Reports

Like essays, Reports are crucial assessment tasks.  They can be distinguished from essays in terms of their structure, their writing style, their formality, their purpose, and their intended audience.

Essays are written in continuous flowing prose comprised of paragraphs with topic sentences. They may be divided into sections with headings sometimes, but these sections are there for the convenience of clarifying the discussion. Both reports and essays have an Introduction, a Body and a Conclusion. They both have in-text and reference list citations and both use evidence. Both use a formal academic writing style. But this is where the similarities end.

Reports are always divided into sections, sometimes numbered sections with headings, and each section has a distinct and discrete purpose. Typical sections in a generic report include:

  • Findingsoutlines what one found
  • Discussion (or ‘Analysis’): analyses the Findings
  • Recommendations: describes what should be done based on the Findings.

There are often more sections than this, depending on the kind of report being written. In report writing it is important that the right information goes into the right section.

Stylistically, some reports permit the use of bullet point lists, and almost all reports have charts, tables, graphs and other visual devices. These are rare in essays.

In terms of audience, reports are pitched directly at the person(s) for whom the report is written. These people can be real or imagined. This might be a  company executive (in a Business report), an audience of scientific peers (in an Empirical “Scientific” report), or a professional of some kind (in Nursing, Engineering, IT or “Case study” reports). Usually, they are just written for your lecturer (in Lab reports).

Differences between disciplines

A Business report, a Psychology report, a Nursing report, and an Engineering  report can look very different.

Psychology and Engineering are both Empirical or “scientific” reports (sometimes called AIMRaD reports after their main sections: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion).

Business reports have a unique style of their own, and Nursing reports tend to focus on case studies, therefore can be described as Case Study reports. What follows is broad advice about the structural elements of different report types, so check your course description or ask your lecturer for guidelines if you need specific instructions. The diagram below is a general guide to the sections required in different report types. There will be variations on this.

NB: Methodology is the conceptual and epistemic justification of how one arrived at one’s results, the Method* is the type of research tool used, and the Procedure† are the steps taken in carrying out the study itself.  In some reports ‘Method’ and ‘Procedure’ are conflated and subsumed under ‘Methodology’. They are often separated typically when an experiment is complex with multiple variables.

Aim of reports

A report is written to outline research that has been carried out (be it observational or conducted in a lab), or to present information to inform a decision, or to account for specific actions. Depending on what kind of report you are writing, you will find that they have different components.

You may, for example, be asked to write a cover letter for a Business report to the intended audience, e.g., an imagined CEO, or may be required to describe or respond to a real or imagined real-life situation, a “case”, to inform decision-making in an area of nursing practice in the case of a Nursing report.

Either way, direct your considerations to the intended audience and make the aim of the report clear. This is done using a clear and narrowly-focussed aim statement, for example:

  • This report provides an account of the rise in eCommerce profitability in the US sanitary products industry from 1984-2020.
  • This report aims to investigate the reasons behind crustacean habit destruction in the Port Philip bay area.

The aim statement is critical: It directly responds to the needs of your intended audience. This is why reports are written. In a company or a large organisation, e.g., the CSIRO or the public service, a report of some kind will often be requested. They almost never ask for an “essay”.

Later sections of the report tie back to the aim statement:

  • Method: This explores and articulates how you will address the aim statement
  • Results: This is was found about the aim statement
  • Discussion: This analyses the results in response to the aim statement
  • Recommendations: This outlines what should be done to response to the results in relation to your aim statement (Business and Case study reports only).

Sections in a report

The following information outlines what is commonly included in most reports. Please check your own course requirements before applying these guidelines. We do not include a Literature Review here, which is common is some reports (empirical reports), but not others (business reports, case study reports). For more on literature reviews, see here. If a literature review is included in a report, it goes after the Introduction and before the Method section.

Table of contents

If a report is several pages long, it is helpful to include a Table of Contents to help the reader locate information quickly. The table of contents also provides an overview of the structure of the report. The contents pages should be separated from the rest of the report and include all headings and subheadings. These should be:

  • written exactly as they appear in the report
  • numbered exactly as they appear in the report
  • with their page numbers

You can create a table of contents automatically with Microsoft Word using the Table of Contents function.

