The Process of Science

Lesson Content

Inquire: Scientific Process


Two types of logical reasoning are used in science. Inductive reasoning uses particular results to produce general scientific principles. Deductive reasoning predicts results by applying general principles. The common thread throughout scientific research is the use of the scientific method, a step-based process that consists of making observations, defining a problem, posing hypotheses, testing these hypotheses, and drawing one or more conclusions. The testing must use proper controls.
Eventually, scientists present their results in peer-reviewed scientific papers published in scientific journals. A scientific research paper consists of several well-defined sections: an introduction, materials and methods, results, and finally, a concluding discussion. Review papers summarize the research done in a particular field over a period of time.


Big Question

What is the scientific method?

Read: The Process of Science


DecorativeOne thing is common to all forms of science: an ultimate goal “to know.” Curiosity and inquiry are the driving forces for the development of science. Scientists seek to understand the world and the way it operates. To do this, they use two methods of logical thinking: inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning.

Biologists study the living world by posing questions about it and seeking science-based responses. This approach is common to other sciences and is often referred to as the scientific method. The scientific method was used even in ancient times, but was first documented by England’s Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) who set up inductive methods for scientific inquiry. The scientific method is not exclusively used by biologists, but can be applied to almost all fields of study as a logical, rational problem-solving method.

Scientific Reasoning

Inductive reasoning is a form of logical thinking which uses related observations to arrive at a general conclusion. A life scientist, such as a biologist, makes observations and records them. These data can be qualitative or quantitative, and the raw data can be supplemented with drawings, pictures, photos, or videos. From many observations, the scientist can infer conclusions, or inductions, based on evidence. Inductive reasoning involves formulating generalizations that are inferred from careful observation and analysis of a large amount of data.

DecorativeDeductive reasoning, or deduction, is the type of logic used in hypothesis-based sciences. In deductive reasoning, the pattern of thinking moves in the opposite direction than in inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning is a form of logical thinking that uses a general principle or law to forecast specific results. From those general principles, a scientist can extrapolate and predict the specific results that would be valid as long as the general principles are valid. Climate change studies can illustrate this type of reasoning. For example, scientists may predict that if the climate becomes warmer in a particular region, then the distribution of plants and animals should change. These predictions have been made and tested, and many such changes have been found, such as the modification of arable areas for agriculture, with change based on temperature averages.

The Scientific Method

The scientific process typically starts with an observation (often a problem to be solved) that leads to a question. Let’s think about a simple problem that starts with an observation and apply the scientific method to solve the problem. One Monday morning, a student arrives at class and quickly discovers that the classroom is too warm. This is an observation that also describes a problem: the classroom is too warm. The student then asks a question: “why is the classroom so warm?”

Proposing a Hypothesis

A hypothesis is a suggested explanation that can be tested. To solve a problem, several hypotheses may be proposed. For example, one hypothesis might be, “the classroom is warm because no one turned on the air conditioning.” But, there could be other responses to the question, and therefore other hypotheses may be proposed. A second hypothesis might be, “the classroom is warm because there is a power failure, so the air conditioning doesn’t work.”

Once a hypothesis has been selected, the student can make a prediction. A prediction is similar to a hypothesis, but it typically has the format, “if… then…” For example, the prediction for the first hypothesis might be, “if the student turns on the air conditioning, then the classroom will no longer be too warm.”

Testing a Hypothesis

A valid hypothesis must be testable. It should also be falsifiable, meaning that it can be disproven by experimental results. Importantly, science does not claim to “prove” anything because scientific understandings are always subject to modification with further information. This step — openness to disproving ideas — is what distinguishes sciences from non-sciences. The presence of the supernatural, for instance, is neither testable nor falsifiable.

To test a hypothesis, a researcher will conduct one or more experiments designed to eliminate one or more of the hypotheses. Each experiment will have one or more variables and one or more controls. A variable is any part of the experiment that can vary or change during the experiment. The control group contains every feature of the experimental group, except it is not given the manipulation that is hypothesized about. Therefore, if the results of the experimental group differ from the control group, the difference must be due to the hypothesized manipulation, rather than some outside factor.

Look for the variables and controls in the examples that follow. To test the first hypothesis, the student would find out if the air conditioning is on. If the air conditioning is turned on but does not work, there should be another reason, and this hypothesis should be rejected. To test the second hypothesis, the student could check if the lights in the classroom are functional. If so, there is no power failure and this hypothesis should be rejected. Each hypothesis should be tested by carrying out appropriate experiments. Be aware that rejecting one hypothesis does not determine whether the other hypotheses can be accepted; it simply eliminates one hypothesis that is not valid. Using the scientific method, the hypotheses that are inconsistent with experimental data are rejected.

DecorativeWhile this “warm classroom” example is based on observational results, other hypotheses and experiments might have clearer controls. For instance, a student might attend class on Monday and realize she has difficulty concentrating on the lecture. One observation to explain this occurrence might be, “when I eat breakfast before class, I am better at paying attention.” The student could then design an experiment with a control to test this hypothesis.

The scientific method may seem too rigid and structured. It is important to keep in mind that, although scientists often follow this sequence, there is flexibility. Sometimes an experiment leads to conclusions that favor a change in approach; often, an experiment brings entirely new scientific questions to the puzzle. Many times, science does not operate in a linear fashion; instead, scientists continually draw inferences and make generalizations, finding patterns as their research proceeds. Scientific reasoning is more complex than the scientific method alone suggests. Notice, too, that the scientific method can be applied to solving problems that aren’t necessarily scientific in nature.

Reflect: Using the Scientific Method


Could you use your knowledge of the scientific method to solve everyday problems, such as a car not starting?

