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The Formal Report
What follows is a detailed description of formal reporting. Each component is set out with a Description, Physlab Specifications and Expected Practice.
Interim and summary reports are an integral part of any intellectual investigation conducted in the public or private sectors. The Physics Lab Formal Report submission is one example of a Summary Report of an intellectual investigation. In particular, for the most part, the formal report that you will be asked to write will be a summary of your work on a particular experiment that you performed.
A Summary Report that is required by the board of directors of a company will be very different from a Summary Report that is published in Archaeology (the magazine) or Physical Review (a premium physics journal) . In fact, there are many differences between what is acceptable and expected in one context (like for the board of governors of a company) and what is acceptable and expected in another context (like Physical Review). You will also come to recognize a lot a similarities in the acceptable and expected practice that goes into writing good Summary Reports in any context.
The question arises of how do you, the author, discover acceptable and expected practices? Here is a listing of the main sources of information and guidance that you might use:
Overall Physlab Specifications
For the Physics Lab, you will be asked to write several Formal Reports. These will be selected and assigned at the discretion of the Lab Supervisor. These must meet the following specifications:
Content and Format
Overall Expected Practice
A computer word processor is commonly used to produce textual components of reports as it has the advantage of not only formatting but editing with a grammar and spell checking. Specialized software is often used for non-textual components, such as images, graphs, drawings. For the first year labs, these components are more easily hand drawn as no advantage is gained by using a computer.
The order in which you write a Formal Report is at your discretion, but writing a formal report is best begun with the central parts, leaving the beginning of the report to last. Start with laying out the data and working through the results (calculations, analysis, graphs). With the results completed, a discussion follows and the conclusion written from the discussion. Now that you fully understand the experiment, write the objective, introduction and procedure. Then complete your work with the cover page of the header and abstract.
In formatting the report, it is common practice is to leave margins of about an inch on either side, using a larger more readable font, with font style and size used for emphasis where-ever appropriate. Figures and Diagrams are large enough to be easily seen. Pages and tables are sized and spaced so that they will not appear crowded. Pagination is used appropriately. Table columns are properly aligned with the column headers. Symbols and equations are consistent throughout the report. Subscripts are consistent throughout the report.
Figures, diagrams and tables are all titled and captioned. Titles are descriptive of the actual content. Liberal use of labels help clarify what is being represented. Table column headers are clear and distinct.
Line drawings and renderings (such as diagrams) are not sketched. A straight edge is used for drawing all straight lines. Curves are drawn with a spline or other instrument. Items are not over-written or struck out (white-out is permitted). The scale of items throughout are consistent.
Cover Page Header
This section provides important information about what the article is about, when it was done, who did it, and who wrote the report. In the physics lab we also identify who the lab supervisor was. Formatting and labelling are done for emphasis, and to clarify who or what is being identified.
The required elements are: descriptive report title, date of the write up, lab course and section, lab supervisor's full name and the full name of the authors.
Also required for the Physics lab is the full name of anyone who was working on the same bench as you and whether they were involved in conducting your experiment. If there was no other person at your bench (or involved in your experiment), then this must be clearly stated in the header.
Titles are descriptive of the actual work that is being reported on, as opposed to a general area of research. In today's journals, titles may run up to more than one line in length in an attempt to clarify and specify the particular context of the study.
Any name appearing in the header is considered to be an author or co-author. Therefore, other names must be labelled appropriately.
The importance of each element is indicated by the choice of font size and position of the text.
An abstract is a brief summary of the objectives, method and results of the report. Abstracts are published separately from the main report. Abstracts are usually available through the Internet for easy searching (the complete published report is often much less accessible). An abstract is used by the reader to gain a complete overview of the report and its findings to determine if the published report might be of interest. If the reader believes that the report will be useful, the reader orders the article from the publisher.
The abstract, part of the Cover Page, must be less than 100 words in length. The abstract may not contain any diagrams or pictures. If a final result was part of the report (as a specific or overall value), then it must also be clearly stated in the abstract with an uncertainty. All symbols used in the abstract must be defined in the abstract. The "two sig fig rule"; for uncertainties will be observed when quoting values.
The specific objective of your report will be answered unambiguously (clearly and definitively). A value with an appropriate uncertainty will be stated. The specific procedure used to satisfy this objective will be referenced. Appropriate units will be included with values quoted.
This header is completely separate from the cover page header. It contains a subset of the elements of the header of the Cover Page. These common elements must be identical to those in the Cover Page Header.
Must have the report title, date, the full name of the authors and your partners full name. It must not be repeated on each page (it is not a page header).
The Objective defines the primary goal of that this report summarizes. This objective is usually set by higher authority (such as your supervisor) and may not be the objective you worked under when doing the experimental work. This is because the same set of data may be used to achieve more than one goal.
This must be the specific objective you were assigned by the lab supervisor to answer for this formal report.
This is almost always a single sentence of very simple construction. It is standard practice to exactly copy the objective that you have been assigned into this section. This prevents any confusion about what is expected in the report.