List of figures

A List of Figures is used mainly for reports containing numerous figures. It includes the figure number, caption and page number, ordered as they appear in the text.

Example: List of figures

List of figures

  • Adapted from: luckylion.de/vasco/tutorials
    /indesign_beyond_the_thesis/a_pictures/list_figure_example.png

A List of Abbreviations can also be given in the Table of Contents if the report is lengthy and there are many abbreviations used.

List of tables

This list is used mainly for reports containing numerous tables. It includes the table number, caption and page number, ordered as they appear in the text.

Example: List of tables

List of tables

  • Source: http://i644.photobucket.com/albums
    /uu164/thinktank1985/Untitled-1.jpg

Abstract and Introduction

The Abstract is a short summary of all the main sections of a report from the Introduction through to, and including, the Recommendations (if applicable). It should be independent (can be read on its own), comprehensive (covers all the main points), clear and concise. As a general rule, it should be short, only 5-10% of the length of the report/essay, and written in full sentences. Write the abstract after you have written the entire report as it is only then you are clear on what your report achieves and the limitations that it might have. The Abstract is normally placed prior to the Table of Contents and is on a separate page. The Introduction follows the Table of Contents.

It is easy to confuse the structure and purpose of an abstract with that of an introduction. Note the differences below…

Abstract Introduction
Purpose-Scope-Main points-Conclusions-Recommendations Background information-Narrow focus / Set context for argument-Present argument / thesis statement-Outline main points to be discussed / identifies a research “gap”.

The Abstract is a summary of all of the contents of the report, including the conclusion and recommendations and is usually written using the tense appropriate to each of the sections in the report that it is summarising. The Introduction, on the other hand, provides a background or context to the purpose of the report, narrows down to the aim statement, and tells the reader what is going to be discussed in the Body. It uses the present tense. (For more, see Tenses in scientific reports.). In advanced report writing an Introduction also includes identification of a research gap that the report hopes to fill.

An Executive Summary is common for Business reports. This is similar to an abstract in that they both summarise the report but there are some key differences. They are longer than an Abstract, may include bullet points, often address recommendations in some depth (these are never included in scientific reports). They comprise as much as 20% of the report.

Method

The Method section is specific to scientific research reports and is one of the easier parts to write in a report. In this section, you need to outline how your research was conducted. Depending on whether you’re writing a psychology report or a scientific lab report, it can be be written in prose form, or sometimes using dot points (especially in Business reports). The types of questions you need to answer in your method section also depend on the discipline.

Sample questions to answer in your method

Discipline area Types of questions to answer
Scientific lab report What materials did you use?
What methods did you use?
Psychology report Who were my subjects/participants? (demographic details)
What materials did I use?
What procedure did I follow?

Example: Method section of a biology report (excerpt)

Growth rates were determined by estimating the number of bacteria in a culture at zero time and after 1 hour of growth at 37°C. In order to make this estimation, a dilution series was performed by diluting aliquots of the bacterial culture, at each incubation time, by a factor of 10, 100, and 10 000 with nutrient broth, and then plating out 0.01ml of each of these dilutions onto quadrants of a sterile agar plate. Following one week’s incubation at 25°C, the colonies of the plate were counted manually. Enough detail is provided for someone wishing to repeat the experiment. No commentary is provided on the Method. It is a series of factual descriptions.
  • Unilearning, 2000

If anybody were to read your method, they should be able to recreate your research exactly. Ask yourself whether that would be possible, based on your account of the method. If the answer is ‘no’, then you may have left something out. Your purpose is not to comment on the method, or analyse it, you’re simply describing how it was done.

Results

This section is more specific to scientific research reports. This section discusses the results of the research but does not analyse them. There might be a brief comment or two on the results pointing out how there was a unexpected rise in data obtained, for example, but that’s about all. Detailed analysis is left for the Discussion section. The Results section can be a brief section where you simply write what you found in your experiment. Point out any trends but don’t analyse them. This section should be written in full sentences, but can also include tables or figures if you are instructed to do so. For how to present data, see Figures and Tables.

