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A GUIDE TO THE PREPARATION OF
RESEARCH/LABORATORY REPORTS

Adapted by Dr. Robin Hill, for use with students in Organisational Behaviour and Directed Research Projects. Last update January 2007.

Research reports are written in a manner known as "technical prose." The goal of technical prose is effective communication. A research/lab. report is precise and to the point. It states the question to which the study is addressed, the method employed, the results obtained, and the relation of these results to other knowledge. In addition, the usual requirements of English expository prose - such as complete sentences, accurate spelling, and correct grammar - apply to every research report. The catch cry of technical prose is "clear, concise and economy of wording." The following outline, based on the recommendations of the American Psychological Association (APA), may be used as a guide to organising and preparing a research report. The APA format is chosen, because world-wide, most academic journals require APA format or a close approximation.

Abstract

An abstract of about 100 -175 words begins each report. Its main purpose is to let the reader decide quickly whether to read the full report. A few hundred-thousand reports are published annually. Since individuals do not have sufficient time to read all of them, they need summaries that enable a quick decision as to whether or not the article or report is relevant to the reader's field of study.

An abstract of a research paper should contain statements about (1) the problem, (2) the method, (3) the results and (4) the conclusions. In a nutshell the abstract answers, in order, the following questions: "Why did I do the study?" (ie. the problem), "What did I do?" (ie. the method), "What did I find? (the results) and "What do these findings mean? What are their implications?" (the conclusion). Results are very important, and every abstract should contain at least the trend of the results. The abstract is a single paragraph, without sub-headings.

Introduction

The main body of a research report begins with an introduction. This section describes the current state of knowledge in your area of research, then tells the reader what contribution your particular investigation is intended to make.

You should view your introduction as a chain of reasoning, a chain of assertions (premises) that lead to logical conclusions (hypotheses, expectations). You begin with the statement of the problem followed, perhaps, by the theoretical assertions and assumptions. These are followed by the historical background of previous studies and writings by other people. You then state the conditions of your present study, compared to the earlier ones. On the basis of these assertions, assumptions, premises and conditions, you should then be able to draw a logical conclusion, which will serve as your statement of expectations, aims or hypotheses.

It is useful to think of the Introduction comprising 4 main parts. A preamble, literature review, introduction to your research project and statements of expectations.

(i) Preamble. This is a short statement of the problem that is to be addressed and should include your overall research question. In this section tell the reader why you were attracted to carry out research on your chosen topic and why it is an important topic to study. Preamble checklist: * Reasons given for doing research on your chosen topic. * Research Question is included.

(ii) Literature Review: This part of the Introduction should include sufficient information on the historical background of the problem so that an uninformed reader can see what has already been done, and by whom. This section should contain a list and brief description of existing studies which are relevant to yours. In this section you prepare the premises to an argument which will support your hypotheses or stated expectations.

Material in handouts, text books, and readings on your "reading list" should help to write an adequate Introduction. However, you are expected to do additional background reading, especially from credible academic journals. The following is a useful sequence for preparing the literature review:

1. Theory. A review of the literature regarding theoretical issues related to your chosen research question or topic. The premises of your argument that come from the accepted theory. 2. History. The review of the literature concerning previous research, projects, findings and events in this field of study. What have other researchers done in the past and what did they find out. (iii) The current project. Attention then shifts from other people’s research to your own proposed study. Here you provide, in broad sweeping terms, a description of how you investigated your research question. Keep this section quite brief – you will provide more comprehensive detail in the METHOD section. State whether you did a survey, focus group, interviews, participant observation or perhaps an experiment. State who or what you investigated and how you intend to measure or record it. Describe the way your research related to the prior theory and history. It should show how your study is replicated, added to or clarified the results of the existing research in the area that you included in your literature review. It should describe the ways in which your study was both similar to and different from the previous research in the literature review. This section should also how the researcher to operationally defined variables.

