Temptations for researchers: sorting out what goes where in a research article
A: Brief intro to structure
B: Why research articles have structure
B: Methods vs results
C: Results vs discussion
Young scientists quickly become familiar with the standard parts of a research paper, the abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion sections. However, the best of us occasionally feel the temptation to move from one section to another without realizing we’ve made the transition from perhaps methods to results. Today, I’d like to provide a brief overview of a standard research paper and discuss the pitfalls we sometimes fall into, unwillfully and unwittingly.
One might ask, “Why do what have to live with this structure? Why can’t I simply start writing, say what I want to say, and be done with it?” The answers to those questions are quite simple. First, “the rules” are always changing. Research papers have started a trend toward providing authors with the flexibility you might desire; journals are, as one journal editor told me this week, allowing authors to “write your paper in your way.” However, the standards have been developed over time so that a reader can easily find the message within a paper, for much the same reason we write abstracts: convenience.
“With so many journals, a researcher needs to pick and choose where he [or she] might spend precious time in the library,” my favorite professor told us in 1972. “Usually, I’ll start with the abstract and then go straight to the conclusions.” Scientists of today built on the work and methods of scientists in the past. Formatting a research paper in a standard way gives the reader an idea of what to expect. A writer for a non-scientific magazine might take a very different approach, but scientists like to classify things and know where to find specific parts of a paper quickly to save time.
The methods section often trips people up. The temptation when writing your methods section is to move on to the results within the methods section. You set up your experiment, checked the weather or lab conditions, had everything ready to run, and it seems very natural to move straight to the results. The problem is that you have not finished describing your methods and the materials you used. It is natural to move from methods to results, but first you will need to finish describing all the methods. Perhaps you have described the materials and physical methods but failed to include a description of the model or statistical programs you used.
One solution might be to make a list of your methods before you start writing. Some scientists feel like I did as a high school student; I had the naive goal of, “writing it perfectly the first time and never having to revise what I write.” As an editor, I realize now that rarely, if ever, works. Writing is not math; there’s not one right answer. It is more like painting. So, take the time to outline your thoughts before you start. For example, in a typical field experiment, you’ll include the “who, what, when, where, how, and even why” that we discussed in an earlier article. Who did the research and where was it done? What did you use and how did you use it? Why did you dig 1 meter deep for your soil tests and not 1.5 meters or 0.1 meters? Try to think of both the physical and the mental methods, such as analysis methods. The only restriction is to not that that leap from, “Here’s what we did,” to “and here’s the results.”
A finer line can be drawn between results and the discussion and/or conclusions. In this case, the differences tend to blur a little. For example, one can easily see that descriptions of soil collection methods are easily distinguished from the results of the chemical soil tests. In contrast, the results and the discussion (the meaning of the results) may tend to blur a little more. For example, your soil tests may have shown that shrubs used nutrients from deeper soil layers and grasses relied on the more shallow layers in a shrubby grassland. How do you differentiate between describing the results and the meaning of those results?
To put it simply, you have to think about it. What are the results? The grasses used shallow soil resources. What does that mean? They might compete with seedlings of shrubs but cannot gain access to resources that lie beyond the extent of their roots. Move your reasons, your ideas, your thoughts, your meanings, and your conclusions to the discussion and/or conclusion section.
If you have problems with sorting these out, you may have to write your paper first and then sort out the parts and rearrange them. These sorts of tasks may seem tedious, similar to making sure all the research papers you cited are in your list of references, and vice versa. However, it may be worth your time to print out a copy of your paper, and review your paper paragraph by paragraph, or even sentence by sentence, and think, “Is this methods, results, or discussion?” After all, I’ve been proven wrong in that I can rarely write a poem without any revisions. I have yet to write a research paper that didn’t see several versions. Enjoy the slightly revised encouragement below.
There’s a madness to my method, the results are plain to see,
but those monsters at the journal, have just rejected me!
I spent nine months on this baby, and three years in the field.
They refuse to print my paper! Why can’t they simply yield?
They told me that my methods were mixed with my results.
It made sense when I wrote it. I can’t stand all these insults!
The results and the conclusion seemed to go well hand in hand,
but those monsters at the journal made my writing turn to sand.
I guess I should revisit, rewrite, and then rewind,
rethink and reconsider, and my solution find.
Perhaps I’m not quite perfect, it looked so good you see,
but those monsters at the journal, have just rejected me!