Research Papers Hypothesis Identification Article Analysis Science

Writing research papers does not come naturally to most of us. The typical research paper is a highly codified rhetorical form [1,2]. Knowledge of the rules—some explicit, others implied—goes a long way toward writing a paper that will get accepted in a peer-reviewed journal.

Primacy of the research question

A good research paper addresses a specific research question. The research question—or study objective or main research hypothesis—is the central organizing principle of the paper. Whatever relates to the research question belongs in the paper; the rest doesn’t. This is perhaps obvious when the paper reports on a well planned research project. However, in applied domains such as quality improvement, some papers are written based on projects that were undertaken for operational reasons, and not with the primary aim of producing new knowledge. In such cases, authors should define the main research question a posteriori and design the paper around it.

Generally, only one main research question should be addressed in a paper (secondary but related questions are allowed). If a project allows you to explore several distinct research questions, write several papers. For instance, if you measured the impact of obtaining written consent on patient satisfaction at a specialized clinic using a newly developed questionnaire, you may want to write one paper on the questionnaire development and validation, and another on the impact of the intervention. The idea is not to split results into ‘least publishable units’, a practice that is rightly decried, but rather into ‘optimally publishable units’.

What is a good research question? The key attributes are: (i) specificity; (ii) originality or novelty; and (iii) general relevance to a broad scientific community. The research question should be precise and not merely identify a general area of inquiry. It can often (but not always) be expressed in terms of a possible association between X and Y in a population Z, for example ‘we examined whether providing patients about to be discharged from the hospital with written information about their medications would improve their compliance with the treatment 1 month later’. A study does not necessarily have to break completely new ground, but it should extend previous knowledge in a useful way, or alternatively refute existing knowledge. Finally, the question should be of interest to others who work in the same scientific area. The latter requirement is more challenging for those who work in applied science than for basic scientists. While it may safely be assumed that the human genome is the same worldwide, whether the results of a local quality improvement project have wider relevance requires careful consideration and argument.

Structure of the paper

Once the research question is clearly defined, writing the paper becomes considerably easier. The paper will ask the question, then answer it. The key to successful scientific writing is getting the structure of the paper right. The basic structure of a typical research paper is the sequence of Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion (sometimes abbreviated as IMRAD). Each section addresses a different objective. The authors state: (i) the problem they intend to address—in other terms, the research question—in the Introduction; (ii) what they did to answer the question in the Methods section; (iii) what they observed in the Results section; and (iv) what they think the results mean in the Discussion.

In turn, each basic section addresses several topics, and may be divided into subsections (Table 1). In the Introduction, the authors should explain the rationale and background to the study. What is the research question, and why is it important to ask it? While it is neither necessary nor desirable to provide a full-blown review of the literature as a prelude to the study, it is helpful to situate the study within some larger field of enquiry. The research question should always be spelled out, and not merely left for the reader to guess.

Table 1

Typical structure of a research paper

Introduction 
    State why the problem you address is important 
    State what is lacking in the current knowledge 
    State the objectives of your study or the research question 
Methods 
    Describe the context and setting of the study 
    Specify the study design 
    Describe the ‘population’ (patients, doctors, hospitals, etc.) 
    Describe the sampling strategy 
    Describe the intervention (if applicable) 
    Identify the main study variables 
    Describe data collection instruments and procedures 
    Outline analysis methods 
Results 
    Report on data collection and recruitment (response rates, etc.) 
    Describe participants (demographic, clinical condition, etc.) 
    Present key findings with respect to the central research question 
    Present secondary findings (secondary outcomes, subgroup analyses, etc.) 
Discussion 
    State the main findings of the study 
    Discuss the main results with reference to previous research 
    Discuss policy and practice implications of the results 
    Analyse the strengths and limitations of the study 
    Offer perspectives for future work 
Introduction 
    State why the problem you address is important 
    State what is lacking in the current knowledge 
    State the objectives of your study or the research question 
Methods 
    Describe the context and setting of the study 
    Specify the study design 
    Describe the ‘population’ (patients, doctors, hospitals, etc.) 
    Describe the sampling strategy 
    Describe the intervention (if applicable) 
    Identify the main study variables 
    Describe data collection instruments and procedures 
    Outline analysis methods 
Results 
    Report on data collection and recruitment (response rates, etc.) 
    Describe participants (demographic, clinical condition, etc.) 
    Present key findings with respect to the central research question 
    Present secondary findings (secondary outcomes, subgroup analyses, etc.) 
Discussion 
    State the main findings of the study 
    Discuss the main results with reference to previous research 
    Discuss policy and practice implications of the results 
    Analyse the strengths and limitations of the study 
    Offer perspectives for future work 

