2010 Life Sciences Research Weekend Since the last four posts were on databases, I thought I would spend the next four posts on scientific writing.  Today, I start with the basics:  the structure of a scientific paper.

Scientific papers follow an idealized form of the scientific research process.

  1. Pick a topic and learn as much as can about what has been done.
  2. Figure out the next step that needs to be taken.
  3. Formulate a hypothesis (if A, then B) that addresses that next step.
  4. Design an experiment to test the hypothesis.
  5. Run the experiment.
  6. Collect data.
  7. Reduce data.
  8. Analyze data.
  9. Draw conclusions.
  10. Suggest future work.

Notice how I said above an “idealized” process.  In real life, steps 1 to 10 are not necessarily linear.  As a student, you might come into the process at step 5 because your adviser has already gone through step 1-4.  Sometimes there isn’t a step 4 that can test step 3 so you have to change step 3.  Many times, as you go through steps 5 & 6, you realize that step 4 needs to be redone.  Sometimes it’s not until step 7 or 8.

Nevertheless, by convention, a scientific paper filters out all the deadends and detours and presents everything with 20/20 hindsight as if you knew exactly what you were doing the whole time and everything went as planned.  So, the parts of a scientific paper are

A.  Introduction/Background
B.  Methods
C.  Results (sometimes split into C1 Results and C2 Analysis)
D.  Conclusions

Steps 1-3 are usually in Part A.  Step 4 is in Part B sometimes with Steps 5, 6, and 7.  Sometimes steps 5, 6, and 7 are with Step 8 in Part C.  It doesn’t really matter as long as the division makes sense.  Finally, Steps 9 and 10 are in Part D.

Knowing the structure of a scientific paper is important not just when you’re trying to write a paper, it can also be useful when you’re reading a paper.  Depending on what Step you’re at in the research process, you might only need information from Part of the paper you’re reading.