Anatomy of a Scientific Paper


Every scientific paper begins with an abstract. An abstract should answer the following questions: what is the main research question?, what did we find?, how did we find it?, and why is it significant?. The abstract needs to be a short and succinct summary of the paper (4-10 sentences). It allows readers to quickly evaluate whether or not they want to read the entire paper. Because it is a summary, it is often the last thing we write when preparing a manuscript.


The first 2-5 paragraphs of a scientific paper are usually introduction and background. This is a space to explain the necessary background knowledge to your reader. This is where you explain the underlying concepts, history, and anything else your reader needs to know.

Your introduction should have lots of citations (or references) because you are referring to work or knowledge that has come before. Imagine that you are writing this section for one of your peers, preparing them to understand your experimental results.

As a brief example, let us think about someone doing a paper on whether or not morning coffee boosts the mood of high school students in first period. Your background should explain that coffee contains caffeine. It should explain what caffeine is and what it does. Your background should discuss what we know about the physiological nature of mood. What is going on in your brain when you are alert and focused vs. tired and groggy.

All images, figures, charts, etc. should have a caption. The caption is there to explain the figure to the reader. Remember, often readers will only look at figures and captions, therefore sometimes captions need to be long - sometimes even a full 1-2 paragraphs. It is okay to repeat some key ideas in both the main text and a figure caption.