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Instructions for Preparing Lab Reports


Although data is gathered in groups, reports are to be written SEPARATELY. Your data may
appear only in your own report and in those of the partners listed on your cover sheet. Any
exceptions to this rule require the approval of instructional staff; such exceptions are generally
restricted to cases in which an experiment could not be performed due to equipment failure.

Writing and data analysis is to be done by each person individually. You may not duplicate any
SUPPLEMENTAL INFORMATION, or REFERENCE PAGES of any other report except for
raw data under the restrictions outlined above. Duplication of another student’s report or
sections thereof may subject the author to penalties with a range of severity up to and including
disciplinary proceedings in cases that warrant it. Please take this warning seriously and submit
only your own work.

You are provided with a Blackboard group website for the exchange of files and a discussion
board restricted to members of the same experimental team. This is not intended for the
exchange of materials that will appear verbatim in more than one report (except for raw data).


The layout and materials included in a report are based in part on the format of journal articles in
ACS journals, modified to meet the additional requirements of an instructional laboratory. The
report requirements are more specific in terms of formatting, tone and content than most journals
since one of the main purposes in writing these reports is to teach the writing of technical

• All reports are to be completed on word processors for 8 1/2" X 11" paper.

• Single-space all writing in paragraphs, using 1" margins on all sides.

• Put an additional line of space between each paragraph, and between each section title
and the first paragraph of the section. Place two lines of space between the final
paragraph of a section and the heading of the section that follows it.

• Report titles should be in an 18-point SMALL CAP letters using a sans serif font. You get
a “small cap” font by clicking on “format: font” in MS Word and checking the “Small
Caps” box. This just means that all the small letters will be produced as small capital

Serifs are the small marks added at the ends of strokes in some font families; sans serif
fonts are literally “without serifs”. Times font (used in these notes) is an example of a
font with serifs. Examples of sans serif fonts are Helvetica, Geneva and Arial.

Instructions for Preparing Lab Reports

• Section titles for electronic documents (INTRODUCTION, EXPERIMENTAL,
RESULTS, DISCUSSION, REFERENCES) should be capitalized, and should use
14-point sans serif small cap letters as shown.

• Figure captions and Table captions should be in the same font using 10-pt size.

• All other writing is to be in 12-pt sans serif font.

• Pages are to be numbered on the bottom center using standard arabic numerals.


• The “report proper” begins on Page 1, a title and general information page.

• Page 2 will begin with an introduction.

• The experimental section will begin immediately after the introduction, with no
unnecessary page breaks.

• The results section will immediately follow the experimental section, with no
unnecessary page breaks.

• The discussion section will immediately follow the results section, with no unnecessary
page breaks.

• The references section will follow the discussion section after a page break.

• The references section concludes the “report proper”. THE "REPORT PROPER" IS TO

• The “addenda” portion of your report will be submitted only in hardcopy.

• The supplemental information section is the first part of your "addenda", and includes
example calculations.

• The reference title pages section will follow the supplemental information starting on a
new page. It will have a first page with the section title that will be followed by
duplicated pertinent pages of references.

• The laboratory notebook section will follow the reference title pages section starting on a
new page. It will have a first page with the section title that will be followed by
duplicated pages of relevant information from each person’s laboratory notebook. The
laboratory notebook section may include information submitted by other members of
your immediate laboratory group or others if permission is expressly given by your TA.

Instructions for Preparing Lab Reports

• The laboratory notebook section concludes the “addenda” portion of your report to be
submitted in hard copy.

• Figures will be an integral portion of the document, not tagged on at the end of the
document. They are to be legible, and the axes of graphs shall be clearly labeled and
shall include units, if any.

• All figures will have a descriptive caption below them and will be numbered, e.g., Figure
1, Figure 2, etc.

• All equations will be numbered on the left with arabic numerals, e.g., 1., 2., etc. When
mentioned in the text, equations will be referred to as “Equation 1”, “Equation 2”, etc.

• All equations will be followed by a description in the text of the variables or terms in the
equation that have not been previously described in the text.

• All calculated values will be followed by a superscripted bold letter in bold square
brackets, e.g., 3.567 , referencing a calculation or example calculation in the
supplemental information section that explains how the value was obtained. These
alphabetic citations will occur primarily in the results and the discussion sections.

• All tables will have a descriptive caption above them, and will be numbered with roman
numerals, e.g., Table I, Table II, etc.

• All Figures, Tables and Equations will be centered between the left and right margins; all
captions will be centered between the left and right margins. Do not use wraparound text
in your documents.

