• How to Write a Research Paper – A to Z of Academic Writing

    Part of a scientist’s job is to publish research. In fact, some would argue that your experiment is only complete once you have published the results. This makes it available to the scientific community for authentication and the advancement of science. In addition, publishing is essential for a researcher’s career as it validates the research and opens doors for funding and employment. In this section, we give you a step-by-step guide to help you write an effective research paper. So, remember to set aside half an hour each day to write. This habit will make your writing manageable and keep you focused.

    There are different types of research papers. The most common ones include:

    Original research paper

    This is a full report written by researchers covering the analysis of their experimental study from start to finish. It is the most common type research manuscript that is published in academic journals. Original articles are expected to follow the IMRAD format.

    Rapid communication or letter

    These are usually written to publish results urgently in rapidly changing or highly competitive fields. They will be brief and may not be separated by headings.It consists of original preliminary results that are likely to have a significant impact in the respective field.

    Review article

    This is a comprehensive summary of a certain topic. It is usually requested by a journal editor and written by a leader in the field. It includes current assessment, latest findings, and future directions of the field. It is a massive undertaking in which approximately 100 research articles are cited. Uninvited reviews are published too, but it is best to send a pre-submission enquiry letter to the journal editor first.

    Case study

    This is mostly used in the medical field to report interesting occurrences such as previously unknown or emerging pathologies. It could be a report of a single case or multiple cases and will include a short introduction, methods, results, and discussion.

    Meeting abstract, paper, and proceedings

    This is a brief report of research presented at an organized meeting such as a conference. These range from an abstract to a full report of the research. It needs to be focused and clear in explaining your topic and the main points of the study that will be shared with the audience.

    Sections in a Research Paper

     

    Your research paper should tell a story of how you began your research, what you found, and how it advances your research field. It is important to structure your paper so that editors and readers can easily find information. The widely adopted structure that research papers mostly follow is the IMRAD format. IMRAD stands for Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Additional requirements from journals include an abstract, keywords, acknowledgements, and references. This format helps scientists to tell their story in an organized manner. Authors often find it easier to write the IMRAD sections in a different order. However, the final paper should be collated in the IMRAD format as follows:

    Exceptions

    Case studies follow a slightly different format to the traditional IMRAD format. They include the following extra sections:

    • History and physical examination: Details of the patient’s history. It provides the story of when a patient first sought medical care.
    • Diagnostic focus and assessment: Describe the steps taken that lead to a diagnosis and any test results.
    • Therapeutic focus and assessment: Explain therapies tried and any other recommendations from consultants. Assess the efficacy of the treatments given.
    • Follow-up and outcome: Provide results and state the patient adhered to treatment. Include any side effects.
    • Patient perspective: Describe the patient’s experience.
    • Patient consent: State that informed consent was obtained from the patient.

    Order for Preparation of the Manuscript

     

    As mentioned above, most research publications follow the IMRAD format. However, it is often easier to write each section in a different order than that of the final paper.

    Authors recommend you organize the data first and then write the sections as follows:

    1. Figures and tables: Decide how your data should be presented. You can use graphics, tables or describe it in the text.
    2. Methods: It is important that anyone can use your methods to reproduce your experiments.
    3. Results: Here you write only what the results of your experiments were. You do not discuss them here.
    4. Discussion: This section requires analysis, thought, and a thorough understanding of the literature. You need to discuss your results without repeating the results section.
    5. Conclusion: This section can either be under a sub-heading or the last paragraph of the discussion. It should inform the reader how your results advance the field.
    6. Introduction: Now that you have thought about your results in the context of the literature, you can write your introduction.
    7. Abstract: This is an overview of your paper. Give a concise background of the problem and how you tried to solve it. Next state your main findings.
    8. Title: As discussed above, this needs to be concise as well as informative. Ensure that it makes sense.
    9. Keywords: These are used for indexing. Keywords need to be specific. Often you are not allowed to use words that appear in the journal name. Use abbreviations with care and only well-established ones.
    10. Acknowledgements: This section is to thank anyone involved in the research that does not qualify as an author.
    11. References: Check the “Guide for authors” for the formatting style. Be accurate and do not include unnecessary references.

    Conceptualizing an Attractive Title

     

    Your research title is the first impression of your paper. A good title is a brief description of the topic, method, sample, and results of your study. A useful formula you could use is:

    There are different ways to write a title :

    • Declarative

       

      State the main conclusions.
      Example: Mixed strains of probiotics improve antibiotic associated diarrhea.

    • Descriptive

       

      Describe the subject.
      Example: Effects of mixed strains of probiotics on antibiotic associated diarrhea.

    • Interrogative

       

      Use a question for the subject.
      Example: Do mixed strains of probiotics improve antibiotic associated diarrhea?

    We recommend the following five top tips to conceptualize an attractive research title:

    • Be concise
    • Be descriptive
    • Use a low word count (5-15 words)
    • Check journal guidelines
    • Avoid jargon and symbols

    Effectively Reviewing Literature

     

    This stage can be overwhelming. However, if you start with a clear research question, you can stay focused.