Example: Results of a chemistry report (excerpt)

When samples of hydrolysed and unhydrolysed BSA were analysed by ascending paper chromatography, the appearance and separation of the two samples were quite different. The unhydrolysed BSA had very little colour and appeared to remain on the origin (Fig. 1). In its hydrolysed form, however, the BSA sample separated into a number of spots which were bright pink or purple (Fig. 1). Description, with comment but no analysis

Notice the reference to figures showing the results themselves.

  • Unilearning, 2000

Discussion or Analysis

The discussion is one of the larger sections of a report and includes an analysis of your results and an outline of their significance in relation to the literature in the field. You need to:

  • explain and interpret your results
  • assess whether the questions you raised in your introduction have been answered
  • refer back to any theory or research your referred to in your introduction and/or Literature review (if applicable)
  • identify any areas of significance in your results in the context of the various competing theories that are relevant.

Do your findings contradict the findings of previous research? This needs to be mentioned in the Discussion.

You also need to mention any limitations of your research in this section. Limitations are any problems with your method that could have been improved upon or that might have affected the results in some way. Perhaps your sample size wasn’t large enough, or an item was contaminated. Be sure to mention that here. Despite it being called the ‘Discussion’, it should still be written objectively.

Conclusion

Your Conclusion is a summary of the overall report. Remind your readers of your original purpose, your aim statement, and remind the reader what you found. Finish with a strong conclusive sentence that leaves the readers with a firm impression of the research outcome. End with a statement about what could be done if future research was conducted in this area.

Reference list

A reference list should be attached to every report. It starts on a new page after the Conclusion and before the Appendices (if applicable). It consists of  full citation details of every cited work used in the report in the relevant referencing style. Most referencing styles have their own guidelines for writing a reference list, so refer to our online referencing tool, FedCite, for more information.

Appendices

Appendices (Appendix if singular) are more common in reports than in essays, and come at the very end (after reference list). Your lecturer or tutor will tell you if you require appendices at the end of your work. They are particularly common in Business reports and Case Study reports, and almost unknown in Scientific Reports.

Appendices are typically made up of items used in your report for readers to refer to for more detailed information that could not be included in the body of the report for reasons of space, or which would be out of place in the report itself as they are tangential (i.e., useful but not essential). They may nonetheless be useful in guiding others wishing to conduct the research themselves. They may also be useful readers who want further details on areas mentioned in the report but not dealt with in detail.

Appendices are signalled in the text of the report in brackets (e.g., see Appendix A). This is the equivalent of saying: “I’ve got more information on this at the end of my report so have a look there”.

For example, if you used a questionnaire that you discuss in your report, you might attach a copy of the questionnaire as an appendix but refer to it by saying, “The consumers were surveyed and the results lead to our decision to….” (for survey details, see Appendix D). The letters of each Appendix are  in the order they are mentioned in the report, A is first, then B, then C and so on.

List your appendices at the front of your report in the Table of Contents, or as a separate list. Each appendix should be lettered, i.e. Appendix A, Appendix B, etc.), its title and page number, ordered as they appear at the end of the report. For example:

Appendix A: Data on pancake consumption …. p.8

Appendix B: Histograms on pancake consumption …p.9

Appendix C: Geographical location of pancake consumers … p.10

Appendix D: Survey for consumers …p.12

Business reports

The purpose of writing reports in Business disciplines is to prepare students for the workplace where most forms of information are communicated in some form of a report. This is particularly the case in commercial contexts or workplaces within the public service.

Depending on the aim of the report (and specific Business discipline area), a report can require presentation of information only (financial statements for Commerce and Accounting), information with interpretation (product analysis for Marketing) or information with analysis and recommendations (Management and other areas).

