What is a Technical Report?
The Technical Report (TR) is a common written form through which technical writers communicate their findings. Each TR should have a focused topic that is developed logically along some clearly identified perspective. The major components of a TR are title, author information, date, keywords, informative abstract, body, acknowledgments, references, and appendices. Typically, the body is organized into four sections: motivation, methods, results, and discussion. This unit offers advice and specifications for writing TRs.
Communicating results is a crucial aspect of doing research. Through such communication other people can learn about and benefit from the findings. Often such communication includes a written document known as a Technical Report (TR). The successful researcher must master this important written form.
A TR should explain what you did, why you did it, what you discovered, and what is significant of your findings. The report should identify clearly what is novel about your work, and how it relates to prior knowledge. There should be a focused topic, and an attitude about this topic. The topic should be developed according to the attitude in a thorough, logical, and orderly fashion. Throughout, the author should be helpful to the reader.
The report should include the following components: descriptive title, author name and affiliation, date, informative abstract, list of keywords, body, acknowledgments, and list of references. Additional separate appendices, where appropriate, may also be included. The standard four-part outline for the body of a technical report is motivation, methods, results, and discussion.
There is no minimum or maximum length requirement--the length should be appropriate for what you have to say. Many TRs are about 10-20 pages long, but it is not uncommon for TRs to be significantly longer. Regardless of length, it is usually an effective strategy to explain in successive ``layers.'' For example, lengthy TRs often begin with a relatively short overview section for readers who wish an executive summary. Quality and conciseness, not quantity, will be rewarded.
Every TR should have a thesis statement--a topic together with an attitude about the topic. The attitude helps focus the subject and provide a framework along which the topic subject can be explored. For example, the topic might be partitioning algorithms for the geometric Steiner tree problem, and the attitude might be that Steele's theory of Euclidean functionals provides a powerful tool for analyzing the performance of such approximation algorithms. The introduction of each TR should clearly identify its thesis and an organizational plan for developing the thesis.
Many researchers find it useful to think in terms of questions and answers. It is a good idea to carry out and communicate your research by raising and answering focused questions. For example, you might ask ``What are the performance limits of polynomial-time approximation algorithms?'' or ``What does the theory of probabilistic proof checking say about such performance limits?''
A technical report should include each of the following items:
A logical, accurate, descriptive, and grammatically correct title. Please note: the title ``CMSC 441 Course Project'' is not descriptive.
Titles should be as short as possible, while still satisfying the foregoing criteria. Avoid cute titles that violate these criteria. I often like two-part titles because they provide short and long forms (e.g. ``Statistical Techniques for Cryptanalysis: An Experimental Study using Real and Simulated English''). I try to avoid titles that exceed 17 words.
Author name and affiliation, and date. For example, your affiliation might be ``Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, University of Maryland Baltimore County.'' You might also like to include the city and state of your affiliation, your email address, and a URL to your home page. UMBC students: Please note that there is no punctuation in your University name.
An informative abstract of approximately 200 words. Make sure that your abstract is informative---your abstract should serve as a substitute for your paper. Briefly summarize your main findings. Concretely summarize; do not introduce. Immediately get to the point in the first sentence. Do not cite any references in the abstract, and do not begin the abstract with the weak, hackneyed, and boring phrase ``This paper ...''. The abstract should be informative yet understandable to most researchers in your general field. I like the abstract to fit on one title page, including the title, author name and affiliation, date, and list of keywords.
A list of appropriate keywords. These keywords should identify the field of your report and its major topics. Choose keywords to be helpful to researchers in locating your work in document-retrieval systems. What words and phrases should someone use to find your report? Be specific, and use only standard phrases. Browse some computer science journal (e.g. Journal of Algorithms) to get a feel for what is an appropriate keyword and what is not. Computing Reviews publishes an annual classification system including keywords which many journals follow.
Many journals use three levels of keywords: general terms (e.g. cryptology), subject descriptors (e.g. differential cryptanalysis) recognizable to most researchers, and implicit terms--specific words or phrases that act as proper names (e.g. RSA Cryptosystem) which might not be recognizable to all readers.
Body of technical report. Write a clear, informative, and thoughtful description and critique of what you did. Where appropriate, include carefully drawn graphs and diagrams. Be sure to motivate, present, and interpret your findings.
Focus on the scientific content of the project--your questions and answers. Identify and explain interesting and important phenomena. Emphasize what is new about your project. In addition, briefly comment on the engineering aspects of your work: what problems did you face, what decisions did you make, and what are the consequences of these decisions? Although it is crucial to explain your experimental procedures, be concise and do not bore your reader with lengthy descriptions of routine implementation concerns.
Pay attention to important transitional sentences, especially the first and last sentences of the report. There are three standard ways to begin the introduction: startling statement, dramatic incident, and quotation. I like to end each report with a powerful sentence that concisely summarizes the significance of the entire project.
Acknowledgments. Acknowledge any help you received, including any use of computer equipment. Be specific.
Complete and accurate list of references cited in the technical report. There are three reasons for citing works: to give credit where credit is due, to be helpful to the reader to identify useful related work, and to identify he context and background of your work. Adopt a bibliographic style used by some major refereed computer science journal (e.g. use the style for the \it Journal of the ACM\/).
I like to list and number references by alphabetical order of author name. When citing references in the body of the report, always explain why the reference is being cited. For example, do not cite previous work without critically explaining how it relates to your work. I like to mention the author name in the textual citation, followed by the corresponding reference number (e.g. ``In 1976, Diffie and Helman  proposed the concept of public-key cryptography.'').
Appendices for supplemental information and for information that is too detailed or voluminous to fit into body the of the technical report. For example, if your project involves any computer programming, you should include a nicely documented and formatted listing of all source code you wrote.
Although you are free to organize your report in any way you see fit, I highly recommend that you organize the body of your report along the following standard outline for scientific papers:
In thinking about organization, I find it helpful to separate logical organization from explicit numbered sectioning. For logical organization, I think in terms of hierarchies. Part of the organizational task is to embed the logical organization into numbered sections. For example, the logical introduction might include one or more numbered sections, depending on what needs to be said. A short report might begin with one section:
Introduction. A longer report might begin with a more elaborate logical introduction consisting of four numbered sections: 1. Introduction 2. Overview 3. Background 4. Previous work.
As the report evolves you may wish to modify the organization.
In describing the purpose of your project, restrict yourself to scientific and engineering reasons; do not discuss reasons that are related only to school. Do not repeat sentences from the abstract verbatim.
In the conclusion, you should explain what it all means to you. If you discuss philosophy, do so in the discussion section.