(v) Hypothesis, or statement of expectations (maybe statement of goals). While the previous sections of the introduction make up the premises of an argument, this subsection is basically the logical conclusion drawn from those premises. In some cases this would form the hypothesis, or at least the aims of the study or a statement of expectation. Alternatively it may be a statement about the actual objectives that are planned to be met.

Method

The purpose of the Method section is to inform the reader of how the study was conducted. In the Method section the actual mechanics of the study are described. A useful rule to follow is to present just enough detail in your report to enable another investigator to repeat your study. The Method section always covers at least three topics; the subjects or participants/respondents, the apparatus (or materials) and the procedure. Each is discussed in turn below.

Separate sub-headings for subjects (or participants/respondents), apparatus (or materials) and procedure should be used.

The first topic taken up in the Method section ordinarily is the sample of subjects or participants - the people who were studied. Three questions concerning the subjects must be answered here, in general terms: who were they, how many of them were there, and how were they selected? In describing who the subjects were, you should not name them, or provide any information that makes them identifiable to the reader - maintain their anonymity and confidentiality. Instead, general characteristics and major demographic characteristics (such as age and sex) should be reported. Mention also should be made of any other characteristics which might be relevant to the study or which might distinguish the subjects from other individuals (eg. they may require normal or corrected vision, they may need to be literate). In addition to giving the total number of subjects the number of each kind of subject (eg. gender, age groupings and so on) should be reported, along with the number and kind serving in each treatment group. The way in which subjects were selected also needs to be described. Was the sample a random one? If the sample was not random, what was the basis for the selection? Friendship with the investigator? Volunteering? All in the same class? Or what?

Following the description of the subjects typically comes a brief description of any apparatus, equipment or materials used. For instance, if you used a questionnaire, then that would be reported here. You might then include an actual copy of the questionnaire as an appendix attached to the end of the report. If you used a video camera, or tape recorder - you report that in this section.

The last portion of the method section is usually devoted to a description of the procedure. This subsection should be a summary of each step in the execution of the research. It should include instructions to subjects, formation of groups (if applicable) and specific manipulations. It is a description of what you did, how you carried out the research, and what typically happened to participants.

It is important to specify the point or points at which measurements were taken, and to describe the exact manner in which the measurements were made. Special precautions which were taken should be described, along with the various control techniques which were used.

Results

In this section the actual findings of the investigation are presented. The results section tends to be the most difficult part to write - it is the section that most people struggle with, at Masters, Doctorate and post-doctorate level. However, it is relatively simple to write, and keeping it simple is probably the key.

Tables and graphs are frequently used in the Results section to present a large amount of data in economical fashion. Raw data are rarely included in the Results. In the results section, you simply describe the results - you do not attempt to explain them, qualify them or in any other way expand on them. That is the function of the Discussion section. It is a good idea to go through the following sequence in preparing the results section. First, tabulate your results - that is, present them as a "table." Second, draw a graph or figure of the data contained in the tables. Third, verbally describe the graphs or figures you have drawn.

Tables, graphs and verbal descriptions are three different ways of presenting the same material. As mentioned above, because so many reports are published annually, researchers often do not have time to read the entire report. Therefore, they tend to be selective in their readings. Some people like visual material, and hence look at figures without bothering to read the verbal description. Others, read the verbal material, without paying a glance at either the tables or figures.

Each table and graph should receive a title and number. Tables and graphs should be numbered separately, and consecutively throughout the report. The number, and title of a table should appear above it, but the number and title of a graph should appear below the graph. The axes of a graph should be clearly labelled, and the unit of measurement specified. If the graph shows the relationship between an independent and a dependent variable, the independent variable conventionally is plotted on the horizontal axis and the dependent variable on the vertical axis. Where Frequency polygons are used straight lines are ordinarily drawn between the points on a graph.

