Suggested Style for Survey of Forest Ecology Laboratory Reports

FOR 3364
Survey of Forest Ecology and Management
S. M. Zedaker
Suggested Style for
Survey of Forest Ecology Laboratory Reports
1. Introduction
Research, a studious critical inquiry and examination aimed at the discovery and interpretation of
new knowledge, is a vital part of every professional's job. Research is not just something done by
scientists working at universities or independent laboratories, but is an activity in which every
professional resource manager is involved and which sets professionals apart from technicians. The
code of ethics of nearly every profession dictates that practitioners use only the most up-to-date
information and technology to perform their tasks; to do this requires research! Whether the critical
inquiry and interpretation is done to purchase a new timber tract, retool a pulp mill, or develop a new
management strategy for spotted owl, it is still research. Inevitably, research involves designing a
study, collecting and analyzing data, and presenting the results, often in the form of a written report.
The process of writing, evaluating, and rewriting research findings makes the author think more
deeply about the work. Accurate, clear, and concise writing is essential to effective communication
among professionals. The research reports you will prepare will provide writing experience different
from that associated with a library term paper. A research report is based on one's own data and
involvement in an organized investigation.
2. General Format and Style
A widely accepted format for research reports is one that begins with a title and a by-line identifying
what the work is about and who did it, followed by sections such as Introduction, Methods and
Materials, Results, Discussion, Summary and/or Conclusions, and Literature Cited. Often, an
abstract at the beginning of the paper will appear in place of a summary at the end. This format
serves as a framework for a more detailed outline which must be prepared before the paper is
The style of a research report varies depending on the intended audience. Most professional writers
and editors find that the style of research reports is poor, largely because the authors lack experience
and/or training in technical writing. A good reference for a "beginning" biological writer is the CBE
Style Manual (Council of Biological Editors 1978). There are numerous texts on technical writing
that would also be helpful. The following general guidelines, gleaned from many of these sources,
will help your writing (and paper grades) if used.
a. Considerable debate still rages about the use of the first person ("I" or "we") in technical writing.
For now, do not use the first person. By the same token, do not use indirect statements like "this
author" or "these researchers." For example, when describing how tree diameters were taken, you
might write: "The diameters, at 4.5 ft above ground, of ten trees on each plot were measured to
the nearest 0.1 inch using a caliper."
b. All manuscripts should be typed double-spaced, with one-inch margins all around. Do not
hyphenate words or right-justify; an uneven margin is of little concern.
c. Do not use footnotes, and avoid the use of direct quotations. Direct quotations are reserved for
rare instances in technical writing when it is impossible to improve on the original wording, or
when the wording itself is the object of comment. Use the style for citations given in section 6
d. Make liberal use of headings and subheadings for major sections of the reports. These are
generally the product of a good working outline, and they help organize the reader's thinking.
e. Always use the past tense for the Methods and Materials section. You have already completed
the work by the time the paper was written.
f. Avoid the use of long or complex sentences with excessive use of commas and conjunctions
("and," "but," "or"). These sentences often obscure your meaning and reduce readability.
g. Do not use noninformative abbreviations like "etc." and phrases such as "and so on" or "and the
h. The first time a species is mentioned, give its common and Latin name and the author. Common
names suffice for subsequent citations.
i. Be affirmative in your writing. Do not hide behind noncommittal statements. For example, using
"the data could possibly suggest" implies that the data may actually show nothing; use "the data
show" instead.
j. Avoid the use of contractions (don't, can't) and possessives (fire's effect, slope's impact). By
convention, possessives are only used in conjunction with living organisms.
k. The rules for numbers are varied and complex, but need not be. In general, use Arabic numerals
for all numbers in a sentence if the numbers are 10 or above or include decimal points. However,
never start a sentence with an Arabic numeral. Round off numbers to their justifiably significant
digits. After all, how much is 0.0001 of a board foot, or how can you have 0.05 of an animal per
l. Avoid repeating findings and thoughts. Decide where a statement about your work fits best and
do not repeat it elsewhere.
m. Be concise. Include all that is necessary, but do not pad the report with extraneous information.
3. Title
Titles should be concise and descriptive of contents and scope. They should avoid gobbledygook
like "some aspects of" or "in relation to." Avoid articles, adjectives and adverbs. Titles should not be
excessively long, but should be specific and clear.
4. Abstract
An abstract is a concise statement of the problem, your general methods, basic findings and
conclusions. Poor abstracts tend to read more like expanded tables of content. A poor abstract might
"The food habits of various song birds in a city were studied. The data were analyzed
statistically and certain similarities and differences between the species were found.