This section 'introduces' the reader to the concepts and theory that underlies the objective of the report and analysis of the experimental data. The introduction is written for someone who understands physics but was not present when the experiment was done. The introduction must include enough detail such that a person reading your report can clearly understand all aspects without referring to any other document (such as your lab manual). The Introduction often contains figures, pictures, and diagrams that garner the interest of the reader, and help clarify concepts and definitions.
Note: it is easy to fall into the trap of plagiarizing or paraphrasing the manual here. Aside from being in violation of ethical standards, this does not lead to a good Formal Report Introduction. The introduction in the manual is not of Formal Report quality and detail.
Theory may be presented as a separate subsection of the introduction. Theory deals with concepts that are not specific to the experiment but which might be useful as background to the report.
All equations that are used in the formal report must be defined in the introduction and derived if appropriate. Symbols must be defined before they are used in equations.
No data is contained in the Introduction section. Procedural details do not appear in the Introduction. Results do not appear in the Introduction.
Introductions read like a well-written essay. Introductions start with a statement of general context. The context is then narrowed to the specific one. This process is typical of most publications. The intent is to draw the interest of the widest audience. Colourful and interesting pictures are often used here to help garner interest.
Equations and theory introduced here relate directly to the objective of the report. General theory need not be derived, the reader can be referred to another source. However the specific theory and equations used in the results section are detailed here. It is expected that no new theory or equation is used in the rest of the report that is not properly introduced in this section.
Drawings and figures are used to help clarify the objective and theory that is to be used in the report. Figures and diagrams are titled, labelled, captioned, and uniquely identified. The figures of modern publications, together with their titles and captions, can be read in isolation from the article and still make sense.
The procedure is there for someone to replicate your work and its result. It should be a clear, concise description of the actual procedure used in attaining the data. It is accompanied by figures and diagrams that make it clear how the experiment was set up and run. It does not contain any instructions. Also, it does not contain any statements about what might have been done, or what should be done (such considerations are reserved for the Discussion section).
The procedure must be written as a statement of what you actually did (past tense). It must be written in paragraph form (not point form). The procedure will describe only what is relevant to the outcome of your report (in answering its objective). It must not contain instructions or suggestions of any kind. It must not contain Data and not contain Results.
A diagram of the experimental setup is required in the procedure section. The diagram is a hand or computer drawn visualization of the setup. It is not a photograph. This diagram differs from diagrams in the introduction as it shows how the equipment is set up. Color may be used in your diagram to enhance legibility.
Once written, consider if someone else would be able to do exactly what you did after having read your report. This includes selecting the same equipment you used, setting up the experiment the same way you did, and taking the same steps you took in the order you took them. This is a lofty goal that is never met entirely. Seemingly insignificant differences in the procedure can have a dramatic impact on the results (sometimes good, often bad). Good reporting in the Procedure section allows for better planning to solve mysteries and improve procedures.
Diagrams provide enough detail to assist in setting up the apparatus in the same fashion that you set your apparatus up. Sometimes several simpler diagrams serve the purpose better than one detailed one.
Diagrams are not sketched. A straight edge is used for drawing all straight lines. Curves are drawn with a spline or other instrument. Items are not over-written or struck out (white-out is permitted). The scale of items throughout are consistent.
Data is something that was measured. Data is sometimes confused with results. Results are calculated values that must be presented in their own section, clearly separate from the data.
All data relevant to the stated objective must be clearly presented in this section.
No trials may be omitted for any reason. An exception to this is if a procedure was discovered to be incorrect after a set of trials were done, then the entire procedure was repeated and an entirely new set of trials were performed, then the first set of trials need not be reported here.
No results are to be included in this section. An exception to this is with some simple calculations (such as subtracting two values to get the mass of water in a container), the result can be placed into the data section if the result is clearly indicated to be a calculated result and the actual measured data is also shown.
The data is organized in a way that is easy to interpret, and ordered logically. This section is easily referred to when checking the sample calculations. This original raw data is usually plotted if possible and sensible to do so. But this original data graph forms part of the Results, and not the data section.
Data uncertainties are normally presented as one sig fig.
The results section contains the calculations, graphs and any other analysis that is performed on the Data of this experiment to reach the stated Objective of the Formal Report. Sets of results are tabulated with an attached sample calculation.
A sample calculation is shown for each type of calculation performed in the analysis. The sample calculation starts from one equation defined and derived in the Introduction. A particular trial is selected from the data and the values are substituted with units into this equation. A sample calculation also shows the calculation of the uncertainty.
The sample calculation shows the process (algorithm) used to determine the results. It is assumed that all other values calculated with this equation are processed in the same way as the sample calculation (and therefore a sample calculation for each trial is not shown).
Calculations: A sample calculation is required for each equation used. Results for all trials must be neatly tabulated, including units and calculated uncertainties. All trials are converted to results and plotted if a graph is used. The '2 sig fig uncertainty rule' must be followed for final and tabulated results. The Physics lab supervisor may reduce the number a trials in the analysis to be presented.
