High Impact Practices for Research Report Writing in Science M.A. Akbarsha Director & Chair Mahatma gandhi-Doerenkamp Center Bharathidasan University Tiruchirappalli 620 024 What is a thesis? What is a dissertation? What is a Ph.D. dissertation/thesis? It’s one’s way of proving the adjudicators that he/she a competent scientist in his/her own right, capable of standing on his/her own feet as a scientist, researcher, and academic. It is where one demonstrates: That he/she is capable of making original, valuable contributions in an active field of research. That he/she is aware of and informed about the broad landscape of his/her field, the background and currently competing work being done on his/her specific sub-field, and that his/her professional opinions are wellinformed and backed up by his/her knowledge and legitimate reasoning. That the body of work he/she submits in his/her dissertation is comprehensive enough to merit a Ph.D. And, perhaps most importantly, that he/she is ready to go off and continue his/her research (if he/she so chooses) without the guidance of his/her mentor(s). What a Ph.D. dissertation/thesis is not: Not the definitive work on whatever your primary research topic is. Not going to settle long-standing arguments in one’s field. Not the most important piece of research or writing one will ever undertake. And finally, it is very likely not even a document that anyone outside of his/her adjudicators (with the exception of a few good friends) will ever read. A thesis can have different goals. It can be analytical, persuasive, confirmatory, expository, informative and/or descriptive. As long as one will follow the correct methods of research, then he/she can write a quality thesis with any of these goals. In fact, research is usually capable of removing any vague information about a topic. Therefore, one can specifically tell whether a research result is acceptable or not. Hallmarks of an “Excellent” Piece of Scientific writing (1)Ideas: Provides a thoughtful answer to a question worth asking. The hypothesis and central ideas of the work are clearly stated. The thesis clearly addresses any nuances and complexity, but stays on track, without straying unnecessarily from the main point. (2) Support: The data presented convincingly support the main conclusion(s). It should be clear that the author has critically and thoroughly analyzed the data, as well as the work of others. (3) Organization and Coherence: The document is well organized and logically structured and follows a standard scientific format that is familiar to the reader. Transitions are well crafted and lead the reader easily from one experiment and/or observation and/or idea to the next. Paragraphs make clear points in support of the question/hypothesis and represent logical transitions from one idea to the next. Structure: the Strategy of Style If a man can group his ideas, then he is a writer. Ending Robert Louis Stevenson Middle Beginning The organization of a scientific document can be viewed as a beginning, middle, and ending Conclusions Back Matter Ending Middle Sections Middle Title Summary Introduction Beginning (4) Style: The document demonstrates that the author has a clear command of the English language. The sentence style is appropriate for the scientific audience and varied enough to keep their interest. Words are chosen carefully and for their precise meaning. Style is the way one communicates the content to the audience [Peterson, 1987] Illustration Structure style words wordswords wordswordswords wordswordswordswords wordswordswords wordswordswords wordswordswords wordswordswords Language (5) Mechanics: The document contains very few, if any, spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors. Abbreviations are defined the first time they appear in the text. References follow standard, accepted format. Form embodies the format and mechanics of the writing mechanics grammar usage punctuation spelling typography layout Developing a Title Titles should Describe contents clearly and precisely, so that readers can decide whether to read the report Provide key words for indexing Titles should NOT Include wasted words such as "studies on," "an investigation of" Use abbreviations and jargon Good Titles The Relationship of Luteinizing Hormone to Obesity in the Zucker Rat Poor Titles An Investigation of Hormone Secretion and Weight in Rats Fat Rats: Are Their Hormones Different? The Abstract (Summary & Conclusions?) Issues to consider when writing an abstract What is the report about, in miniature and without specific details? State main objectives. (What did you investigate? Why?) Describe methods. (What did you do?) Summarize the most important results. (What did you find out?) State major conclusions and significance. (What do your results mean? So what?) What to avoid: Do not include references to figures, tables, or sources. Do not include information not in report. Additional tips: Find out maximum length (may vary from 50 to 300+ words). Process: Extract key points from each section. Condense in successive revisions. The Introduction Guidelines for effective scientific report introductions. What is the problem? Describe the problem investigated. Summarize relevant research to provide context, key terms, and concepts so your reader can understand the experiment. Why is it important? Review relevant research to provide rationale. (What conflict or unanswered question, untested population, untried method in existing research does your experiment address? What findings of others are you challenging or extending?) What solution (or step toward a solution) is proposed? Briefly describe the experiment: hypothesis(es), research question(s); general experimental design or method; justification of method if alternatives exist. Additional tips: Move from general to specific: Problem in real world/research literature --> your experiment. Engage your reader: answer the questions, "What did you do?" "Why should I care?" Make clear the links between problem and solution, question asked and research design, prior research and the present experiment. Be selective, not exhaustive, in choosing studies to cite and amount of detail to include. (In general, the more relevant an article is to your study, the more space it deserves and the later in the Introduction it appears.) Ask the supervisor whether to summarize results and/or conclusions in the Introduction. Methods Section Some questions to consider for effective methods sections in scientific reports. How was the problem studied? Briefly explain the general type of scientific procedure you used. What was/were used? (May be sub-headed as Materials) Describe what materials, subjects, and equipment (chemicals, experimental animals, apparatus, etc.) you used. (These may be sub-headed Animals, Reagents, etc.) How did you proceed? (May be sub-headed as Methods or Procedures) Explain the steps you took in your experiment. (These may be sub-headed by experiment, types of assay, etc.) Additional tips: Provide enough detail for replication. For a journal article, include, for example, genus, species, strain of organisms; their source, living conditions, and care; and sources (manufacturer, location) of