Academic Writing Examples for a Publishable Research Article
The writing required to produce a high-quality academic or scientific article for publication in a peer-reviewed journal is a specialised kind of formal writing. It may be similar to the writing advanced students do in the essays, reports and papers submitted to earn university credit. It may also be similar to the writing found on the best research websites and blogs, but it tends to be very different from most of the informal writing shared via email, text messages, social media and other popular online platforms. For many researchers who are working to produce an academic article for the first time, the kind of writing needed for success can seem foreign and perhaps even awkward at times, and can therefore prove very difficult to achieve.
Journal guidelines will generally have some information to offer authors about the structure and formatting expected in articles submitted for consideration, and trusted mentors and colleagues can usually be counted on for constructive criticism about research content. About writing style, however, neither may have helpful advice to offer, though if such specific advice is available, making the most of it via careful corrections and revisions will be wise. A lack of constructive advice for improvements does not mean, however, that what is considered a poor style or ineffective communication will not have a negative effect on the reception of the article, because it most assuredly will. A great many manuscripts are rejected by journal editors due to inadequate writing, often with little or no explanatory commentary to soften the blow, so writing very well indeed is imperative, and all the more so if the goal is to be read and cited by other researchers.
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Each academic or scientist must of course develop and refine his or her own authoritative voice within the accepted conventions of the relevant field of study, and that voice will ideally have unique qualities, but it is also important to learn about the writing style expected by publishers and readers in the discipline and then to do everything possible to emulate it. Examples of this style should already be at least somewhat familiar from the reading done while conducting the research for an article, but if so much attention was paid to content that writing style slipped by without notice, take another look at the studies that will be used and cited in the article. Any that were published in the journal to which the new article will be submitted are particularly important, but much can be learned from any and all writing in a field – even writing that does not communicate effectively and therefore provides an effective model of what not to do.
Scientific writing, for instance, usually adopts a concise, no-nonsense style to convey accurate and precise information with maximum clarity, as in this example sentence:
• In the second trial the members of Groups 3 and 4 were the participants, while the members of Groups 1 and 2 became the observers.
Though it might seem shorter and easier to write something like ‘The groups switched places for the second trial,’ which is how such a change might be described in casual conversation, that sentence does not communicate with the same precision and is thus open to misinterpretation by the reader. Since part of the goal of scientific writing is to provide the information necessary for readers to understand exactly what was done so that the work can be replicated, imprecision and ambiguity must always be avoided.
Academic writing in the humanities, on the other hand, tends to be more varied and complex in style, with the writing style itself sometimes adding nuances to the argument and deliberate ambiguity playing an important role at times. Even so, however, the writing should never be wordy. There is simply not enough room for extraneous words in most academic journal articles, and the primary goal remains the effective communication of the research, which is the priority in this sentence about reader response:
• The annotator’s obvious if perhaps reluctant sympathy with the author’s confession of inattention at school is conveyed via three words scribbled in the left margin in a script so tiny and faint that it is almost undetectable: ‘For me too.’
Regardless of the field of study, the academic writing in a scholarly article should always be formal in style. This means that complete sentences must be used, contractions and slang must be avoided, and the approach and tone of the author must be professional. A researcher may be thinking something like this:
• Just couldn’t believe the difference. How participating changed the observers! I had to laugh at their faces pressed against the glass, eyes eager for the mistakes they’d just made.
However, it is something like this that he or she should write instead:
• The experience of participating had a profound effect on the behaviour of the observers. Those observers who had just participated in the trial were so engaged in watching the efforts and particularly the errors of the new participants that their faces were soon pressed against the observation window.
Academic writing for a research article must also be correct. Obviously, the writing should be correct in that it accurately and honestly reports exactly what was done and what evidence was discovered, even when the results obtained do not live up to expectations. In addition, academic writing should always be grammatically correct, a quality required not only to communicate research successfully, but also to achieve the high standards required for publication. A first draft will naturally sport errors and awkward constructions, but careful editing and revision should include correcting even the tiniest mistakes in grammar, spelling and punctuation, as well as generally improving the language and its ability to convey complex information with clarity and precision. Such polishing should ultimately transform a draft passage riddled with errors like the one that appears first here into the far superior finished passage beneath it:
• The pattern of large dark annotation and small pale ones create the impresion that the annotater had a strong hand, big script and darker ink when their was agreement with something he considered morally acceptable, but used a weak hand, smaller text and pale ink to positively comment on stuff that the other monks might have condemmed.
• Large dark annotations are interspersed along the margins with tiny pale ones. Both are the product of the same annotator, and the pattern reveals a clear logic. The annotator used a bold hand, larger script and darker ink when agreeing with ideas or practices his monastic community would have considered morally acceptable, but shifted to a shakier hand, smaller script and paler ink to leave positive comments on matters that might have raised an eyebrow or two among his brothers.
