These tips for writing a proposal, writing a technical scientific report, and giving a symposium talk, were drafted largely by Nalini Nadkarni for tropical biology field courses in the late 1980's.

How to write a proposal

[This document was designed for an earlier program, and I did not notice the "1-2 page" part until today. For the proposal to be the equivalent of a species account, I meant for it to be a fully researched and formal proposal, with at least 5 pages of material. I apologize if I mislead you here. I've changed this document accordingly.]

The purpose of a proposal is to state clearly and convincingly a research question and the means you will use to go about answering it. In general follow the tips below for writing a research report. Your proposal should have the following components.

1. Introduction: State immediately the specific research project you want to investigate and then relate it to a more general context. Review the literature that is relevant to your project. Present a brief background for the project by telling the reader that facts A, B, and C are known, but that fact D is not known; your project will fill in this void (or will lead to progress in filling in this void). Make sure that your central question is clearly stated, and that you have sufficiently narrowed the focus to be able to answer your question in the time you have available.

2. Materials and methods: In this section, you describe your study site and convey the general approach you will take, the methods you will use, and the supplies and equipment you will need. Be specific about the types of data you propose to collect. You may want to include a sample data sheet. Present in some detail the statistical analyses you will use.

3. Projected Results and Benefits: What types of data, graphs, and tables will your research generate? In addition to your written and oral reports, are there any other specific research products that will result (species lists, permanently marked plants, etc.)?

4. Time schedule: Provide a detailed time schedule of field work, labwork, analysis, and write-up.

5. Literature Cited: carefully prepare this section, following a standard format, and being sure all references are cited in the text, and all text citations are represented in the Literature Cited.

How to write a research report

Scientific papers have their own peculiar stylistic customs, and your report should follow this standard format that is used by the international scientific community. If you were submitting your paper to a journal, you would check the "Advice to Contributors" page that can be found in each journal, usually on the back cover. This page gives specific information on page size, number of copies to submit, format for references cited, etc. Each journal is a little different, but nearly all follow the suggestions we have provided.

Your report should have the following sections: title page, abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results, discussion, acknowledgments, literature cited, tables, figure captions, figures.

Abstract: An abstract should give the reader a good idea of what your study is about and what your MAJOR findings were. Standard abstracts are no more than 5% of the text - so yours should be less than one page. Your abstract should encapsulate the whole study - objectives, general approach, major results and conclusions. You will give an abstract in Spanish for the oral presentation; it is not required for this written report.

Introduction: This is much like the introduction to a proposal (although probably changed somewhat to reflect the reality of your project, often quite different from what was originally anticipated). Make sure you have outlined the importance of your study, by relating your specific question to a general ecological question, showing where a definite hole in a body of knowledge lies, or by relating it to some unarguably important subject. Do not however, quote or refer to literature for its own sake; make sure the studies you cite are relevant to your questions. State the assumptions you are making in using your approach. For example, in a chronosequence study of forest stands, you are necessarily assuming that all of the stands are growing on the same parent material under very similar climatic conditions, and the only differences are in the age of the stand.

Materials and methods: Describe the study site. Describe any background natural history information that may be relevant. If extensive, natural history information is often placed in a separate section with its own heading. Describe in detail your procedure (not what you hoped or intended to do, but what you actually did). Describe the statistical model you use for analysis.

Results: State a result directly, in common English, and then follow the statement with statistical support. Do not state a statistical test as a result. Say "Red fruits were removed more often than green fruits (t-test, P less than 0.001)." Do not say "A t-test showed significant differences in fruit removal." It is often helpful to state an overall result first, then follow up with specifics (e.g., there were no significant differences between primary and secondary forests for any of the soil characteristics I measured. ...Soil temp, soil moisture means, s.d., etc.).

For each fact you present, you can either: 1) state the data in the text, 2) present data in a figure (graph, map, diagram, histogram), or 3) present data in a table (columns and rows of numbers). Do not present data in more than one form. Try to reduce the numbers of figures and tables, but do not compress them so much that they are difficult to understand. Refer to each of them separately, directly after you have presented each nugget of results.

Anecdotal data may be included in results, but you should clearly differentiate qualitative vs. quantitative observations.

Discussion: The purpose of a discussion is 1) to relate your results to existing knowledge, 2) to make clear how your results add to or modify existing knowledge, 3) to speculate about what remains unknown, and 4) to suggest directions of future research.

First, briefly restate your main results in a few sentences. Discuss and explain your results. If they contradict what you expected or hypothesized, try to explain why. You may refer to anecdotal information you presented in Results. Tie your results back to your Introduction. Your Discussion should be answering each question you posed in your Introduction.

State possible sources of error. Do NOT include those errors which you can do something about. "There could have been calculation errors since I had so many numbers to deal with" is not acceptable. "The misting apparatus did not deliver a spatially homogeneous spray" is acceptable and should be stated.

Give SPECIFIC suggestions for where this research could lead - what are the next questions that should be asked, and how might they be carried out. Simply stating that "more research is necessary in this area" is not very helpful.

