How to Structure a Research Article for Publication
Research articles, especially in the STEM fields, have a rigid structure that almost all journals will expect to be followed. This makes sense, as it forces publications to be uniform, easier to follow, and allows for the reading of particular sections. Someone interested in the statistical methods used, doesn’t need to skim through the whole article to find them. They will be included in the methods; thus only the methods would need to be read.
While the structure of research articles has several advantages, it can unfortunately be overly confusing, both for new and seasoned scholars alike. It can be hard to know what to include in each section. Too often you can find yourself wondering “Does this go in the results or in the discussion?” Below is a summary of each section of a structured research article.
What is the problem?
Here you want to establish the problem that you are investigating. Put the problem in context by discussing the relevant literature and the current understanding of the problem. For relevant literature you want to focus on original research articles, making sure to cite the primary source. Begin the introduction with a broad discussion of the problem, then narrow down your focus. Think of the introduction like an inverted pyramid. At the ‘point’ of the pyramid, the ‘point’ of your article should be stated; your purpose. This can be as simple as saying “In this study we investigated…” or “The purpose of this study was to investigate…”
Materials and Methods
What did we do?
This is often the easiest section to complete and can be written first. Explain what you did with enough detail that someone could replicate your study. Include as much quantitative detail as needed (weights, concentrations, time intervals, temperature, wavelengths, Describe:
- The location of the study (if relevant). This could be the city, state or province, and country, field study location, the health centre (hospital, clinic), or university.
- The organisms studied (if any). This includes any animals, humans, plants, or microorganisms.
- The experimental setup. The reagents used, the equipment used, the treatment of control groups and study groups, the number of samples, and the number of replicates.
- The study design. For example, was this a case study, cohort study, cross-sectional analysis, survey, randomized control trial, etc. ?
- How data were collected. This could be interviews, surveys, pieces of equipment, etc.
- How data were analyzed. Describe how the raw data was transformed into a usable form, how the data was summarized (mean, standard error, standard deviation), and what statistical tests were done (t-test, logistic regression, repeated measures ANOVA, Chi-square, etc.). Include the level you determined significance (if applicable) – for example “P < 0.05 was taken to be significant.”
What did we find?
This is often the next easiest section to complete after the Materials and Methods. Here you are describing what you found. Be sure to present your findings in a logical order. If your Methods section describes a sequence of experimental procedures, it makes logical sense to present your results in the same order. Also, this is the section to include your Figures and Tables. The main text will refer to the Figures and Tables, but do not present values in the text that are already described in the Figures and Tables. This is redundant and annoys reviewers! Instead highlight key results or trends. Along these lines, also do not include the same values in Figures and Tables. Decide on one or the other.
How do the findings relate to the problem?
Here you want to connect your results with the problem outlined in the Introduction. Again, present your Discussion in a logical order. Try to answer this question: what do we know now that we didn’t before your study? Also it is a good idea to put your findings in context with the current literature. How do your results compare to other similar studies? Do they agree or disagree? Provide an explanation if your results disagree.
You are not restating your results in the Discussion. You need to talk about the interpretations of the results. For example, “The decreased growth of S. aureus on HEMA embedded with colloidal gold suggests that…” You are also not presenting new data in the Discussion, all data from your study belongs in the Results section. Include a paragraph at the end (or make a Conclusions section) summarizing your key findings and interpretations. For example “In summary, this study has shown that…”
Other Sections to Complete Before Submission
Briefly, what did we do?
Summarize the important points of your study. This can be done in one paragraph, however some journals require a rigid structure for the abstract, same as for the text (Purpose, Methods, Results, Conclusions). There will be a word limit imposed by the journal, so make sure you express only the major points for each section.
What to call the paper, what to call the authors?
A title page contains the Title of the paper, the authors, author’s affiliations, and the corresponding author details. A good title should be short and descriptive of the study. Watson and Crick, famous for discovering the structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA), entitled their groundbreaking paper “A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid.” Short and descriptive.
Who assisted us?
Here you want to thank those who contributed to the work. This could be sources of funding or colleagues offering a critical review of the paper before submission for peer review, supplies, or equipment. They all deserve to be acknowledged.
Who’s work did we cite?
The reference section lists all the work you cited in the paper. All journals have formats for the in text citations and the reference list. These different citation styles could be APA, Vancouver, Harvard, or one of many other styles. If you are using reference manager software (and you should), it is best to download your target journals citation style if they have one available for download. Most will. That will save you the trouble of having to format each reference manually.
What “non-essential” information should we include?
The answer to the question above is none for the vast majority of research papers. There are some fields where Appendices or Supporting Information are a useful addition, such as bioinformatics. This section can include more information about the data transformations, statistical analysis, mathematical formulas used, or raw data.