Part 2—Write a Science Paper

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Step 1-Use Standard Headings

Technical writing follows a recognizable format. The format varies slightly depending on the subject and requirements of the magazine or journal that will publish the article, but there are common features to all formats. The format described here mirrors the standard headings and can form a solid basis for writing science papers.

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Observations
  • Interpretation
  • Discussion
  • Conclusions
  • Figures and Captions
  • References

Your instructor may assign you to write a complete paper as described in the following text, or make a briefer assignment, focusing only on the Observations and Interpretations.

Step 2-Write the Introduction

The introduction is the section in which the reader decides whether the paper has something pertinent to say to them. Your introduction should answer these quetions for the reader:

  • Why are you writing this essay?
  • What are you going to discuss?
  • Why should the reader be interested in this topic?
  • What is the scale or scope of the study?
  • What ideas will you be explaining?

Link to More Details about the Introduction (page will open in a new window) PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 331kB Sep29 08)

Step 3-Describe the Methods

This section is where you discuss how and where you got the data you used to make your conclusions. For instance, you may have made your own measurements by going to the sea and measuring depth profiles, or perhaps you measured earthquakes with seismic equipment. For this exercise, you will be accessing data from existing databases. In your paper, describe those databases and explain any of the inherent limitations of the data.

Link to More Details about the Methods Section (page will open in a new window) PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 331kB Sep29 08)

Step 4-Record Observations

This section will contain your observations or data. One of the hallmarks of observations in the sciences is that they are clear and quantitative. For example: "the waves are between 10 and 12 feet high," or "the hill rises at a 45 degree angle" are both valid scientific observations. Qualitative observations are usually subjective and cannot be checked against observations made by other scientists.

Your observations are the basis for your interpretations, so the Observations and Interpretations sections are the heart of a scientific paper. In your Interpretations section you will have to support your scientific argument with the help of your observations, so it is important that you include enough observations to convince the reader that your interpretations are correct.

In a science paper, it is very important to clearly separate your observations (or data) from your interpretations of that data.

Is it an Observation or an Interpretation?

In our daily life, we are constantly making observations of our surroundings. We notice whether cars are coming when we walk across the street, and we observe a clock to check the time. Are our observations always "True?" Maybe, but in science we need to be aware that observations are subject to assumptions. We assume that our clock's time is correct, and we assume that cars are driving along the street and not dropping out of the sky. We do this to narrow down the amount of information we need to process before we act. Our "observation" is a piece of data or sensory input that we consult and decide whether we should trust or not.

For example, suppose you are a geologist and you have collected a rock from the field site you are studying. You want to determine the date at which the rock crystallized so that you can make a theory about how your site evolved. So, you send the rock to the lab to get it analyzed. The analyst grinds it up and puts it into a mass spectrometer that measures the radioactive isotope ratios. The analyst's observation will be the isotope ratio. She then calculates the age and emails it to the geologist. To the analyst, the observation is the isotope ratio and the interpretation is the age, but to the geologist, the observation is the age and the interpretation is the tectonic model of how the sites evolution.

For another example, suppose you are using earthquake location data to study a plate tectonic boundary. You will consider that the locations of the earthquakes are the observations and your assertions about what type of plate tectonic boundary created them to be the interpretations. However, a seismologist may consider the timing of earthquake waves from seismic stations to be the observations and the location of the earthquakes (as computed by an earthquake location program) as the interpretations.

So, the determination of whether a statement is an observation or an interpretation depends on the purpose or type of investigation.

The question a scientist must address, though, is whether the observations are sufficient to support the interpretation. For the plate tectonics example, the accuracy of the earthquake locations must be considered. Their accuracy will determine how precisely the zone of earthquake activity can be located. In fact, an important artifact occurs in earthquake location data in regions distant from land stations. It appears that some quakes lie on a horizontal line at 35km depth. Seismologists know that this is an artifact of the earthquake location computation caused by the lack of close seismograph stations. The location program puts quakes with insufficient information to determine the depth at 35km. So, this creates the false illusion of a horizontal fault.

For the purpose of your investigations using the Solid Earth Data browser, you can consider the data plots that it creates to be your observations. If you are accessing this from the Earth Exploration Toolbook, the maps and earthquake plots should be considered to be your observations.


In order to clarify the construction of a scientific argument in the geosciences, an effective scientific argument can be constructed with 6 kinds of sentences numbered below. These are based on the rhetorical theories and analyses of student writing by Toulman, Kelly, and others. In a broader context, there will be variations, but if you master this simple method, you will be able to apply it in a wide variety of contexts.

