Developing your main argument for a research paper: The ultimate guideApr 12, 2023
Developing a main argument for a research paper is a critical aspect of successful academic writing. However, many researchers find it challenging to create a main argument that is both strong and compelling. If you're struggling with this task, or not sure exactly what I’m talking about, fear not! In this article, I will provide expert tips on how to craft a main argument that will help your research stand out and get published.
Your paper must have a main argument. At its core, a main argument is the foundation upon which your entire article is built. It's the central idea that you want to convey to your readers and the point that you want to make with your research. Your main argument is also called your ‘thesis statement’, or ‘thesis’.
If you aren’t convinced that you need a main argument, then know that one of the most common reasons that articles are rejected by journals is that they don’t have a clear main argument.
Below, I explain how to identify and refine your main argument, how to avoid common pitfalls, and I provide 41 examples of phrases used to communicate main arguments in research. With these expert tips, you'll be equipped to develop a compelling thesis for your journal article.
What is a main argument?
In my opinion, Belcher provides the best definition of a research argument in her book “Writing your journal article in twelve weeks”. She states “an argument is discourse intended to persuade.” (Belcher 2019: 66).
She elaborates that:
“An argument is (1) your journal article’s single significant idea (2) stated in one or two sentences early and clearly in your article and (3) around which your article is organized, (4) emerging from or linked to some scholarly conversation and (5) supported with evidence to convince the read of its validity.” (Belcher 2019: 67).
In sum, the point of a main argument in research is to convince someone of something that matters. A well-crafted main argument in research is supported by evidence and logical reasoning.
Don’t let yourself be put off by the term ‘argument’ or intimidated by it.
You can make an argument for something and still recognize that there are limitations in your research, that someone may be able to make a counter-argument, and that future research may better support the opposite view. That is how science and research works. There are always many perspectives and possibilities and points of view. Knowledge is iterative and it’s supposed to be that way.
But, you still need to commit to a perspective in a research paper. You can leave room for some uncertainty and still articulate a clear, well-supported main argument.
Every journal article expresses a unique point of view, i.e. a main argument.
Learn how to identify main arguments
If you want to become skilled at crafting compelling arguments, a great place to start is by learning how to identify and analyze arguments made by others. This process involves breaking down an argument into its constituent parts, examining how evidence is used to support the argument, and evaluating the overall effectiveness of the argument. By doing so, you can gain a better understanding of how research arguments are structured and how to construct your own arguments in a more compelling manner.
To illustrate this point, let's consider an example. Imagine you are reading a research article on the effects of exercise on mental health (this is the topic). The authors might be presenting their results from clinical trials, for example (this is the method). The authors may have a sentence that says "our research supports the hypothesis that regular exercise helps reduce anxiety" (this is their main argument). The authors will explain exactly how their data support this main argument. Hypothetically, perhaps the participants who had engaged in exercise showed a significant reduction in their anxiety levels, based on a standard anxiety questionnaire, compared to a control group that didn’t exercise. You may agree that their evidence supports their main argument, or you may have reservations about for example, the sample size not being large enough, or the participants not being representative of the general population. Or maybe you disagree about the reliability of the standard anxiety questionnaire. By first identifying the argument, and then analyzing the article's argument, you can gain insight into how the authors constructed their case, and you can also evaluate the strength of their evidence and the validity of their conclusions.
🔥 Hot tip: The main argument of a journal article often starts with phrases like "Our results suggest...", "Here, we show...", and "This study indicates...".
For every journal article you read, you should be able to identify the main argument. If you cannot identify the main argument, it may be because you don’t yet truly understand the research. Or, it may be because it’s a poor quality paper that hasn’t effectively articulated its main argument.
When reading journal articles for a research project, I suggest keeping track of what you read using a Literature Review Matrix (see below). One of the columns of information that you record for each article should be the main argument.
Create a Literature Review Matrix
A literature review matrix is a tool that helps researchers organize and analyze the existing literature on a particular topic. It is especially useful for researchers who want to compare and contrast different sources and identify patterns and trends in the literature. Remember, one important aspect of an argument is that emerges from or is linked to a scholarly conversation. The Literature Review Matrix is one tool you can use to document and identify what people are talking about in your field.
