Aspiring researchers tend to have difficulties in how to write a research paper for publication. Some do not know exactly where to start on a thesis while others have trouble making their ideas come across clearly.
One reason for this is that there is no single way to go about academic research. Different disciplines and research programs approach research work differently. These range from methodologies to motivations and citation formats to their writing styles. Just a cursory look at published work in academic journals and professional conferences will show a great variety of what is acceptable. However, there are general things to pay keen attention to and keep in mind when doing research and preparing a document for publication.
As such, this article will discuss how to write a research paper, focusing on the critical things to consider like your aims and motivation, choosing the type of paper you want to publish, and your target venue. The document will also include tips on how to develop an outline and how to write the common parts of a research paper. In this way, you can jumpstart writing a research work intended for publication.
The aim of writing a research paper for publication is to contribute useful knowledge to your field. This can range from conceptual frameworks and critical analysis of abstract concepts to finetuning methodologies and sharing experimental data.
To make a valued contribution, a researcher must give serious consideration to various prerequisites, including the relevancy of a research topic, the specific research questions to be answered, the type of research paper one intends to publish, and the outline for communicating ideas well. Content and communication go hand in hand. But it all rests upon what your aims are. Thus, you need to be clear about them before you start your research.
General and Specific Motivations
The general motivation for writing a research paper is to move a particular field or research program forward by creating new ways of thinking about research objects, interacting or manipulating them, and trimming down unproductive methodologies (Lakatos, 1980). The general motivation is to be less wrong when it comes to basic research and more efficient when it comes to applied research. It is to be a productive citizen of your discipline and to contribute to progress however it is perceived.
This general motivation can be broken down into specific ones. Specific research motivations can be thought of as some sort of agenda. It all boils down to researchers getting in on certain research-specific conversations. But basically, researchers tend to promote a particular view/answer (their own or others) or argue against another.
Put simply, basic research motivations are the positing and negating of scholarly statements (e.g. mathematical conjectures, scientific hypothesis, philosophical analysis, etc.). In applied research and other fields, these include prescriptive statements like for policy or technological development (i.e. public administration and business).
And, the specific statements are usually the answers to research questions that are relevant to research or professional communities. Thus, it is best to be attuned to these interests to increase the chance of getting your work published. There are at least two basic things here to consider: (1) unanswered questions and (2) conceptual clarifications.
Unanswered questions can come in two major varieties: (a) theoretical explanations and (b) experimental designs and results.
For instance, a researcher can offer an explanatory account of certain phenomena. One example would be the Big Bang theory, which links the decline in the temperature of the universe to the ‘redshift’ that can be caused by distant galaxies receding from our own (Ball, 2000).
On the other hand, researchers can perform experiments that can bring evidence for or against a theory’s predictions. An example of this is the work of Srianand, Petitjean, and Ledoux (2000), which tested whether the fundamental prediction of the hot Big Bang cosmology that the cosmic microwave background radiation’s temperature should increase when the redshift increases. They measured relative populations of atomic fine-structure levels and found evidence that the prediction is true.
Conceptual clarifications can involve (d) critical analysis of frameworks and methodologies or (c) bringing up certain points that other researchers fail to consider.
An example of the former is the expository work of Gardner (2020) about George R. Price’s equation commonly used in the study of biological evolution to bring insights to the study of social evolution. An example of the latter would be Frank’s (2012) paper, which brings up certain points about the usefulness and unusefulness of George R. Price’s equation as a model for abstract analysis. Both works bring to light what and what cannot be achieved by using a particular concept for analysis.
The specific points and contributions depend on the overall zeitgeist of your discipline, research program, or target venue. Thus, there needs to be an alignment between your personal research motivations and the interest and motivations of those of your target community or venue for publishing.
For yourself, you need to be clear about your purpose for writing and personal motivations firstly with yourself. Also, you should put this in writing to help guide you in your research work and the writing proper. Just remember that the overarching motivation is to move your research program or field forward and specific motivations depend on your interests, research strengths, or stances on a particular issue.
A Note on Intellectual Honesty
There are researchers and scholars that have made their careers all about a single theory or a view contrarian to the common zeitgeist. This is well and good when done in good faith. However, researchers are prone to being overzealous about promoting a particular viewpoint.
Some have even made it past the considered boundary of intellectual honesty, offering illogical jumps to conclusions and the pooling of citations of results that do not necessarily lend a hand to a particular claim or their pet theories. So, be sure to question yourself and be careful to present ideas in the most objective manner that you can. A good amount of self-doubt is required here. Objectivity should always temper your specific motivations.
Research Paper Types and Common Approaches
It is common for researchers to already have a topic or research question in mind when they are at the point of wanting to write a research paper. But, if the urge to publish a paper comes first and there is difficulty in choosing a research topic, it is harder to get anything done.
Choosing a topic will be easier when you are familiar with the types and approaches to research getting published in your field. Thus, in this section, we will offer a refresher on them.
Broad Research Categories and Their Common Species
Common types of peer-reviewed research papers include review papers, comparative papers, survey research, progress reports, and experiment reports. All of these, however, can be categorized roughly into (a) abstract or theoretical papers and (b) empirical papers. It is good to note that some research papers have a good deal of both. However, the main thesis of the paper usually slants one way or the other.
