Writing a Science Paper

General rules in writing scientific papers, laboratory reports, and technical notes on reporting experimental results.

The purpose of scientific writing is to convey information in a clear and concise form.

1. Prepare an outline or table of contents to help you get started.

2. English is assumed to be the international language for communicating scientific results. People who are not native English speakers should be able to read and understand the papers. Therefore, avoid slang and words which require the reader to consult a dictionary. It is best to adhere to the standard terminology of the particular field. For example, certain English words have precise meanings in physics which differ from their meanings in common usage or in another discipline. For example, "force" and "power" have specific, mathematical meanings in physics.

3. Use simple and concise sentences whenever possible. Each sentence should convey a single idea. If a sentence is long and contains multiple ideas, it is better to break it up into two or more sentences.

4. Choose either the present or the past tense, and carry the same tense throughout the paper. You may start with either "The apparatus consists of..." or "The apparatus consisted of...," for example. Do not switch back and forth between tenses, except when it is obviously needed to address past or future events.

5. When using an acronym or an abbreviation, define it the first time it is used, e.g., "University of Rochester (UR)."

6. Each equation which appears on a separate line should be numbered consecutively. This allows it to be referenced easily. For example,

. (1)

7. All experimentally measured quantities (as opposed to theoretical constants) should be quoted with errors and with the correct number of significant figures. Always use the standard deviation as the standard, statistical, measurement error. Some authors quote other kinds of errors, but they always define what they mean. Specify whether the quoted error is statistical only or whether it is the total error, including systematic, normalization and theoretical assumption errors. If more than one error is specified, state what those errors are, as in the following example: "1.32+-0.01 (stat)+-0.05 (sys)+-0.12(norm)+-0.10 (theory)." This is a rather unusual example; typically only two errors are quoted. The first error is usually a total point-to-point error from all random sources, and the second is the overall systematic/normalization error. Remember to indicate the units of the measured quantity.

8. References and footnotes should appear at the end of the text and should be numbered consecutively in the order in which they are mentioned in the paper. Different scientific journals employ somewhat different formats for references to scientific articles. We will use the format specified by Physical Review Letters.

9. There are many texts on technical writing that one can consult:

a) The Elements of Style, by W. Strunk and E. B. White. A very concise, funny and inexpensive ($6) paperback on style published by Macmillan Publishing. A used copy can be found in most second hand bookstores.

b) The Physical Review Letters suggests the American Institute of Physics Style Manual, 4th edition,1990. Phone orders ($10+$3.00shipping)1-800-488-2665.

c) The Astrophysical Journal suggests the Chicago Manual of Style published by the University of Chicago Press. Available at bookstores.

Two longer books are:

d)Technical Writing and Professional Communication, by L. A. Olsen and T. N. Huckin, published by McGraw Hill.

e) Science and Technical Writing: A Manual of Style, Phillip Rubens, editor, published by Henry Holt (1992).