A Literature Review Matrix typically consists of a table or spreadsheet that lists the key information about each source, such as the author, title, date of publication, method, results, main argument, and any other relevant details that you want to track.
For more information on how to create Literature Review Matrix, check out this post.
Researchers can then use the matrix to identify common themes, patterns, and gaps in the literature, and to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different sources.
Remember to have a column in your Literature Review Matrix for each article’s main argument.
Consider your Audience
Give some thought to who will be reading and citing your article, and what questions or problems they face. Thinking about your audience will allow you to tailor how you present your research and ensure that your work makes a meaningful contribution to your field.
I know it can be difficult to think of researchers as an ‘audience’, so here are some concrete examples of different research audiences. For example, if your paper is about a cross-sectional study of academic burnout in college students, the different audiences your paper may be relevant to include: mental health researchers, mental health practitioners, researchers who employ similar cross-sectional methods, higher education researchers, higher education lecturers and professors, researchers who study burnout (in general), researchers who study burnout in college students (specifically), etc…
You want to focus on one or two audiences. Of course, any and all of the various audiences will find, read, and cite your paper. And you can touch on all these various topics in your article, especially in the Discussion section. However, a focused, clear article usually provides value to one main audience.
🔥 Hot tip: If you struggling to identify your audience, it can help to imagine one or two specific researchers whose work you often cite.
A good main argument for a scientific journal article situates the paper within ongoing scholarly conversations. In other words, it makes a point that matters to other people in your field. It says something that they can cite in their future papers.
Identify your “Problem Statement”
In research, it is crucial to articulate a "Problem Statement".
You may also be familiar with the concept of a research “gap”. What people call a research gap is a specific kind of problem statement.
By stating the problem, you help communicate the novelty of your study. The problem statement articulates what has not been addressed or solved by previous studies. It is the missing piece that the research aims to fill or the debate that has not been resolved.
Some examples of problem statements are:
- Despite previous research on..., little is known about...
- Previous studies have shown..., but there is debate in the literature regarding...
- While research on... has provided valuable insights, there is still a lack of understanding about...
- Although several studies have examined..., there is debate about...
When there is a problem to solve, you can offer a solution, or at least start working toward a solution. You can offer a new angle or perspective, and thus, create a main argument that addresses the problem.
For example, a researcher may identify a problem in the literature about the effectiveness of a particular treatment for a medical condition. The existing studies may provide conflicting results on whether Treatment X is effective or not. The problem statement could be articulate in the manuscript like this: "There are competing views on the effectiveness of Treatment X." By identifying this problem, the researcher can clearly take a stance on the debate, stating that the results of their study better supports one side of the debate over the other. Their main argument might be articulated as "Here, I show that Treatment X has a postive effect on...".
In addition to providing a new angle for the research study, identifying the problem also helps to position the research within the broader field. By solving the problem, the research contributes to the advancement of knowledge in the field and does this important thing: ✨ adds to scholarly conversations✨.
Craft Your Main Argument
The elements of a strong argument
A strong argument in research has several key elements:
Firstly, the main argument must take a stance. The main argument says something. Do not confuse the main argument with the main aims or objectives of your study.
❌ For example, this is NOT a main argument: "This study aims to investigate the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in reducing symptoms of anxiety in college students." This is the aim.
✅ This IS a main argument: "Mindfulness meditation reduces symptoms of anxiety in college students.”
Secondly, the main argument must be clear. It must be easy for readers to understand. Don’t be vague. Don’t use unusual terms for your field.
Third, a good main argument is concise as it can be.
❌ This is an example of a main argument that is NOT concise: "My research demonstrates the efficacy of mindfulness meditation in anxiety reduction, suggesting that it may be an effective tool for promoting mental health and well-being among college students, who are known to experience high levels of stress and anxiety.”
✅ A better and more concise way of stating this is: “ Our results show that mindfulness meditation reduces symptoms of anxiety in college students.”
Fourth, a strong argument must be supported by evidence. The argument must be grounded in research, data, and logic that you present in your article.
