Essential Guidelines for Structuring a Research Paper
Lecturer: Kevin J. Heintz, M.A. English
This lecture was presented at ChungAng University in Seoul, South Korea in November 2018. Wordvice/Essay Review Managing Editor Kevin J. Heintz explains how to organize and compose a research manuscript that will get your study published in top journals.
Even researchers whose first language is English must learn some specific rules and follow some standard conventions when writing research papers. This takes a completely different skillset than essay writing or sending emails to your professors and friends, and therefore it is a good idea for every researcher to keep learning how to improve research writing.
Research is about more than just the scientific principles and discoveries you are making—it is about sharing these discoveries with fellow researchers and with the public. And to do this, researchers must publish their work in journals. Strong writing is key to making your research more accessible and powerful, and therefore this presentation is not about the rigors of research, but the demands of research writing. The methods and information in this lecture can be applied to almost any kind of research paper, although of course the exact structure and content will be somewhat determined by where you are submitting your research.
- Overview of Research Paper Writing
- The Structure of a Research Paper
- Composing Your Paper Sections
- Tips for Improving Quality of Writing
*Quizzes are given throughout the lecture to test your comprehension and understanding.
Research Paper Structure Overview
“What should a research paper do?”
- Share the knowledge you have gained about a specific area of study with other researchers
- Show how your study fits into current science.
- Inform the public about important scientific activity.
- Explain clearly and succinctly the context of your study, including relevant literature (Introduction), the methods used for research and analysis (Methods), the findings of your study (Results), and the implications for these results and further research that might be needed (Discussion and Conclusion).
“What are the most important factors to consider when writing a research paper?”
The research you conduct should of course be novel, timely, rigorous, and hopefully interesting. But you must also transmit your scientific research into writing—a well-written paper will greatly improve your chances of getting accepted into journals. Here is an overview of the factors that help create quality writing in a research paper:
- All of the parts of your paper should fit together in an order that makes sense.
- Include all necessary information in each section needed to understand the other sections.
- Do not repeat information unless it is necessary.
- Ensure that your sentences are grammatically and logically coherent.
- Most scientific papers follow the IMRD structure—be sure to put the right parts in the right section (e.g., don’t include the literature review in the Methods section).
- As you do research you will notice that there are a great many pieces of information and data you COULD include in your paper. However, you need to conform to length guidelines and keep your paper focused. Therefore, you should be sure that you are choosing a proper number of items to focus on for each section.
- For example, if your study has 10 results but your paper can only be 4,000 words, you might want to narrow down these results to only those that support your hypothesis, perhaps the 3-5 most important results.
- The same applies to the Introduction, where you must choose what background, context, and relevant literature to include. Be sure to only include information that gives readers a focused and relevant understanding of your area of study.
- Clarity is related to coherence, organization, and relevance. It means ensuring that each paragraph and sentence in your paper is natural and easy to read and understand: proper grammar, phrasing, and style are key to writing a paper that is readable and comprehensible to both experts and possibly non-experts, depending on your target audience.
- Perhaps the most important rule is to conform to the formatting guidelines and other style conventions of the journal to which you are submitting. Check the “GUIDE FOR AUTHORS” section of the journal or conference, or if the paper is for a class, ensure that you are using the proper formatting requirements. Here is one handy site: OWL—Online Writing Lab at Purdue University
Research Paper Structure
The general structure of scientific research papers is IMR&D (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion). The information moves from broad to specific to broad again as seen in this diagram, the Introduction and Discussion taking up the most room in your paper and the Methods and Results usually being the shortest ad most focused sections. However, the order in which you write your paper will not be the same as the final order of the information. Let’s first look briefly at what each section does and then discuss how to organize and compose your work.
What does it do?
*Discusses the problem to be solved (purpose statement)
*Describes where your research fits into the current science (background and context)
*Uses primary literature with citations and summarizes the current understanding of the problem (“literature review”)
When do you write it?
*Write it last—after the conclusion and before the title and abstract
What does it do?
*Tells how you did the study—what materials and methods of research and analysis were used.
When do you write it?
*First section you write—after preparing your figures and tables
What does it do?
*Explains the important findings of your study that help to answer your research question or hypothesis and address your purpose statement.
When do you write it?
*After the Methods and before the Discussion/Conclusion
What does it do?
*Explains what your findings mean and what the implications and importance are both to your specific area of research and in a broader context (i.e., to the wider field or to society ).
