For some, writing a research paper may seem a daunting task, but is definitely achievable with hard work and a good structure.
Research papers are written for the dissemination of new information and knowledge. As medicine shifts to becoming more evidence-based, the importance of research in medicine is increasing.“Publish or flourish”
Writing and publishing research papers is important for career progression. Those candidates with a greater number of high-quality publications on their CV are at an advantage when applying for specialty training posts.
There are several types of scientific articles that can be written, these are listed below:
Letter to the editor
Editorial CommentThere are numerous medical journals accepting a variety of research papers, and it is important to select the most appropriate journal for your study. Often journals set guidelines for the format of the paper in the “instructions to authors”, which if not met, could lead to the paper being rejected. When writing the paper, it is also useful to consider the target audience i.e. whether the paper is intended for a general or specialist audience.It is advisable to keep a collection of good scientific papers of each type as a guide for structure, content and layout.
Preparing to write
- Choose something worthwhile to report – find a question that needs to be answered that can add to the existing body of knowledge
- Search the literature and read journals for the current consensus on your topic
- Consult a statistician to discuss your study and its design, they may be able to provide advice on maximising the changes of getting valid results and analysing them professionally
- Collect data
- Write a provisional title
- Look at the guidelines of proposed journal and prepare your manuscript accordingly.
Generally most manuscripts follow the structure outlined below:
- Abstract – a structured summary of each of the introduction, methods, results and discussion of the study
- Introduction – Short background to the subject and why it is important, main aims and objectives of the study (written in the present tense)
- Methods – how you are going to investigate your hypotheses (past tense)
- Results – the findings of your study (past tense)
- Discussion – an interpretation of your findings in context, with reference to related literature and answers to the questions posed in the introduction (present tense)
These areas will be described in further detail.
The abstract is a short, structured summary of each of the main headings of the study (Introduction/Objective, Methods, Results and Discussion). Often journals set a limit of around 200-300 words for the abstract. It is the first section to appear in research papers, and in most database searches you can screen through the abstract for a summary of each of the main sections of the study to check whether this particular paper is relevant for your research.
The introduction should serve as a concise presentation and background of the topic of interest, with reference to relevant existing literature. By reviewing existing literature on the topic you should be able to highlight the problems, limitations and shortcomings of the existing literature to convince the reader of the importance of this particular subject and study. This may also serve as the thought process through which you choose to ask the key questions of your study. You should clarify what your work could add to the existing body of knowledge.You should also be aware of the suggested structures for certain kinds of studies, these allow for greater standardisation and prevent important information being omitted. Guidelines have now been created for:
- Randomised Controlled Trials
- Systematic Reviews
- Economic Evaluations
- Diagnostic Method Reports
Many journals require you to stick to the writing guidelines for the above papers, and will often reject papers that do not meet these guidelines.
At the end of your introduction, you should have a sentence which leads the reader into the specific aims, objective(s) and design of your study.
At this stage, reviewers from journals will assess the Introduction for the following:
- Are the objectives clear?
- Is the importance of the study adequately emphasized?
- Is the subject matter of the study new?
- Is previous work on the subject adequately cited?
This methods section of the paper is the most common reason for the rejection of a paper by a journal. This section of the article should describe the experimental design and provide the rationale for using it. New methods should be described in sufficient detail to allow other researchers to reproduce the experiment using the methods you have described. If standardised methods have been used, they should be referenced. If you have used similar non-standard methods as another group, read their methods section to see how they have described the technique to avoid omission of important details.The section should contain a full description of the following:
- Materials ( if patients: selection criteria, demographic characteristics and all other relevant information)
- Methods (e.g. surgical technique, drug preparation and dose etc.)
- Type of study (type of control, method of randomization etc.)
- Statistical Methods – state which statistical package was used, and what techniques were used to analyse the data
- Ethical permission and study registration must be acknowledged in the methods section
Again, some types of scientific article will require the methods to be described in a specific format, for example the methods section of systematic reviews should follow guidelines set by the PRISMA Checklist. It is advisable to check for any guidelines or checklists for the type of scientific article you intend to write.
Reviewers from journals will assess the methods section for the following:
- Is the study population detailed adequately?
- Are the methods described well enough to reproduce the experiment?
- Is the study design clear?
- Are statistical methods included?
