Journal Type Of Research Paper

How to Write a Journal Article: Tips and Tools

April 19, 2016

By Sarah Boon, Ph.D.
If you’ve trained as a scientist, you know that part of the learning curve involves figuring out how to write a scientific paper. Unfortunately, few scientists receive explicit instruction in writing papers—researchers by definition are expected to know how to write. 



When you’re a grad student, your supervisor is there to guide you through the paper publication process, as it’s in their best interests to have you publish the outcome of your research with them. Once you become an independent scientist, however—whether that’s in academia, industry, or at an NGO—writing research papers can be a frustrating and lonely experience.

There are many online resources and excellent books designed to provide writing advice to scientists. The difficulty as an early career researcher lies in making the time to learn how to write a good paper while also teaching yourself R stats and maybe a bit of Bayesian statistical methods, coming up with new pedagogical approaches to engage your students—or figuring out how to manage a work team, applying for a shrinking pot of grant funds, starting up a getting familiar with a new job.

This post distills the process of writing a paper into the key and provides links to additional resources available. The goal is to give you a good head start on writing your next scientific while providing specific places to find more detailed advice.

Before You Start Writing

The key to writing a successful research article begins well before you even put pen to paper. 

While you’re doing background reading about your research area, it can be useful to save journal articles in a reference management system such as Mendeley, Zotero, or Endnote. This will help you keep track of all the papers related to your research, and make it a lot easier to create reference lists for future research papers. Secondly, you want to ensure that the design of your research project includes a well-defined research goal and series of objectives, as this forms the foundation of your research paper. Thirdly, a good paper requires that you maintain excellent notes of the materials you used and the methods you applied to answer your research so that readers can replicate your experiment if they so choose. Finally, many scientists suggest that you only start writing once you’ve completed all of your analysis, and have created a series of key plots and tables that best support your research goal and objectives. This will give you a strong narrative to follow in outlining your results and developing your discussion.

Once you have these aspects together, you should be ready to sit down and write.



Research Paper Structure

A typical research paper is divided into nine sections: Title, Abstract, Introduction, Materials & Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion, Acknowledgements, and References. If you do fieldwork, you may have an additional Study Site section between the Introduction and Materials & Methods sections.

Title & Abstract

Scientists read the title and abstract to decide whether or not they will delve into an entire paper—so you want to make sure to grab them right away! The key is to write these after the paper is completed. That way you can come up with a catchy title, and structure the abstract as a mini-paper, with the research question and context, the key results and the new things those results tell us, how it compares with other and a conclusion for further work. 

Introduction

This section is all about placing your work into the broader research context, and then narrowing your focus to identify specifically what you plan to do in the paper: i.e., your research goals and objectives.

Materials & Methods

You want to provide enough detail that someone else could replicate the study if need be, and outline your rationale for that approach. Lay out what you did step by step, from the beginning to end of your experiment. Include not only how and why you collected data, but also how and why you applied specific analysis techniques. It can sometimes be hard to determine how much information is too much information; a good piece of advice is to put in more than you need, as you can always pare it down later.

Results

As Ivan Valiela says in his book, Doing Science, this section tells the reader “the facts revealed by your work.” For example, a colleague is currently working on a paper that includes these subheadings in the Methods section: experimental design, logging history, environmental monitoring, and data analysis. The results section outlines observed weather and snowpack conditions (based on the environmental and describes changes in streamflow with logging quantified by applying specific data analyses to the streamflow data (part of the environmental monitoring), in relation to the specific experimental design.

Discussion

The discussion is where you pull your results together into a coherent and put that story in context by referring back to your own results and to other peoples’ research. By the end of the discussion, you should have addressed the goals and objectives you outlined in your introduction. 

Conclusion

The conclusion ties up the paper by reiterating the research question, restating the significant results and the story they tell, and identifying any areas for further research. 

