Writing Journal Articles: the beginning steps

Published on: November 7, 2011
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The first step in writing your manuscript is selecting the correct format for presenting your findings. Therefore, this first series of blog entries will discuss the various formats used for observational studies, review articles, case reports, posters, slide lectures and other presentations.

Observational or experimental studies present and interpret data obtained under carefully defined conditions. Since information can be interpreted more easily and more uniformly if it is placed where most readers expect to find it, scientific journals have adopted a standard format for the publication of observational studies. This format is called IMRAD, which is an abbreviation for

Introduction
Materials (and Methods)
Results
And
Discussion

The IMRAD structure was originally proposed in the 1960s by the British scientist Sir Austin Bradford Hill and has been almost uniformly adopted. Since IMRAD uses a simple structure with each section designed to answer a simple question, it helps writers organize and present their research as well as allowing readers to scan articles more quickly to locate material relevant to their purpose.

A few journals may require a variant of this formula, so it is always wise to check the Guidelines for Authors published by the specific journal you are targeting for your submission, but the standard format of a research paper has six sections:

Title and Abstract, which present the topic and summarize the paper

Introduction, which describes where the paper’s research question fits into 
current science

Materials and Methods, which presents a detailed 
description of procedures used to investigate the research question described in the introduction

Results, which is an orderly compilation of the data observed after following the 
research procedures

Discussion, which interprets the data and its relationship to data from other 
researchers

Conclusion, which gives the one or two scientific points to which the entire 
paper leads

Although the order shown above is the order in which the sections will appear in the published paper, this is not necessarily the best order in which to write your manuscript. It may be more efficient to work on the draft of your paper from the middle out, that is, from the known (Materials and Methods) to the discovered (Results, followed by Discussion and Conclusion). Using that approach, the order of writing follows the order of your scientific analysis:

Suggested order of writing:

1. Materials and Methods can be described before you have generated your Results.

2. Results must be collected and organized before you can analyze them in your Discussion.

3. Discussion reviews and interprets your Results and points you to a Conclusion.

4. Conclusion is based on the Discussion. Knowing your Conclusion makes it easier for you to write an Introduction that sets 
the Conclusion within its natural place in science.

5. Introduction shows that your Conclusion was previously unknown or 
unproven.

6. Title and Abstract, which summarize your paper, must be based on the completed 
paper so that you can summarize the contents well.

(M.J. Katz, From Research to Manuscript, 79 © Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2009)

After writing the initial draft, begin the self-review process to check for any errors or omissions. Since long articles may need subheadings within some sections (especially Results and Discussion) to clarify and help organize the contents, these can be added or revised during the initial self-review.

Consecutively number all pages of the manuscript, beginning with the title page and double-space all portions of the manuscript—including the title page, abstract, text, acknowledgments, references, and figure legends. Also be sure to provide generous margins of at least 2.5 cm to make it easier for reviewers to add comments and queries directly on the paper copy.

At this point, many authors, even many native English speakers, like to have the paper reviewed by a professional medical writer before submitting the paper to peer review by the target journal.  After considering and incorporating the changes suggested by the professional editor, the paper is ready for its initial journal submission.

Of course, further criticism from the peer reviewer is to be expected and will need to be addressed before the paper is finally accepted for publication.  That process will be discussed in a future post.