• References will be cited numerically in the document with square brackets around them,
e.g., [2]. References are to be cited sequentially in the order in which they are cited. The
numbers and their brackets will be written in 12-pt. sans serif bold font. When
specifically mentioned in the text, reference numbers will be in bold and will be referred
to as “Reference 1”, “Reference 2”, etc. (for example: “This result agrees with the
literature value given in Reference 2 within our experimental error.”)

• “F” in Figure, “E” in Equation, “T” in Table and “R” in Reference will always be
capitalized when they refer to a specific item in the report. They do not need to be
capitalized when they are used generically. For example, “This property is governed by
an equation of state”, vs. “This property is governed by Equation 3.”

• Headings of sections and captions for figures and tables will not be separated from the
item they identify. For example, you would not have the section title “Results” on the
bottom of a page when the section actually begins on the next page. You would not have
a figure on the bottom of a page, with its caption on the next page.

Instructions for Preparing Lab Reports


These reports are not intended to be literary achievements. They are intended to transmit
information with as little lack of clarity as possible by being succinct, descriptive and objective.
The report is intended to persuade readers of its legitimacy by the clarity of its experimental
results and interpretation and by making it possible for a reader to repeat the experiment
completely and independently, not by emotional appeal or pejorative declaration. Data should
stand by itself; to make that possible, scientists try to produce reports that stand on their own
merits, not by the influence of the authors or by popular opinion.

Among the traits of good research and laboratory reports are:

• Subjective statements like “the sample was really hot” are avoided. If information about
the temperature of the sample is important or relevant, make a quantitative assessment
like: “The sample temperature was measured by a thermometer to be 105 C”. Quantify
as much as reasonably possible. Lack of measurement, or lack of reporting a
measurement, may make it impossible for an experiment to be exactly replicated or may
make its interpretation impossible.

• Adverbs and adjectives are monitored for appropriateness. Words/phrases like “very”,
“almost”, “really”, “kind of”, etc., can be clues that your writing is subjective rather than
objective, or that your experimental data is imprecise and inaccurate. Other examples of
words that convey imprecise information are “fast”, “slow”, “high”, “low”, “often”, etc.
Comparisons using qualifiers of this type are often reasonable, however. For example, it
would be sloppy to say “The reaction in container A proceeded fast” since your definition
of fast might not be someone else’s definition. However, “The reaction in container A
proceeded faster than the reaction in container B” is ok, because it is based on a
quantifiable comparison. Numeric data is still preferred when possible.

• In instances where quantifiable values are not possible, be as descriptive as possible, e.g.:
“Following the additional of hydrogen peroxide with rapid stirring at room temperature,
the reaction mixture was observed to turn blue.”

• A good and highly recommended reference source for information on how to write a
good report is The ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information,
published by the American Chemical Society. At present, CHEM541L/542L is
considering a change to include the ACS Style Guide as a required text. If you use the
ACS Style Guide to help direct your writing, please keep in mind that any directions
provided in these notes supersedes the ACS Style Guide if a conflict arises.

Instructions for Preparing Lab Reports


• The title page will contain the correct title of the laboratory, name of the author, date the
report was submitted, date the data was collected, name of all laboratory partners, name
of the teaching assistant who worked on the laboratory with you, and the author’s
affiliation. It will contain an italicized statement as follows: “I affirm that my work
meets the standard of the USC Honor Code.” An abstract of less than 250 words will
complete the title page. The abstract will briefly summarize what was done in the
experiment, will provide a quantitative result of the experiment, and will provide a
literature value or other value for comparison.
• The Introduction will consist of 4 or 5 paragraphs as follows:
P1. The first paragraph will contain a general introduction to the paper stating what the
paper is about. The classic experimental research report consists of experimental results
and a discussion of their meaning. For example, you might have an interest in global
warming, and you might be interested in what effect trace nutrients have on the carbon
cycle in the oceans. To explore this question, you might perform experiments in which
you add specific trace amounts of nutrients to sea water and test how well ocean plankton
grow in it. Your experiments might show that iron is needed for growth, but that too
much iron in water is toxic. Your first paragraph, however, might be something like
“This paper reports a study to determine the effect of trace ocean nutrients on the carbon
cycle. The carbon cycle is the term given to the conversion of carbon from living to
nonliving form and back, and it is suspected to play an important role in global climate
change [1]. Ocean plankton are considered one of the most important contributors to the
carbon cycle [2]. The growth of plankton is affected by the availability of nutrients, but
changes to ocean currents due to climate change may affect this availability [3]. To
understand this possible feedback mechanism in climate change, it is important to in
detail how concentrations of a range of nutrients promote or suppress the growth of