Graphs: Graphs must be properly scaled, labelled and drawn. All graphs have a descriptive title. All symbols on the graph must be defined on the graph such that the graph can be understood without referring to the report text. Computer generated graphs are not permitted for the first year formal reports. The Physics lab requires that slopes of the best and worst fit lines must be calculated on the graph. Other relevant equations and calculations may also be shown on the graph.
Results Expected Practice
Calculations: The columns of tables are traditionally labelled with or include the variable (symbol) used in the equations of the sample calculation. The equation of the sample calculation, together with its variables, are defined in the Introduction. Consistency maintained in the symbols and equations used from the Introduction through the Data, Results, Discussion, and Conclusion sections. This greatly enhances clarity.
The calculation section does not contain manipulations of equations or derivations of equations. That work was done in the Introduction. Unless there is a pressing need to describe what is going on, there is seldom any narration in this section. Sufficient detail is expected in the sample calculations that the reader can unambiguously duplicate your calculation.
All trials are included in the analysis. Under exceptional circumstances, some trials may be noted as erroneous and 'discarded' from consideration, But this is very exceptional, and a very good argument must be provided to justify this in the results section.
Tables: Table headings usually have symbols (or include symbols) for the column headings, and these symbols match those defined in the Introduction. Index fields are used between matching tables. The index chosen is usually an independent data value. Uncertainties that are common to all elements of a column are placed in the column header. Units are usually placed in the column header. Uncertainties for columns that are to be used as axes of graphs are in quoted absolute form.
Graphs: A graph of the original data is usually included. The scale and origin of graphs are chosen so that the data fills more than ½ the graph. Care is taken in deciding whether the origin is a 'special point' (such as if it has an uncertainty). Plot points are distinctly marked, and uncertainties are traditionally indicated with error bars. An error bar is shown as solid lines extending the range of the uncertainty.
This section discusses the results of the report. It can also discuss anything of relevance such as the experimental procedure, errors not accounted for by the experimental uncertainties, comparisons to other work (other student results or literature values).
A good discussion might start by summarizing the results of the report (similar to a conclusion) and comparing these results to known values or other student results. By critically analyzing the uncertainties and where they came from one can often gain insight into what experimental values had the greatest influence on the uncertainty in the final result.
Some persons consider a tabulation of "sources of errors" important. This could be presented in the discussion section. However, more important is the consideration of each "source of error" and how it actually influenced your results. The simple tabulation of "sources of errors" is not enough for a physics formal report. For example, in an experiment where temperature and pressure are measured to determine some result, one might find that the temperature measurement contributed most to the final uncertainty. Then if one suspects a systematic error, one can consider how a systematic error in temperature would affect the final result and more importantly, one can estimate by how much.
The discussion will first clearly identify any mistakes made (procedure or analysis) that has impacted the final results. The discussion will discuss the results. The discussion will discuss the uncertainties. If a graph is part of the results, then the discussion will discuss the behaviour of the graph.
The discussion does not contain anything new that belongs in the other report sections. An example for clarification: If a string instead of a clip had been used to attach a weight, the fact that a string was used is reported in the Procedure as this is what you actually used. However the Discussion could state that a clip was not used. The fact that a clip was not used does not belong in the Procedure (because it is not a statement of what was actually done). But it might be a good part of a Discussion if it was a decision that effects the outcome significantly and constitutes a departure from standard practice.
Write in well-constructed paragraphs, a paragraph having a single thought or concept. A shorter paragraph is more easily read and understood than a long one. Do not ramble on. Once written, re-read your discussion and ask yourself if it makes sense. Discussions that are difficult to read or understand are often not read. Also ask yourself if the discussion enhances or depletes your credibility as a scientist. Your credibility is easy to loose, and hard to build, so protect it by being careful of what you say in the discussion section.
A conclusion is a short section (often only one to three sentences) summarizing the major results of the report, usually answering the experiment's objective. If values where determined in the report, then this section clearly summarizes these results along with how accurate they are (the uncertainty of the results). It usually compares the report results with expected outcomes.
A conclusion summarizes the major results of the report along with context to what is being reported. If relevant, the concluding results are compared to expected values (using a percentage or absolute difference). The conclusion must be self-referencing. Any values quoted must be presented in proper final form. It is not acceptable to combine the discussion with the conclusion into one section.
A self-referencing conclusion implies that one can read the conclusion without reading any other part of the report and fully understand what it says. This requires a clear context (foundations to the statements made) and clear definitions of all symbols used in the conclusion.
If a comparison with an expected value is made, then the proper comparative statement must be made. (for example "The calculated result was \(7.6 \pm 1.2g\). This result is 2g higher than expected," or "The expected result is \(3\%\) higher than the determined result of \(34 \pm 1.3\)"
The conclusion usually starts with one or two sentences that provide the context for the information. If numerical results were obtained, then a typical or summary numerical result with uncertainty is stated. Often concluding statements can be drawn from a good discussion. A good conclusion also indicates how the investigation would be furthered (in the opinion of the author), usually in a single sentence.