How To Write a Research Paper for Journal Publication
A traditional research paper published in a reputable scholarly journal remains a primary means of reporting and disseminating the methods, results and implications of advanced research. Writing an excellent research paper is far from simple, however, and even the best of papers face stiff competition when they arrive on the desks of journal proofreaders. Success will depend on many factors that can at times be frustratingly unpredictable, but there are basic principles that apply to most academic and scientific journals and are worthy of careful consideration as you plan, draft and polish your manuscript.
An essential requirement in all disciplines is writing about research that will be relevant and significant for the editor and readers of your targeted journal. Original research into a current problem that uses sound methods to obtain meaningful results and arrive at useful answers will provide the right kind of material, but that material must also be presented in a clear and logical manner that tells an engaging research story. Most academic and scientific journals will outline the structure they expect in a research paper, and some will even lay out exactly what information should appear in each section. In the absence of such detailed instructions, research papers previously published by the journal should be consulted as models of successful structure and content. You may even find some articles that could be usefully cited in your own paper, enabling you to enter the intellectual conversations taking place in the journal.
Although it is never wise to deviate from the structural requirements of a scholarly journal, it can be wise to write the sections of a research paper out of order. The title and abstract, for instance, should certainly be written or at least finalised after the paper itself is drafted, but many scientists and academics will also write the introduction after later parts of a paper. The section dedicated to methodology is often a perfect place to begin because it demands a factual description of exactly what you did that can serve as an effective tool for establishing a flow of text about your work. Reporting the results or findings of research is usually much easier if tables and figures for presenting data are designed first and then used and refined as the section is written. This approach also reduces repetition and excessive detail, promoting a concise and accessible text.
Do pay attention to exactly what and how you are writing. Language problems account for a large portion of the rejections handed out by journal proofreaders, and errors in complex data and subtle arguments can earn negative reviews, both before and after publication. Write with care, ensuring that your grammar, punctuation and spelling are correct at all times, that specialised terminology and unusual abbreviations are defined, and that each sentence and your overall style are clear and appropriate for your discipline. The reading you do in the journal will teach you about the type of writing expected, but if you are in doubt, keep it simple. The research you are reporting is probably complicated, so rendering the explanations simple enough to convey your meaning clearly to a wide range of readers is the real challenge. Read and revise your own writing several times and have friends, mentors and colleagues read it as well. Considering their feedback seriously, especially the most unexpected, can be incredibly illuminating and help you significantly improve your paper. Always proofread and edit your manuscript with extreme care, breaking the job into smaller chunks of related material (references and citations, tables and figures, content of main text, language and style) to improve your focus, accuracy and efficiency.
Finally, be sure to give yourself sufficient time as you plan, draft and revise your research article – time to think about the findings and implications of your research and time to write and perfect your paper. The time dedicated to academic and scientific writing should be free of distractions to enable the focus, precision, persuasive logic and penetrating analytical thought needed to report and discuss advanced research accurately and thoroughly. Poor or nonexistent interpretation and generally weak discussion sections constitute another prominent reason why journal proofreaders reject research papers, so take the time to think through and around your results, theories and recommendations, and always explain your interpretations clearly, supporting them with persuasive evidence. Potential readers will often turn to the discussion section of a research paper to determine whether the work is relevant to use and cite in their own, so you want to catch and hold their attention.
An excellent research paper should impress readers with your knowledge and understanding as much as it informs and interests them, and such a paper will be a boon to both your scholarly community and your career once it is published. A poorly written and presented paper, on the other hand, that somehow slips past proofreaders and reviewers to achieve journal publication is not a victory for the author, but a permanent blot on an academic or scientific career.
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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.