    1. Literature search: Search for articles related to your research question. Keep notes of the search terms and keywords you use. A list of databases to search and notes of the ones you have searched will prevent duplicate searches.
    2. Critically analyze the literature: Check each piece of literature for the following to help you decide whether it is relevant to your research:

      - What is their research question?

      - Are there potential conflicts of interest such as funders who may want a particular result?

      - Are their methods sufficient to test the objectives?

      - Can you identify any flaws in the research?

      - Do their results make sense, or could there be other reasons for their conclusion?

      - Are the authors respected in the field?

      - Has the research been cited?

    3. Introduction or discussion? There are distinct differences between the way literature is written in the introduction versus the discussion .

      - Introduction: Here you introduce the topic. The introduction describes the problem and identifies gaps in knowledge. It also rationalizes your research.

      - Discussion: Here you support and compare your results. Use the literature to put your research in context with the current state of knowledge. Furthermore, show how your research has advanced the field.

    Drafting the Abstract

     

    The importance of abstracts cannot be emphasized enough.

    • They are used by online databases to index large research works. Therefore, critical keywords must be used.
    • Editors and reviewers read an abstract to decide whether an article is worth considering for publication.
    • Readers use an abstract to decide whether the research is relevant to them.

    Therefore, care should be taken to write a succinct and appealing synopsis of your research. There are two ways to write an abstract: structured and unstructured. The author guidelines of the journal you are submitting your research to will tell you the format they require.

    • The structured abstracthas distinct sections with headings. This style enables a reader to easily find the relevant information under clear headings (objective, methods, results, and conclusion). Think of each section as a question and provide a concise but detailed answer under each heading.
    • The unstructured abstractis a narrative paragraph of your research. It is similar to the structured abstract but does not contain headings. It gives the context, findings, conclusion, and implications of your paper.

    Drafting the Introduction Section

     

    This section introduces your research in the context of the knowledge in the field. First introduce the topic including the problem you are addressing, the importance of solving this problem, and known research and gaps in the knowledge. Then narrow it down to your research questions and hypothesis.

    Tips to write an effective introduction:

    1. Give broad background information about the problem.
    2. Write it in a logical manner so that the reader can follow your thought process.
    3. Focus on the problem you intend to solve with your research
    4. Note any solutions in the literature thus far.
    5. Propose your solution to the problem with reasons.

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    Drafting the Materials and Methods Section

     

    In this section, you need to give enough detail in your methods so that others can reproduce your experiments. However, there is no need to detail established experiments. Readers can find these details in the previously published references you refer to in the methods. Follow these tips to write your Materials and Methods:

    1. Write in the past tense because you are reporting on procedures you carried out.
    2. Avoid unnecessary details that disrupts the flow.
    3. Materials and equipments should be mentioned throughout the procedure, rather than listed at the beginning of a section.
    4. Detail any ethics or consent requirements if your study included humans or animal subjects.
    5. Use standard nomenclature and numbers.
    6. Ensure you have the correct control experiments.
    7. Methods should be listed logically.
    8. Detail statistical methods used to analyze your data.

    Here is a checklist of things that should be in your Materials and Methods:

    • References of previously published methods.
    • Study settings: If the research involves studying a population, give location and context of the site.
    • Cell lines: Give their source and detail any contamination tests performed.
    • Antibodies: Give details such as catalogue numbers, citations, dilutions used, and batch numbers.
    • Animal models: Species, age, and sex of animals as well as ethical compliance information.
    • Human subjects: Ethics committee requirements and a statement confirming you received informed consent. If relevant, clinical trial registration numbers and selection criteria.
    • Data accession codes for data you deposited in a repository.
    • Software: Where you obtained the programs and their version numbers.
    • Statistics: Criteria for including or excluding samples or subjects, randomisation methods, details of investigator blinding to avoid bias, appropriateness of statistical tests used for your study.
    • Timeframes if relevant.

    Drafting the Results Section

     

    Some journals combine the results and discussion section, whereas others have separate headings for each section. If the two sections are combined, you state your results and discuss them immediately afterwards, before presenting your next set of results.  The challenge is to present your data in a way that is logical and accurate. Set out your results in the same order as you set out your methods.

    Remember to include:

    1. Control group data.
    2. Relevant statistical values such as p-values.
    3. Visual illustrations of your results such as figures and tables.

    Things that do not belong in the results section:

    1. Speculation or commentary about the results.
    2. References – you are reporting your own data.
    3. Do not repeat data in text if it has been presented in a table or graph.

    Keep the discussion section separate. Keep explanations, interpretations, limitations, and comparisons to the literature for the discussion.

    Drafting the Discussion Section

     

    The discussion answers several questions such as: did you achieve your objectives? How do your results compare to other studies? Were there any limitations to your research? Start discussing your data specifically and then broaden out to how it furthers your field of interest.