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The Methods section should provide the readers with sufficient detail about the study methods to be able to reproduce the study if so desired. Thus, this section should be specific, concrete, technical, and fairly detailed. The study setting, the sampling strategy used, instruments, data collection methods, and analysis strategies should be described. In the case of qualitative research studies, it is also useful to tell the reader which research tradition the study utilizes and to link the choice of methodological strategies with the research goals [3].

The Results section is typically fairly straightforward and factual. All results that relate to the research question should be given in detail, including simple counts and percentages. Resist the temptation to demonstrate analytic ability and the richness of the dataset by providing numerous tables of non-essential results.

The Discussion section allows the most freedom. This is why the Discussion is the most difficult to write, and is often the weakest part of a paper. Structured Discussion sections have been proposed by some journal editors [4]. While strict adherence to such rules may not be necessary, following a plan such as that proposed in Table 1 may help the novice writer stay on track.

References should be used wisely. Key assertions should be referenced, as well as the methods and instruments used. However, unless the paper is a comprehensive review of a topic, there is no need to be exhaustive. Also, references to unpublished work, to documents in the grey literature (technical reports), or to any source that the reader will have difficulty finding or understanding should be avoided.

The basics

Having the structure of the paper in place is a good start. However, there are many details that have to be attended to while writing. An obvious recommendation is to read, and follow, the instructions to authors published by the journal (typically found on the journal’s website). Another concerns non-native writers of English: do have a native speaker edit the manuscript. A paper usually goes through several drafts before it is submitted. When revising a paper, it is useful to keep an eye out for the most common mistakes (Table 2). If you avoid all those, your paper should be in good shape.

Table 2

Common mistakes seen in manuscripts submitted to this journal

The research question is not specified 
The stated aim of the paper is tautological (e.g. ‘The aim of this paper is to describe what we did’) or vague (e.g. ‘We explored issues related to X’) 
The structure of the paper is chaotic (e.g. methods are described in the Results section) 
The manuscripts does not follow the journal’s instructions for authors 
The paper much exceeds the maximum number of words allowed 
The Introduction is an extensive review of the literature 
Methods, interventions and instruments are not described in sufficient detail 
Results are reported selectively (e.g. percentages without frequencies, P-values without measures of effect) 
The same results appear both in a table and in the text 
Detailed tables are provided for results that do not relate to the main research question 
In the Introduction and Discussion, key arguments are not backed up by appropriate references 
References are out of date or cannot be accessed by most readers 
The Discussion does not provide an answer to the research question 
The Discussion overstates the implications of the results and does not acknowledge the limitations of the study 
The paper is written in poor English 
The research question is not specified 
The stated aim of the paper is tautological (e.g. ‘The aim of this paper is to describe what we did’) or vague (e.g. ‘We explored issues related to X’) 
The structure of the paper is chaotic (e.g. methods are described in the Results section) 
The manuscripts does not follow the journal’s instructions for authors 
The paper much exceeds the maximum number of words allowed 
The Introduction is an extensive review of the literature 
Methods, interventions and instruments are not described in sufficient detail 
Results are reported selectively (e.g. percentages without frequencies, P-values without measures of effect) 
The same results appear both in a table and in the text 
Detailed tables are provided for results that do not relate to the main research question 
In the Introduction and Discussion, key arguments are not backed up by appropriate references 
References are out of date or cannot be accessed by most readers 
The Discussion does not provide an answer to the research question 
The Discussion overstates the implications of the results and does not acknowledge the limitations of the study 
The paper is written in poor English 

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References

.

How to Write and Publish Papers in the Medical Sciences

 , 2nd edition. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins,

1990

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Publishing and Presenting Clinical Research

 . Baltimore, MD: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins,

1999

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, Frankel RM. Getting qualitative research published.

Educ Health

2001

;

14

:

109

–117.
, Smith R. The case for structuring the discussion of scientific papers.

Br Med J

1999

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318

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1224

–1225.

