Research paper guidelines

Your paper is the final formal record of your research project.  It is also your chance to shine, to show off your work and what you've learned.  The Chemistry Department keeps copies of all research papers in Trexler 464.  Write a paper so good that twenty years from now you will want to bring your children back for Alumni Weekend to show off your work. 

A good paper requires time, multiple drafts, careful editing, and attention to detail.  Start writing early.  Use a formal, scientific style.  Most of the paper should be in the third person.  Use the active voice whenever possible, except in descriptions of procedures.  ACS style calls for experimental procedures written in the third person, passive voice.  Summarize facts or ideas of others with paraphrases and appropriate citations.  Direct quotations should be reserved for the rare occasions when the exact words of another are required.  You should be able to place ideas in your own words and thus cite them as a paraphrase.  If you cannot explain an idea in your own words, it doesn't belong in your paper.   Avoid stream of consciousness or chronological organizational structures.  Your paper should follow a format very similar to that used by professional chemists in journal articles.  Although individual papers may vary a bit, a typical paper includes the sections below.  

Paper Format  

Cover Page: Include your project title, name, research advisor, research period (e.g. Summer 2014).  Note if you are a Bondurant Scholar, Summer Scholar, and/or completing Honors in Major.  

Abstract:  Generally not longer than a half a page, the abstract is a concise statement of what was accomplished.  While the goals of the project are often included, an abstract is not primarily a statement of a project's goals or purpose.  In an abstract, you should summarize your results and give a brief overview of your conclusions.  

Introduction:  Often the longest section of a research paper, the introduction places the work in context by providing appropriate theoretical background, a history of previous work, reaction mechanisms, background on significant techniques or instruments, etc.  A review of information available in the literature is often part of the introduction.  Include structures, figures, graphs, formulas, and chemical equations as appropriate.  Place figures as close as possible to the point where you describe them.  Number figures and equations to help your reader.  Be sure to include citations for sources of information and sources of any figures you borrow.  A proper introduction contains:

  1. Literature Review - this is a summary of your area of study.  This should be a thorough and in depth review and will likely involve at least TEN different primary literature sources on your topic.  The literature review should be presented in a logical format and relate directly to the goals of your project.
  2. Broader Impact - As a part of the introduction to your paper, you will need to discuss the broader impacts of the project.  What is the purpose of your experiments?  Beyond the specific results, how does this project fit into the world as a whole? 
  3. Techniques - At the discretion of the advisor, you will be asked to summarize and explain techniques that you utilized in lab on a daily basis.  This could include things like cell transformation, thin-layer chromatography, or Monte-Carlo simulations.  Ask your advisor what laboratory techniques would be appropriate for inclusion. 
  4. Project Goals - The introduction typically ends with a paragraph that explains the overall goals of the specific project.  As opposed to the broader impacts, these should focus on the goals you set forth at the beginning of the project or the problem that you wish to address with the research.

Methods and Materials (Experimental):  Describe the sources of all materials and the details of procedures followed.  You need to provide enough detail so that a trained chemist could duplicate your work. You do not need to give details for methods that would be familiar to anyone with undergraduate training (e.g. how to do a titration).  Experimental procedures are written in the third person, passive voice, past tense.  While we try to avoid passive voice most of the time, we use it in descriptions of procedures because the doer is not considered important.  Any chemist should get the same results following the procedure. Note that some chemical divisions place the experimental section at the end of the paper, while others will have it directly following the Introduction.  Please consult your advisor for its appropriate placement in your paper.  

Results and Discussion:  A large focus of your paper will be this section, where you will describe what you have done and observed, and offer explanations for any observations.  Data should be presented clearly in tables and graphs.  Any spectra that would be useful to your discussion should be included here as well.  All included figures, graphs, spectra, and gel pictures should be clearly captioned, labeled, and embedded into the text at the appropriate location (near where you discuss it).  Be sure to include units for any given numbers.  Note that raw data is not always presented in this section, and large raw data tables may be more appropriate for the Appendix.  If your project had multiple parts, you may wish to subdivide this section as to provide additional organization for your thoughts.  

Conclusions:  Discuss your findings and the conclusions you draw.  Explain the basis for conclusions.  Offer explanations for problems encountered and suggestions for future work.  This section should also include what you have learned over the course of the research project.  

Acknowledgments:  Acknowledge help received (both student and faculty), funding sources, borrowed samples, academic guidance, etc.  

References:  See pages 287-291 of the ACS Style Guide, 3rd edition, which is available in Trexler 464 and the library.  ACS offers three options for citation style.  You need to use the one that your advisor prefers. References may be noted in the body by numbers either superscripted or included in parentheses and italicized, e.g., idea1 or idea (1).  Sources are numbered in order from the first citation.  The first source you cite will be #1, the second will be #2, etc.  If you later need to cite that first source again, it is still #1.  Although less commonly used, ACS also allows the author-date method, setting these in the body inside parentheses.  Whichever system your advisor chooses, follow it consistently.  See the ACS Style Guide for the correct format to list sources at the end of your paper.      

Appendices:  If your project generated data or spectra that should be preserved with your final paper but that were not directly referred to in the body of the paper, place them in an Appendix.  See your research advisor for help deciding if you need an Appendix.  For example, your advisor may wish to have NMR spectra for 20 samples included in an Appendix but only examine four spectra in detail within the body of the paper.  


Writing Style Good scientific writing should be clear and concise, and written in third person.  Write for clarity.  Write in the active voice whenever possible (except for that Experimental Section!).  While you must include technical language to properly discuss your work, avoid the excessive use of jargon.  

Constructing Figures, Schemes, and Graphs One of the most important aspects of science is the effective communication of your results.  Figures, schemes, and graphs are visual representations of your data meant to help the reader understand your results and conclusions.  Therefore, they must have a logical layout and design to function correctly.  

  1. Please be sure to include the appropriate labels for all axes, columns, and pictures.  (This includes labelling the lanes and ladder of a gel!)
  2. If you do not discuss a specific figure in the text of your paper, the figure should be in an appendix and not the body.
  3. There should be a caption to all figures that provides context for the reader.
  4. All embedded spectral data should contain a drawing of the molecule.