Develop your main argument
Sometimes your experiments were so well-designed that you know exactly what your main argument is as soon as you have your results.
More often the research process is a bit messy and you end up with a lot of results and data and it isn’t immediately clear what they are telling you. If this is the position you are in, here is some advice on how to develop your main argument statement, or thesis statement.
You can start with a bit of a free-flow brainstorming technique and write down all the words related to your research. To start, you can just write words and topics – don’t over think it. Get the words down.
After brainstorming words/topics, write down what your results/observations are – what did you find out? What do your data show?
From there, see if you can bring it together and brainstorm arguments that your data support. When you bring all your data together, what argument do they support?
Validate your main argument
After you have a potential argument, or a few options, you can work toward validating it/them. Ask yourself these questions:
- Does it take a stance?
- Can someone disagree with it?
- Does it help resolve a ‘gap’ or a ‘problem’ in my field?
- Can I use my data/results to support it?
If you answer yes to all of the above, then you probably have a good argument.
Practice and tweak your main argument
Research arguments often develop over time. They can start of fuzzy, coming into focus only when you’ve had more time to think and share.
When you think you’ve narrowed down your main argument, do what I call ‘practicing’ with it. Talk to people about it. Write it out. Write a few versions of it. See if you can persuade yourself and others with the evidence you collected. Consider any feedback you receive. Talking and writing about things usually helps you gain clarity.
Keep in mind that the whole article writing process is also an example of "practicing". As you write your article, you may find that you want to change or tweak your argument. And that’s okay. Better to be open-minded than to be too rigid with an argument that isn’t working.
It’s okay if your argument evolves over time. That’s actually a good thing! It means you are thinking deeply and critically about your research.
Communicate Your Main Argument
Published research papers are quite formulaic in that they have a very predictable structure. This helps editors, reviewers, and readers more quickly understand the article, which is a good thing. One of the most common journal article formats is called the IMRaD format – which stands for Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Journal articles are almost always published with an Abstract, which is a one paragraph summary of the article.
The main argument will predictably appear in at least 3 places in your research paper.
- Abstract – Abstracts are short and have a very predictable format. Your main argument should appear approximately in the middle of the abstract, after the problem statement, and before you summarize the evidence that supports your argument.
- Introduction – Your main argument must be clearly stated in the Introduction section, and most often within the first 3 or 4 paragraphs. Tell readers early on what your main argument is. Don’t make them have to read the whole article to find out how you eventually interpret things. Be transparent.
- Discussion – Your main argument will probably come up a few more times in the Discussion section. This is because it’s in this section where you interpret your results – i.e. explain the meaning of your data. Some authors begin the Discussion section with a clear statement about their main argument, others will have a concluding paragraph (or even a separate Conclusion section) where they reiterate the main argument.
In sum, ensure that your main argument is clearly stated in the Abstract, Introduction, and Discussion sections of your article.
Avoid Common Pitfalls
Here are some of the most common pitfalls that new researchers and PhD candidates make when considering their main argument.
Pitfall 1: Thinking that in your particular case, that you don’t need a main argument.
You do need a main argument. There has to a be a reason for someone to read your article. It must contribute something besides some new random information. The details you present must mean something to someone else and you must articulate what that is. You need a main argument no matter what discipline you are in – science, business, medicine, humanities, or anything else. Editors reject articles that don’t clearly articulate and support a main argument.
Pitfall 2: Stating a topic, or aim, research question, or significance, rather than an argument.
Don’t confuse things that aren’t arguments with your argument.
Consider this example, imagining that you are doing a PhD in wildlife conservationist and you have been doing research about elephants in national parks around the world.
❌ Your more specific topic could be something like “local stakeholders and elephant conservation”. That is not your argument.
❌ The aim of your research might be “to investigate the impact of local stakeholders on elephant conservation outcomes”. That is not your argument.
❌ The research may have implications for developing conservation policies. That is not your argument - it’s the research significance. (P.S. If your statement contains the phrase ‘has implications for’ or ‘sheds light on’, then it is not a main argument.)
❌ Your research question might be “How do local stakeholders influence elephant conservation outcomes?” That is not your argument.