The difference between an essay and a business report

Essay Report
Purpose Expresses a point of view and presents a thesis statement Has an aim statement. Often recommends an action to solve a specific problem
Format and structure Has introduction, body and conclusion sections that normally do not use headings Has introduction, body and conclusion sections. Body sections are divided into sub-sections. Headings are used extensively.
Uses cohesive paragraphs to link ideas Uses shorter, more concise paragraphs and frequent bullet points where applicable
Abstract Abstracts are not normally needed as readers read the text carefully from start to finish Always has an abstract (or Executive Summary) as readers are typically ‘time poor’ and skim and scan through the text quickly
Graphics Rarely uses graphics (such as tables and graphs) as written evidence Extensive use of tables, charts and other graphics for supporting main points
Writer Generally the result of individual work Often the result of group work
  • Adapted from the University of Sydney, n.d.

General structure of a business report

Front Matter Body of the Report Back Matter
Cover- Title Page- Abstract or Executive Summary- Table of Contents- List of Figures Introduction- Findings and Discussion- Conclusions- Recommendations Appendices- References- Glossary (if required)

Executive summary

An executive summary is mainly expected as part of a business report. Although it is similar to an abstract in that they both summarise a paper and have a similar framework (see above), there are key differences.

An executive summary:

  • is written as a stand-alone document and can be quite long – up to 15-20% of the word-length of the report
  • starts with the key findings of the research, which are then expanded upon
  • often uses dot points for emphasis and to keep it short
  • has a strong focus on the recommendations and their justification, and
  • must accurately reflect what is in the report (the recommendations are sometimes word-for-word from the report).

How to write an executive summary

Inform the reader of the objective, or purpose, of the report. For a health benefits report model, this paragraph might explain how the report demonstrates that a change in the organisation’s employee health plans would be beneficial to the organisation, and how the goal of the report is to support a change in the organisation’s benefits policy.

Then you might outline the benefits of the plan or course of action that you recommend. A bulleted list can be an effective way to state the benefits in a clear and concise way. Since an Executive Summary will not contain extensive data or details (these will be in the report itself), this is an excellent way to summarise data in the report. Nonetheless, the benefits of the action recommended are comprehensive. For example:

The organisation should consider a change in employee health plans for the following reasons:

  • The organisation is currently spending an average of 32% of its annual earnings on benefits.
  • The current health insurance is unsatisfactory according to the employees, since the current provider has raised deductibles and reduced benefits.
  • A change to plan ABC from company XYZ would increase both profitability and employee satisfaction.
  • Better health benefits will also improve the company’s ability to recruit and hire talented job candidates.

Finally, conclude the summary with specific recommendations. e.g., The organisation needs to switch to company XYZ’s health package at the beginning of the next fiscal year, since this will increase profitability and employee satisfaction.

An Executive Summary, unlike an Abstract, is often the only thing read in a report so it must encapsulate the significant parts of the report itself.

  • Adapted from University of Maryland University College, 2014

Introduction

The content of an business report introduction is similar to an essay introduction as it moves from general to specific information. Write this part after you have written the body of the report. Answer questions like “What is this report about ?” and “How is it useful ?” and include:

  • brief background information
  • a description of the overall purpose, aim, and key objectives
  • an overview of the issues that you will discuss (scope)
  • an outline of any limitations to the report, or assumptions.

Do not be confused by an introduction and an executive summary, as business reports can often have both. Be sure to check with your lecturer or tutor to establish if you need one, the other, or both. For more on Business Reports see this Report Writing: Business.

Scientific reports

The purpose of scientific reports is to communicate results from your technical or scientific experiments to an audience of scientific peers.  It is also to outline the state of a technical or scientific research problem. Scientific reports are normally published in relevant discipline-area journals. Students are being trained to write scientific reports in a like-manner, though of course the audience is the lecturer and the purpose is assessment. Typically, scientific reports follow the AIMRaD structure strictly (Abstract, Introduction, Method, Results and Discussion). Sometimes they are called “research/scholarly reports” or “research papers” or “empirical reports”.

General structure of a scientific report

Scientific reports are usually written in Science, Engineering, IT, and Psychology disciplines and require you to outline and analyse specific research you have conducted. But, as you will see in examples further on, the structure can vary according to the field of study.