Acknowledgements & References

Always be sure to recognize the contributions of others to your research, whether they’re assistants, funding agencies, or colleagues who helped you talk through different aspects of your work. As for the references—this is where the reference management system we talked about previously comes in, as it should make it relatively easy to create your reference list.

Other Tips

Don’t assume you have to write the paper in order from start to finish. You may find it easier—as many scientists do—to start with the Results section, referring to your tables and figures to explain what’s happening. Others may find it easier to start with the Methods section, writing out what they did and why. Still others may start with the Introduction, as it helps them mentally set the stage for what they need to write next.

Don’t wait for the perfect sentences to arrive in your mind before you start typing. Remember, everyone writes a crappy first draft, but it gives you something to work with on the path to writing your final paper.

I also recommend that scientists who struggle with writing—and even those who don’t—hire a professional scientific editor. While some researchers may think this is “cheating” or an admission of failure, it’s similar in scope to hiring yourself out as a consultant in a particular research field. You can hire for anything from just to improving overall paper structure, to working at the intermediate scale of improving paper wording and flow. Whatever services you need, there’s an editor out there who is trained to provide them.  


Additional resources

Over on the LSE Impact Blog, Patrick Dunleavy explains why the title of your paper is so important—and gives advice on how to come up with the best title possible.

This post by Pat Thomson (also on the LSE Impact Blog focuses) specifically on writing an introduction. She reiterates the point above that a good introduction will make people want to keep reading your paper, and shows you how to get there.

This post over at Methods Blog provides an ‘Alternative Guide to Authors’ by detailing what you should include in each paper section. I particularly like their SUCCES acronym, which provides general principles of how to get your message across to the reader. The last S stands for ‘story’—just as we’ve described above.

Over on Dynamic Ecology, Brian McGill has an excellent post that goes beyond the standard paper outline to identify the five key paragraphs in a paper: the first and last paragraphs of the introduction, the first and last paragraphs of the discussion, and the abstract. If you’re having trouble getting the sections of your paper to flow together, McGill has some good advice for you. 

If you’re having problems writing paragraphs, then this post from Writing For Research is for you. They talk about the six things that usually go wrong in writing paragraphs—such as starting with a reference to another paper, or writing paragraphs that are too short or too long. Luckily, they also provide advice on how to fix these problems. 

Doing Science, by Ivan Valiela, has an excellent chapter on Communicating Scientific Information: The Scientific Paper. He advocates for starting with the Results section when writing a paper, and provides prudent advice on dealing with all other paper sections.

Just this month, Canadian scientist (and FACETS editorial board member!) Stephen Heard released The Scientist's Guide to Writing—loads of great writing advice for both new and experienced scientists. Watch this blog for an upcoming book review!

Finally, if you’re trying to figure out how best to visualize your results, I recommend any book by Edward Tufte (e.g., The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, or Envisioning Information). He’s a master of data visualization, and can help you come up with new ways to show your data that make writing the Results section a breeze.



Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about nature and nature writing, science communication, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Editors’ Association of and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also a founding member of Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @SnowHydro

Writing research papers does not come naturally to most of us. The typical research paper is a highly codified rhetorical form [1,2]. Knowledge of the rules—some explicit, others implied—goes a long way toward writing a paper that will get accepted in a peer-reviewed journal.

Primacy of the research question

A good research paper addresses a specific research question. The research question—or study objective or main research hypothesis—is the central organizing principle of the paper. Whatever relates to the research question belongs in the paper; the rest doesn’t. This is perhaps obvious when the paper reports on a well planned research project. However, in applied domains such as quality improvement, some papers are written based on projects that were undertaken for operational reasons, and not with the primary aim of producing new knowledge. In such cases, authors should define the main research question a posteriori and design the paper around it.