The results section of the article should describe what you have found in your study. The data should be presented and clearly and in the most appropriate format for the reader. You can present the results as text, tables or graphs, but do not repeat the same data in more than one. Remember, in this section the data should be presented objectively. Most results sections do not require interpretation of the data as this is done in the discussion.Most clinical studies involving patients require descriptive data relating to the sample (patient demographics such as age, sex, etc.). You should aim to address one topic per paragraph starting from the most important and relevant topic to the least relevant result, describing them accurately using short, clear sentences. Avoid using the word “significance” in the results section unless you are referring to statistical significance, where you should quote the ‘p’ value. It is worth considering that statistical significance differs from clinical importance; small differences between large groups can be statistically significant but clinically not important.Only the most relevant data which refer to the question(s) you have outlined in the introduction should be presented. It may be useful to state the important negative findings of your research i.e. what you did not find, to clarify your results, but avoid confusing the reader by irrelevant results.
Often readers will skip through the article to the results section so ensure that the results are displayed accurately and headings and units are evident. Do not write any result for a method not mentioned in the section of materials and methods.
Reviewers from journals will assess this section for the following:
- Can the reader assess the results based on the data provided?
- Is the information straightforward and not confusing?
- Are there adequate controls?
- Are statistical methods appropriate?
- Are any results there that aren’t talked about in methods/ or are any results missing?
The results of the study should be interpreted in the discussion. There are differing views as to how this should be structured. This section can be structured as follows:
1. Introduction to the discussion.
Often researchers start with a small paragraph emphasizing the importance of the subject of the study followed by a summary of the main findings of the study. 2. Discussion of the results in the context of existing literature
Each result obtained must be adequately discussed in comparison with similar previous studies. If the results of your study differ to those from previous studies, provide explanations for these differences. 3. Scientific and clinical significance of these results
This section could include a paragraph on the advantages and the new additions provided by your study in context – how will the results affect clinical practice?
4. Discuss any doubts, weaknesses and confounders that may affect your results
5. Limitations and strengths
Identify the disadvantages, limitations and short-comings of your study and how these could be avoided in future studies. Also discuss the strengths of your study, and what it has added to the body of literature.
6. Further work
Now that you have your results and have identified the limitations of your study, provide suggestions for further research following on from this study.
- This could be written as a separate section or as the last paragraph of the discussion.
- It should focus on the most relevant findings of the study.
- It is the take-home message of the study.
- It is not a repetition of the abstract.
- All conclusions should be supported by the results of the study.
- A common mistake is to write a conclusion based on previous studies and not supported by your own results.
- Your conclusions should perfectly satisfy the objectives of the study.
Tips for the discussion
- Results must be discussed in a logical clear manner.
- Each issue must be discussed in only one place, avoid repetition of ideas.
- Do not return to discuss a previously discussed issue.
- Avoid opinion bias. All important previous studies must be highlighted regardless their results (whether with or against your results).
- Ensure your conclusions are supported by evidence from your results
- Beneath the discussion you should enter the acknowledgements to those who helped in the completion of the study
The reviewer may evaluate the discussion for the following:
- Do the authors comment adequately on all their results?
- Have the authors explained why and how their study differs from others already published?
- Do the authors discuss the potential problems and limitations with their study?
- Are the authors’ conclusions supported by the results?
- Check the reference format required by the journal
- All references should be written in the same style with the same arrangement.
- Recent references are better than old ones, but cite the original paper
- The integrity of the references is the responsibility of the authors only
- Some journals have a maximum number of references that should not be exceeded, try to pick out the most important studies that relate to the point you are making
When you have finished think about whether your paper should be submitted as a short paper or a long one? What is the word limit for the type of article you want to submit (check the instructions to authors)?
You should also declare whether there are any conflicts of interest and state where funding for the study was obtained.
Prior to submission to a journal, it is advisable to ask your supervisor to review the paper, to refine the article and ensure that errors are eliminated prior to submission.
- Writing research papers will help your career progression, as well as contributing to evidence based medicine
- Look at specific ‘instructions to authors’ for the journal you plan to submit to
- Follow reporting guidelines such as PRISMA, CONSORT and STROBE
- Assess your paper by considering how a reviewer will analyse it
- Follow a good structure, and make sure your work is transparent and complete