✅ Your main argument is the answer to your research question, which may be “Our results show that increased local stakeholder involvement improves elephant conservation outcomes”.
Pitfall 3: Fixating on being entirely original or profound.
Your research should contribute something new to field and advance knowledge. But, it doesn’t need to change the world. And you don’t even have to be the first to say something. (As long as you are presenting new data or a new perspective).
Your main argument may add support to one side of a debate or add support to the hypothesis that XX. This is still a valuable contribution.
Pitfall 4: Presenting too many arguments.
You want to focus on one main argument. Of course, in your Discussion section you will make several points, interpreting the evidence you presented and elaborating on their significance. In a way, these are mini-arguments. But, your article must focus on one main argument that you support with evidence.
If you think you have multiple arguments to make, then you want to work toward synthesizing them into one over-arching argument, or consider isolating one main argument and moving the other arguments into other papers.
Pitfall 5: Not wanting to commit.
It can feel a bit scary to voice a perspective on something, especially if you sometimes struggle with imposter syndrome feelings like many academics.
Sometimes PhD candidates and early career researchers don’t articulate their main argument intentionally because they are afraid of being wrong. Don’t do this.
It’s way better to have a clear main argument in a published journal article that some people disagree with, than to have no published article at all. Remember, research is by definition iterative. It’s okay for people to disagree and for future research to potentially disprove your work. That’s normal and how it works.
Did you find this post helpful? Pin it to Pinterest!
41 examples of research arguments
Here are 41 examples of phrases used to communicate main arguments in a journal article:
- The data indicate that...
- These results challenge the traditional view that...
- Our findings contradict previous studies that have claimed...
- These observations lend support to the theory that...
- Our analysis reveals a previously unconsidered factor in...
- This study adds to the growing body of evidence that...
- Our findings raise important questions about...
- The results suggest a possible mechanism for...
- This review challenges the widely held assumption that...
- Our results provide support for the hypothesis that...
- This study reveals a previously unknown relationship between...
- Our results suggest a potential solution for…, which is…
- This study offers a novel approach to...
- The present study provides evidence that...
- Our results call into question the validity of...
- This study reveals a complex interplay between...
- Our results challenge conventional thinking about...
- This study demonstrates the importance of considering...
- These findings reveal a previously undiscovered aspect of...
- The present research highlights the need for a more nuanced approach to...
- Our results suggest that previous studies may have overlooked...
- This study shows that… impacts…
- This study highlights the importance of considering the role of...
- These findings provide support for a previously untested hypothesis about...
- The present research suggests that current methods for... may need to be revised.
- Our results challenge the assumptions underlying...
- The present research provides new evidence for the role of... in...
- This study provides evidence for the effectiveness of...
- This study identifies key factors contributing to...
- The results reveal a need to re-evaluate current practices in...
- Our study problematizes the view that…
- XX is a key factor influencing…
- XX is predictive of…
- There is a positive correlation between…and…
- There is a complex interplay between…and…
- The findings indicate that …
- Here, I show that...
- These experiments confirmed that …
- Overall, this review strengthens the idea that …
- The current review highlights the importance of…
- The method presented provides a useful tool for...
FYI – you can also drop the ‘these experiments show’, ‘this study shows’, and similar phrases and just get straight to the point, especially for qualitative and humanities-based research.
However, when it’s appropriate, it does to have these kinds of phrases as a kind of callout for your readers – it shows them exactly where to find your main argument.
Belcher, Wendy Laura. 2019. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success (2nd Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, Pp. xxii, 351. ISBN-13 978-1-4129-5701-4.
Here is list of other helpful resources and tools for writing a journal article:
The You Can Publish That guide by Dr Jayne Wilkins – Learn how to leverage the work you have already done to write and publish high-quality journal articles.
How to format a journal article – Learn the most common structures for research papers and scientific articles.
How to publish an academic paper – Writing and publishing tips from an experienced academic, author, and journal editor.
Overcoming imposter syndrome – If you experience fraudster feelings when it comes to your research and writing about it, then know that you are not alone. You can and will succeed despite your doubts.
Academic Phrasebank | The University of Manchester – Check out this massive inventory of example phrases commonly used in academia.