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R. S. Lakes, J. B. Park, W. Drugan, and R. Carpick
Rod Lakes Home

      The writing of reports is a very important part of the training of an engineer or scientist. Lab reports written for class are excellent practice for your future work. If you are a graduate student, the results of your research project will be communicated to your grant or contract monitor by reports and to the scientific community at large by theses and journal articles. The impact of your results depends very much on the effort that you put into writing.
      The reports should be printed on 216 mm x 280 mm (8.5" x 11") white paper. The report should be neat in appearance and well written. Your report should present all pertinent information as succinctly as possible in a well-organized fashion. Make frequent use of sections; your report should not be one long narrative. Your report should be written using good, simple English that is easy to read. Use the spell checker in your word processor. Some errors will not be recognized by the computer because they involve a change of meaning. Therefore read the draft before submitting it. Errors of spelling, sentence construction, or data presentation will generate a poor impression. Check also for major disparities. Calculation errors should not find their way into the final version of your report. The quality of your reports will improve greatly if you print a draft first and edit it before preparing the final version. Check the 'final' version as well. It is embarrassing to transmit a report containing bugs.
      The following general format is suggested for a full report:

§1 Title Page
      This page should contain the following:
(a) Report title
(b) Author or authors
(c) The date written
The title page should be very neat and orderly. Remember, the title page gives the first impression of your report. If you wish to conserve paper, the title can be at the top, on the same page as the abstract.

§2 Abstract
      The abstract should report the basic accomplishments of the experiment and attempt to entice the reader to read further; one way to accomplish this is to explain why your results are important and what ramifications they have or may have. An abstract should be less than one page in length and is typically 100 to 200 words. In industrial settings the abstract may be called an executive summary. If that terminology makes you feel like an executive, go ahead and use it. The abstract should include the following items:
(a) Objective of work (purpose)
(b) Brief statement on how the objective was achieved
(c) Summary of results, conclusions and recommendations

§3 Table of Contents
      This page give the headings of major sections of the report. It is appropriate for theses. It is optional for class reports. It is not usually used in journal papers. An example of a suitable format is as follows:
(a) Introduction
(b) Methods
(c) Results and Discussion
(d) Conclusions
(e) References
(f) Appendices

§4 Introduction
      The introduction places the work in perspective, that is, it cites relevance, motivation, some previous background, and most importantly, the objectives of the work. A literature survey is appropriate for a class report, and essential for a thesis or journal article. In this section, explain what has been done by others that is pertinent to your work. For theses and journal articles, use primary references, that is, references to the original research, rather than text books or web sites.

§5 Methods
      The purpose of this section is to describe the technique, whether it be experimental, numerical, or analytical and how the work was performed. For experimental work, a simple schematic diagram should be included as well as other important data such as the manufacturer and model number of any equipment used. This may be important for reproducibility of results and in interpretation of errors. For analytical work in particular, make sure that all symbols used are defined. Equations should be numbered so that you can refer to them in the text and the reader can find them.
      Diagrams should be professional in appearance. Do not use crude pencil. If you prepare a hand-drawn diagram of an instrument, other device, or specimen, use black ink. Use a straight edge to make straight lines, a circle guide to make clean circles, and an ellipse guide to make clean ellipses. Diagrams or images of equipment taken from the web must be cited.
      For class projects, if the procedure was the same as described in the lab handout, make references to the handout but explain in detail what you did in the methods section. Be sure to specify the make and model of equipment used, also the type and version of software used in digital systems. Be sure to note any significant departures if any occurred.
      For theses and journal article make sure there is enough detail for an educated person who is not familiar with your project to reproduce the results.

