Semester Reports
The Preparation of Excellent Laboratory Reports

Dr. Howard Black - Eastern Illinois University

     Aside from being an important course requirement which counts toward 1/3 of the grade, laboratory reports for an independent study course, such as the one in which you are now enrolled, represents the only written documentation of the work you have performed over the semester. Thus, it is essential that they be prepared in as meticulous and complete a manner as possible. This outline will serve as a guide to the writing of this report.

    Use a word processor to prepare your report. Most people use MS-Word7, I know, but other formats are fine (personally, I use Lotus WordPro7). Please draw chemical structures with either ChemDraw7 or ChemWindows7.  The former is installed on all the computers in the 4th floor computer lab; ChemWindow is found on the computer in our lab.  I also have several CDs that will install ChemWindow on your own computer; just ask me, or, if another group member has one, just use it.  Most people who have used both prefer ChemWindow, but ChemDraw is probably used by 80% of the chemistry community.  It's your call.

    The paper should be outlined similarly to those found in chemical journals such as J. Org. Chem., J. Am. Chem. Soc., etc.; you can use one of our publications as a model. In general, there are six sections, which are (in order of appearance in the paper) - the abstract, introduction, results and discussion, conclusions, experimental, and references. In addition, you should provide a title page with a descriptive title of your paper, your name, the date, the semester for which the report is being submitted, and the number of hours for which you registered.

    As far as technical requirements, please use 1" margins on all sides, and use an Arial font, either 10pt or 12pt.  Headings within the paper should be 14pt, and not bold.  References should be 9pt or 10pt.  The text throughout should be fully justified and double-spaced.  (Actually, the final version can be 1.5-spaced, but the initial draft, which I edit by hand then return to you, must be double-spaced.)

General Outline of Semester Reports

  • Title - The title is more important than you might think.  For one thing, it's the initial impression someone has, and a title of "Research Results" doesn't exactly leave the reader hungry for details!  It should, as much as possible, describe the project, using several keywords that might pop up in a digital retrieval system.  Consider the title for the JOC paper you all follow for the initial three-step sequence: Dyotropic Rearrangement of Cycloalkyl β-Lactones. Formation of Spiro vs Fused Butyrolactones as a Function of Ring Size.  For other examples, just look through an issue of J. Org. Chem. or Org. Lett.
  • Abstract - A short paragraph (less than five sentences) outlines the work performed and the primary conclusion(s) drawn. I would also like you to include the following sentence as the first sentence in the Abstract: "During this semester, _____ reactions were carried out, which are one pages __, __, __ (etc.) of lab book ___".  This number refers to all reactions done, whether they were successful or not, but does not include such operations as recrystallization, chromatographic separations, solvent/reagent purification, etc.
  • Introduction - Probably two or three paragraphs in length, this section outlines the background of the project, including scientific relevance, the nature of the problem, leading literature references, and how the work being discussed will shed light on the problem. It should convince the reader that there exists a deficiency, or need, in current chemical knowledge or synthetic techniques.
  • Results and Discussion - The main body of the paper, this comprises a narrative on what was done, provides interpretation of both positive and negative results, and discusses such topics as stereochemical considerations, spectra, strategy, etc. Often (but not always), the events are described in chronological sequence. It should not be a rewording of the Experimental Section! This section should read as if you were describing your work to another chemist, or as if you were presenting a seminar.
     A good illustration of the difference between the R&D and Expt. sections is in reporting spectral data.  In the Experimental Section, the spectral data are reported right after the yield of the compound, and are presented as a list of absorbances.  In the R&D section, you would discuss those analytical results - what they mean, what they told you about the reaction, etc.  If you want to know whether you've just reworded the Expt. section, just read it to someone else, and see how natural it sounds.  It'll be apparent in a flash whether you're discussing your results or reciting the robotic-like sentences in an Expt. section.
  • Conclusions - Usually taking no more than a paragraph or two, this section summarizes and "wraps up" the generalizations deduced from the work. If you are planning to continue research in this area in our group, it is appropriate to mention potential areas for additional investigation. In other words, what are your plans for next semester?  
     Also, if you feel that you were not as productive in the lab as you should have been during this semester, you should examine the reasons for this at the end of this section. By this, I don't mean vague generalizations like "I just didn't apply myself" or "My class load was just sooooo big!".  Remember, I've been doing this for some time, and I'm familiar with the class load of a chemistry major.  Assuming that you put in the minimum 75 hours in the lab during the semester (if you didn't, that's a completely different and more serious problem; with evenings and weekends open, it's hard to imagine not doing this), why do you think you didn't complete at least 10 reactions? This is a time for introspection and analysis, not self-flagellation (which is depressing to write and a drag to read!).
  • Experimental - For a synthetic paper, this is sometimes the longest section. Using the accepted format for ACS publications, experiments are described in detail so that the work can be repeated by others. It is unusual to described failed experiments unless the results are particularly germane. The length of this section is directly proportional to the number of successful and applicable reactions carried out. Often written first, this part is the easiest since the format is so rigid, and writing can begin at almost any time during the latter part of the semester.


