Research Stories

The structure of a research report vs that of a research story. The research report narrows from the introduction to the methods and results and then broadens to the discussion. A research story, however, spends more time on the introduction, narrows to the research process, and then broadens for a larger discussion of the discussion.

Research stories share your research in a way that is understandable and interesting to a non-expert, public audience. Unlike a research report, a research story focuses on telling the narrative of your process, the significance of your research to others, and your personal engagement with your research. This handout will help you frame your research in an engaging way.

Story Structure

The overall structure of a research story is slightly different than a general research report. Scientific reports usually summarize a completed research project, which is why they emphasize the methods and results as separate sections. A research story, however, can describe completed research or research that is still in process. As such, the methods and results are briefly described in one section called the research process. Instead, a story format emphasizes the introduction and discussion, where most of your story will take place.

Catchy Introductions

Your introduction should be catchy to establish a story-like tone that can be carried throughout the rest of the document. A good research story introduction establishes the importance and relevance of the topic and gradually incorporates the scientific aspects. The next two examples are from Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History, which discusses scientific concepts in an engaging, story form.

Consider the opening sentences from Napoleon’s Buttons:

In June 1812, Napoleon’s army was 600,000 strong. By early December, however, the once proud Grande Armee numbered fewer than 10,000. The tattered remnants of Napoleon’s forces had crossed the Berezina River, near Borisov in western Russia, on the long road of retreat from Moscow.

—Jay Burreson and Penny Le Couteur, Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History

You'll notice that the story does not jump into the science immediately. Instead, it uses history to identify the topic’s significance and draw the reader in. Two paragraphs later, the authors draw the audience towards the science of the book:

What caused the downfall of the greatest army Napoleon had led? Why did Napoleon’s soldiers, victorious in previous battles, falter in the Russian campaign? One of the strangest theories to be advanced can be captured by paraphrasing an old nursery rhyme: “all for the want of a button.” Surprising as it may seem, the disintegration of Napoleon’s army may be traceable to something as small as the disintegration of a button - a tin button, to be exact, the kind that fastened everything from the greatcoats of Napoleon’s officers to the trousers and jackets of his foot soldiers. When temperatures drop, shiny metallic tin starts to change into a crumbly nonmetallic gray powder - still tin, but with a different structural form.

—Jay Burreson and Penny Le Couteur, Napoleon's Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History

Here is an additional example from the first-place winner of the 2015 Science Writing Contest. The author vividly describes a scene that immediately establishes the importance of studying acid rain and draws the reader into their story.

Dead fish. Blistered skin. Statues with their faces grotesquely weathered. For many Americans, these are the images that come to mind when we hear the words “acid rain.” Many of us are vaguely aware of the danger of this phenomenon—yet few people fully understand how acid rain forms and why it has such devastating effects. Recently, scientists have found that acid rain is even changing the way microbes interact with their soil environment, altering nutrient cycles and changing ecosystems from the ground up.

—Hannah Devens, "Unearthing a Legacy: Acid Rain's Effects on Nutrient Cycles in Forest Ecosystems," 1st Place Winner of the 2015 Science Writing Contest

Research Process

Whether your research has been completed or not, describing your research process makes your topic and hypotheses/conclusions more clear to readers. The process can include the methods you have used or are considering, your results if they have been collected, or the types of results you are hoping to collect based on your methodology or hypotheses.

The following example describes the research process in a story format:

We are using several techniques to test the effects of calcium levels on microbial respiration. To measure the amount of carbon respiration in each sample, we are using a method in which the carbon dioxide emitted from the soil microbes reacts with a solution so we can capture it in solid form. We are also distinguishing between leaf litter and soil organic matter as carbon sources for the microbes by analyzing chemical signatures in the captured solid. More carbon emitted from a sample would indicate that its microbes respired at a higher rate, recycling more rapidly from the organic form. When we compare the amounts of carbon with the amounts of calcium in the soil samples, we hope to see a relationship that will tell us more about how calcium is affecting microbial respiration of organic matter in the soil.

—Hannah Devens, "Unearthing a Legacy: Acid Rain's Effects on Nutrient Cycles in Forest Ecosystems," 1st Place Winner of the 2015 Science Writing Contest

The author had not completed their research, but they described their methodology for conducting research, articulating their goals for analysis and the potential results. You can be at any stage of your research as long as you creatively and engagingly tell the story of your research and its significance.

Discussion

Your discussion, then, can discuss your results (if you have already analyzed your data), or the next steps for your research and the information they might reveal. The discussion should still inform your general audience about the importance of such research (and potential future research).

The following example is a discussion section from a research story:

This experiment has important implications for the future of ecology. Many people believe that acid rain’s effects have been largely reversed by the passage of the Clean Air Acts of 1970 and 1990 (Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, 2001). These acts required a reduction in emissions of sulfur dioxide, an important contributor to acid rain. However, nutrients continue to be depleted from soils in the Northeast (such as those tested in the HBEF). While rates of depletion have slowed substantially, results show that acid rain’s nutrient leaching abilities have continued decades after such environmental legislation was passed. A legacy of acid deposition has been left in soils because the depletion of calcium and other nutrients from soils has not been reversed even where deposition has been markedly reduced. If we can better pin down the dynamics of nutrient-microbial relationships, we may be one step closer to understanding how to help damaged ecosystems recover from the ravages of acid rain and other human-caused disturbances.

