2.1: What Is—and Isn't—a Proper Lab Report


The lab reports that you will prepare in this course are shorter and simpler versions of the reports that working scientists use to communicate their findings. Such reports are expected to be accurate, complete, concise, and readable.

• Accurate—The contents must be unambiguous and correct. “Correct”, in this context, means that the contents match what happened during the experiment; it does not mean “getting the right answer”. It is OK to have results that are uncertain or that do not match expectations, provided these uncertainties and deviations are pointed out and/or explained.

• Complete—The report must include all information a reader would reasonably want. For example, if you use a symbol in an equation, figure, or text, that symbol should be defined (in a caption or in the text). If you show a plot of experimental results, the text should describe how the data were obtained, and what conclusions the reader should draw from it.

• Concise—Do not clutter the report with useless information. Assume that the reader is scientifically literate (at the level of a fellow physics undergraduate). For instance, you need not explain classical mechanics before talking about forces. Omit details that most readers would consider trivial (e.g., the fact that the voltage on a power supply increases when turning a dial clockwise).

• Readable—The text in the lab report must form a coherent, readable narrative. The main text should form proper paragraphs. Do not write your report in Q&A (question-and-answer) form, and do not organize your report as a mere collection of bullet-point lists. Your descriptions of experimental procedures shouldn’t be a list of steps lifted from the lab manual; that information should be converted into proper paragraphs, and interwoven with explanations about the intention of the procedures, what happened during the experiment, etc.

The best way to internalize these criteria is to always bear in mind the goal of a lab report, which is to communicate a set of scientific findings to interested parties. Readers will be happy if the information is presented clearly and accurately, and contains all the details that they need to understand the results. They will be annoyed if you write about irrelevancies, or format the report in an inscrutable way.

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