perils of research

The Perils Of University Research Reports

Writing university research reports can be hard, so allow me to offer some advice based on having marked hundreds of the aforementioned reports.

  • Use white paper for your report. Contradictory to common belief, you do not get extra marks for using strangely coloured paper. Yellow paper may catch the marker’s attention, but not in a good way. My personal favourite was a research report that was printed entirely on light purple paper. Naturally, the writing was printed in dark blue ink instead of black, because why not?
  • Do not put fancy borders on your report. I think that pages with interesting borders are nice to look at. They are not, however, appropriate for university research reports… especially if the borders are rainbow coloured.
  • Use sensible page margins. Some students appear to believe that the more pages their report is, the better their grade will be. This is generally not true. Even more unfortunately, rather than write more, some students simply choose to use ridiculous page margins. My favourite was a student who used page margins so wide that the actual area of each page devoted to the writing was roughly the size of a postcard. Their report had so many pages. They did not do well.
  • Word limits exist for a reason. If the word limits is 2000 words, writing 3000 words will not get you more marks. It simply wouldn’t be fair to give you a high mark when other students have adhered to the word limit. On the other hand, there is such a thing as being too brief. If you have a 2000 word limit, and your report is 500 words long, you are doing it wrong. The shortest report I’ve ever seen (relative to word limit) was a 100 word research report when the word limit was 1500 words. As you can imagine, they did not pass.
  • Use the correct kind of graph. Imagine that you’re checking people’s accuracy on a test given four different experimental conditions. What is the appropriate kind of graph to use? The answer is not a pie chart. Making it a 3-D pie chart with shadowing does not make it correct either.
  • Actually learn what a research report is. Research reports have a particular style and format that can vary depending on which subject you’re doing. In any case, make sure you actually know what is involved in a research report. It’s not unusual for me to see research reports that do not bare even a remote resemblance to what they’re supposed to be. One of my personal favourites was a long, rambling thing that was written almost entirely in first person and didn’t bother with paragraphing. It was also written in what I think was some distant linguistic relative of English.
  • Know what class you’re in. For first year students, research reports are often marked by their tutor. It is thus vital to know your tutor’s name and what class you belong to. Simply approaching a random member of staff is unlikely to work. And, yes, I have seen people do this.
  • Hand your research report in on time. Marks are usually deducted for late reports. Before deliberately handing in your report late, ask yourself: will the extra time actually improve your report? If the answer is no, then just submit it and get it over with. That aside, I’ve seen students go to great lengths to submit reports on time. I once saw a student arrive without shoes and with bleeding feet to submit a report five minutes before it would have been considered late. That is what I call dedication.
  • Do not plagiarise, especially from someone in the same class. Plagiarism is wrong. It’s basically academic fraud. But some forms of plagiarism are dumber than others, like plagiarising from the person you sit next to in class each week. Yeah, we’ll catch people who do that. The only thing dumber is coping the recommended readings word for word (yes, people actually do that). That applies double if I’m the one who has written the recommended reading.

Despite some of the odd things that I’ve seen, I’ve also seen some good reports. I’ve also seen people who’ve written horrifically bad reports go on to write very good reports after a bit of practice.