How to write a research paper

For everyone, death and taxes are inevitable, for researchers there’s a third item on the agenda: publishing. Almost every academic in every discipline must publish to survive, but not every academic enjoys writing or can write a decent paper…enough said. Now, Michael Derntl of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, has, ironically enough, surveyed the literature and compiled some good practice guidelines on paper writing and publishing.

Derntl explains that for most journals, the “hourglass” is the most accepted format for an academic paper: Title, Abstract, Introduction, Body, Discussion/Conclusion, References. There are several key points he outlines in title creation. The title should:

  • identify the main issue of the paper
  • begin with the subject of the paper
  • be accurate, unambiguous, specific and complete
  • not contain unfamiliar abbreviations
  • be attractive

Next, the abstract, of which there are two main types: the informative abstract, which essentially provides the “executive summary” of the whole paper and the indicative abstract, which is not technically an abstract but simply outlines the content structure of the paper. An abstract should answer the following questions from a prospective reader:

  • Motivation: Why do we care about the problem and the results?
  • Problem: What problem is being solved?
  • Solution: What was done to solve the problem?
  • Results: What is the answer to the problem?
  • Implications: What implications does the answer imply?

The next layer is the introduction, which should not simply restate the abstract as many do. It should lead the reader from a perhaps general position into an understanding of the context of the specialist area and particular topic with which the paper deals. Specifically, it should address three important concerns so that the paper can be read as a standalone document without the reader being required to head for the library or click out to the references:

  • Establish a territory: bring out the importance of the subject and/or make general statements about the subject and/or present an overview on current research on the subject
  • Establish a niche: oppose an existing assumption or reveal a research gap or formulate a research question or problem or continue a tradition
  • Occupy the niche: sketch the intent of the own work and/or outline important characteristics of the own work; outline important results; and give a brief outlook on the structure of the paper

The main body of a paper should define the work that was done and can be one of or a combination of four main types:

The empirical paper: describes the material and data used for the study, the methods used to answer the research questions, and the results obtained. It should be written so that others can attempt to reproduce the experiment

  • The case study: describes the application of existing methods, theory or tools and reflects on experience and relevance to others in the same or related fields
  • The methodology paper: describes a new method and so serves as a “how to” for the specified target readership
  • The theory paper: describes principles, concepts or models on which work in the field (empirical, experience, methodology) is based and provides the context against a backdrop of related frameworks and theories

Just two more sections and you’re done. First, the discussion, which should include:

  • A presentation of background information as well as recapitulation of the research aims of the study
  • A brief summary of the results
  • A comparison of results with previously published work
  • Conclusions or hypotheses drawn from the results, with summary of evidence for each conclusion
  • Proposed follow-up research questions and outlook on further work

And, finally, the references, which must adhere to the target journal’s housestyle regardless of one’s preferred housestyle. It should go without saying that the references should cite the prior art, any methodology relied on in the current paper, reviews and conflicting papers where pertinent.

As a footnote to the references reference, one must also take into account the need for footnotes and follow the journal’s housestyle as to whether these are to be avoided, interspersed in the body text or aggregated with the references. And, speaking of housestyle, the overall hourglass structure of a paper must be adjusted to conform with the target journal’s instructions to authors too and, again, the classic cliché of “know your audience” must be followed in the actual writing of the paper, avoiding ambiguity, sticking to grammatical and spelling conventions and aiming to be concise rather than verbose.

The open access source from Derntl can be found here: Derntl, M. (2014) ‘Basics of research paper writing and publishing’, Int. J. Technology Enhanced Learning, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp.105–123.

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.