How to Structure a Journal Article: The Perfect Format for Your Research PaperJun 10, 2022
When you are writing a research paper, it is important to provide a clear structure. This will ensure that your paper is easy to read and that your ideas are presented logically. Here, I will discuss the format of a journal article and provide you with an outline that you can use when writing your paper.
The general structure of a scientific paper
The format of a scientific paper is very important. It ensures that the readers of the paper can clearly understand your research project - what you did, why you did it, and what you found out.
The journal you are submitting to may or may not have specific requirements for the headings used in your article, so it's best to check the author guidelines on the journal website to find out. While there is some variability between journals and disciplines, most scientific articles have a similar structure.
The outline below is the most common structure used for writing a scientific paper. This is also known as the "IMRaD format" because the main sections are the Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion, in that order.
What to write in each section
The most important feature of titles is that they inform the reader what research papers are about. It should at minimum communicate the topic of the paper; it may also indicate the methods used and the main result. Journal article titles tend to be about 8-13 words in length.
The abstract is one of the most important sections of a journal article because it provides a brief summary of the entire paper. This includes a sentence or two each on the research question, the methods, the results, and the significance. While the abstract is the first section in a published journal article, it is generally the last section to be written.
The main goal of the introduction of a research paper is to give the reader the information they need to properly evaluate your findings. It's often tempting to include too much background information in the introduction, but the introduction should be as concise as possible (approximately 4-6 paragraphs). It consists of a synthesis of your literature review (not your entire literature review), highlighting the most relevant previous work in your field, and a brief overview of your research. In general, this will include one or two paragraphs on each of the following, in this order: background information about the broad topic, background information about the more specific topic, an explanation of the problem addressed by your study, and an "In this paper,..." summary of what you did.
The methods section of a journal article describes the materials and procedures. This section should include all the details required so that another researcher could replicate your study. Sub-headings may be used in this section to provide additional structure. For example, you may have one sub-section for each method you used. Where excessive details are required for replication (i.e. questionnaires, code, raw data) they may be included as "Supplementary Information", or "Supplementary Online Material", depending on the journal.
The results section of a journal article presents a summary of your main findings. This section of the research paper will contain most, if not all, of the visuals you create to communicate your results (i.e. figures and tables). Sub-headings may be used in this section to provide additional structure, and if appropriate, they can mirror the sub-headings you used in the methods section. The text you write for this section should provide an overview of your results, highlighting the key observations, values, and statistics (if relevant). It should complement the visuals and cite them, but not repeat them in excessive detail. Do not present interpretations in this section.
The Discussion of a journal article is where you interpret the results of your study and discuss their implications. It's good practice to start the section with a summary of your results. Follow this summary with a thorough consideration of what the results mean, tieing back to the problem that you highlighted in the Introduction and showing how the findings build on previous research. In contrast to the Introduction where you started broad and then became more specific, in the Discussion, start specific and become broader. Often, the discussion section also includes a consideration of the limitations of the study. In general, the length of the Discussion section is about 4-5 paragraphs.
The conclusion of a journal article should be brief, generally no more than one paragraph. The goal of the conclusion is to synthesize your findings and reiterate their significance. It's common practice to provide a brief statement about how the research contributes to our understanding of the broad topic. You may also suggest some general directions for future research. This section is not needed if you find it is merely repeating things you've said in the Discussion. Often the conclusion is not a separate section, but a paragraph at the end of the Discussion section.
The references section lists all the sources that you cite in your research paper. This should primarily include other journal articles but may also include some books and online databases. Every journal has very specific requirements about the style you must use for your reference section down to the nitty-gritty details (i.e. whether to use commas or periods), so make sure that you check that. If you use a reference management system like Zotero, Mendeley, or Endnote will auto-format all your references to the style you choose. In sum, the References section presents all the information required for a reader to find the exact resources you cited - authors, years, article titles, and journal titles.
The most common structure of a journal article is called the "IMRaD format".
Other ways to structure research papers
The general structure described above works well for many research projects in many disciplines. However, there are situations where this format is not appropriate. For example, review papers don't usually have Methods or Results sections (the exception would be quantitative reviews and meta-analyses). Rather the middle part of the paper may be structured by theme, topic, or argument, with unique and descriptive section headers. Thus the major sections would be Abstract, Introduction, Topic 1, Topic 2, Topic 3, Discussion, Conclusions, References.
Some journals require a slightly modified IMRaD structure. For example, sometimes it is requested that the Methods section go last and/or the Results and Discussion section are combined into one section. This is why it's always important to check the journal's author guidelines page.
For more advice on how to structure different types of articles, you can also check out my free guide: The You Can Publish That Guide.
Journal articles do commonly deviate from the IMRaD format. The most important consideration when structuring your journal article is making a clear argument supported by evidence.
The most important consideration
The most important consideration when formating your research paper is clarity. What will best support your main argument or line of inquiry? For publication, you are not just providing a report or description. You are articulating a main argument that contributes to your field of research and convincing your reader of it.
The IMRaD format is a great starting point for many research papers because it is so widely used and well-understood. However, don't be afraid to deviate from this structure if you think it will better serve your particular project (within the confines of the journal's guidelines).