Conclusions about feeding habits, habitats, and niche segregation were reached."
A good abstract on the same subject would read:
"The stomach contents of blue jays, cardinals, and English sparrows, were identified from a
random sample of 50 birds captured in downtown Blacksburg, Virginia. Analysis of the
amount of overlap of food types showed that blue jays and English sparrows consumed
similar foods. As an example of niche segregation in an urban environment, blue jays and
sparrows occupy similar habitats while cardinals occupy dissimilar habitats."
5. Introduction Section
The introduction is critical to maintaining a reader's interest in the report. It should show why the
problem is important. It should define the scope of the work to be reported or the objective of the
exercise. It may incorporate a brief literature review. However, the introduction should be brief;
maybe only a few sentences are necessary to introduce the reader to the subject. This part of the
paper presents the background and justification for your study.
6. Literature Review Section
The literature review should be something more than a collection of loosely connected citations. The
writer must strive to synthesize the bits of literature into a meaningful whole. This section should
review what others have said about the topic of your paper. After reading your Literature Review, a
critical reviewer should be convinced that the topic has been comprehensively covered.
Only literature actually read should be cited. If, while reading an article by Smith (1960), you find an
interesting article attributed to Tribbett (1900) in an obscure publication you cannot hope to find,
you might state: "According to Smith (1960), Tribbett reported in 1900 that. . ."
It is preferred that literature be cited with dates, as: "Brown and Pauly (1940) found. . . or. . . and no
trees were damaged (Jones, 1960)"
If more than two authors cooperated on an article, it may be cited as: "Singleton et al. (1939)
reported. . ."
Common knowledge (for example, "Trees are green" or "Pines have needles") need not be attributed
to any citation. However, if specific information (especially that including quantitative data) is used
(for example, "Trees have green foliage that reflects light at wavelengths between 0.5 and 0.6 m"), it
should be followed by an appropriate citation (Monteith 1973).
Be sure to include only those findings that relate specifically to your topic. Establish the connection
between your citations and your own work.
7. Materials and Methods Section
This should simply be an account of what, where, when, and how. It should always be written in the
past tense. A concise and clear explanation of the experimental procedures should be given in
sufficient detail to permit another to duplicate the study if desired. In a field study, a general
description of the field site is needed. Specific equipment should be mentioned only if it may make a
difference in the results. The units and resolution of any quantitative data should always be included.
Be sure to include the methods used to compile or analyze the data.
8. Results Section
This portion of the report gives the facts found, even if they are contrary to hypothesis or
expectation. Your results should be presented succinctly with an appropriate explanation. All of the
basic data should not be presented here. These data should go in the Appendix. The results are often
presented in a table, graph, or an equation (see Section 12). However, the Results Section is not just
a collection of facts and figures; it should contain an explanation and description of the data. Tell the
reader what patterns, trends, or relationships were found in the data. For example, do not say, "The
species-area curve is presented in Figure 1." Tell the reader what Figure 1 actually shows, as in,
"Figure 1 shows that the number of species per unit area increases with increasing site quality."
Label figures and tables properly (see section 12) and cite all of them in your text. Too often, figures
and tables are included in reports without their purpose being explained to the reader.
9. Discussion Section
This should be the most constructive part of your paper. In the previous section the results were
summarized and described. In the Discussion Section, the results should be interpreted, critically
evaluated, and compared to other research findings. Examine the amount and possible sources of
variation and bias in your data. Determine the impact of this variation on the interpretations that can
be made. Develop arguments for and against your hypotheses and interpretations. Often, the Results
and Discussion are combined into a single section.
10. Summary and/or Conclusion Section
In most reports this may be rather brief. However, you should be able to discuss the significance of
your results. The conclusions must be supported by your results and discussion. Do not make
generalizations that are not based on your data, known facts, or reason.
11. Literature Cited
Literature is listed in alphabetical order. Examples of proper form:
Kozlowski, T. T., and R. C. Ward. 1961. Shoot elongation characteristic of forest trees. For. Sci.
Note: If pages are numbered consecutively throughout the year in the publication, the issue number
need not be given.
Snedecor, G. W. 1956. Statistical Methods. 5th ed. Iowa State College Press, Ames. 534 pp.
Zak, B., and R. G. McAlpine. 1957. Rooting of shortleaf and slash pine needle bundles. USDA
For. Serv. Sta. Note SE-119. Note 112. 2 pp.
12. Guidelines for Tables and Figures
Examples of good tables and figures can be found in most scientific journals. A few examples are on
the next page of this handout.