*Includes limitations to your study and discusses possible future research that is needed to answer your research question more clearly and address closely related questions.
When do you write it?
*After the Results Section and before the Introduction
Composing Your Research Paper Sections
This portion of the lecture focuses on developing techniques for composing your paper. You should always go back through your paper after one section is finished and correct or change another part, but by composing in this order you will be sure to include all of the important information. Not that the Methods and Results sections are written first. The reason for this is because you will not be changing or adding to these sections after you have evaluated your research—they represent the core data of your study.
Step 1: Prepare the figures and tables
Most likely, your research paper will use some figures, tables, or other graphics—they are also core data because they are usually numbers representing your findings and methods used. We won’t go into the details of how to prepare these here, but in the Results section, we will go over how to write captions for the figures based on the data and research questions. For a detailed explanation of preparing and formatting figures, check out these sites (every journal will have their own formatting guidelines):
- Springer Online Research Resources
- ACSESS Digital Library (ASA, CSSA, and SSSA publications for reference)
Step 2: Write the Methods section
This section responds to the question “How was the problem studied and analyzed?”
The Methods section should:
- Describe how an experiment was done
- Give a rationale for why specific experimental procedures were chosen
- Describe what was done to answer the research question and how it was done.
- Explain how the results were analyzed
Organization of Methods
Write the Methods section in this order to ensure proper organization and make it easier for readers to understand how your study was carried out:
- Description of materials used, including site and sample
- Explanation of how materials were prepared
- Explanation of how measurements were made and calculations performed
- Explanation of statistical methods to analyze data
Tips for the Methods Section
- Organize description of preparations, measurements, and protocol chronologically
- List the Methods in the same order as they will appear in the Results section
- Material should be organized by topic from most to least important
- Headings can be used to separated different results; paragraphs are often used instead
Step 3: Write the Results
This section responds to the question “What did you find?” Only the direct results of your research should be presented here, not any results from other studies. This is essentially an analysis of the data explained in sentence form so that it is easier to read and put into context.
The Results section should include:
- Findings presented in the same order as in the Methods section
- Data presented in tables, charts, graphs, and other figures (placed among research text or on a separate page)
- Reports on data collection, recruitment, and/or participants
- Data that corresponds to the central research question(s)
- Secondary findings (secondary outcomes, subgroup analyses, etc.)
Organization of Results
Write the Results in the same order as you wrote your Methods. One trusted method of writing the results is addressing specific research questions presented in the figures. Within each research question, present the type of data that addresses that research question.
Sample research question asked in a survey:
“What do hospital patients over age 55 think about postoperative care?”
Present this answer as a statement based on the data:
“Hospital patients over the age of 55 were 30% more likely to report negative experiences after postoperative care (M=83; see Fig. 1).”
Elaborate on this finding with secondary information included in the same paragraph:
“The most common negative issues reported were inattention by nurses, lack of proper medicine and a prolonged waiting period for personal issues ((P>12), (W>13), and (D>10); see Fig. 3).”
Caption your figures with the same method, using the data and research question to create phrases that give context to the data:
“Figure 1: Attitudes towards postoperative care in patients over the age of 55.”
Grammar Guidelines for Results
- When referencing figures, use the present tense; when discussing events of the experiment/study, use past tense
- Passive or active voice are generally acceptable—but consistency is most important. (Read articles from target journal).
- Cite the figure or table every time you reference it, just as you would another text.
Dos and Don’ts for Results
- Limit your results to only those that address your research questions; return to the Results section later after you have completed the Introduction and remove less relevant information.
- Indicate the statistical tests used with all relevant parameters. E.g., mean and standard deviation (SD): 44% (±3); median and interpercentile range: 7 years (4.5 to 9.5 years).
- Use mean and standard deviation to report normally distributed data.
- Use median and interpercentile range to report skewed data.
- For numbers, use two significant digits unless more precision is necessary (2.08, not 2.07856444).
- Never use percentages for very small samples. E.g., “one out of two” should not be replaced by 50%.
Step 4: Write the Discussion/Conclusion
This section responds to the question “What do the results mean?” This section is easy to write, but difficult to write well. It requires more than a simply analysis—you have to interpret and “sell” your data to the journal and researchers, explaining just how important your findings are. In fact, many manuscripts are rejected because the Discussion section is weak.
