Writing a Scientific Paper

A scientific manuscript is organized to reflect the basis pattern of the scientific process. It follows a highly structured format. Some find it easier to write than a paper for a humanities course because cleverness, originality, and style are not required. Instead, aim for a clear, logical presentation of your question, methods of answering it, results you got, and your conclusion.

We have written a GUIDELINES: A SAMPLE MANUSCRIPT. Read it often. Keep it at your side and refer to it often BEFORE you write each section.

Instructions to Authors


8.5" x 11"; one side only


1.25" left and right; 1" top and bottom

Font size

12 point


Times Roman

Page numbers

Type page numbers in top right (not on title page)



New paragraph

Indent 0.5"


Line up headings for Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, and Literature Cited on left margin or center them. Don't start each section on new page.

Literature Cited

List references in alphabetical order by author's last name. All lines but the first are indented to separate references.


Put into text at end of first sentence in which they are used. Use sequential numbers. One per page. Attached at end of document.

Final step

Staple top left.

SHORT TITLE (includes key variables, study organism; habitat):

Your name and group members' names.

Your address and contact information.

ABSTRACT (1 paragragh):

    Context of study

    Introduction (focus, purpose of your project)


    Methods (short)

    Results (short)


    (250 words max)

INTRODUCTION (4-5 paragraphs):

    Review current literature (primary journal articles) on the topic

    Paraphrase literature (change more than a word or two) and cite source; no direct quotations

    Use proper citation format

    • Brokaw (1988) found that trees were more vulnerable in saturated soil.
    • Or: Trees were more vulnerable in saturated soil (Brokaw 1988).
    • One author: (Brokaw 1988)
    • Two authors: (Dawson and Rolfe 2001)
    • Three or more authors (Lin et al. 2004)

    Use inverted triangle organization (big picture down to objectives of study)

    Paragraph 1: Introduction:

    1. make a general statement to interest reader in your topic.
    2. add background information.
    3. importance of topic and "why should reader care?"

    Paragraphs 2-3-(4):Background:

    1. relevant prior studies/observation of what trying to explain
    2. factors that may contribute to explanation (introducing independent & dependent variables)
    3. specific ideas of what factors may explain observation (developing hypothesis)

    Final paragraph:

    1. objectives of project in general
    2. formal hypotheses/predictions
    3. assumptions

    METHODS (1.5 - 2 pages):

    Write in full sentences and paragraphs

    Past tense; passive voice

    Provide enough detail to enable the reader to repeat the experiment.

    Scientific names

    The first time an organism is mentioned, use its common name and full scientific name (always underline or italicize). After this first mention, in both Abstract and Introduction or Methods, the organism may be referred by its common name or shortened scientific version (B. tectorum); just pick a format and stick with it.


    Use metric measurement units.

    If a quantity, spell out if less than 10 (E.g. We sampled nine plots; 11 plots).

    If a measurement, always use numbers (E.g. We sampled using 2 x 2m plots).

    If at start of sentence, spell out (E.g. Eleven replicates were sampled).

    If number less than one, put zero before decimal point (E.g. 0.05).

      Study Site



      Size of study site

      Relevant ecological background

      Experimental Design

      Independent variables

      Dependent variable 1

      Sampling unit

      Number of replicates

      Methods" for gather data of dependent variable

      Ditto for dependent variables 2, 3

      Statistical Tests

        for Dependent variable 1

        for Dependent variable 2

    RESULTS (1-2 paragraphs):

    Describe the data in each table/figure.

    Organize by predictions & numerical order of Figures/Tables

    Refer to each table and figure by number in parentheses (Table 1 or Fig. 1) at end of first sentence in which it is described.

    Give trends; don't give actual numbers.

    Spell out symbols (E.g. percent, not %). You can use symbol on figures axes/labels.

    Prediction 1

    Sentence about major pattern/trend in Figure/Table (Fig. 1).

    Sentence with specific statistical details

    Use proper format: x (not) significantly > y (t-test, P<0.01).

    Prediction 2

    Sentence about major pattern/trend in Figure/Table (Fig. 2).

    Sentence with specific statistical details

    Use proper format: (&chi2 = , df = 1, P<0.05) (Fig. 2).

    Put all Tables (first) and Figures (second) at end of manuscript; don't embed within text.
    Do NOT "interpret" results; don't give possible explanations.
    Don't say "Figure 1 shows the number of arthropods in each field."
    Don't use Excel sheet; must move to manuscript.
    Don't include descriptive statistics table (use them to make figure only).

