No matter how fantastic your findings are, if you do not present them clearly and logically, your reader may not understand or even bother to read them. It is important that people read your work, so let’s talk about how the structure of a manuscript can keep your reader reading.
Original research reports are commonly organized into Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results and Discussion sections. This allows your reader to find specific information quickly and easily. Most researchers are familiar with this structure, yet many manuscripts that land on my desk still have information in the wrong section. It seems that some of us are still confused about what goes where.
Here I explain what you should or should not put in each section, so that your manuscript is well-structured, your argumentation is clear and… your readers keep reading.
What goes where?
A catchy title will grab the reader’s attention. But more importantly, the title needs to convey what your research is about. If you are struggling to conjure an effective title for your paper, then follow this step by step guide.
Most readers will only read the Abstract, so it needs to be good! Although it is the first section of your paper, I recommend you write it last, when your conclusions and argumentation are clear in your head. The Abstract should summarize the rationale and aim of the study, how the study was performed, what the study showed and the implications of the study findings.
In the Introduction, describe what your work is about and why you are doing it.
For starters, you need to provide the necessary background information. Do not assume that your reader is an expert, but at the same time don’t go overboard and review every paper that was ever published on the topic. Ask yourself, ‘What does my reader need to know?’
Keep it relevant. The Introduction should only contain information to do with your research question. So, if you are exploring the role of a transcription factor in brain development, don’t write four pages on how it regulates the immune system. That is not relevant and does not explain why you are doing what you are doing.
Convince your reader that what you are doing is important. Be sure to highlight what knowledge is missing and how your study will help.
In the Materials and Methods section, describe how you got your results.
You need to include sufficient detail so that the reader can repeat your work. And you need to describe all of your methods. If you present images showing how cortical neurons differentiate when a gene is knocked out, then make sure you explain how these neurons were cultured and how the gene was knocked out.
In the Results section, describe what you found.
The data you present should answer your all-important research question. So, if you explained in the Introduction that you will explore the role of a particular protein in heart development, then do not show where it is expressed in the brain. Stick to the point and your (busy) reader will thank you.
Data can be presented as text, figures or tables. Although you should make your findings clear, don’t repeat everything from figures or tables in the text. And if you do repeat results in the text, make sure that they match what you have presented in your figure.
Research misconduct is (quite rightly) an ever-growing issue. So keep the relevant guidelines in mind when reporting your results, such as the CONSORT guidelines for clinical trials and STROBE guidelines for observational studies (more about these in another post).
In the Discussion, interpret your findings and discuss their implications.
Start by summarizing what you found and say whether you answered your research question. This is your chance to really sell your work! Explain all the important issues raised by your results and discuss them in relation to what is already published. Talk about whether your findings are supported or contradicted by other work, and give reasons why.
No study is without limitations. In the penultimate paragraph, discuss the limitations of your work. How do they affect the interpretation of your results and what could be done to overcome them?
In the final paragraph, make your conclusions. Explain the broader implications of your findings and suggest possible avenues for future work. But take care – although you want to sell your results, do not go overboard and make claims that your data do not support.
So what are the no-no's?
Do not describe your results in the Methods section. For example, you can describe how patients were selected and which patient characteristics were recorded, but you should not say how many patients were female and how many were over 60 years old. This information belongs in the Results section.
Another no-no: Cutting out essential methodological information to reduce the word count. If you need to reduce the number of words, use the Supplementary Information section or refer your reader to publications that provide the relevant details.
And the final no-no: Don’t bore your reader by (re)repeating results and background information in the Discussion. Keep them reading!
Without good structure, you won't keep them reading.
Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copy editing and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copy editor for a biomedical journal.