Lee De Cola

This document covers areas that must be considered in writing a research report:

  1. An outline, which helps you organize your work and its presentation.
  2. Key elements that will be an important part of the report.
  3. A style guide that makes it easy for a reader to view the document online.

Outline of a research report

This outline is heavily summarized from my writing and reading research papers as well as from George Mason University Biology Department (see original for details). Use it to guide your research and as a format for your proposal and final report. Percentages are very approximate.

*For a research proposal focus almost exclusively on the starred sections and include preliminary exhibits (tables and figures). 


A few words that capture your topic and method; followed by your name, the course and school, and the date. This about this carefully and rewrite it when you think of a clearer statement.


Shortened version of the report summarizing in about 150 words what follows. Keep revising this as your research progresses.

*Introduction - Why we're interested (30%)

    1. The topic and why your study is of interest
    2. Summary of previously published studies, with citations
    3. Your objective in doing the research
    4. Hypothesis to be tested

*Methods - What you did (20%)

    1. Data sources (space/time/phenomena): study area, time period; maps, figures, tables, with citations and URLs
    2. Overall model used in the analysis
    3. Analytical tools, methods, transformations, statistics and other steps you took in your research

Results - What you found (30%)

    1. Important conclusions
    2. Evaluation of the analysis: scale issues, uncertainty, agreement (or not) with your hypothesis
    3. Report only what you found - save your evaluation of the results for the next section

Discussion - What it means (see problems) (20%)

    1. Interpretation of results in terms of the objective raised in the Introduction section
    2. What the results mean, how they may agree or differ from those of others, why they're important
    3. Problems (or potential problems) with the data or methods
    4. Future directions for research, new methods

*Literature and sources

Cite sufficient references to data sources, journal articles, book chapters, websites using a standard system. Err on the side of completeness.

Example elements

Exhibit 1. The numbers of sick and well subjects in each region.

A 175 25 200
B 225 75 300
TOTAL 400 100 500

Note: 1) the table has a brief caption, 2) the headings are distinct from the data, and 3) the data are right-justified.

Exhibit 2. Choropleth map of foreclosure rate.

CO foreclosures

Note that the exhibit has a brief caption (and that you needn't distinguish 'tables' from 'figures'). And the scale bar is quite simple!

Literature and sources

De Cola, Lee 2002 Spatial forecasting of disease risk and uncertainty Cartography and Geographic Information Science (29)4: 363-380.

Mollie, Annie 1999 “Bayesian and empirical Bayes approaches to disease mapping” in Andrew Lawson et al, Disease Mapping and Risk Assessment for Public Health, New York: Wiley, pp. 15-29.

U. S. Geological Survey 2008 “Disease Maps”, retrieved 2008-09-15

Online Style Guide

These days most documents are read online rather than in printed format. Here is a guide to formatting your submissions so that they can be easily read at a computer; the guidelines are designed with MS Word in mind, but apply to any format.

  1. Always run a spell checker before you submit anything.
  2. The organization of graphics deserves care (see above). Place the exhibits individually between paragraphs, as near as possible to where they are referred to in the text. Label each one, and identify them in your discussion. Graphics should fill about 2/3 of the width of the screen; anything smaller is too small, anything larger may 'bleed' off the screen.
  3. Minimize the top and bottom margins; on the screen they are just empty space.
  4. Don't use multiple spaces between sentences or empty paragraphs between paragraphs of text.
  5. Try not to use multiple tabs when a single well-positioned tab will work.
  6. Don't right justify paragraphs; this works for books and published articles, but not on-screen.
  7. For your body text consistently use a black, 12 point, preferably serif font, e.g. Times New Roman.
  8. In a formal report fancy graphics (cute text, backgrounds, irrelevant pictures) just distract from the analysis.
  9. In general use only 3 significant figures in reported statistics.

Occasionally I receive ArcMap exhibits in the form of .mxd files. Without the associated data these are not useful, and including the data often results in an unwieldy package. I therefore recommend exporting any map to a graphics file (.png, .gif, .jpg, etc.) in order to share your work.

Any item (physical or online book, article, or exhibit) you copy or refer to must be cited correctly; use the examples in the syllabus, but see a style guide for details, and be sure to include the correct URL. Copying without clearly displaying the source, even if unintentional, is plagiarism.