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How to write a scientific report at university

David Foster, professor in science and engineering at the University of Manchester, explains the best way to write a successful scientific report

    David H Foster's avatar

    David H Foster

    Professor of vision systems at the University of Manchester
    May 30 2024
    laptop showing business analytics dashboard with charts, metrics and data analysis/ iStock


    At university, you might need to write scientific reports for laboratory experiments, computing and theoretical projects, and literature-based studies – and some eventually as research dissertations. All have a similar structure modelled on scientific journal articles. Their special format helps readers to navigate, understand and make comparisons across the research field.

    Scientific report structure

    The main components are similar for many subject areas, though some sections might be optional.


    If you can choose a title, make it informative and not more than around 12 words. This is the average for scientific articles. Make every word count. 


    The abstract summarises your report’s content in a restricted word limit. It might be read separately from your full report, so it should contain a micro-report, without references or personalisation. 

    Usual elements you can include: 

    • Some background to the research area.
    • Reason for the work.
    • Methods.
    • Main results.
    • Any implications.

    Ensure you omit empty statements such as “results are discussed”, as they usually are. 


    The introduction should give enough background for readers to assess your work without consulting previous publications. 

    It can be organised along these lines: 

    • An opening statement to set the context. 
    • A summary of relevant published research.
    • Your research question, hypothesis or other motivation. 
    • The purpose of your work.
    • An indication of methodology.
    • Your outcome.

    Choose citations to any previous research carefully. They should reflect priority and importance, not necessarily recency. Your choices signal your grasp of the field. 

    Literature review 

    Dissertations and literature-based studies demand a more comprehensive review of published research than is summarised in the introduction. Fortunately, you don’t need to examine thousands of articles. Just proceed systematically. 

    • Use two to three published reviews to familiarise yourself with the field. 
    • Use authoritative databases such as Scopus or Web of Science to find the most frequently cited articles. 
    • Read these articles, noting key points. Experiment with their order and then turn them into sentences, in your own words. 
    • Get advice about expected review length and database usage from your individual programme.

    Aims and objectives 

    Although the introduction describes the purpose of your work, dissertations might require something more accountable, with distinct aims and objectives.

    The aim or aims represent the overall goal (for example, to land people on the moon). The objectives are the individual tasks that together achieve this goal (build rocket, recruit volunteers, launch rocket and so on).


    The method section must give enough detail for a competent researcher to repeat your work. Technical descriptions should be accessible, so use generic names for equipment with proprietary names in parentheses (model, year, manufacturer, for example). Ensure that essential steps are clear, especially any affecting your conclusions.


    The results section should contain mainly data and analysis. Start with a sentence or two to orient your reader. For numeric data, use graphs over tables and try to make graphs self-explanatory. Leave any interpretations for the discussion section.


    The purpose of the discussion is to say what your results mean. Useful items to include: 

    • A reminder of the reason for the work.
    • A review of the results. Ensure you are not repeating the results themselves; this should be more about your thoughts on them.
    • The relationship between your results and the original objective.
    • Their relationship to the literature, with citations. 
    • Any limitations of your results. 
    • Any knowledge you gained, new questions or longer-term implications.

    The last item might form a concluding paragraph or be placed in a separate conclusion section. If your report is an internal document, ensure you only refer to your future research plans. 

    Try to finish with a “take-home” message complementing the opening of your introduction. For example: “This analysis has shown the process is feasible, but cost will decide its acceptability.” 

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    If appropriate, thank colleagues for advice, reading your report and technical support. Make sure that you secure their agreement first. Thank any funding agency. Avoid emotional declarations that you might later regret. That is all that is required in this section. 


    Giving references ensures other authors’ ideas, procedures, results and inferences are credited. Use Web of Science or Scopus as mentioned earlier. Avoid databases giving online sources without journal publication details because they might be unreliable.

    Don’t refer to Wikipedia. It isn’t a citable source. 

    Use one referencing style consistently and make sure it matches the required style of your degree or department. Choose either numbers or author and year to refer to the full references listed near the end of your report. Include all publication details, not just website links. Every reference should be cited in the text. 

    Figures and tables 

    Each figure should have a caption below with a label, such as “Fig. 1”, with a title and a sentence or two about what it shows. Similarly for tables, except that the title appears above. Every figure and table should be cited in the text.

    Theoretical studies 

    More flexibility is possible with theoretical reports, but extra care is needed with logical development and mathematical presentation. An introduction and discussion are still needed, and possibly a literature review.

    Final steps

    Check that your report satisfies the formatting requirements of your department or degree programme. Check for grammatical errors, misspellings, informal language, punctuation, typos and repetition or omission.

    Ask fellow students to read your report critically. Then rewrite it. Put it aside for a few days and read it afresh, making any new edits you’ve noticed. Keep up this process until you are happy with the final report. 

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