ACS Format for Laboratory Reports
Guidelines on how to prepare a professional-style laboratory/research report are not routinely available to undergraduate students. For this reason, the following information on report writing with a suggested format is provided to be helpful to undergraduate students.
A Useful Text
J. S. Dodd (ed.), The ACS Style Guide, 2nd ed., American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C. (1997).
This volume is an invaluable writer's handbook in the field of chemistry. It contains a wealth of data on preparing any type of scientific report and is useful for both students and professional chemists. Every research laboratory should have a copy, and it should be as accessible as the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. It gives pointers on the organization of a scientific paper, correct grammar and style, and accepted formats in citing chemical names, chemical symbols, units, and references. There are useful suggestions on constructing tables, preparing illustrations, using different typefaces and type sizes, and giving oral presentations. In addition, there is a brief overview of the chemical literature, the way in which it is organized and how information is disseminated and retrieved. A list of other excellent guides to technical writing is also provided. See also The Basics of Technical Communicating, Cain, B. E.; ACS Professional Reference Book. American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 1988.
Most scientific laboratory/research reports, irrespective of the field, parallel the method of scientific reasoning. That is: the problem is defined, a hypothesis is created, experiments are devised to test the hypothesis, experiments are conducted, and conclusions are drawn. This framework is consistent with the following organization of a research report:
Experimental Details or Theoretical Analysis
Title and Title Page
The title should reflect the content and emphasis of the project described in the report. It should be as short as possible and include essential key words.
The author's name (e.g., Mary B. Chung) should follow the title on a separate line, followed by the author's affiliation (e.g., Department of Chemistry, Central State College, Central, Arkansas, 67123) and possibly the origin of the report (e.g., In partial fulfillment of a Senior Thesis Project under the supervision of Professor Danielle F. Green, June, 1990). For laboratory reports, the partner's name is also included.
All of the above could appear on a single cover page. Acknowledgments and a table of contents can be added as preface pages if desired.
The abstract should, in the briefest terms possible, describe the topic, the scope, the principal findings, and the conclusions. It should be written last to reflect accurately the content of the report. The lengths of abstracts vary but seldom exceed 200 words.
The research student should understand that a primary objective of an abstract is to communicate to the reader the essence of the paper. The reader will then be the judge of whether to read the full report or not. The student should also know that if the report were to appear in the primary literature, the abstract would serve as a key source of indexing terms and key words to be used in information retrieval. Author abstracts are often published verbatim in Chemical Abstracts.
"A good introduction is a clear statement of the problem or project and why you are studying it." (The ACS Style Guide. American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 1997.)
The nature of the problem and why it is of interest should be conveyed in the opening paragraphs. This section should describe clearly but briefly the background information on the problem, what has been done before (with proper literature citations), and the objectives of the current project. A clear relationship between the current project and the scope and limitations of earlier work should be made so that the reasons for the project and the approach used will be understood.
This section should describe what was actually done. It is a succinct exposition of the laboratory notebook, describing procedures, techniques, instrumentation, special precautions, and so on. It should be sufficiently detailed that other experienced researchers would be able to repeat the work and obtain comparable results.
In theoretical reports, this section would include sufficient theoretical or mathematical analysis to enable derivations and numerical results to be checked.
If the experimental section is very lengthy and very detailed, as in synthetic work, it can be placed at the end of the report or as an appendix so that it does not interrupt the conceptual flow of the report. Its placement will depend on the nature of the project and the discretion of the writer.
In this section, relevant data, observations, and findings are summarized. Tabulation of data, equations, charts, and figures can be used effectively to present results clearly and concisely. For laboratory reports, a sample calculation for each set/sequence of calculations should be included for informational purposes.
The crux of the report is the analysis and interpretation of the results. What do the results mean? How do they relate to the objectives of the project? To what extent have they resolved the problem?
Because the "Results" and "Discussion" sections are interrelated, they can often be combined as one section. Also, error analysis can be incorporated in this section.
A separate section outlining the main conclusions of the project is appropriate if conclusions have not already been stated in the "Discussion" section. Directions for future work are also suitably expressed here.
A lengthy report, or one in which the findings are complex, usually benefits from a paragraph summarizing the main features of the report--the objectives, the findings, and the conclusions.
The last paragraph of text in manuscripts prepared for publication is customarily dedicated to acknowledgments. However, there is no rule about this, and research reports or senior theses frequently place acknowledgments following the title page.
Literature references are collated at the end of the report and are cited in one of the formats described in The ACS Style Guide or standard journals. Do not mix formats. All references should be checked against the original literature.
Preparing the Manuscript
The personal computer and word processing have made manuscript preparation and revision a great deal easier than it used to be. Students should have the opportunity to use a word processor, and have access to graphics software that allows numerical data to be graphed, chemical structures to be drawn, and mathematical equations to be represented. These are essential tools of the technical writer. All manuscripts should routinely be checked for spelling (spell-check programs are helpful), and all manuscripts should be carefully proofread before being submitted. For research reports, the faculty advisor should edit preliminary drafts before the report is presented in final form.