You will note that the specifics of the experiment performed were not mentioned in this
paragraph; instead, the paragraph was kept at a higher, more conceptual level.
P2. The second paragraph will place the first paragraph into the context of other work
that you are doing. Where did this work come from? In classic experimental research
reports, this consists of connecting the present work with your past work. To continue
the example above, you might have gotten interested in this question of global climate
change or ocean nutrients from several different directions. Let’s imagine that your
previous work was simply that you developed techniques for measuring nutrient
concentrations at very low – realistic – concentrations in seawater. Your second
paragraph would mention this, perhaps like so:
“In previous work, this laboratory developed techniques for measuring concentrations of
micronutrients in sea water at naturally-occurring concentrations [4, 5]. This was done
using portable accelerator mass spectrometry, a tool that makes it possible to consider
measurements of natural seawater concentrations in a field research laboratory setting.
Prior to such work, however, we wished to apply the method to a conventional laboratory
experiment aimed at answering the remaining questions regarding the effects of
micronutrients on plankton growth.”

Instructions for Preparing Lab Reports

Since you are a student in physical chemistry laboratory, your reason for performing the
experiments probably has nothing to do with any previous research you have performed.
However, it does have everything to do with the fact that you are in a learning mode.
You reached this point in your career by being exposed to activities and courses that have
prepared you for it. Thus you might have said, instead of the paragraph given above on
previous research, something more like:

“My coursework provides some preparation for interpreting these experimental data.
CHEM321 provided information about the techniques required to make measurements at
very low concentrations and also showed how to deal with random and systematic error
analysis. CHEM 112, CHEM511 and CHEM624 taught that Fe can exist in a variety of
charges and in several complexed forms in seawater. CHEM541 showed how these
various forms participate in complicated equilibria that might make effects on plankton
difficult to predict. In addition, my interests include understanding chemical problems of
global significance. Measuring the effects of Fe and other micronutrients on plankton
growth provides a valuable opportunity to combine skills taught in different classes to
develop a more complete understanding of the experimental basis for climate change

P3, P4. The third paragraph will place the first paragraph into the context of what others
have done. This constitutes a very brief literature review. An additional paragraph of
this type can be added if numerous references are cited, or if there is more than one type
of work being done related to this experiment. Continuing the example, we might write
something like:

“Forster and coworkers suggested, based on experiments performed at high
concentrations, that iron in seawater was toxic to most plankton [6,7]. However,
Stromfeld showed that iron was concentrated into the tissues of plankton at a much
higher level than found in seawater itself [8]. Burton [9] and Gerritson [10] showed that
plankton possess enzymes that require iron to function properly. These results appear
inconsistent with one another, and we hoped to test Forster’s conclusion and perhaps
reconcile the two conflicting sets of data.”

P5. The last paragraph summarizes the punch line of the paper. This will be a more
detailed version of the research you have conducted giving an explicit statement of the
experiment being reported. Going back to the same example, we might write a final
introductory paragraph that reads:

“Using our new measurement method, we repeated Forster’s experiment at a range of
concentrations bracketing the natural range of nutrient concentrations found in seawater.
Plankton growth experiments conducted in growth media with different Fe2+
concentrations reveal that growth conditions for several different plankton are optimum
near 50 nM Fe2+, and that growth rates fall exponentially at lower concentrations. At
higher concentrations growth rates decrease slightly up to 100 nM Fe2, above which Fe2
becomes toxic.”

Instructions for Preparing Lab Reports

• The experimental section describes how an experiment was performed. Since it describes
an experiment that is complete, it should be written in past tense. The experimental
section contains two main types of information.

First, you will provide very detailed information on the apparatus and software used in
the experiment. This includes the manufacturer (including the name of the company and
the city in which its headquarters are located) and model numbers for all pieces of
equipment that are commercial in origin, or for which a description exists elsewhere that
is available to anyone who reads the literature. List the chemicals you used and where
you got them and what their purity was. Software should be listed only by the name of
the software and the version number, if relevant. Common software such as EXCEL, MS
WORD, IGOR and MAPLE do not need to be mentioned. Only software that is not
common (such as vendor software provided with a piece of equipment) should be
mentioned, or software that you’ve written yourself (or that has been written specifically
for the laboratory).

Second, you’ll give details of how anything you prepared was made or treated.

I do not expect you to provide detailed inner workings and theory behind the operation of
the instruments you use if they are not integral to the experiment. For example, I don’t
want you to give an explanation for how a FTIR works. If you constructed something for
the experiment, a cell or cellholder or spectrometer, then I do expect you to include
details on it. If you used a commercial piece of equipment, then you only need to provide
its model and manufacturer and accessories used (if any). The assumption is that a reader
could go and get the manual for the instrument if he wants. All the operating parameters
of the instrument that you can control, however, should be mentioned as I stated above.