As that last example demonstrates, academic writing that is correct, formal and appropriate for the discipline will strike its readers as authoritative. To be an effective authority in a field, a researcher must write in a way that guides readers through the story of his or her research and along the logical twists and turns of any arguments about the meaning and value of that research. Effective transitions are therefore essential to academic writing and can be used at several levels. The headings within an article may mark major transitions between, for example, the methods and the results of the research, or between the factual evidence and the author’s interpretation of that evidence. A standard structural framework for a scientific article uses this pattern of headings:
• Title of Article
• Introduction or Background
• Literature Review
• Methods & Materials
• Tables & Figures
• Appendices & Other Supplementary Material
Variations are common, so a literature review may not be necessary, discussion and conclusions may be combined in one section, and tables and figures may be embedded in the paper instead of tacked on at the end. In some cases more creative headings may be possible: in articles in the humanities and social sciences, for instance, they are common and overall structure tends to vary considerably as well. In both academic and scientific articles subheadings are often used within long or complicated sections to provide a clear path for the reader through complex research material.
Transitions between paragraphs are also important for enabling readers to navigate a sophisticated academic or scientific argument. Each paragraph will ideally explore a single idea or result, with its first sentence linking that idea or result to what has just been discussed in the preceding paragraph, while its last sentence leads the reader on to what will be discussed in the next paragraph. In a relatively simple explanation of unanticipated results, such an approach might look as straightforward as this [my comments appear in square brackets here]:
• There are three possible interpretations of these unexpected results [which have just been reported in the article’s preceding paragraph]. The first is [briefly introduce it]…. The second interpretation is closely related, but [offer differentiating details]…. The third contradicts the other two and [briefly describe it as well]…. These three possibilities and their primary implications are discussed in greater detail below [perhaps in the next three or more paragraphs depending on the length and complexity of the information].
Transitions between and within sentences also require considerable thought and careful writing if they are to guide readers smoothly through descriptions of procedures and facts, explorations of ideas and interpretations, and developments of theories and conclusions. Common transitional words such as ‘therefore’ and ‘however’ can be immensely helpful when used effectively. ‘Therefore’ introduces a logical consequence:
• The first trial failed due to a technical error that allowed the temperature to rise too quickly. We therefore replaced the temperature monitor before beginning the second trial.
‘However,’ on the other hand, introduces a contradiction or unexpected consequence:
• However, this second trial was a failure as well because the position of the temperature sensor, not the monitor itself, was the problem.
There are many particularly transitional words and phrases in the English language, but be aware that any word or phrase can fill a transitional function when placed and used appropriately, with the selective repetition of important terms and concepts and the careful avoidance of potentially vague pronouns especially useful strategies for academic writing.
Vague writing is never the answer, in any case, in an academic or scientific article that aims to inform readers. Whether the goal is to describe a specific procedure, report quantitative results or discuss philosophical theories, clarity means using language with extreme care. Consider the following two sentences:
• We were unsure whether the temperature monitor or the position of the sensor was at fault. This undermined the first two trials.
Now, most readers would assume that the pronoun ‘This’ in the second sentence refers to the researchers’ uncertainty, and indeed that is what the grammar here suggests, but the researchers’ uncertainty is not really what ‘undermined’ the first two trials, though it definitely contributed to the failure of the second. In addition, there are other possibilities for the antecedent of ‘This,’ such as the ‘position of the sensor’ that actually was the problem. The use of a specific noun instead of that potentially vague pronoun would produce a better and more accurate sentence regardless of the intended meaning:
• We were unsure whether the temperature monitor or the position of the sensor was at fault. Our uncertainty led to the wrong decision and the failure of the second trial as well.
• We were unsure after the first trial failed whether the temperature monitor or the position of the sensor was at fault, but the failure of the second trial revealed that the position of the sensor was indeed the problem.
The goal in academic writing is to say exactly what is intended without introducing the potential for confusion in the mind of the reader. Discipline-specific language developed to communicate particular concepts and trends within a field is often used to achieve the precision required, but it is important to remember that specialised terminology and jargon may exclude more readers than they effectively inform. When needed, such language should always be defined or explained for the reader and then used with special care and consistency throughout an academic or scientific article. The same is the case with words and phrases borrowed from foreign languages, the defining names for objects, participants, groups, variables and other vital elements of the research process, and any nonstandard or newly coined abbreviations. The following sentences give an example of how this can be done (with explanatory comments in square brackets):
• The poem is extant in two earlier manuscripts: Holton House MS 13 (hereafter referred to as HH13) and Walton House MS 23 (WH23). HH13 could well be the origin of the version found in the later manuscripts I have discussed above, but the WH23 text is not represented in those later manuscripts, except perhaps in the interlinear corrections of SH93 [an abbreviation that would already have been introduced and defined earlier in the article].
If many abbreviations or many specialised and unfamiliar terms are used in a single article, including an alphabetical list of them with brief but clear definitions will offer readers a tool for quickly checking meanings and improving comprehension. In fact, lists of various kinds are often vital aspects of academic and scientific articles and tend to be much appreciated by readers. Lists can separate important or complex information from the rest of the text and offer it in a organised fashion that enables efficient understanding of the material, but it is essential to arrange lists effectively and observe parallelism within the text of the individual items. The first list below is poorly explained as well as disorganised and inconsistent in layout and syntax, whereas the second is the kind of clear and useful list a reader might expect to find in high-quality academic writing:
Reasons for change in migration patterns;
1. Now not enough birds to migrate
II Because of changes in food availability
iii) Recent springs have had unpredictable weather patterns
We are unsure which is more important.