Generally, only one main research question should be addressed in a paper (secondary but related questions are allowed). If a project allows you to explore several distinct research questions, write several papers. For instance, if you measured the impact of obtaining written consent on patient satisfaction at a specialized clinic using a newly developed questionnaire, you may want to write one paper on the questionnaire development and validation, and another on the impact of the intervention. The idea is not to split results into ‘least publishable units’, a practice that is rightly decried, but rather into ‘optimally publishable units’.

What is a good research question? The key attributes are: (i) specificity; (ii) originality or novelty; and (iii) general relevance to a broad scientific community. The research question should be precise and not merely identify a general area of inquiry. It can often (but not always) be expressed in terms of a possible association between X and Y in a population Z, for example ‘we examined whether providing patients about to be discharged from the hospital with written information about their medications would improve their compliance with the treatment 1 month later’. A study does not necessarily have to break completely new ground, but it should extend previous knowledge in a useful way, or alternatively refute existing knowledge. Finally, the question should be of interest to others who work in the same scientific area. The latter requirement is more challenging for those who work in applied science than for basic scientists. While it may safely be assumed that the human genome is the same worldwide, whether the results of a local quality improvement project have wider relevance requires careful consideration and argument.

Structure of the paper

Once the research question is clearly defined, writing the paper becomes considerably easier. The paper will ask the question, then answer it. The key to successful scientific writing is getting the structure of the paper right. The basic structure of a typical research paper is the sequence of Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion (sometimes abbreviated as IMRAD). Each section addresses a different objective. The authors state: (i) the problem they intend to address—in other terms, the research question—in the Introduction; (ii) what they did to answer the question in the Methods section; (iii) what they observed in the Results section; and (iv) what they think the results mean in the Discussion.

In turn, each basic section addresses several topics, and may be divided into subsections (Table 1). In the Introduction, the authors should explain the rationale and background to the study. What is the research question, and why is it important to ask it? While it is neither necessary nor desirable to provide a full-blown review of the literature as a prelude to the study, it is helpful to situate the study within some larger field of enquiry. The research question should always be spelled out, and not merely left for the reader to guess.

Table 1

Typical structure of a research paper

Introduction 
    State why the problem you address is important 
    State what is lacking in the current knowledge 
    State the objectives of your study or the research question 
Methods 
    Describe the context and setting of the study 
    Specify the study design 
    Describe the ‘population’ (patients, doctors, hospitals, etc.) 
    Describe the sampling strategy 
    Describe the intervention (if applicable) 
    Identify the main study variables 
    Describe data collection instruments and procedures 
    Outline analysis methods 
Results 
    Report on data collection and recruitment (response rates, etc.) 
    Describe participants (demographic, clinical condition, etc.) 
    Present key findings with respect to the central research question 
    Present secondary findings (secondary outcomes, subgroup analyses, etc.) 
Discussion 
    State the main findings of the study 
    Discuss the main results with reference to previous research 
    Discuss policy and practice implications of the results 
    Analyse the strengths and limitations of the study 
    Offer perspectives for future work 
Introduction 
    State why the problem you address is important 
    State what is lacking in the current knowledge 
    State the objectives of your study or the research question 
Methods 
    Describe the context and setting of the study 
    Specify the study design 
    Describe the ‘population’ (patients, doctors, hospitals, etc.) 
    Describe the sampling strategy 
    Describe the intervention (if applicable) 
    Identify the main study variables 
    Describe data collection instruments and procedures 
    Outline analysis methods 
Results 
    Report on data collection and recruitment (response rates, etc.) 
    Describe participants (demographic, clinical condition, etc.) 
    Present key findings with respect to the central research question 
    Present secondary findings (secondary outcomes, subgroup analyses, etc.) 
Discussion 
    State the main findings of the study 
    Discuss the main results with reference to previous research 
    Discuss policy and practice implications of the results 
    Analyse the strengths and limitations of the study 
    Offer perspectives for future work 

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The Methods section should provide the readers with sufficient detail about the study methods to be able to reproduce the study if so desired. Thus, this section should be specific, concrete, technical, and fairly detailed. The study setting, the sampling strategy used, instruments, data collection methods, and analysis strategies should be described. In the case of qualitative research studies, it is also useful to tell the reader which research tradition the study utilizes and to link the choice of methodological strategies with the research goals [3].

