Descriptive Reporting

  1. Composition of a Descriptive Report
  2. How to Make the Report
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Descriptive Research The researcher's work becomes rewarding only if the report of the findings gets in the hands of people that are able to use them. It is also essential that the report is usable, which can mean different things for various types of users. Normative reports - which are discussed on a separate page - are usually made for a specific purpose and for a commissioner, but descriptive research is often initiated by the researcher and no definite user is known, though the researcher can give examples of potential fields of use in the opening or closing chapters of the report or in the publicity.

Because the principal message of a descriptive report is to inform how things are around the object of study, the report must be written so that the information becomes absolutely clear, not forgetting its reliability and the area of validity, which is often equal to the population of the study. The reader should always be able to check the reliability of the results, which means that the report should contain the information that is necessary for this appraisal, such as the main points of source criticism, dispersion of data, significance levels etc.

The writer of a descriptive report cannot count on that the public at once understands the value of the study, on the contrary it can happen that the researcher is presenting to the public something that the public does not yet know that it is lacking. You should therefore try to catch and keep awake the reader's interest until the last page of the report.

Composition of a Descriptive Report

Formally, a descriptive research report usually consists of the following parts:

  1. Title pages
  2. Abstract
  3. Table of contents (can be at the back of the book as well)
  4. Preface
  5. The text itself
  6. List of sources and of literature
  7. Possible indexes of people or a general index
  8. Appendixes

The title pages are the first pages of the book. Usually the uppermost one only indicates the series of publications and the title of the book. The next one, the "actual title page" contains the following information whose order varies from one country and one publisher to another:

The title page also indicates, possibly on its back side:

The idea of the abstract is to make subsequent search for information easier. It helps subsequent researchers to decide if it is worth their while to seek that particular report. The abstract clarifies the title and is an account of no more than 250 words dealing with what has been studied and how, and it gives an outline of the results in such a way that the reader understands the subject matter without having to read the report itself. This is best acquired by the researcher writing his own report.
The abstract is written in the same language as the report itself, and often also in English. The researcher can also indicate the UDC number describing the topics of the study. These topics should preferably be picked in the thesaurus of the field, if there is one. In this matter, it is advisable for the researcher to turn to the library systems analyst.

The preface ("To the Reader") tells about the origins of the research and about the different parties that have contributed to it. It is customary to thank here the sponsors and the people having promoted the work.

The text itself tells how the results were acquired. The text should also provide the reader with a possibility to estimate the reliability of the results. That is why the text should contain at least the following things:

By research method we mean the logical structure through which the results have been obtained from the data. In natural sciences, it is often easy to describe this method but how is it in a humanistic research project in which it often happens that the researcher works for months on something that proves useless later on? It is quite usual in qualitative research for the interpretation of the researcher to change thoroughly at the same time as the project proceeds, leading to the fact that the reported results are the product of the very last weeks of the research.
In this, different researchers have followed different guidelines, which Lehtopuro (1980) humorously describes:

"... humanistic research has had an aversion to plainly specify the processes the researcher has gone through in order to obtain the results he has had. Researchers try to parcel up the completed research into a readable, smooth and fluent form and to conceal a whole lot of toilsome research of detail, trial, error and experiments that have yielded no results.

But a demand for a clear exposition of research methods and concepts has gradually started to gain ground in humanistic thinking as well. One may first feel that... something essential from the point of view of the reader has been lost: the traditional readability of humanistic studies. In closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that it has been replaced by a more enriching experience: the reader becomes part of the mental process of the study."

To some extent it may, then, be useful to explain the "preliminary understanding" of the subject the researcher had at the outset of the research: how he saw the object in the beginning and what theory he based his work on. Likewise, it may be useful to account for the reasons why the researcher had to interpret the data in a new way and why he had to seek further data. It will not be of use, however, to give an account of every presupposition which proved to be wrong, nor to name all the data that he gathered and treated in vain. It is not necessary to mention that the researcher finally believes to have found the truth, nor to describe the excitement this achievement aroused in him.

The results of descriptive research are often analytical generalizations (presented as models) made on the basis of individual cases; usually rather dull reading. The easiest to read tend to be Case Study reports which describe interesting persons or events. Sometimes it is possible to mix the approaches and enrich a highly numerical or otherwise monotonous text with occasional individual examples, e.g. juicy verbatim quotations from the people interviewed. These citations must have the consent of the speaker or otherwise their anonymity must be guaranteed by changing the names, for example.

The knowledge inherited from earlier generations, the tacit skill of profession or of living in society, is often problematic in the scientific study of professions or products. Operating with tacit knowledge in its original tacit mode has often been condemned in science. According to the so called positivistic school of thought it is the researcher's duty to explicate everything into plain language and disregard those things that he cannot explicate. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" (Wittgenstein, 1933). However, today many scientists think that the positivistic ideal is feasible in some fields of study, but in other fields it is permissible to relax the requirements on explicity and precision of data if the alternative is to have no data at all.