TABLE ONE

Example of a table providing mock data of examination grades

Grade | Number of Responses | % of Class | A | 5 | 10 | B | 10 | 20 | C+ | 13 | 25 | C | 17 | 35 | D | 5 | 10 | TOTAL | 50 | 100 |

Graphs should not be smaller than half a page. The title of a graph should begin "Figure One: ..." and the title should enable the table or graph to stand alone from the verbal description. (See examples of Tables, below and graphs, on separate page). Graphs used in research reports should not be flashy. They should be simple, monochrome, and should not be embellished with 3-D effects or colours.

Tables and graphs should be accompanied by a written description, which directs and reader's attention to the main features of the results.

Results of inferential statistical tests are usually given after the verbal description of the relevant findings. As well as the level of significance obtained, you should give the symbol for the test statistic, the degrees of freedom, and the result of the test calculation.

Discussion

In the previous section, the Results section, the basic results of the study are simply described. In the Discussion section, in contrast, those results are discussed, qualified, and interpreted. Data are linked together and related to the hypotheses, expectations or aims, and to the background research and theory presented in the Introduction. Similarities or differences between the obtained results and those found elsewhere are noted, and, if possible, explained. Most studies contain a few unanticipated results. These may be due to flaws in the research or procedure, or to unexplored variables: such considerations should be discussed, and suggestions for further research given. Practical implications of the results can be discussed . Indeed it is a good idea to set your discussion out in this manner (without sub-headings):

1. Refer results back to hypotheses. Do the results support your expectations or otherwise?
2. Refer results back to historical background. Do they support the theory, others' findings or not? Are they similar or different?
3. Explanation of unanticipated results. If results are not as expected, can you offer a tentative explanation for them?
4. Limitations of the study. Did you encounter any problems? Did you have any difficulties? In hindsight, can you detect any flaws, or unanticipated events that may have contaminated your results? (Eg, only a handful of people returned your questionnaire).
5. Practical implications for the results.
6. Suggestions for further research, or ways to make the research better.

References

Cite all references in the text (the body of the report) by enclosing in parentheses the author's surname and the year of publication, eg., "A recent study (Jones, 1993) showed that ...". If the name of the author occurs in the text the reference citation need be only the year of publication, eg., "Jones (1993) has said that ...". If the reference has two authors, connect the surnames by an ampersand if the reference is in parentheses, eg., "A recent study (Jones & Smith, 1993)..." or by the word "and" if the authors are referred to in the text, eg., "Jones and Smith (1993) have shown that ...".

If a reference has more than two authors, the citation must include the names of all authors the first time it appears; later citations of the same reference may include only the surname of the senior author and the abbreviation "et al." eg., "A recent study (Jones, Smith, Boren & White, 1994) showed ..." "The study previously cited (Jones et al., 1994) is ...".

NB. When you cite an article or book which you have not actually read, but which is referred to by another author, the format is: Jones (1993, cited in Bloggs, 1994). In such a case, the Reference section (at the end of the report) would include a reference to Blogg's' publication, not Jones. If you quote directly from a source, you must give the page number(s), eg.:

Grasse (1949) considers his test simply as a more sensitive index of "impairment in both the concrete and abstract spheres (p. 13)."

Quotations should be used sparingly. It is almost always better to use your own words - and to thereby demonstrate that you understand what you're writing about.

The Reference section at the end of the report includes all references cited in the text and only those references. It is not a complete bibliography to a topic.

This section is entitled References.

References are arranged alphabetically by author's surname, or for multiple authors by the name of the senior (first-named) author.

General Comments on Report Writing

The following comments concern some of the most common flaws in reports submitted by students.

You are not writing for someone who already knows the problem, the investigative details, etc. Your intended reader is someone with some academic sophistication in your general field of study - eg. "management", "accounting" - (so you can and should use technical terms) but who may be completely naive about the specific problem area. Your job is to inform such a reader. One way of assessing whether you are communicating appropriately is to ask a friend who has studied in your area but who knows nothing about the research you have done, to read your report. After reading the report (with no verbal communication with you), he or she should be able to tell YOU what the problem was, how the research was conducted, what results were obtained, what conclusions about the problem were reached and whether these conclusions were justified by the results. If your friend is not clear about any of these things, then your report should be revised accordingly.