Expand: Reporting Scientific Work

Scientific Collaboration

DecorativeWhether specific scientific research is basic science or applied science, scientists must share their findings in order for other researchers to expand and build upon their discoveries. Collaboration with other scientists — when planning, conducting, and analyzing results — is important for scientific research. For this reason, communicating with peers and disseminating results to others in the field are important aspects of a scientist’s work. Scientists can share results by presenting them at a scientific meeting or conference, but this approach only can reach the select few who are present. Instead, most scientists present their results in peer-reviewed manuscripts that are published in scientific journals. Peer-reviewed manuscripts are scientific papers that are reviewed by a scientist’s colleagues or peers. These colleagues are qualified individuals, often experts in the same research area, who judge whether the scientist’s work is suitable for publication. The process of peer review helps to ensure that the research described in a scientific paper or grant proposal is original, significant, logical, and thorough. Grant proposals, which are requests for research funding, are also subject to peer review. Scientists publish their work so other scientists can reproduce their experiments under similar or different conditions to expand on the findings. The experimental results must be consistent with other scientists’ findings.

Breaking Down a Scientific Paper

A scientific paper is written very differently than creative writing. Although creativity is required to design experiments, there are fixed guidelines when it comes to presenting scientific results. First, scientific writing must be brief, concise, and accurate. A scientific paper needs to be succinct, but detailed enough to allow peers to reproduce the experiments.

The scientific paper consists of several specific sections: an introduction, materials and methods, results, and a discussion. This structure is sometimes called the IMRaD format. There are usually acknowledgment and reference sections, as well as an abstract (a concise summary) at the beginning of the paper. There might be additional sections depending on the type of paper and on the journal where it will be published; for example, some review papers require an outline.

The introduction starts with brief, but broad, background information about what is known in the field. A good introduction also gives the work’s rationale; it justifies the work carried out and also briefly mentions the end of the paper, where the hypothesis or research question driving the research will be presented. The introduction refers to the published scientific work of others and, therefore, requires citations following the style of the journal. Using the work or ideas of others without proper citation is considered plagiarism.

DecorativeThe materials and methods section includes a complete and accurate description of the substances used and the method and techniques that researchers used to gather data. The description should be thorough enough to allow another researcher to repeat the experiment and obtain similar results, but it does not have to be verbose. This section will also include information on how measurements were made and what types of calculations and statistical analyses were used to examine raw data. Although the materials and methods section gives an accurate description of the experiments, it does not discuss them.

Some journals require a results section followed by a discussion section, but it is more common that they are combined. If the journal does not allow the sections to be combined, the results section simply narrates the findings without any further interpretation. The results are presented by means of tables or graphs, but no duplicate information should be presented. In the discussion section, the researcher will interpret the results, describe how variables may be related, and attempt to explain the observations. It is indispensable to conduct an extensive literature search to put the results in the context of previously published scientific research. Therefore, proper citations are included in this section as well.

Finally, the conclusion section summarizes the importance of the experimental finding(s). While the scientific paper itself almost certainly answered one or more scientific questions, any good research should lead to more questions. Therefore, a well-done scientific paper leaves doors open for the researcher and others to continue and expand on the findings.

Review articles do not follow the IMRaD format because they do not present original scientific findings, or primary literature; instead, they summarize and comment on findings that were published as primary literature and typically include extensive reference sections.

Check Your Knowledge

Use the quiz below to check your understanding of this lesson’s content. You can take this quiz as many times as you like.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

Identify the Independent and Dependent Variables with the MythBusters!

A video explaining independent and dependent variables


A link to scholarly, peer reviewed journals

Sir Francis Bacon

A short biography of Sir Francis Bacon, credited with being the first to define the scientific method

3 World-Changing Biology Experiments

A video covering three important biological experiments by Louis Pasteur, Alfred Hershey, and Harold Urey

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • abstract
    opening section of a scientific paper that summarizes the research and conclusions
  • control group
    group in an experiment that does not receive the manipulation created by the researcher
  • deductive reasoning
    form of logical thinking that uses a general inclusive statement to forecast specific results
  • experiment
    a procedure carried out under controlled conditions in order to discover an unknown effect, and to test or establish a hypothesis
  • experimental design
    a method of research in which a controlled experimental factor is subjected to special treatment for purposes of comparison, with a factor kept constant
  • falsifiable
    able to be disproven by experimental results
  • grant proposals
    requests for research funding
  • hypothesis
    a proposed explanation for a phenomena that is then tested in a scientific experiment
  • IMRaD format
    a structure of scientific papers that consists of specific sections: an introduction, materials and methods, results, and a discussion
  • inductive reasoning
    form of logical thinking that uses related observations to arrive at a general conclusion
  • peer-reviewed manuscript
    scientific paper that is reviewed by a scientist’s colleagues who are experts in the field of study
  • review articles
    papers that summarize and comment on findings that were published as primary literature
  • scientific method
    method of research with defined steps that include observation, formulation of a hypothesis, testing, and confirming or falsifying the hypothesis
  • variable
    an experimental factor that the experimenter can vary or change

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jill Carson for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: Biology – The Scientific Method; Reporting Scienctific Work; Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

Decorativeaccounting administration booksPixabayPexelsCC 0
Decorativeadult american boardrawpixel.comPexelsCC 0
DecorativeFigure 5 scientific methodOpenStaxOpenStaxCC BY 4.0
DecorativeFigure 6. Two types of ReasoningOpenStaxOpenstaxCC BY 4.0
DecorativeFigure 4. Sir Francis BaconOpenstaxOpenstaxCC BY 4.0