Acknowledgments: Acknowledge those who gave you guidance, help with fieldwork, statistics, etc. Especially note those on whose land you worked (including the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve).

Literature Cited: Double-check that all references in text have correctly cited references in the LITCIT. Use a standard format such as Biotropica or Ecology articles. Do not cite pers. comm. in LitCit.

Tables: Tables should have a title and optionally additional caption text above the body of the table. The title of the table should stand on its own (e.g., Table 1. Means and standard errors of fine and coarse root biomass dry weight (g/cm2) in the upper 10 cm of soil in the primary forest study site, Monteverde). Tables should be on separate pages (unless two will fit easily on one page).

Figure captions: Preceding the figures, you should have a page for Figure Legends. These also should stand on their own, with an explanation for the symbols and units you use (e.g. Fig. 1. Density of Ocotea and Conostegia seedlings (stems/m2) in 5, 16, 18, and 32-year-old chronosequence, Monteverde).

Figures: Make rough drafts of figures first to be included in an editing draft of the paper. Discuss figures with friends and the instructor to achieve the most informative visual representation of the data. When you have decided on a final figure design, carefully redraw figures to include with the final submitted paper. Figures should be drawn neatly and accurately with black ink. Put each figure on a separate page and label the bottom of the page Fig. 1, Fig. 2, etc. Printed output from the statistics programs are suitable if you cut and paste them so as to have appropriate legends, axis labels, etc.

General comments: Writing is hard work. It cannot be put off until the last minute. Each sentence has to be pondered to be sure that it says what you mean in an understandable, unambiguous way. A paragraph can take over an hour to get right. If at all possible, make arrangements with a friend to swap papers for mutual editing.

Some general stylistic pointers: Write out numbers one through ten. For numbers greater than ten, use numerals. (11, 12, etc.). For decimal numbers, use numerals (1.2, not one point two). For decimal numbers less than 1.0, include the 0 before the decimal point (Sex ratio = 0.56). USE METRIC UNITS! If your measuring instrument is in English units (e.g., rain gauges measure in inches) CONVERT TO METRIC. Convert your data to standardized units (e.g., g/cm2, not g/plot). By converting to standard units, other scientists can compare their values to yours even if they use different plot sizes and shapes.

Define words (briefly) that you use which are not generally used or may have ambiguous meanings (e.g., relict trees). Define them when you first use them in the text.

Do not insert "advertisements" in your paper: e.g., "it is interesting to note that...", "a fascinating result is..." Let the reader decide what is interesting or fascinating.

Use subheadings within the major sections of your paper to help keep the reader aware of your organization. If you have made several separate measurements, you can organize the methods and results under subheadings (e.g, soil physical characteristics, soil chemical characteristics, soil biotic characteristics). Follow the same order in both the methods and the results.

How to give a symposium talk

The purpose of a presentation in a symposium is to clearly communicate the objectives, methods, results, and importance of your research project to a broad audience. Keep in mind that the audience is less specialized than the intended readership of your written research report.

You will have an absolutely enforced time limit of 12 minutes. Ideally your talk should take precisely ten minutes, with two minutes left for questions. The general organization can follow your paper's organization.

Your title and named will be announced by the moderator. The Introduction is probably the most important part of the talk and you should practice this the most prior to the talk. The introduction should GRAB the listener's attention from the start. Introduce the general topic, and immediately let the audience know your focus and question. Keep the methods section brief; you needn't go into detail. Results are the most important part - allow plenty of time. Give only the major results, numbers that summarize your findings rather than details of standard deviations, ranges, etc. (unless it is an important result). Figures and tables should be presented as you present your facts. Make sure they are clearly titled and each axis is labelled. It is a good idea to explain your axes before you go over what the data are (e.g. "On the vertical axis, I show dry weight in grams per meter, on the horizontal axis, I show time in weeks; ...dotted lines are for treated plots, solid lines are for control plots..."). The Discussion should EXPLAIN your results. You should essentially be answering the questions you posed in the Introduction. Include any important and unavoidable sources of error. Briefly mention specific areas for future research. Acknowledge those who helped you and your study, including land owners.

Prior to your talk, think about potential questions that the audience might ask - prepare (in your head) brief answers to them.

Make sure you run through your talk several or many times out loud. Practice with the graphics you will use. You will be amazed at how short ten minutes can be. As in professional symposia, time limits will be enforced.

Clearly end your talk. After your last point, say something like "Thank you very much" to tell the audience that you are now done. Speakers have a tendency to dribble off at the end, so the audience doesn't know whether you have stopped or have additional points. NEVER end with an apologetic tone. Speakers tend to end with "Well, I guess that's all I have to say." Even saying "That's all" has a belittling effect. In fact, you never need to adopt an apologetic tone anywhere in the talk. In a short talk, there is no need to discuss what you had hoped to do but didn't have time for, or why your sample size isn't large enough, or why this or that method failed. No waffling or hand-wringing over how terrible this study is; state confidently what you found out.

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John T. Longino, The Evergreen State College, Olympia WA 98505 USA.

Last modified: 9 February 2004.