There are specific ways to format tables and figures. Different publications may have variations in
style, but some general guidelines apply to almost any situation. Some of these rules are common to
tables and figures, while other rules apply to either tables or figures, but not both.
Difference between a Figure and a Table
Figures are graphic representations of information: photographs, maps, drawings, histograms,
graphs, or charts (examples 1-3 below). Tables are basically lists of information in various categories
(example 4)
Table and Figure Format
a. Tables and figures must have complete titles that allow them to stand alone and be
understood. Ask yourself, "If I saw only this table (or figure) and its title, would it make
sense to me?" Don’t rely on the paper to interpret the table or figure.
b. You may copy a table or figure from another source, but you must then cite the source in the
table or figure title (example 3). As with any other citation, a complete reference must appear
in the Literature Cited section of your paper.
c. Make a reference to each table and figure somewhere in the body of the paper. Don’t include
a table or figure without commenting on it and providing some interpretation of what it
shows. However, there is no need to waste a full sentence on this; instead, use a parenthetical
comment at the end of a sentence that interprets the data. An example of proper reference:
"The mean Virginia pine site index (50 years) of trees measured was 59 feet (Fig. 3)."
d. Tables and figures may be incorporated into the text as soon as possible after they are first
mentioned, or they may be grouped at the end of the text and before the Literature Cited
e. The titles of tables appear at the TOP (example 4). The titles of figures appear at the
BOTTOM (examples 1-3).
f. Graphs must have labels and units on both axes (examples 1-3).
Guidelines for Creating Graphs
The spreadsheet and graphing programs available on microcomputers are easy to use with a little
practice, and they provide very professional results. Learn to use the software!
Independent vs. Dependent Variables
When comparing two variables using a graph, one variable will go along the x-axis (horizontal) and
the other variable will go along the y-axis (vertical). The placement of the variables on these axes
must be deliberate.
The independent variable is recorded as part of the data set. However, independent variables do not
depend on, and are not a function of, any other variable being graphed. In a cause-and-effect
relationship, the independent variable is the "cause." The set of possible values for the independent
variable can often be stated at the start of the experiment or data collection. For example, values for
FSQI will always be {3, 4, …, 15, 16}.
The dependent variable always goes on the y-axis. The dependent variable is usually the measured
variable of interest; it depends on, or responds to, the independent variable(s). Dependent variables
are a function of the independent variable and are thus the "effect" in a cause-and-effect relationship.
To complicate the issue, some variables can be either independent or dependent, depending on the
study and analysis. For example, tree height is the dependent variable if it is graphed as a function of
soil depth where soil depth is the independent variable. On the other hand, tree height is the
independent variable when the dependent variable is the number of bird nests per tree. Therefore,
you must always consider the relationship between variables. Ask yourself, "Which variable depends
on which?"
Examples of Dependent and Independent Variables
Dependent: depends on:
tree height
bird nests per tree
cation exchange capacity
soil porosity
soil depth
tree height
soil pH
soil particle size
13. Other Important Considerations
a. Cite, evaluate, and interpret all the data you have deemed important enough to be included in the
report. Failure to do this is the most common problem of inexperienced technical writers.
b. Do not ignore results just because they differ from textbook generalizations. Your data may not
be incorrect, just different; but why?
c. Do not select or screen data to make desired results apparent. Any "fudging" of data is dishonest
and unacceptable.
d. Do not discard data because of excessive variability or bias. There are some errors in nearly all
scientific data that, if recognized and accounted for, do not discredit the results.
e. Conversely, be careful about making small differences seem overly important. Different values
are not necessarily statistically or practically significantly different.
f. Get your mind working over different ways to present the information you have collected. Ten
draft figures may be needed to find the best one to be included in the paper.
g. Do not pad your paper with meaningless figures and calculations. Have good reasons for
including what you do, and draw conclusions from everything included.
h. Document ideas, conclusions, and hypotheses with data, literature citations, and sound reasoning.
Do not leave your ideas up in the air without support; that is the first thing instructors and
detractors will find to critique.
i. Relate your results to accepted principles and concepts. Explain any discrepancies. This will
show that you really do understand the problem you are studying.
j. Use a dictionary, computer spelling checker, and/or extreme care. Misspelled words or typing
errors indicate ignorance, carelessness, or both. Ignorance and carelessness are not good
attributes for professionals.
Much of the material for these suggestions was adapted from similar works by other authors. Most
notable among them are:
Duffield, J. W. 1965. Writing for a scientific and technical journal. J. of For. 63:10.
Bower, J. E., and J. H. Zar. 1984. Field and Laboratory Methods for General Ecology (2nd ed.)
W.C.B. Pub. Dubuque, IA. 226 pp.