    DISCUSSION (6-7 paragraphs):

    1. For each hypothesis:

      Briefly restate the results.

      Declare whether hypothesis supported (nor not).

      Provide possible explanations for the results.

      Present evidence for your conclusions.

    2. For each hypothesis:

      Compare your results to prior studies.

      Provide enough detail from prior studies to show how it is relevant to your project.

    3. Limitations of study:

      Point out any inconsistencies in your data.

      Discuss possible sources of error (don't dwell on human error or time limitations).

      Describe possible future directions; other ways to test hypothesis; need to test assumptions.

    4. State major conclusion and its importance:

      What's "take-home" message?


    Use mostly journal articles (primary literature), not textbooks or Internet sources.
    Include only sources cited in the body of manuscript.
    Make sure all cited sources in text are listed in the Literature Cited section.
    List alphabetically by first author.
    Indent after first line of an article.

    Only references actually cited in your paper should appear at the end in alphabetical order by first author and in standard reference format (see Ecology and below for details). Provide at least 5 references from primary literature or specialized reviews (not textbooks). Examples for each type of citation used in this section are given below.

    General Format for a Citation:

    (Follow exactly the format below):

    For a journal article: Author(s.). Year. Title. Journal Volume:Page-page.

    For a book: Author(s). Year. Title. Edition. Publishing Company. Location of Publishing Co.

    Examples of a journal citation:

    Johnson, D. M. 1991. Behavioral ecology of larval dragonflies and damselflies. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 6: 8-13.

    Lima, S. L. and L. M. Dill. 1990. Behavioral decisions made under the risk of predation: a review and prospectus. Canadian Journal of Zoology 68: 619-640.

    McPeek, M. A. 1990a. Determination of species composition in the Enallagma damselfly assemblages of permanent lakes. Ecology 71: 83-98.

    Woodland, D. J., Z. Jaafar and M. Knight. 1980. The "pursuit deterrent" function of alarm signals. American Naturalist 115: 748-753.

    Example of a book citation:

    Silvertown, J.W. 1982. Introduction to Plant Population Ecology. Longman, Inc., New York.


    Put all Tables (first) and Figures (second) at end of manuscript; don't embed within text.

    No raw data; instead summarize. (E.g., use mean, SD, SE).

    Don't include both a table and figure for the same data.

    Give each figure and table a legend (caption) that consists of a number (Figure 1) and a short description on what is graphed (not a complete sentence). The description should enable the reader to understand the figure without having to go to methods/results.

    Figure legends go below the figure; Table legends go above the table.

    All parts large enough to see/read.

    Axes labels include unit of measurement.

    Clear notation in legend of what values represent (mean +/SE).

    Give key to use for different shaded bars or difference shapes (o/⊗).

    Clean: No titles, no gridlines

    MANUSCRIPT ERRORS (Technical/Grammatical)

    Subject and verb must agree.

    Word choice must be appropriate for the situation; not dramatic or vague.

    Sentence structure must be smooth and sentence must be complete. Don't have redundant sentences.

    Write in passive, not active, voice.

    Use correct punctuation.

    Use correct word usage. Look it up in the dictionary. Examples:

      a. data = plural of "datum"; e.g. "These data show..." not "This data shows..."
      b. effect (noun) (a result) vs. affect (verb meaning "to influence")
      c. it's (it is) vs. its (belonging to "it")
      d. amount (cannot count individual pieces) vs. number (can count individual pieces)
      e. that (restrictive clause) vs. which (nonrestrictive clause)

    Latin names should be italicized or underlined.

    Include scientific name (sugar maple (Acer saccharum)

    Common names in lower case (e.g. pawpaw)

      a) Number format must be correct.
      b) Do not start sentences with a number (write out the number)
      c) Decimal numbers less than one start with zero, e.g. 0.1 mL, not .1mL.

    Abbreviations must be correct.

      a. circa - ca.
      b. et alii (and others) - et al.
      c. et cetera (and so forth) - etc.
      d. exempli gratia (for example) - e.g.
      e. id est (that is) - i.e.
      f. nota bene (take notice) - NB

    Each figure/table must have a number and legend.

    The figure/table legend must be self-explanatory without reference to the text.

    Figure legend must be informative. More than "y-axis label vs. x-axis label" as a legend.

    Figure caption goes below figure. Table caption goes above table.

    Figures don't have titles above them.
    Each data set must have its own distinguishable symbols or lines with a key.