Planning the Structure of a Successful Academic Research Paper
Although most scholarly authors begin drafting an academic or scientific paper with a relatively clear idea of the research that must be reported and the argument that must be presented in the article, it is often the case that considerably less thought is dedicated to planning the structure of a paper in relation to its content. This is unfortunate because an effective structure can enhance the communication of complex material and the comprehension of readers. It can also render an article especially appealing to acquisitions editors and thus improve the chances that the paper will be successfully published.
Each scholar may approach a paper’s structure in unique ways, but there are two basic strategies when organising scholarly content: prioritising structure by devising an appropriate outline of sections and elements that research material can then be tailored to fit and, on the other hand, prioritising content by allowing the research material to determine the necessary sections and thus what an appropriate structure will be. Each method has its benefits and its shortcomings, but either can provide the means to devise an overall structure that will transform sound research into an excellent article.
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Structure might be prioritised when a scholarly author chooses the journal to which he or she hopes to submit the paper long before the document is actually drafted. Academic and scientific journals almost always offer detailed author instructions that provide advice and sometimes very specific requirements for the structure expected in the articles they publish. Some journals even prepare structural templates for authors submitting their research, but if no such guidelines are available, consulting papers recently published by a journal will prove helpful. It is most likely that all of the articles have used the same or a similar structure, and it will be possible to design a template based on these examples. The challenge will then be to devise an outline that enables the incorporation of all the information – the background to the research, the methods employed, the results achieved and the analysis and conclusions – into the sections and other elements of the structure envisioned. This method can be particularly helpful for authors who are just beginning to report and publish their research, but it is important to avoid compromising content by too rigidly applying the constraints of structure.
Some authors will prefer a strategy that prioritises content, and some kinds of research and the papers they generate will demand a unique structure. In such cases it is wise to keep in mind the sort of structure expected by the journals to which the paper might be submitted for publication, but the primary goal will be to design an overall structure, separate sections and other elements such as tables and figures that will best present research that may be somewhat unusual or particularly complicated. Experienced authors will probably find this approach to structure more effective than will those scholars new to writing and publishing, but no author should rule out designing a unique structure when the research demands it. There is also a desirable flexibility to this sort of structure that can accommodate unexpected developments, but that can be as dangerous to length and structure as it is beneficial, so it is wise to keep an eye on your progress as the paper is drafted.
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