    Questions to get you started:

    • How do your results answer your objectives?
    • Why do you think your results are different to published data?
    • Do you think further research would help clarify any issues with your data?

    The aim is to tell the reader what your results mean. Structure your discussion in a logical manner. Start with an introductory paragraph where you set out the context and main aims of the study. Do this without repeating the introduction. Some authors prefer starting with the major findings first to keep the readers interested.

    The next paragraph should discuss what you found, how it compares to other studies, any limitations, your opinion, and what they mean for the field.

    The concluding paragraph should talk about the major outcomes of the study. Be careful not to write your conclusion here. Merely highlight the main themes emerging from your data.

    Tips to write an effective discussion:

    1. It is not a literature review. Keep your comments relevant to your results.
    2. Interpret your results.
    3. Be concise and remove unnecessary words.
    4. Do not include results not presented in the result section.
    5. Ensure your conclusions are supported by your data.

    Drafting the Conclusion Section

     

    Give a summary of your research with emphasis on your findings. Again, structuring your conclusion will make it easier to draft this section. Here are some tips when writing the conclusion of your paper:

    1. State what you set out to achieve.
    2. Tell the reader what your major findings were.
    3. How has your study contributed to the field?
    4. Mention any limitations.
    5. End with recommendations for future research.

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    Effectively Citing and Referencing Your Sources

     

    You need to acknowledge the original work that you talk about in your write-up. There are two reasons for this. First, cite someone’s idea to avoid plagiarism. Plagiarism is when you use words or ideas of others without acknowledging them and this is a serious offence. Second, readers will be able to source the literature you cited easily.

    This is done by citing works in your text and providing the full reference for this citation in a reference list at the end of your document.

    Tips for effective refencing/citations:

    1. Keep a detailed list of your references including author(s), publication, year of publication, title, and page numbers.
    2. Insert a citation (either a number or author name) in-text as you write.
    3. List the full reference in a reference list according to the style required by the publication.
    4. Pay attention to details as mistakes will misdirect readers.

    Try referencing software tools “cite while you write”. Examples of such referencing software programs include: Mendeley,Endnote,Refworks and Zotero.

    Preparing Figures

     

    Some quick tips about figures:

    • Legends of graphs and tables must be self-explanatory.
    • Use easily distinguishable symbols.
    • Place long tables of data in the supplementary material.
    • Include a scale bar in photographs.

    Preparing Tables

     

    Important pointers for tables:

    • Check the author guidelines for table formatting requirements.
    • Tables do not have vertical lines in publications.
    • Legends must be self-explanatory.

    Assigning Authorship

     

    To qualify as an author on a paper, an individual must:

    1. Make substantial contributions to all stages of the research.
    2. Draft or revise the manuscript.
    3. Approve the final version of the article.
    4. Be accountable for the accuracy and integrity of the research.

    Unethical and unprofessional authorships have emerged over the years. These include:

    • Gift authorship: An individual is listed as a co-author in lieu of funding or supervision.
    • Ghost authorship: An author is paid to write an article but does not contribute to the article in any other way.
    • Guest authorship: An individual who is given authorship because they are well known and respected in the field, or they are senior members of staff.

    These authors pose a threat to research. Readers may override their concerns with an article if it includes a well-respected co-author. This is especially problematic when decisions about medical interventions are concerned.

    Drafting the Acknowledgements Section

     

    Those who do not qualify as authors but have contributed to the research should be given credit in the acknowledgements section. These include funders, supervisors, administrative supporters, writing, editing, and proofreading assistance.

    The contributions made by these individuals should be stated and sometimes their written permission to be acknowledged is required by editors.

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    Points to Note from the Author Instructions Before Preparing the Manuscript

     

    Check the author guidelines for your chosen publication before submission. Publishers mostly have a “House Style” that ensures all their manuscripts are consistent with regards to language, formatting, and style. For example, these guidelines will tell you whether to use UK or US English, which abbreviations are allowed, and how to format figures and tables. They are also especially important for the references section as each journal has their own style.

    Proofreading/Editing your manuscript

     

    Ensure that your manuscript is structured correctly, clearly written, contains the correct technical language, and supports your claims with proper evidence. To ensure the structure is correct, it is essential to edit your paper.

    Once you are happy with the manuscript, proofread for small errors. These could be spelling, consistency, spacing, and so forth. Importantly, check that figures and tables include all the necessary data and statistical values. Seek assistance from colleagues or professional editing companies to edit and proofread your manuscript too.

    Pre-submission Peer-Review of Your Manuscript

     

    A pre-submission peer-review could improve the quality of articles submitted to journals in general. The benefits include:

    • A fresh eye to spot gaps or errors.
    • Receiving constructive feedback on your work and writing.
    • Improves the clarity of your paper.

    You could ask experienced colleagues, supervisors or even professional editing services to review your article.