Sentences of the types described in items 1 through 4 below should be put in the observations section of your paper:

  • 1. Includes an observation or a description of an observation.
    Example: The profile through section A ranges from depths of 5000 to 2000 meters.
  • 2. Names or classifies an observation in terms of geological features.
    Example: Profiles 1 through 5 show a linear mountain range or ridge.
  • 3. Describes a feature that has been observed and classified, or that the author implies has been observed and classified elsewhere.
    Example: For most of its length, the Mid-Atlantic Rise has a width of about 1,500 km and lies approximately at the mid-point between Africa and South America.
  • 4. Describes relationships between different observed and classified features.
    Example: A chain of volcanoes close to the western shore of South America is parallel to the ocean trenches.

It is important to note that each of the sentence types builds upon the previous type of sentence. For example, sentences like number 2 above require number 1 sentences to provide the data for the identification of the geological feature.

Link to More Details about Observations (page will open in a new window) PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 331kB Sep29 08)

Step 5-Describe Interpretations

This section is where you relate your theory or model to the observations. You may need to adjust your interpretations so that they follow from your data. Generally, this is an iterative process of creating a model or prediction of the outcome, taking data, and then interpreting the model to fit the data.

Each interpretation must be backed up by one or more observation(s). There must not be any observation that is not referred to in the Interpretations section.

Your interpretations section should include statements that:

  • 5. Describe or explain a model or theory.
    Example 1: A convergent margin consists of descending cool ocean plate.
    Example 2: Earthquakes are caused by friction between the plate and surrounding material as it descends.
  • 6. Describe relationships between and/or observed features that match (or disagree with) model features.
    Example: Figure 2 shows a cross section diagram of the mid-oceanic ridge in my area of study, showing the occurrence of shallow earthquakes and the increasing ocean-floor ages, in agreement with the model of seafloor spreading at divergent plate margins.

You should be sure to describe your plate tectonics model (a sketch, not a figure from a book or web page and show correspondence between your model and the observations. Also, you may wish to discuss areas where the observations do not support the model. This could occur from genuine conflicts between your observations and the model, or simply because there are no data that can tell you about particular features.

Link to More Details about Interpretations (page will open in a new window) PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 331kB Sep29 08)

The activity linked here provides some practice analyzing and comparing two scientific arguments by categorizing sentences. It could be particularly effective as an in-class activity with followup discussion. Writing Analysis Activity (page will open in a new window) PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 189kB Sep16 08)

Answers and discussion of Writing Analysis Activity (page will open in a new window) PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 183kB Sep16 08)


Step 6-Develop Discussions

p>Your findings are put into a broader context in this section. This is also where you can write about aspects of your topic that are not directly supported by your investigation, and how these ideas add to an understanding of your investigation.

Link to More Details about the Discussion (page will open in a new window) PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 331kB Sep29 08)

Step 7-Present Conclusions

Here you summarize your findings while carefully explaining your logic or reasoning. Keep in mind that the busy reader who is not a specialist may skim or totally skip the Methods and Observations sections of a technical paper, focusing on the Introduction, Figures, Figure Captions, and Conclusions.

Link to More Details about the Conclusion section (page will open in a new window) PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 331kB Sep29 08)

Step 8-Add Figures and Captions

The old cliché that says a picture is worth a thousand words applies especially in science and technical writing. This kind of writing can get complicated and extremely difficult to understand. Any time you can illustrate a point with a picture or sketch, the clarity of the presentation is enhanced. Most people are not really very good at visualizing geometrical shapes and physical phenomena that have been described with words. A picture fills in questions in the reader's mind and lessens the tedium of pages of text.

Do not forget to add a good figure caption! A reader should be able to glance at the figure and caption and get a good idea of the purpose and what the figure expresses. You can easily insert a textbox in your paper, or use the graphics editing or picture tools to draw arrows to important features that you are examining in your investigation or explaining in your figure.

Link to More Details about Figures and Captions (page will open in a new window) PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 331kB Sep29 08)

Step 9-Include References

All data, text, and figures that you get from other sources must be referenced. When you speak of other peoples' work in the body of your text, you use a reference. You may want to consult your instructor regarding the style of references preferred.

Link to More Details about References (page will open in a new window) PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 331kB Sep29 08)

Step 10-Prepare an Abstract

The abstract is a short summary of your paper, including the conclusions. The abstract should be the last section you write.

Link to More Details about the Abstract (page will open in a new window) PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 331kB Sep29 08)