Another traditional taboo in science concerns the artistic style of presentation. Although the general goal of descriptive research, to portray the object of study, is in principle similar to the goal of art, almost all scientists would abhor the idea of presenting their findings in artistic form, for example as a painting or a short story.

At first sight, it can appear that in sciences only the case study style resembles artistic presentation. However, in historical view it turns out that several types of scientific models (like written language, icon, topological and analogous models) have originally been borrowed from various arts where they have been used earlier. The numerous resemblances - and differences - between the languages of science and art are discussed on the page about Developing Art With Scientific Methods. On the same page, there are also a few hints about how these presentation styles could be used together in the prospect of gaining richness of meaning.

The style of the treatise may not be crucial if the researcher is in a position to provide important new information. But, of course, the information will be more easily understood if the sentences and words are short and in standard language, not an internal jargon of a profession. Sometimes it is impossible to avoid special concepts which then have to be defined in the research report.

The conclusion usually deals with ideas for further research that have come up in the course of the research.

The list of literature may contain only the sources specifically cited or used in the research (= list of sources), or also other, potentially important literature can be added in it. Whichever list there is, the idea is to help the reader to find further information. For this purpose, it is customary to give the following information on books (although nowadays only the first three are absolutely necessary):

As to periodicals, the following information is necessary:

The list of literature is usually at the end of the report; alternatively, the books can be listed either at the end of chapters or at the bottom of the page. If the report is intended to be published in some particular series, the pattern for presenting the sources can be looked up in former publications of that series.

The Appendix can include any such subject matter related to the research which would be too extensive to be included in the text. Such are for example questionnaires, lists or pictures of the objects and large tables which summarize the results. Sometimes it is possible to save printing costs by placing large tables or coloured pictures in the Appendix, or into a separate volume with a smaller number of prints.

How to Make the Report

The researcher should not feel disheartened if writing the report proves to be difficult. It always is, for several reasons.

The researcher had better start the writing by outlining the questions, the results and then the logical conclusions which combine these two on a sheet of paper. Then he can select the most suitable order of presentation of these three. This is not necessarily the same order in which the sections will be written: it is often better to start at those passages that feel the easiest, like descriptions of research methods or of the new findings.

It will usually be necessary to modify a research report many times. These revisions should not be allowed to endanger the finished passages. In this task, a personal computer may be of great help.
Personal computers are such powerful machines that it would be senseless to use them only as typewriters with a memory. Modern word processing equipment has numerous tools useful for a report writer, like the following:

Make Up and Making Indexes

In the final phase of writing the report, it advisable for the writer to lay out all the pages of the report, that is, to make up the publication. The advantage is that the writer is best equipped to shorten, lengthen or change the text and he can thus make every page into an easily readable amalgam of text, pictures and figures.

It is usual to make a basis for the make-up, a template which contains the features common to all the pages of the publication: page size, margins, fonts and sizes of the headings, text, captions, the beginnings of chapters and the principles of placing the pictures. In these questions, almost every series of publication seems to wish to keep its own patterns. If there is no model available, you should start the make-up by making one. If the page size of the report is A4, the text should be divided into two or three columns, otherwise it will be hard to read. Aligning the right margin slows down the reading; justifying only the left margin is better in this respect. The fonts that are the easiest to read are the types used by newspapers such as Times; one of the worst being Courier, or typewriting.

There are special publishing programs that can serve as tools for make-up. They have handy, half automatic devices such as lay-out into columns, widow and orphan line control (widow and orphan lines are single lines at the top or the bottom of the page), and a possibility to link certain lines together in such a way that they will never fall into separate pages. Similarly, the placing of footnotes on convenient pages will take place automatically.

Word processing programs often have problems with pictures. Pictures produced in different ways can usually be attached to texts and they will be printed out with the text, if all goes well and you have a powerful computer.

The size of the pictures should be chosen in such a way that the necessary details will be visible at the same reading distance as the text itself. The line thickness of the pictures in the final printed matter should not be less than 0.1 mm.

It is easy to change the initial settings of a make up made with a computer. This is true especially for those settings which have been defined only once at the beginning of the text file, such as page size, margins and the number of columns. Similarly, if all the font definitions have been made by referring to one base font defined at the beginning of the text, only one command is necessary to enlarge all the font sizes in the report or even to change the font type of the whole publication (for example from Courier to Helvetica). It is equally easy to change anything defined in a style. A single change in the definition of the style will immediately effect all the places where it is applied.

After the make-up, but before photocopying, is the right time to compile the table of contents, the indexes of names etc. and to insert the correct numbering into the references within the text. As we noticed earlier, it is possible to have a table of contents compiled automatically. The index will also be made automatically by the word processing program, provided the writer has marked those words of the text that shall be included in the index. All these measures are actually so simple that they can be taken every time a research report is printed out as a preliminary draft.

