Writing about science
is a demanding process. The scientific style of writing has its own rules and guidelines that often differ substantially from how we're taught to write essays in English or history. While teachers in these other classes might give you a fair amount of freedom in how you organize your information, a scientific paper
has a rigorous outline that every student must follow. But why do science papers have such specific rules? The answer lies in the scientific method.
What is the scientific method?
Put simply, the scientific method is a technique for answering questions about the physical world that emphasizes the importance of using empirical data (i.e., data gathered from observations) to test a hypothesis. For hundreds of years, it's been the standard for good scientific practice: every development you hear about in physics, chemistry, or biology was most likely researched using the scientific method. Today, students are taught the scientific method from an early age: most post-elementary aged children will have a basic idea of how to come up with question and develop a way to collect data that will answer that question.
While science is as old as civilization itself, the scientific method as we know it today didn't develop until the 17th century, when philosophers, including the scientist Francis Bacon, encouraged inductive reasoning based on observational evidence. He advocated that only the process of using empirical evidence to eliminate alternative theories would allow you to make scientific claims. Over the centuries there have been a number of competing philosophies that attempt to explain just how exactly we can verify our beliefs, but with the success of scientists like Galileo and Isaac Newton, Bacon's method became the model we still use today.
The scientific method is so widely established that most of us use it every day without even thinking about it. Let's say that one day you want to order a pizza, so you look up the number for your favorite place and dial. But instead of getting the restaurant, you get an error message saying the number has been disconnected. Since you really want that pizza, you will most likely start thinking of what could have gone wrong. First, you dial the number again, just to be sure it isn't working. Then, you double-check the number to make sure you dialed it correctly, or maybe you look online to see if you can find a second phone number. Next, you might have someone else try from their phone to see if maybe something is wrong with yours. If none of those work, you're likely to give up on that particular restaurant and try calling someplace else.
In that scenario, you've actually completed all six steps of the scientific process, probably without even meaning to. Let's look at each step individually to see how it contributes to our investigation.
Identify a problem or question
The first step in the scientific method
is simply observing the world around you, and from that observation you develop a question about how something works or why something is the way it is. In the above example, during the process of trying to order a pizza, we observe that the phone number doesn't work. Thus, our question is: why is the phone number not working?
Form a hypothesis
Next, from our observations we try to come up with a reasonable answer to our question. This is the hypothesis: what answer do we think we'll get when we try to answer our question with an experiment? Perhaps your hypothesis is that you misdialed the phone number, which means that if you dial the correct number, your call will go through.
Perform an experiment
Up until this point we've only been thinking about our problem, but now we're going to devise a way to test our hypothesis in the real world to see if it's correct. Keep in mind that in science we can never really "prove" something; we can only say with some level of mathematical certainty whether it's likely to be true. When we look up the pizza place's number and dial again, we're performing an experiment to determine whether our hypothesis that we misdialed is correct.
Once we've collected the data, we can draw a conclusion about our hypothesis. If the phone call still does not go through, then we can conclude the problem wasn't that we misdialed; if the call does go through, we can conclude that we likely dialed the incorrect number.
After you've reached a conclusion, it's time to step back and look at what you've accomplished. You have new data that hopefully tells you something new about your research question, which means you can now start the process over by making observations and asking new questions. Let's say in our pizza example that the calling the number again doesn't work. Our next hypothesis might be that your phone is broken, and you'd perform a new experiment to test that.
The results of a scientific experiment need to be reproducible. That's why scientists publish their findings-so that other researchers can review their work and check the results. When you call the pizza place again the next week, you're making sure that the results of the experiment can be reproduced.
Obviously, when scientists perform experiments they're much more complex than our example. Scientists will work for years to test a question that is just one small part of a much larger, more intricate theory. But no matter how big or complicated the question, the basic idea is the same: develop a hypothesis, test it, then draw conclusions.
What does this mean for my paper?
When it comes time to write it's important to understand the scientific method because when you write about science, your paper is going to closely follow the basic structure of the scientific method. If you've ever written or read a research paper, you might have recognized the six steps listed above as the same basic sections included in the IMRAD model. IMRAD-introduction, methodology, results, and discussion-is the standard format for research papers, and it is designed to mirror the scientific method.
start with the introduction, which lays out for the reader the background information for your work along with your research question and hypothesis. In the methodology section, you detail for the reader how your performed your experiment. Next, you give the results of your work, and finally, in the discussion you present your conclusions and discuss further avenues for research. Notice how closely this follows the scientific method. If you've skipped any steps in the scientific method while carrying out your work, then you won't be able to write a complete research paper.
Understanding the scientific method will also help you structure the ideas in your paper
. Think of the scientific method as being shaped like an hourglass:
Your paper should be structured just like the hour glass. Start with a broad introduction, then narrow the focus down to your particular research question, then even further to the methodology you used. Next, show the specific results you got from your experiment, then widen the focus on your paper to show how those particular results suggest a conclusion with broader implications for your field. The paper ends with a discussion of what the next step in the research would be. Then, the hour glass gets flipped over and the whole process starts again with a new experiment.