—Hannah Devens, "Unearthing a Legacy: Acid Rain's Effects on Nutrient Cycles in Forest Ecosystems," 1st Place Winner of the 2015 Science Writing Contest

The author discusses why we should care about this research, why it matters to us. While the author had not yet finished their experiment, they were still able to discuss the potential implications of their work.

Audience and Tone

A research story is written for a general (rather than scientific) audience, so pay attention to your language choices. Note the differences in language use and audience awareness in the next two examples on acid rain.

The first example is from a scientific article published in the journal Science. The author takes a formal approach in order to appear professional and credible with other specialists in their field. The writer uses terms like “biogeochemistry of sulfur,” “nitrogen,” and “sulfuric acid” without explanation or context, because their audience is already familiar with these concepts. They also dive right into the problem at hand.

Research on the effects of acid rain in the United States and Europe has focused primarily on the biogeochemistry of sulfur, and to a lesser extent on that of nitrogen. The emphasis was because sulfuric acid is the dominant acid in precipitation throughout the eastern United States and Europe where acid rain is a serious environmental problem.

—G.E. Likens, C.T Driscoll, and D.C. Buso, “Long-Term Effects of Acid Rain: Response and Recovery of a Forest Ecosystem” .

The second example is from a research story on acid rain. The author uses first-person “we” to relate to audiences unfamiliar with the topic and uses familiar or creative words to catch readers’ interest, such as “business,” “noxious,” and “spew,” while still incorporating the science aspects of “acid rain,” “water,” “oxygen,” and “acidic compounds.” This writer begins with background information on her topic by clearly and simply explaining what acid rain is and how it forms.

One of the main contributors to acid rain is a business we can’t live without: the fossil fuel industry. The issue begins with the noxious gases that coal-burning power plants spew into the air (Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, 2001). Once in the atmosphere, these emissions interact with water and oxygen to form acidic compounds that eventually fall to the earth as acid rain.

—Hannah Devens, "Unearthing a Legacy: Acid Rain's Effects on Nutrient Cycles in Forest Ecosystems," 1st Place Winner of the 2015 Science Writing Contest

As mentioned earlier, you want to establish an engaging tone in the beginning that will last throughout the rest of the story. Tone can have an important effect on your audience’s experience with and interpretation of your voice and story. Consider the following types of tone:

  • Inspiring
  • Humorous
  • Passionate
  • Excited
  • Emotional
  • Boastful
  • Technical
  • Conversational
  • Academic

The following examples model what different kinds of tone look like; it’s up to you to write in a tone that works for the story you are telling.

The excerpt below from a New York Times article on Global Warming adopts a serious and stern tone. The seriousness of death statistics attempts to draw compassion from the audience and persuade them to take a stance on global warming. A stern tone reinforces the seriousness of this issue and its effect on others.

The question is important because while a gradual increase in average temperatures can have profound ecological consequences, it is weather extremes that have the greatest effect on human society. A 1995 heat wave in Chicago killed hundreds of people, and a 2003 heatwave in Europe killed an estimated 70,000. Scientists believe both were made more likely by the human emissions that are warming the planet, and heat on that scale will become commonplace if emissions are allowed to continue unabated. For now, though, such heat extremes — Chicago temperatures were near or above 100 degrees for four days running that July — are still rare, which makes them difficult to study in a statistical sense.

—Justin Gillis, ”New Study Links Weather Extremes to Global Warming”

For those familiar with Edgar Allen Poe, the next passage establishes an excited yet terrified tone. Phrases such as “I gasped for breath” and “as if excited to fury by the observations of the men” establishes an excitable, frantic tone, while “they were making a mockery of my horror” establishes the feeling of terror.

No doubt I now grew very pale; --but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased --and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound --much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath --and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly --more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men --but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed --I raved --I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder --louder --louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! --no, no! They heard! --they suspected! --they knew! --they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now --again! --hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

—Edgar Allen Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart"

The next piece by Hemingway is sparsely written, so the tone is very calm, reserved, and content. It does not raise alarm; rather, it describes and clearly paints a picture for readers. However, it is not as exciting as the previous example.

It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

—Ernest Hemmingway, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

This next example by Dickens also implies a darker, more terrified tone with words such as “evil,” “forlorn,” “clammy,” and “unwholesome.”

There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.

—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Use Active Voice and Get Personal

Take action in your writing! Don’t let “the passive voice be avoided by good writers”: let “good writers avoid passive voice.” Active voice can help drive your story along and keep your reader intrigued. It can show action being done, progress being made, and the persons contributing to scientific efforts. Here are some examples of how passive voice might be revised in active voice:

My first lab report will always be remembered by me. (passive)
I'll always remember my first lab report. (active)

Examination of patients was accomplished by me. (passive)
I examined patients. (active)

Here’s a way to remember active versus passive voice: if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb, then you’re using passive voice. For example:

I was run over by a truck. (You could say "I was run over by zombies" so this sentence is passive.)
A truck ran me over. (It would not make sense to say "A truck ran me over by zombies" so this sentence is active.)