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Scientific writing

An important part of your scientific research at university will be communicating your findings. You may be asked to produce lab reports, logs, presentations, posters and essays.

As with other types of academic writing, scientific writing must be structured, objective and demonstrate critical thinking. However, it must also be:

  • clear and concise
  • analytical and precise
  • objective, cautious and logical

Scientific writing should be clear and concise

You should avoid unnecessary detail and words. Include one idea per sentence (with sentences 10–25 words in length) and one theme per paragraph.

Being concise is crucial. Use as few words as possible, for example “now” instead of the wordier “at the present time”. Make sure you avoid repetition.

Use direct and simple language, and avoid vague or complicated sentences. Only use technical terms or jargon when necessary, and explain them when used. Try to avoid using lots of long words.

Here is a good example of clear, concise and simple scientific writing:

"Glass microscope slides were cleaned and etched by immersion in piranha solution (75 vol% H2SO4, 25 vol% H2O2). These were then placed in plastic petri dishes to act as substrates for precipitation. They were then submerged in the respective concentrations of reactant solutions containing calcium chloride (CaCl2) and L-aspartic acid sodium salt monohydrate (C4H6NO4Na.H2O) (Table 1)."

[Extract taken from a School of Chemical and Process Engineering dissertation]

Scientific writing is precise and analytical

Be precise so your audience can read confidently. Avoid vague or ambiguous language such as “about”, “almost” or “large”. For example, instead of using “was tested regularly” you should use “was tested every 15 minutes.”

Make sure you do not assume prior knowledge. Avoid phrases such as “everyone knows that…”

Use evidence from the literature to provide reasons and explanations for your results.

Here is a good example of analytical scientific writing:

"It may at first seem somewhat surprising that acid-charcoal treatment has so little effect on the structure of serum albumin [...] A possible explanation may be that at acid pH charcoal particles do in fact become tightly "coated" with albumin which is not substantially released.  Lau et al. (37) have shown that albumin treated Norit has different absorptive properties than does untreated charcoal."

[Taken from a Learn Higher Report Writing guide.]

Scientific writing is objective, logical, and cautious

Your writing should provide an impartial and balanced view of the evidence. Don't ignore evidence with different results and conclusions to your own. Instead, include it in your work, and analyse why the findings are different.

Make sure any claims you make are supported by appropriate evidence that demonstrates how conclusions have been drawn, rather than expressing your unsupported thoughts and beliefs. You can use tables, figures and charts to show evidence as long as they are also discussed in the main text.

Express your ideas and processes in a logical order. Make it easier for your reader by dividing your text into sections with clear headings. For more details view our structuring academic writing page.

You should also be careful not to overstate what your results can support. Take care when using words such as "proves" or "definitely". Instead, show caution by using hedging words.

Here is a good example of hedging within scientific writing:

"It is difficult to speculate exactly what material the darker regions were composed of, and XRD analysis could not be performed on the area as it was too small. However, it could be speculated that the material was crystalline as it originated from a single point (indicating nucleation). The whiskers are thought to be polycrystalline and not monocrystalline as they appear dendritic in form."

[Taken from a School of Chemical and Process Engineering dissertation]

Use the appropriate tenses

Different tenses are used for writing about different types of information, and you will need to combine different tenses in your writing. Generally, use the past tense for what you did (method), and the present tense for what you conclude or found.

Here are examples of when you should use the past and present tense in scientific writing:

"The aim of this iteration was to create the layout of the website to present the information of each student. To start this iteration, the command python manage.py runserver was entered to run the test server."

[Taken from a School of Computing dissertation]

"In this case there is not a large difference between the two diameter values (from Feret's diameter and calculated equation), which again is probably due to the fact that the average circularity ratio is on the high end of the scale, 0.88, and therefore infers near circular pores."

[Taken from a School of Chemical and Process Engineering dissertation]

For more information, see our guidance on choosing the correct tense and voice.

Ask your school for more information

This guidance complements advice from your school. If you have any specific questions about the style in your subject area please ask your school.