It started with a good idea that became a testable hypothesis and a research plan.
Now all the data has been recorded and analyzed, and you’ve got a research article to write and submit for publication.
You know the structure. It’s not quite a recipe, but the ingredients are clear cut. There’s the first page, which includes a title–and sometimes a running or short title–authors, and affiliations, i.e. where the work was done, followed by an abstract and keywords.
Your use of words is very important here not only because they must interest readers, but also because they are used for indexing. The words in the title, the keywords and abstract, the authors’ names, and where the work was done are what PubMed and other indexing services–AKA databases–use to find publications. It helps to use keywords that are not in the title. If you want to use keywords that are similar to those used by PubMed as “tags” for related research, you can find a list of them here.
The main body of the article generally begins with an introduction that tells what is known about your research topic, why you conducted your study, and what it is you have added. Most journals ask that this be followed by descriptions of the methods that you used and the results that you obtained, followed by a discussion of the significance of what you found. Sometimes the methods are placed last. The main text is followed by a reference list, and sometimes by supporting or supplementary material included as online-only material.
That’s the way the published article looks, but, in my opinion, the outcome is better if the sections are written in a different order. In fact, before you start writing, it may help to “map out” what you did, why you did it, what you found, and what it adds using some text boxes and arrows–what some call a graphic abstract. You can find a detailed description of how to put together a research article here.
It may be the easiest for you to begin writing by describing the methods. If some of the methods are new, then give the details. For standard or previously described methods, give a reference and then briefly describe any differences.
List the methods in the order that you did the research, keep the same order when you give the results, and don’t forget that the description of the statistical analysis can be a link between the methods and results. The results just tell what you found.
Keep the presentation simple and save interpretation for the discussion section. To actually “show” your results, you’ll have to decide whether the numbers themselves–tables–or comparisons and trends–figures–are best. The discussion is key because it is your interpretation of the results within the context of what was already known about your research problem, what your results have added to what was known, and why that is important.
Now, turn to the introduction and abstract. Most journals prefer short introductions with citations of recent references that provide the background, context, and rationale for your study and lead to the study objective or the question to be answered. Neither the introduction nor the discussion should stray far from the focus of your research. In my opinion, most editors and reviewers expect a limited number of references that support your research plan and help the reader understand your results and conclusions.
What about the abstract? Let’s face it; many people won’t get any farther than the abstract, so it must be accurate and interesting. Follow the author instructions for formatting and content, but most of the time it gives the “bottom line”: what you did and what your main findings were.
Review the title that you’ve been using. Be sure that it’s short and tells what the paper is all about. Once someone finds your article, the title is the hook that leads to reading the abstract, and then hopefully the whole article.
Good luck, good writing, and many citations!