General structure of a scientific report

Individual sections Content of each section
Title of Report Concise heading indicating what the report is about. This is normally highly descriptive and compressed to indicate exactly what the research study involves.
Table of Contents (typically only for reports for industry) A list of what is covered in the report
Abstract/Synopsis Concise summary of main findings
Introduction Why the research is needed, the “gap” in knowledge, and the hypothesis or research statement
Literature Review (sometimes included in the Introduction) An overview of other relevant research in this area
Methodology What you did and how you did it
Results What you found
Discussion Significance of what you found, i.e., your results; how it fits with other research in the area. Implications of results for previous published work and further research that might be conducted.
Conclusion Summary of results/findings and suggestions for further research
Recommendations (sometimes included in the Conclusion). Quite rare in published scientific reports but may be seen in scientific reports in industry and scientific organisations. What needs to be done as a result of your findings
References or Bibliography All references used in your report or referred to for background information
  • Adapted from University of Adelaide, 2008

Engineering reports usually follow a technical report structure that has the same front and back matter as a scientific report, but the body contains an introduction, middle sections with headings and a conclusion. Regardless, to make sure you are using the one preferred in your course, always check with your lecturer first before following any specific report structure.

Introduction

Scientific/technical reports

Write your introduction after you have written your method and results sections, then you will know exactly what your body section is about already and you won’t sound vague. The introduction can include:

  • the background to the topic of your report
  • a clear statement of the purpose of the report
  • technical background necessary to understand the report, e.g. theory or assumptions
  • Gap or need in research that the study tries to fill
  • a clear statement of the aims of the specific project (can be expressed as an hypothesis or research question)
  • a brief outline of the structure of the report if appropriate.

Example: Engineering technical report introduction using the above colour code (Monash University, 2014).

A dual carriageway bridge with two traffic lanes in each direction is to be constructed on the Calder Freeway crossing Slaty Creek in the Shire of Macedon Ranges in Victoria. The bridge is to span 125 metres between man-made compacted fill embankments, and is approximately 15 metres above the river surface, with a grade of 0.056 m/m. This report presents two possible concept designs for the bridge. In evaluating these designs, the following criteria are considered: construction method, construction and maintenance costs, possible disruption to traffic during construction, the durability and the aesthetics of the bridge. The two conceptual designs are presented in the form of sketches of the elevations and cross-sections of the structures.

Results

This section discusses the results of the research, and may offer a brief comment about the results, but does not analyse them. The analysis is done in the Discussion section. The Results section can be a brief section where you simply write what the outcome of the experiment was. This section should be written in full sentences, but can also include tables or figures if you are instructed to do so.

Example: Results of a chemistry report (excerpt)

When samples of hydrolysed and unhydrolysed BSA were analysed by ascending paper chromatography, the appearance and separation of the two samples were quite different. The unhydrolysed BSA had very little colour and appeared to remain on the origin (see Fig. 1). In its hydrolysed form, however, the BSA sample separated into a number of spots which were bright pink or purple (see Fig. 2). Description and brief comment but no analysis. 
  • Unilearning, 2000

Download our helpsheet on scientific lab reports.

Discussion

Also referred to as the body, this is one the larger sections of any report. For more detailed information on the discussion segment of a report, see Report section above.

Example: Excerpt of a discussion from a chemistry report

The activity of the salivary amylase enzyme in this experiment increased with temperature up to 37°C. This was probably an effect on the reaction itself, as the rate of chemical reactions generally increases as temperature increases because there is more energy in the system at higher temperatures (Stryer, 1995, p. 46). Most enzymes are denatured at temperatures above 50°C (Perkins, 1964); however, in this experiment, the activity of the amylase was highest at 70°C. This may be explained by the variation in temperature that is experienced in the mouth during eating, which may require a high degree of heat-resistance in the amylase enzyme … State the major results again
Interpretation/explanation based on what is known (cite references)
An unexpected result. Attempt to explain how/why the result occurred
  • Unilearning, 2000