chemicals and apparatus. Order procedures chronologically or by type of procedure (subheaded) and chronologically within type. Use past tense to describe what you did. Quantify when possible: concentrations, measurements, amounts (all metric); times (24-hour clock); temperatures (centigrade) What to avoid: Don't include details of common statistical procedures. Don't mix results with procedures. Results Section Some questions asked for effective results sections in scientific reports. What did you observe? For each experiment or procedure: Briefly describe experiment without detail of Methods section (a sentence or two). Report main result(s), supported by selected data: Representative: most common Best Case: best example of ideal or exception Additional tips: Order multiple results logically: From most to least important From simple to complex Organ by organ; chemical class by chemical class Use past tense to describe what happened. What to avoid: Don't simply repeat table data; select. Don't interpret results. Avoid extra words: "It is shown in Table 1 that X induced Y" --> "X induced Y (Table 1). Discussion Section Some questions effective discussion sections in scientific reports address What do your observations mean? Summarize the most important findings at the beginning. What conclusions can you draw? For each major result: Describe the patterns, principles, relationships your results show. Explain how your results relate to expectations and to literature cited in your Introduction. Do they agree, contradict, or are they exceptions to the rule? Explain plausibly any agreements, contradictions, or exceptions. Describe what additional research might resolve contradictions or explain exceptions. How do your results fit into a broader context? Suggest the theoretical implications of your results. Suggest practical applications of your results? Extend your findings to other situations or other species. Give the big picture: do your findings help us understand a broader topic? Additional tips: Move from specific to general: your finding(s) -->literature, theory, practice. Don't ignore or bury the major issue. Did the study achieve the goal (resolve the problem, answer the question, support the hypothesis) presented in the Introduction? Make explanations complete. Give evidence for each conclusion. Discuss possible reasons for expected and unexpected findings. What to avoid: Don't over-generalize. Don’t repeat the results. Don't ignore deviations in your data. Avoid speculation that cannot be tested in the foreseeable future. One has to write ONE thesis At the end, “Dr” can be prefixed to ones name Writing a thesis is hard, painful work The fun part (the research) has already been done It’s unlike any other document Thesis writing is not a marketable skill A thesis is the license for academia In the process, one will learn How to research How to write It will introduce ones research to a wider audience The adjudicators Fellow researchers? It will make one famous Unlikely It will radically change science Unlikely It will advance our knowledge Just a little Main benefit is in teaching one to research Ok, when do I start? So I’m motivated When do I actually start writing? 6 months before the end of my grant? No, the day you start your PhD Write it all down! Don’t worry, it’s never too late to start PhD thesis Opens a new area Provides unifying framework Resolves long-standing question Thoroughly explores area Contradicts existing knowledge Experimentally validates theory Produces ambitious system Provides empirical data Derives superior algorithms Develops new methodology Develops new tool Produces negative result So, how do I start? Write a thesis message 1 sentence 1 paragraph 1 page Everything one writes should be directed at this Thesis (noun). 1. A proposition maintained by argument 2. A dissertation advancing original research Thesis message One is tackling an important research problem He/she has made an original contribution to its resolution What next? So, I’ve got a good thesis message What do I do next? Write the table of contents Logical structure of your thesis Timetable How long will it take? Depends on many factors Heavy-tailed distribution How long is a piece of string? How much you’ve written as papers Min = 2 months (v. rare) Max = infinity Mean = infinity Median = 6-9 months Timetable “Your thesis is your baby” P. Prosser Give it 9 months Write it up Fill in gaps, expts … “You have to know when to let it go” Put a fence around what you’ve done What next? So, I’ve got a good thesis message And a table of contents, timetable and committee What do I do next? What next? What do I do next? Work to your timetable! Writing each chapter Don’t start with the Introduction or Conclusion Start where the author feels happiest Typically a middle chapter Write outwards Finally Conclusions and end with the Introduction Write everything with the thesis message in mind Writing each chapter Get feedback before writing too much One person to read each chapter as it is written Another person to read thesis in order Lay some good groundwork Writing each chapter One will discover holes in your research Theorems you haven’t proved Experiments you didn’t run Different problems or parameters Mix writing with more research Rule of Three Within each chapter, repeat 3 times Within thesis, repeat contributions 3 times Intro. We will show .. Body. Show them .. Concl. We have shown .. Intro chapter Main chapters Conclusion chapter But don’t bore reader E.g. in introduction be brief, in conclusions be broader Common mistake Complex sentences full of long words? A thesis should be a simple, convincing argument! Common problems It’s never possible to cover all issues So you will never finish? It’s sometimes enough to identify the issues Examiners greatly appreciate finding a few mistakes Common problems Writing too much There are rules about maximum length But rarely rules about the minimum Nash’s PhD thesis 27 pages long Won him a Nobel prize What are examiners looking for? Review of literature Is the literature relevant? Is the review critical or just descriptive? Is it comprehensive? Does it link to the methodology in the thesis? Does it summarize the essential aspects? Methodology Is there a clear hypothesis? Are precautions taken against bias? Are the limitations identified? Is the data collected appropriately? Is the methodology justified? What are examiners looking for? Presentation of results Have the hypotheses in fact been tested? Are the results shown to support the hypothesis? Is the data properly analysed? Are the results presented clearly? Are patterns identified and summarized? Discussion and Conclusions Are the limits of the research identified? Are the main points to emerge identified? Are links made to the literature? Is there theoretical development? Are the speculations well grounded? It’s all over What do you do next? Turn it into a book Publish some journal articles around it Make copies for your parents, … Make a copy for yourself Or end up there It’s all over Finished writing the thesis What to do next? Just think, you’ll never have to do it again!
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