data. You will need to include a few sentences that put your data in the context of other literature and findings, and relate your results to the biological principles you stated you were testing in the Introduction section. In these sentences, you will reference other literature. It can be the same literature that you mentioned in your Introduction, but it does not have to be. In this section, you will be answering "why" questions about the data and interpreting the data. You should discuss whether you accepted or rejected your original hypothesis based on your data. Discuss your opinion of your results and what your results mean. Organizationally, it makes sense to discuss your results in the order in which they were presented. Do not reference your tables or figures specifically. You have already done that. Speculate on WHY you think your data came out as they did. In this section, do not be afraid of wild speculations if they are within the realm of biological possibility. Do not state whether the study was bad or good, or whether the results were bad or good. Making subjective, judgmental statements about data is inappropriate for scientific writing. In other words, avoid bias! If the study had many faults, or if the data turned out so that no biological principles could be deduced from the results, then you would want to discuss ways in which the study could have been improved. You may want to discuss this even if you had a great study. A good way to end a discussion section is as follows — "In conclusion..." and briefly summarize the results and conclusions of the experiment.

Example: "As expected, different numbers of seeds germinated in each of the three treatments. Significantly more seeds germinated in the control treatment than in the strong extract. This indicates that boxelder leaves may have allelopathic chemicals that inhibit seed germination etc."

NOTE: Be careful not to overstate your findings. Address just your study.

NOTE: You should not include any actual results in this section. DO not restate your statistics; do not give specific numbers; do not reference tables or figures.

Introduction (p. 195-201)

You will include two essential pieces of information in this section.

(1) Introduce the topic on which you gathered data and explain the phenomenon you studied. Explain why the study is important. Include a problem statement and/or question.

(2) You must also state the scientific hypothesis you tested after leading up to it with your explanation of the topic. State your prediction or expectation of your outcome.

Example: "Allelopathy is a chemical competition phenomenon produced in plants that influences the growth of other organisms. The study of allelopathy is important in agriculture because positive results can be used as a natural deterrent of invasive species. This experiment was designed to test whether water-soluble American elm tree (Ulmus americana)...

NOTE: All relevant text should be cited! See page 203 for how to properly cite sources.


The title should be brief, but descriptive of the study and include important, relevant, and specific information. The title should be written in sentence case. The title should include your species name and the species should be presented properly. The title should be centered at the top of the page.

NOTE: Common name and scientific name should be presented in the title (see above and Introduction for examples of properly presenting species name).

NOTE: You may want to write this last because that is when you will have the most complete understanding of your report.

Literature Cited (Chapter 5)

You must include AT LEAST two references in your laboratory report. (The lab manual and textbook do not count.)

References are often included in both the Introduction and Discussion sections to bolster speculation or comment.

NOTE: In the Literature Cited section, you will cite your literature following the guidelines on the How to Cite in Ecology Style page of this subject guide. Citing scientific literature often follows different guidelines than MLA, and different journals have different rules. Because this is ecology, we are following the guidelines for the Journal of Ecology.

Format to use for the Lab Manual:

Riebesell, J, Taquia, S. and Leach, K. 2000. Allelopathy and Secondary Compounds. University of Michigan Dearborn Ecology Lab Manual.


Web citations are not permitted for the lab report. They are not subjected to peer review (review by other scientists) as are books and journal articles. Therefore, too many are unsubstantiated, and they are not accepted.

Additional Requirements for Your Lab

  1. The report must look good. Take care in your presentation of all components of your report.
  2. You do not need a cover page or report cover.
  3. The report must be single spaced in 12-point font with 0.75" - 1.0" margins on all sides.
  4. The report cannot be over 3-4 pages. This is more than sufficient for this lab report.
  5. Do not include a separate title page.
  6. Do not use second person — e.g., do not say something like "As you can see from Figure 1..."
  7. Use past tense, especially in the Materials and Methods, and Results sections. The lab has already been completed.
  8. Do not quote from citations. Instead, paraphrase the ideas expressed by the author(s).
  9. Do not use contractions; i.e., don't use contractions like I just did!
  10. Superscripts and subscripts must be printed properly; e.g., H2O, not H20.
  11. Any calculated values should be rounded to one or two decimal places.
  12. The word "data" is the plural form of "datum". Learn to use the word "data" as a plural word.
  13. Do not turn in your report in any type of folder or binder. Staple the pages together.
  14. If beginning a sentence with a number, write out the number. Refer to zero and one with words not numbers (0 or 1). Numbers smaller than zero should be preceded with a zero and a decimal (e.g., 0.5).
  15. Numbers one through ten should be written out.
  16. Scientific names should be properly presented.
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