    The overall length of the paper is hard to predict, but for a full semester in the lab, five to ten typewritten pages inclusive of diagrams, schemes, equations, etc. would probably be appropriate. It should be obvious that the author should take every precaution to present a paper free of grammatical, spelling, syntax, and other constructional errors.

    Please do not attach spectra - either copies or especially originals - with your report. The data from these spectra will be in your Experimental Section, so I don't need to see the spectra themselves. Of course, you should keep them in some kind of filing system (a three-ring binder is best, where the spectra will be in the same order as your notebook, and correlated to the notebook using compound number format).

Additional Useful Information and Helpful Pointers

    Since your paper deals with organic chemistry, it will certainly contain schemes, figures, and/or other visual components.  After writing hundreds of papers, reports, proposals, etc., I've adopted a system that I suggest for you as well.

    Schemes are used specifically for reaction sequences.  Designate schemes with capital letters, not numbers, and number the compounds sequentially, starting with 1 in every scheme.  You'll then refer to compounds as, for instance, B3 or A2.  The beauty of this system is that if you suddenly realize, halfway through writing, that you need another scheme, right in the middle of the paper, you can just insert it, and all you have to change in later schemes is the letter for each compound designation.  So, if you had to add a new scheme, called Scheme C, you'd change the sequential schemes by adding one letter, but wouldn't have to touch the numbers!  For any compounds in the old Scheme C, now Scheme D, you'd just change the text from C2 to D2, etc.  This is FAR faster than renumbering every structure in the paper!

    Figures are used for diagrams (say, of a reaction intermediate), graphs, and other items that are not synthetic sequences, and are much less common than schemesNumber them Figure 1, Figure 2, etc., and number the structures, diagrams, graphs, etc. sequentially from the start of the paper.

    References should be designated by sequential numerical superscripts, and then gathered at the end of the paper in a separate section called "References".  All word processors have the ability to automagically assign reference numbers where you tell them to, and then take you to the end of the document, where you fill in the citation.  You really don't appreciate the beauty of this feature until you have to insert an additional reference between, say, references 10 and 11.  You just place the cursor where the new reference should go, tell it to insert a new reference, and it assigns the new reference as #11, then re-numbers the old #11 as #12, as well as all other successive reference numbers.  Piece of cake!*

    Follow the format outlined by the American Chemical Society or the American Psychological Institute (they're identical).  The best resource for this is the "ACS Style Guide" - a fairly short, inexpensive paperback available from ACS; the research group owns one as well.

    In fact, if you're headed for graduate school, the Style Guide would be an excellent investment - the current price is $1295.  It contains the correct format for every part of a scientific paper, from title to references, with many examples of each type.  I still refer to mine regularly.

* Actually, the only way to really appreciate this is to do it the old way - put in the new ref. no., and then, manually, change every single ref. no. after it - both the superscripts in the text and the citations at the end.  I've done this - but fear not; I don't think like an M.D. - you don't have to do it just because I did. :-)
Submission of the Semester Report

    In an effort to help you all become better scientific writers, the following procedure will be used, which includes a chance for me to make suggestions on your first draft:

    During the last week of classes, at the group meeting, you will turn in your reports. Please include copies of spectra only for important or representative compounds. In other words, if you're doing a methodology project which converts one functional group or molecular type into another, just choose one example from each group of compounds.

    I will then read and edit your papers and return them to you by the following Friday (the last day of classes) at 3:00 PM (I will leave them on your desks in the lab if I don't see you on or before Friday). You'll then have several days to make corrections, rewrite sections, decide whether to take individual suggestions or not, etc.

    By the Wednesday of finals week, by 12:00 midnight, please turn in your edited, corrected, finished masterpieces by attaching the file to an email. I do not need or want hard copies of the reports.  Lateness will be gauged by the timestamp on the email.  By the way - just because it's due Wednesday at midnight doesn't mean you can't turn it in early!  In fact, it would be much appreciated

    My deadline to have grades for everyone turned in to the Chair is late afternoon on Friday (two days later!). Obviously, late papers cannot be accepted (no kidding). Since the papers count for a of the grade, this would be a way nasty error to make.  No one neglecting to submit a report or submitting a totally unacceptable report has a prayer of receiving an "A".

Examples of Good Semester Reports

     With the authors' permissions, I have linked to several reports that I would deem at least "very good"; it's my hope that, if current students can have something to aspire to, the quality of the semester reports may increase.  The reports are organized by the seniority of the student.

First semester   [FA03]  [SP04]
Mace Boshart
Second Semester
Andrea Mitchell
Fourth Semester
Bob Graham
Graduating Senior
Mike Yurkovich