International Journal for Quality in Health Care vol. 16 no. 3 © International Society for Quality in Health Care and Oxford University Press 2004; all rights reserved

To form a truly educated opinion on a scientific subject, you need to become familiar with current research in that field. And to be able to distinguish between good and bad interpretations of research, you have to be willing and able to read the primary research literature for yourself. Reading and understanding research papers is a skill that every single doctor and scientist has had to learn during graduate school. You can learn it too, but like any skill it takes patience and practice.

Reading a scientific paper is a completely different process from reading an article about science in a blog or newspaper. Not only do you read the sections in a different order than they're presented, but you also have to take notes, read it multiple times, and probably go look up other papers in order to understand some of the details. Reading a single paper may take you a very long time at first, but be patient with yourself. The process will go much faster as you gain experience.

The type of scientific paper I'm discussing here is referred to as a primary research article. It's a peer-reviewed report of new research on a specific question (or questions). Most articles will be divided into the following sections: abstract, introduction, methods, results, and conclusions/interpretations/discussion.

Before you begin reading a paper, take note of the authors and their institutional affiliations. Some institutions (e.g., University of Texas) are well-respected; others may appear to be legitimate research institutions but are actually agenda-driven. Also take note of the journal in which it's published. Be cautious of articles from questionable journals, or sites like Natural News, that might resemble peer-reviewed scientific journals but aren't.

Step-by-Step Instructions for Reading a Primary Research Article

1. Begin by reading the introduction, not the abstract.

The abstract is that dense first paragraph at the very beginning of a paper. In fact, that's often the only part of a paper that many non-scientists read when they're trying to build a scientific argument. (This is a terrible practice. Don't do it.) I always read the abstract last, because it contains a succinct summary of the entire paper, and I'm concerned about inadvertently becoming biased by the authors' interpretation of the results.

2. Identify the big question.

Not "What is this paper about?" but "What problem is this entire field trying to solve?" This helps you focus on why this research is being done. Look closely for evidence of agenda-motivated research.

3. Summarize the background in five sentences or less.

What work has been done before in this field to answer the big question? What are the limitations of that work? What, according to the authors, needs to be done next? You need to be able to succinctly explain why this research has been done in order to understand it.

4. Identify the specific question(s).

What exactly are the authors trying to answer with their research? There may be multiple questions, or just one. Write them down. If it's the kind of research that tests one or more null hypotheses, identify it/them.

5. Identify the approach.

What are the authors going to do to answer the specific question(s)?

6. Read the methods section.

Draw a diagram for each experiment, showing exactly what the authors did. Include as much detail as you need to fully understand the work.

7. Read the results section.

Write one or more paragraphs to summarize the results for each experiment, each figure, and each table. Don't yet try to decide what the results mean; just write down what they are. You'll often find that results are summarized in the figures and tables. Pay careful attention to them! You may also need to go to supplementary online information files to find some of the results. Also pay attention to:

  • The words "significant" and "non-significant." These have precise statistical meanings. Read more about this here.
  • Graphs. Do they have error bars on them? For certain types of studies, a lack of confidence intervals is a major red flag.
  • The sample size. Has the study been conducted on 10 people, or 10,000 people? For some research purposes a sample size of 10 is sufficient, but for most studies larger is better.

8. Determine whether the results answer the specific question(s).

What do you think they mean? Don't move on until you have thought about this. It's OK to change your mind in light of the authors' interpretation -- in fact, you probably will if you're still a beginner at this kind of analysis -- but it's a really good habit to start forming your own interpretations before you read those of others.

9. Read the conclusion/discussion/interpretation section.

What do the authors think the results mean? Do you agree with them? Can you come up with any alternative way of interpreting them? Do the authors identify any weaknesses in their own study? Do you see any that the authors missed? (Don't assume they're infallible!) What do they propose to do as a next step? Do you agree with that?

10. Go back to the beginning and read the abstract.

Does it match what the authors said in the paper? Does it fit with your interpretation of the paper?

11. Find out what other researchers say about the paper.

Who are the (acknowledged or self-proclaimed) experts in this particular field? Do they have criticisms of the study that you haven't thought of, or do they generally support it? Don't neglect to do this! Here's a place where I do recommend you use Google! But do it last, so you are better prepared to think critically about what other people say.

A full-length version of this post originally appeared on the author's personal blog.

Follow Jennifer Raff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JenniferRaff

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