Organizing & Reporting Experimental Results

Instructor: Robin Monegue Keeler

Robin has taught college microbiology and environmental science. She has two master's degrees: one in environmental microbiology and the other in public health.

This lesson discusses how to present experimental results in a scientific paper, and includes writing style, why it is important to be selective in reporting data, and when to use text, tables, and figures.

Reporting and Sharing Your Results

You've finally finished your scientific experiment! You now have the exciting job of analyzing all the data you collected in order to share your research results. The most common way to share experimental results is by writing a scientific paper and publishing it.

While you probably won't be publishing your paper in a scientific journal such as Science or Nature, you want to do a good job in writing up your experiment. After all, every great published scientist had to start somewhere!

Luckily, every scientific paper is organized in pretty much the same way. In general, there are seven sections:

  • Title
  • Abstract (a short summary of the paper);
  • Introduction (provides background information and includes the hypothesis);
  • Materials and Methods (the details about how the experiment was done);
  • Results (the relevant data collected from the experiment);
  • Discussion/Conclusion (explains the data, and how the data supports/does not support the hypothesis);
  • Literature Cited (lists references relevant to the experiment).

Of all these sections, the results is the most important. It is the heart the research paper. Here, statistical analyses of the collected data is presented using text, tables, and figures. Remember, statistical analyses don't prove anything, they only provide guidelines as to the reliability and validity of the results.

Let's review some key points on how to organize and write the results section.

Be Concise

You should write the results section concisely, and in an orderly and logical way. Look at all the data you've collected. Figure out what relates significantly to your hypothesis, the predicted answer to the question you are trying to answer. This will help you to be clear and objective when describing your results. Present your most important results first.

Never interpret your data in the results section - it's ''just the facts, ma'am.'' Save your explanations for the discussion section.

Use the past tense when writing the results section. For example, 'Students who consumed five cups of coffee stayed awake nearly ten times longer than students who consumed five cups of chamomile tea,' is correct. The present tense would imply conclusions about ALL students everywhere.

Be Selective With Data

Your results section should NOT include every tidbit of data you collected (that would get really boring, not to mention tedious). Pick out the experimental details that are critical for your readers to understand your findings. Discard unnecessary details that will only distract and confuse your readers.

Note that this selective process is not data manipulation, a willful distortion of data and results. That would be a serious ethical violation. If some of your findings contradict your ideas, present your explanation in the discussion section.

Text, Tables, and Figures

Text

The text in your results section should highlight evidence that supports or disproves the hypothesis you investigated.

Describe key results and trends after you examine the data. For example: 'Drinking five cups of coffee increased students' time to fall asleep by 15%.' Here, you are simply identifying what your data shows - it is not your interpretation or opinion.

Present important differences or similarities in your data, correlations, maximums, minimums, etc.

Always use text when it is simpler to describe your results in a sentence or two. However, most of your results will be more complex, and should be presented in tables or figures, referred to individually and sequenced. Note that the same data is never presented in both a table and a figure.

Caution: tables and figures are not the same! How do you choose one or the other? Read on!

Tables

Tables are useful to show variation in your data. Use a table when you don't have a lot of data, or when the data does not vary by much.

All tables have a title that go above the table and are numbered consecutively (e.g., Table 1, Table 2, etc.) This is helpful when you refer to a table in your text. For example, 'Table 1 lists the number of minutes it took students to fall asleep after drinking one or more cups of coffee.' The table title would be: 'Table 1. Effect of Increased Coffee Consumption on Time to Fall Asleep.'

Think about the data you want to compare in the table and organize it in columns, not rows. Be sure to indicate the units of your data (e.g., minutes, millimeters, degrees Fahrenheit, etc.) Never use vertical lines in your tables.

Example of a Table
Table

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