Although the laboratory manual and handouts may provide information about the
experiment that is in some cases similar to what you might need for the experimental
section of your report, DO NOT DUPLICATE WRITING FROM THE


• The results section should contain all the raw data acquired during your experiment. For
a spectrum or other data in which large numbers of x-y pairs of numbers are found,
graphical display is probably the easiest way to present it. For other numbers or x-y data
containing only a few data points, tables are probably best. The results section should
contain anything pertinent to the data that was acquired. The results section is reserved
only for real, unmodified data in the form in which it was acquired.

Instructions for Preparing Lab Reports

The writing found in the results section should be restricted to observations about the raw
data or conclusions that can be drawn without manipulating the data in any way and
without reference to anything external to the data itself.

• The discussion section should be the longest, most detailed portion of your report. It is
the one where you demonstrate that you know what you are talking about, and that you
can draw conclusions about the data reported in the results section.

The discussion section should begin by describing any pertinent equations for your
analysis of the data in the results section. All figures and tables that are “derived” should
be presented in the discussion section. For example, figures that show a curve fit, or
figures in which an axis has been replaced, should appear in the discussion, along with a
detailed description of how each of these was obtained from the raw data presented in the
previous section. “Processed” data, such as data that has been smoothed, or data that has
been modified in any way, should be presented here with a rationale for why it has been
modified. For example, if you collected lots of data and then used a statistical test to
disregard some of it, then ALL the data would appear in the results section, and in the
discussion you would describe your statistical test and provide a table that gives the data
points that have been rejected by the test. If you subtract a baseline from data, the raw
unmodified data would appear in the results section, and the procedure for removing the
baseline would be detailed in the discussion. Also, the processed spectrum with the
baseline removed would be shown in the discussion, not in the results section.

If, for example, you collected two pieces of data that must be multiplied together to
produce another number, then the two pieces of data would be described or shown in the
results section. The product of multiplying the two together would be shown and
described in the discussion.

Once all the numbers have been calculated (e.g., if you are to calculate a heat of
combustion from your experimental data, then after you’ve done that), you should

(a) analyze the random error in your calculation using statistical methods.

(b) compare your answer to a literature value if available, or to any other numbers
that you can compare it to that are known. For example, in one experiment we
might calculate the temperature of the atmosphere using an optical technique.
There is no literature value for the temperature of the atmosphere that would be
valid for comparison to your measurement, so a reasonable comparison might be to
the temperature measured on a standard thermometer, or to the results of an
atmospheric model. Your calculated values should be compared to something.

(c) You should then analyze any sources of systematic error in your experiment
and, if possible, make an effort to quantify their influence on your experiment.

The discussion section should NOT contain trivial information like “I really enjoyed
this lab”, or “I wish this experiment hadn’t taken so long”, or “My writeup was not as

Instructions for Preparing Lab Reports

detailed as it could have been because I had three exams between then and now”.
You should maintain as professional a manner as you can manage.

The discussion section is where you demonstrate that you understand the overall
concept of the experiment and its physical principles beyond any doubt by dealing
competently with the data presentation, manipulation and analysis.

• The references section lists the references in the order in which they are cited in the
report. A specific format should be followed for your references, depending on whether
they are from journals, books, etc. NOTE: Web citations (e.g., to URLs) are not valid
references. Each reference should be single-spaced, should be numbered at the left-hand
margin of the page and indented as the following reference formats show. The reference
formats for different types of literature are as follows:

For Journal Articles, follow this example, using the standard abbreviation for the journal
(if you don’t know it, the assistants at the 4th floor of Cooper Library can help you with
this information).

1. Schulman, J. M.; Venanzi, T. Chemistry of Vanadium (IV) Complexes. J. Am.
Chem. Soc. 1976, 98, 4701-4705.

2. Doe, J. S.; Smith, J.; Roe, P. Stereochemistry of Diels-Alder Reactions. J. Am.
Chem. Soc. 1968, 90, 8234-8265.

For Books, including your textbook, follow these examples:

3. Cross, A. D.; Jones, R. A. Introduction to Practical Infra-Red Spectroscopy, 3rd
ed.; Plenum: New York, 1969; Chapter 2.

4. Smith, A. B. Textbook of Organic Chemistry, D.C. Jones: New York, 1961; pp.

5. Atkins, P.W. Physical Chemistry, 6th ed.; W.H. Freeman and Co: New York,
1997; pp. 324-329.

For articles in edited volumes (where the authors have contributed writing to a book that
is edited by someone else), follow this example:

6. Wawzonek, S. Potentiometry: Oxidation-Reduction Potentials. In Techniques of
Chemistry; Weissburger, A., Rossiter, B. W., Eds.; Wiley-Interscience: New
York, 1971; Vol. IIA, Chapter 1.

7. CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 67th ed.; Weast, R.C., ed.; CRC Press:
Boca Raton, FL, 1986; pp. F-186.

Instructions for Preparing Lab Reports

We recognize that it would often be helpful to be able to cite your laboratory manual as
the source of certain information. However, the laboratory manual has not been
published in whole and should not be cited in reviewed work. Where possible, it is hoped
that you will find alternate sources for the equations, most of which are readily available
in your textbook and in other common sources. Certain sections of the manual have been
published in the Journal of Chemical Education; sections that have been at least in part
published in J. Chem. Ed. will indicate a possible alternate citation. If publication has not
occurred, however, and if you are unable to locate an alternate source, you may cite the
laboratory manual as illustrated in this example:

8. Myrick, M.L. Chemistry 541L/542L Notes, 2005, pp 127; no alternate citation

To make it possible for you to find references, the instructional staff have reserved
several texts in the library for your use. We prefer that you use them rather than cite
unpublished sections of the notes for this class.

References to the textbook used in CHEM 541 or CHEM 542, or to any of the literature
cited in the experimental writeup you are provided, or to the CRC Handbook, are
considered “common” references. You are asked to provide at least one “new” reference
in your report. URLs and other web citations are not permitted.

Mark new references by an asterisk in the references section (see the example that

The references section completes what we term here “the report proper”; it is the last
component of the report you are required to submit electronically.

• The supplemental information section is the first major departure of your report from a
normal journal format, and it is provided primarily to aid your instructors in grading the
quantitative information in your report. It will contain two types of information content.
The first part of the supplemental information section will include a calculation or an
example calculation for each calculated value in your document. Calculated values
appear only in the discussion section, and should have a reference letter superscripted
beside them that references a piece of the “Supplemental Information” section. This first
part of the supplemental information section will be mostly numerical. It can be
handwritten if done neatly.
Individual values that are calculated in your document should have a corresponding
calculation in your supplemental information section. When more than a single value is
obtained by the same calculation, only a single example calculation is required. For
example, if you have a table with a column containing 20 values calculated in the same
way, only a single alphabetic citation and example calculation in the supplemental
information section would be required. In such a case, the label for the column could
have the citation letter, since all values in the column share the same calculation.
Likewise, figures that are graphs of values that have been calculated from other data

Instructions for Preparing Lab Reports

could have their alphabetic citation in their captions associated with information about
the axis on which the data is plotted, or the labels for the graph.
The second part of the supplemental information section is set aside for any specific
comments that you want to make about the laboratory. This second section will not be
graded, and its content is totally your own. You can omit this section if you wish, or you
can make suggestions about how to improve the write-up, or you can list references you
found that are more useful than those provided. You can make an explanation for some
portion of your report that you don’t feel you could adequately address elsewhere, if you
like. This second section will be used as a tool for communication between you and the
grader; as such, there are no rules of tone or format or anything else that apply to it.
• The reference title pages section is another major departure of your report from common
journal formats. It will contain a first page that has the section title centered on it. This
page will be followed by the xerox copies of the pertinent pages of your NEW references
(i.e., not your text or the references cited in the experimental information you are
provided). This section serves the purpose of demonstrating to the instructional staff that
you have actually consulted the references you cite. Any reference that is cited more than
once need only have a single entry in the reference pages section. New references should
also be marked in the references section by an asterisk.
• The laboratory notebook pages section is another major departure from common journal
formats. It will contain a first page that has the section title centered on it. This page will
be followed by xerox copies of your laboratory pages in your handwriting containing
notes from the day of the experiment. Remember that your notebook needs to be signed
by the TA at the end of the experiment.

Together, the supplemental information, reference title pages and laboratory notebook
pages sections constitute an addendum to the report that can be turned in as a hard copy.

The general idea of what I mean is illustrated by the following example report. I’ve fabricated
portions of the data, so don’t try to copy it or rely on my numbers and citations to be what you
expect. And of course, everyone will be very upset if some portion of this example appears in
your reports verbatim.

In the following report, you should understand that all the content in its first page through the
end of the references section would be submitted with electronic media. The remainder of the
document beginning with the “SUPPLEMENTAL INFORMATION” section should be turned
in as a hardcopy within 3 working days (see the definition of a working day above) of the
submission of the title page and report proper. This section may include portions that are neatly

In the following example report, the only thing missing is the "Laboratory Notebook" section.