The Results section is typically fairly straightforward and factual. All results that relate to the research question should be given in detail, including simple counts and percentages. Resist the temptation to demonstrate analytic ability and the richness of the dataset by providing numerous tables of non-essential results.

The Discussion section allows the most freedom. This is why the Discussion is the most difficult to write, and is often the weakest part of a paper. Structured Discussion sections have been proposed by some journal editors [4]. While strict adherence to such rules may not be necessary, following a plan such as that proposed in Table 1 may help the novice writer stay on track.

References should be used wisely. Key assertions should be referenced, as well as the methods and instruments used. However, unless the paper is a comprehensive review of a topic, there is no need to be exhaustive. Also, references to unpublished work, to documents in the grey literature (technical reports), or to any source that the reader will have difficulty finding or understanding should be avoided.

The basics

Having the structure of the paper in place is a good start. However, there are many details that have to be attended to while writing. An obvious recommendation is to read, and follow, the instructions to authors published by the journal (typically found on the journal’s website). Another concerns non-native writers of English: do have a native speaker edit the manuscript. A paper usually goes through several drafts before it is submitted. When revising a paper, it is useful to keep an eye out for the most common mistakes (Table 2). If you avoid all those, your paper should be in good shape.

Table 2

Common mistakes seen in manuscripts submitted to this journal

The research question is not specified 
The stated aim of the paper is tautological (e.g. ‘The aim of this paper is to describe what we did’) or vague (e.g. ‘We explored issues related to X’) 
The structure of the paper is chaotic (e.g. methods are described in the Results section) 
The manuscripts does not follow the journal’s instructions for authors 
The paper much exceeds the maximum number of words allowed 
The Introduction is an extensive review of the literature 
Methods, interventions and instruments are not described in sufficient detail 
Results are reported selectively (e.g. percentages without frequencies, P-values without measures of effect) 
The same results appear both in a table and in the text 
Detailed tables are provided for results that do not relate to the main research question 
In the Introduction and Discussion, key arguments are not backed up by appropriate references 
References are out of date or cannot be accessed by most readers 
The Discussion does not provide an answer to the research question 
The Discussion overstates the implications of the results and does not acknowledge the limitations of the study 
The paper is written in poor English 
The research question is not specified 
The stated aim of the paper is tautological (e.g. ‘The aim of this paper is to describe what we did’) or vague (e.g. ‘We explored issues related to X’) 
The structure of the paper is chaotic (e.g. methods are described in the Results section) 
The manuscripts does not follow the journal’s instructions for authors 
The paper much exceeds the maximum number of words allowed 
The Introduction is an extensive review of the literature 
Methods, interventions and instruments are not described in sufficient detail 
Results are reported selectively (e.g. percentages without frequencies, P-values without measures of effect) 
The same results appear both in a table and in the text 
Detailed tables are provided for results that do not relate to the main research question 
In the Introduction and Discussion, key arguments are not backed up by appropriate references 
References are out of date or cannot be accessed by most readers 
The Discussion does not provide an answer to the research question 
The Discussion overstates the implications of the results and does not acknowledge the limitations of the study 
The paper is written in poor English 

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References

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How to Write and Publish Papers in the Medical Sciences

 , 2nd edition. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins,

1990

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Publishing and Presenting Clinical Research

 . Baltimore, MD: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins,

1999

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, Frankel RM. Getting qualitative research published.

Educ Health

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, Smith R. The case for structuring the discussion of scientific papers.

Br Med J

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International Journal for Quality in Health Care vol. 16 no. 3 © International Society for Quality in Health Care and Oxford University Press 2004; all rights reserved

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