Printing

The normal, easiest and least error-prone method of printing is to do it with the computer's dedicated printer. However, if a high quality professional printing is desired, text has to be set in a printing house. The writer usually sends the text to the composing room on a diskette after he and the setters have agreed on the word processing program. It is advisable to observe the following guidelines as to the manuscript due to be printed:

Hypertext report. In the present deluge of information, the public appreciates the possibility of reading a report selectively, starting at the cardinal points, skipping some topics and continuing into others that interest. For a report on paper, such a procedure is made possible by gradually advancing into more and more detailed information: Title > abstract > summary > contents > main text > appendixes. The student can continue on this "ladder of profundity" as deep down as the matter has interest to him or her.

Hypertext provides today essentially improved prospects for constructing "ladders of profundity" because it can create many-dimensional links not only downward towards the details like the contents page of a book, but in any direction and even to other than written material.

Hyperlinks are advantageous already in the internal framework of one single research project, but the outlook becomes infinitely wider when we consider the prospects of building external links to relevant information outside of the original project. They could help in creating a general vista for an entire field of science where it has until now been obstructed by the very abundance of research reports.

Publicity

After the report is printed, the researcher has still something to do: he should try to prevent that the report only gathers dust on a bookshelf. He should try to find out which are those people who would want to apply the new knowledge, and inform these.

If the report is published in a scientific series, it will automatically get some publicity because it will be distributed within the series to libraries of the field. The librarians will see that information about the publication and its abstract will go to the right data-bases of the scientific libraries.

Filing the Report and Material

The researcher needs not worry about how his work shall be preserved to posterity, because in every country there are central libraries which will store permanently all the printed books, and all universities and research institutions store permanently all theses and other important reports that they have published.

Beside the final report, the study project has sometimes gathered material that will not be published but can nevertheless be valuable to later researchers. This is the case e.g. in studies that include documenting objects that have the risk of possibly getting lost. Such material, such as unique products, original photographs, measurements or recordings can perhaps be preserved in a research institution or museum that operates in the pertinent field. Museums will at least give advice about how to store the valuable objects and documents. The requirements of preservation are different for each type of documents and material, but usually at least sudden changes in temperature and humidity as well as direct sunlight have to be avoided.

Once a suitable and voluntary host for the archive is found, the researcher should prepare the material as follows:

For potentially valuable material that can be copied, the aim is to transfer it on a support that will not disintegrate, using an ink or other marking substance that will not fade or erode. Usual such substances and copying methods are the following:

Medium: For short time storage (years): For long term storage (decades or more):
Text and images on paper: Ink-jet prints, felt-tip pen, water colors (liquid dyes fade). Original newspaper clippings (the paper will get brittle). Laser prints, pencil, China ink and classic writing ink on normal printing paper. Color pigments, especially carbon, keep well.
Photographs and films: Color prints and negatives (they will fade). Traditional black-and white negatives or copies where the color substance is silver particles. Do not glue or tape photographs. Put the copies or negatives in envelopes made of neutral (pH=7) paper.
Tapes and other magnetic recordings: Analogue recordings such as classic audio cassettes and VHS video. They will slowly fade and cannot be renewed wholly. Digital recording. It will fade, too, but when copied in time the content can be fully restored.
CD and DVD discs: Cyanine discs (light blue or green) are not safe in long storage. The same is true for all rewritable discs. No-name cheap discs have very variable quality. Do not cram full the disk, because the last written portion near the rim often gets damaged later. Phtalocyanine discs (silver or gold colored) or azo discs (deep blue) are best. Use raw discs from a known maker that have been fabricated recently (not over one year ago). Use only discs intended for one single recording (not rewritable ones). Use low speed recording: 4x for CD-audio, 16x for CD-data, 1x for DVD. Place felt-tip markings or labels nowhere on the disk except the central transparent area. Store in dark and dry.

As the table indicates, no material is eternal and all information gets weaker in time. When weaker than the level of ambient disturbances it cannot be read or restored in full. Sounds and full-color images with nuances, and analogue recordings of them are vulnerable in this respect because much of the signal is originally given in low level of intensity and it therefore easily disappears among noise, dirt and erosion. Text and digital recording is much better because it is done wholly with high intensity and will stay long readable even when parts of it have disappeared.

For maximum security, the remaining signal should be checked periodically for weakening and defects. As long as the analogue signal is stronger than the disturbances you can copy it on a new support with no great loss of content. Copy of a digital recording is perfectly equal to the original, when done in time. When the recording is partially faded it cannot be read by the normal file copying tools of Windows, but it can often be restored with special tools such as CD-Roller, Roadkil's Unstoppable Copier or Bad Copy Pro (www.jufsoft.com). The lowest number of errors is usually obtained when the recording is read with the same drive unit that was originally used in making the disk or tape recording.

For measuring the amount of defects that have appeared when storing CD or DVD discs (the "block error rate") there are special programs such as DVDInfoPro or CDSpeed2000. (Sources of the recommendations about CD and DVD: l'Ordinateur Individuel No 160, Avril 2004, pp. 66-69, and PC-Welt 4/2004, p. 122.)

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August 3, 2007.
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Original location: http://www2.uiah.fi/projects/metodi