The Discussion and Conclusion are often considered to be part of the same section, but the Conclusion is sometimes considered a separate section. At any rate, the Conclusion will be a very short and clear justification of your work or suggestion for future studies.
In the Discussion Section you should:
- Critique your study—be honest about the effectiveness of your design; suggest modifications and improvement.
- Answer this question: “Did your study contribute to knowledge in the field or not?”
- Discuss the impact of this research on related research within the domain
Pre-writing Questions to Answer for the Discussion:
- How do these results relate to the original question or objectives outlined in the Introduction section?
- Do the data support your hypothesis?
- Are your results consistent with what other investigators have reported?
- Discuss weaknesses and discrepancies. If your results were unexpected, try to explain why
- Is there another way to interpret your results?
- What further research would be necessary to answer the questions raised by your results?
Organization of the Discussion Section
The Discussion section is more open than the Results and Methods section, but you should always focus first on what is MOST important and then move to what is less important to your research problem. Divide the analysis of results by paragraph and do not combine unrelated datasets in one paragraph
- The first paragraph/part should summarize the process, the results, and the overall purpose of this study.
- The second paragraph/part should answer questions about the limitations and potential flaws or shortcomings of this study (e.g., the “failure to reveal clear relationships between samples or groups”). Assesses which of the results are most useful in answering the research question.
- The third paragraph should focus on the successes of the study and highlight which method or approach yielded the best results or those most closely hypothesized. You can also compare the results of different methods and assess which was more fruitful and why.
- In subsequent paragraphs, discuss the implications of this research and compare it to the results of other studies. This is the other section (in addition to the Introduction) where you can cite related studies to show how your study compares.
The Conclusion paragraph offers you a chance to briefly show how your work advances the field from the present state of knowledge. It adds a sort of exclamation point at the end of your paper and makes it more memorable as well.
Add a justification for your work here as well as indicate extensions and wider implications, as well as suggest future studies/experiments and point out any work that is currently ongoing. Do not simply repeat the Introduction or abstract here—extend the claims or questions raised in these sections.
Dos and Don’ts for Discussion/Conclusion
- Don’t be TOO broad about the impact of this research—set some limitations.
- Don’t include new terms or ideas in this section—they should be presented in the Introduction.
- Use specific expressions: instead of “higher temperature” write “41ºC”; instead of “at a lower rate” write “0.7% less”; instead of “highly significant” write “p<0.001.”
Step 5: Write the Introduction
The Introduction section might be the most important section of the body of your paper—it comes first and introduces what you will be doing, telling readers why your work is important.
A good introduction should:
- Establish the context of the work
- State the purpose of the work in the form of a hypothesis, question, or problem investigated
- Give aims and rationale for your approach
Pre-writing questions to answer for the Introduction
- What is the problem to be solved? (background and problem)
- What do we know about this problem? (literature)
- Are there any existing solutions? (literature)
- What are the limitations or gaps in knowledge of existing solutions?
- What do you hope to achieve with this study? (hypothesis/statement of purpose)
Organization of the Introduction
- Background information
- Key primary literature
- Hypothesis/research problem investigated
- Approaches and rationale
Improving Quality of Writing
In order to write an effective research paper, authors need to know what areas of their writing to improve, and this includes avoiding grammar and style errors. Among the top writing errors we see at Wordvice are the following:
Receiving Language Editing Before Submission
After you are finished writing your Results section and have polished the rest of your research paper, be sure to submit your manuscript to an English proofreading service and paper editing service before delivering it to journal editors for publication. And learn more about the editing process to determine which kind of revision your paper needs.
- How to Write a Research Paper Introduction
- Writing the Results Section of a Research Paper
- Which Verb Tenses to Use in a Research Paper
- How to Write an Abstract for a Research Paper
- How to Write a Research Paper Title
- Useful Phrases for Academic Writing
- Common Transition Terms in Academic Papers
- Active and Passive Voice in Research Papers
- 100+ Verbs That Will Make Your Research Writing Amazing
- Tips for Paraphrasing in Research Papers
- Springer Online Research Resources (Springer)
- ACSESS Digital Library (ASA, CSSA, and SSSA publications for reference) (ACSESS Digital Library)
Lecture Research Paper Reference
Yoon S-R, Kim SH, Lee H-W, Ha J-H (2017) A novel method to rapidly distinguish the geographical origin of traditional fermented-salted vegetables by mass fingerprinting. PLoS ONE 12(11): e0188217.