The word "proof" is legitimate in philosophy and mathematics, not in empirical disciplines. Results may "support" or "fail to support" a hypothesis. They never "prove" it. Avoid the use of the word "proof."

It is conventional to depersonalise a lab. report. That is, to avoid using first-person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, our etc.). Rather than say "I conducted this study because of an interest in worker motivation..." it is better to refer to yourself as "the current researcher" "the present author" "the current investigator." Example: "The present study was carried out because the current investigator was interested in worker motivation...."

Likewise, don't use terms like "my study" when referring to the research you are reporting. Also avoid saying "this study." If you do it is frequently ambiguous whether you are referring to another study in the literature which you have cited, or to the research being reported. It is conventional to use "The present study".

Care must be taken to use the appropriate verb tense. It is standard procedure to write most of the report in the past tense, since the project itself has already been completed. The only common exceptions are the formal hypotheses (which are stated in the present tense, not in the future tense), current developments on the problem (present tense), and some variations in the Discussion section depending on the nature of the discussion.

Numbers less than 10 usually are spelled out, unless they appear in a series of numbers, express a score or percentage, or precede a unit of measurement. Numbers which possess more than one digit should appear in Arabic form, unless they begin a sentence.

Students often find it difficult to write in technical prose that is clear, concise and economical in wording. They tend instead, to use long, convoluted sentences, that are overly descriptive. One way to over come this, is to read through your report and insert more full-stops. That is, reduce long sentences to two or three shorter sentences.

Report writing checklist.

1. Begins with abstract. A single paragraph, of less than 175 words.
2. Introduction follows, covering the preamble, presentation of theoretical assumptions, presentation of previous studies and writings, the circumstances of the present study, statement of expectations (hypotheses or aims). 2a Ensure the preamble includes the overall research question.
3. Method section covers subjects/participants, apparatus, and procedure, under separate sub-headings.
4. Just enough detail in procedure to enable someone else to replicate your study. No more, no less.
5. Results section simply describes the results. Does not attempt to explain or qualify them.
6. Titles of figures and tables stand alone from the verbal text, so that tables and figures can be understood by the reader without requirement to read elsewhere. "Figure" refers to any diagram, including graphs.
7. Figures are at least half a page. Axes labelled, unit of measurement specified. Title describes the figure. Lines are ruled. Key in top right-hand corner if required. Only in black and white (not coloured - nor fancy shadowing, 3-D effects). Helps to put a single-line border round it.
8. Discussion includes reference back to hypotheses, reference back to literature presented in Introduction, explanation of results obtained, limitations, practical implications and further research.
9. All references cited in body of report, are referenced at end. All referencing and in-text citation follows conventions.
10. Report is written in past tense.
11. Report is depersonalised. Avoid use of first person pronouns.
12. Wording is clear, concise and economical. Check for lengthy, convoluted sentences.
13. Maintain confidentiality. Ensure participants cannot be identified by the reader.
14. Hypotheses or statements of expectation are logical and are clearly justified, on the basis of literature reviewed in the Introduction.
15. Check spelling and grammar thoroughly.

Note the following checklist for Figures: (a.) Title begins with the word "Figure" & goes at the bottom. (Title of a Table goes at the top) (b.) Axes are clearly labelled and units of measurement indicated (c.) All lines should be ruled (d.) Helps to have a single line border round the entire figure (e.) Key at top right hand corner (f.) Monochrome and at least half page in size.
(c.)
Grades. (b)
(d)
Frequency of
Responses (b)
Figure 1: Example of a graph illustrating mock data of examination grades. (a).
X
X
Key:
If needed is located here (e)

X
X
X
D C C+ B A
0
5
10
15
20

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