§6 Results and Discussion
      Tell the reader what you found, and what the results mean. Graphs and tables are good methods for presenting data. Be sure to explain what is going on. Tables should be well organized and easily understood, with a title and a caption for each table. Graphs are usually easier to interpret than complex tables.
      Results are distinct from raw data. Make sure to process your data fully to obtain comprehensive and useful results. For graphs, it is best to use dedicated graphics software such as KaleidaGraph. See the associated web link on graph presentation quality.
      Graphs should contain the following: (a) axes which are clearly labeled, with appropriate units; (b) a caption which gives a figure number and a brief description of the results in the graph; (c) data points which are clearly identified with the corresponding data; (d) nothing extraneous (such as software generated titles 'data from datafile'); (e) reasonable calibrations on axes, e.g. small divisions equivalent to one half or one fifth of a large division. Divisions are never cut into thirds unless there is a compelling reason. (f) The caption should be below the graph in text, not within the graph itself.
      Check your results before handing in the report. It is embarrassing to report results off by a factor of a thousand, or even a billion, without comment; indeed, such a result is worth 'F'. Read the report before submitting it, and critically examine how reasonable are your results.
      Tables and figures should be numbered consecutively (e.g., Table 1 or Figure 1) and referred to as such in the write-up.
      Check your results. Giant disparities are embarrassing and are not appropriate in an upper level technical class. Correct such errors before submitting your report.

§7 Conclusions
      This section should be very concise. The conclusions should refer back to the objectives. One should indicate trends, possible sources of error, and how data relate to a model (if appropriate). Recommendations for possible future work or improvement of experimental procedure may be included.

§8 References
      Reference any articles, books, or other writing cited in the report. Any diagrams or images from journal articles or from the web must be cited. Quotations from other sources, that is, writing that you did not do yourself, must be fully cited. A standard style for referencing should be used. Journal articles and books should be referenced in the same style as in scientific journals. Each journal has its own style.
For a book: [1] Schumann, W. and Dubas, M., Holographic Interferometry, Springer Verlag, (1979).
For a journal article: [2] Upatnieks, J., Vander Lugt, A., and Lieth, E., "Correction of lens aberrations by means of holograms", Applied Optics 5: 589-593, (1966).
      Web references are usually permissible, when appropriately cited, for class reports (check with your instructor). They are less prevalent in journal articles. One reason is that web pages change and disappear with time. By contrast, books and journal articles are more stable and permanent. That is why they are called archival. Also, journal articles are critically reviewed, so many errors which could appear in a web site are filtered out or corrected before publication.

§9 Appendix
      An appendix to a report may contain raw data, notes taken in the lab, analytical derivations that are either not completely new (but are important to the work presented) or are highly detailed or other material which might disrupt the continuity of the presentation.

§10 Honesty
      An honest person does not steal. Stealing of another person's ideas or writing is called plagiarism, a practice which is prohibited at this university. One can certainly make use of published results (that is why they are published in journals or provided on the web), provided appropriate reference is made to the source of the ideas.
      One does not ordinarily paste blocks of someone else's writing into a report, unless there is a compelling reason to quote a particular style of writing. If a block of such text is included, it must be clearly identified as such. Do not claim it as your own. Results or images taken from the web also must be given a reference. For diagrams, cite the source, whether it be journal article or web site, in the caption of the figure. In our class project reports, one or two unattributed images from the class web site may be obvious to the reader; it is nonetheless bad form and should not be done.
      By cultivating honesty, one avoids the risk of an obligatory 'F' due to plagiarism, one prevents habits which can demolish a career, and also one prevents interior ugliness.

§11 Use of the computer
      The following is recommended.
(a) Keep backups. Disks may go bad unexpectedly. Files can become corrupted. You may even spill coffee into your computer.
(b) Use a rational file naming system. Otherwise, when you have many files you will waste much time tracking them down.
(c) Use common fonts such as Times, Times New Roman, Symbol. If you use other fonts there is the possibility that they are not installed in the laser printer; if that happens, gibberish may be printed.
(d) For thesis drafts, make sure your advisor has a copy of any software you are using to create the report, otherwise he / she will not be able to read and edit files.
(e) Keep text, graphs, etc. for a paper in one sensibly named folder, such as 'LaserPaper02ƒ'.

  Consider using LaTeX for writing.