Reasons for the marked changes we have observed in the spring migration patterns over the last three years could include
1. Altered and unpredictable weather patterns along much of the migration route.
2. Drastically reduced availability of primary food sources, particularly in April and May.
3. Significantly reduced numbers of older birds to remember and retrace migration routes.
Although we do not yet know the relative importance of these three factors in affecting migratory behaviour, we have arranged them here in the probable order of their influence, with changing weather patterns being the primary concern and contributing to the other two factors.
Lists of tables and figures may also be required or desired for an academic or scientific article, especially if the article is long and makes use of many visual aids to report and clarify the research. Whether they are numerous or few, listed or not, tables and figures are themselves highly useful elements of academic writing that can effectively communicate large amounts of complicated numerical data in effective patterns for analysis and comparison or clarify complex processes and equipment by showing readers exactly what was done and how it was done. Tables and figures are only useful for readers, however, if they are well designed to convey the information intended and carefully labelled to allow complete understanding of what is shown. Headings, captions, notes and legends should be used as necessary to provide titles and explanations so that readers do not need to rely on the rest of the article to understand the tables and figures.
Tables and figures should also be consecutively numbered in the order in which they are mentioned in the main text of an academic or scientific article. This allows each table or figure to be referred to by its number when it is discussed. Such internal references might also make use of the title of a table or the caption of a figure and should certainly give the reader some indication of what the table or figure shows. These examples tell the reader exactly what to look for and where:
• Manuscripts of the poem are listed in Table 1, while early printed editions are listed in Table 2. In Figure 1 all copies of the poem are charted in chronological order to reveal the overall pattern of production and dissemination.
• All handwritten copies of the poem are listed in Table 1: Manuscripts of ‘The Bait’ and all printed copies are listed in Table 2: Early Printed Editions of ‘The Bait.’
Unlike tables and figures that are usually optional, a list of the sources consulted during the research is always required in an academic or scientific article intended for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Academic writing acknowledges and formally cites the work of researchers, authors, artists and other creators of ideas, words, images and data. Neglecting to cite sources is considered serious misconduct by readers, instructors and publishers, even when that neglect is unintentional. Sources can be appropriately cited in a variety of different formats by using a reference number, mentioning the author and date of publication, or providing a footnote or endnote. For example:
• The study by Smith and Johnson produced insignificant results .
• When the topic was first explored (Anderson, 1976), two of the key manuscripts were still undiscovered.
• Watson transcribed and translated all of the darker annotations decades ago,1 but her thesis was never published.
The bracketed number in the first example would lead the reader to the full bibliographical reference in the list of references, whereas the superscript number in the last example would connect with a footnote or endnote that provides either a complete or shortened reference to the source.
Documentation styles vary considerably in details and formatting, so special attention must always be paid to a journal’s instructions and examples for citations and references. Because the purpose of references is to identify unique sources with precision, complete, accurate and carefully arranged information is the norm for the full bibliographical references in most documentation styles. A style that uses numbered citations is likely to list the complete references according to the sequence in which they are cited in the article, as in these Vancouver style examples (titles that should appear in italic font here are also surrounded by underscores in case the italics are not retained in all online formats):
• 1. Smith, P, Johnson, R. Migratory habits of eastern robins. _Birding Journal_. 2007; 42(3): 196–209.
2. Anderson, M. _Fishing for Poetry about Fishing_. Yorkton: River Press; 1976.
3. Watson, A. _Annotations in the earliest manuscript of ‘The Bait’_ [unpublished PhD thesis]. Green City: White Tower University; 1982.
Complete references to accompany author–date or note citations in the text are organised for the list of references or bibliography in alphabetical order according to author names. The date should appear immediately after the author names to match author–date citations as in these examples that use the style recommended by the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association:
• Anderson, M. (1976). _Fishing for poetry about fishing_. Yorkton: River Press.
Smith, P., & Johnson, R. (2007). Migratory habits of eastern robins. _Birding Journal_, 42(3): 196–209. doi:xx.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Watson, A. (1982). _Annotations in the earliest manuscript of ‘The Bait’_ (unpublished doctoral thesis). White Tower University, Green City.
When footnotes or endnotes are used for in-text citations, the title of each source (rather than the date of publication) usually follows the author name in a complete bibliographical reference, and the publication date is moved to the end. Both are true of these examples based on the Chicago Manual of Style’s notes and bibliography method.
• Anderson, Mark. _Fishing for Poetry about Fishing_. Yorkton: River Press, 1976.
Smith, Peter, and Ralph Johnson. “Migratory Habits of Eastern Robins.” _Birding Journal_ 42, no.3 (2007): 196–209.
Watson, Amanda. “Annotations in the Earliest Manuscript of ‘The Bait’.” PhD thesis, White Tower University, 1982.
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