The (a) abstract theoretical research, the first broad category, mostly deals with abstract ideas that explain, explore, and predict objects of research interests. Objects of interest can be of the natural kind, social kind, and even abstract ideas themselves (mostly in the formal sciences like mathematics). On the other hand, (b) empirical research deals exclusively with things we can physically experience–phenomena of the natural and social kinds.
Virtually all disciplines, ranging from the natural sciences to the humanities use both theories and empirical information to create their bodies of knowledge. Commonly, there are theoreticians and experimentalists in disciplines save for most of the formal sciences that only have the use for the former (we will touch on this later in this section).
Empirical research papers can range from survey gathering to experiment reports. They all deal with observable physical phenomena that one can study using our senses or mediated by instruments. The type of empirical research from the topic to its methodologies depends on your discipline and your research interests. They usually come in two basic species: quantitative and qualitative. However, it is good to note that these intersect (see Press, 2005, for a good discussion on the matter).
In quantitative research, researchers observe natural phenomena to objectively capture their quantitative physical properties or, more vaguely, the properties best described by the use of numbers. Of course, the term “numbers” here is used in a technical sense as physical properties vary from shapes and viscosity to loudness and momentum.
But, whatever physical property we may put forward as an example, clever scientists can find a way to put the in some type of measure (e.g. social networks quantified using nodes and edges, viscosity measured by the time it takes for a volume of liquid to pass through a capillary viscometer, etc.). Experiments can range from passive observations like counting the rate of mitosis under a microscope to active interventions, such as double-blind testing in investigating drug interactions.
These are usually published in experimental reports where researchers publish the methodologies, procedures, and the results and interpretations of experiments they have conducted themselves. Research objects range from astronomical bodies to an entire nation’s economy. And, what defines quantitative research is the use of mathematical, statistical, and computational techniques (Donmoyer, 2008).
Quantitative research methods are also commonly used in “softer” or the social sciences and humanities. One popular type is the use of surveys and the gathering and interpretation of empirical data. This is normally used to measure the frequency and strength of opinions distributed in a population like in election polling and market research.
Moreover, it is also good to note that researchers in the humanities use empirical methods as well. Quantitative research methods such as cliometrics or the quantitative analysis of historical numerical data are used to reconstruct accounts of the past (see Anderson, 2007).
Thus, it is good to remember that this species of research is also available to researchers outside the domain of the (natural and social) sciences. In a general sense, it is available to all disciplines in all research domains especially as these domains are quite interested in surveys for consensus on opinions/views (see Doran & Zimmerman, for a consensus research study in climate science, see Annas, 2006, for an example in science education).
This species of empirical research is commonly used when answering research questions of the “what”, “what if”, “how many”, “how much” and “how fast/slow” kinds. Producing quantitative research work requires you to observe your research objects in some form and with some countable metric for measurement. These tools are usually made available by disciplines and by research programs. The best way to learn them is to get acquainted with papers that have been published. Do note though that quantitative research methodologies usually have probability and statistics in their arsenal. It is good to be well-versed in these mathematical techniques.
In the social sciences, many researchers opt to go for qualitative research papers. This type of research does not focus on the numerical aspects of measurement. Instead, it focuses on behavioral descriptions, opinions, social observation accounts, motivations, and the like. This species of research primarily mines for the descriptive qualities of a research object of a natural or social kind from human observers (scientifically trained or untrained). It does not focus much, if at all, on quantifiable metrics.
In natural science, a popular qualitative research technique is called ‘focal sampling.’ This is where researchers observe the behaviors of agents for some amount of time. This technique and its variations (e.g. scan sampling where observations are done in regular intervals) have made many contributions to science like the concept of imprinting in ethology (see Burkhardt, 2005) and supernormal stimuli (see Tinbergen, 1953, for the original discovery) that has a wide range of potential explanatory power extending itself to the neuroscience of art (Ramachandran & Hirstein, 1999).
Qualitative research techniques such as ethnography, where a researcher acts as a “participant-observer,” prove to be useful in studying cultures—be it human or non-human. This is because motivations, intent, and feelings are best described by narrative accounts unbounded by numerically quantifiable metrics. This established technique has been popularized by famous scientists such as Jane Goodall (see Miriampolski, 1999) and Desmond Morris (see Morris, 1977) with their observations on human and non-human primate cultures.
Qualitative research is not really at odds with the quantitative kind. One can argue that it can enhance the latter by providing qualitative information to contextualize how quantitative measurements should be done and be interpreted. One good example of this is the study that Robert Sapolsky (1982) conducted where he measured the relationship between stress-response and social status among wild baboons. He used focal sampling to investigate the social status of subjects, a qualitative method while measuring stress responses by testing for cortisol and testosterone levels, a quantitative method.
Qualitative descriptions are very helpful in many types and domains of research. They help researchers from health professionals (Neubauer et al., 2019) to marketers (Wilson, 2012) learn from the experiences of other people. This is especially important when investigating the effectiveness of medical treatments and practical solutions.
The category of empirical research is quite broad and deep. But, it all involves the study (description and/or measurement) of natural or social phenomena, from protein synthesis to consumer behavior. And, if you choose this type of research, you will not only have to consider whether what methods to apply. You also have to understand how techniques in both investigatory methods bear on your research topic and question. Also, by being well-versed in certain empirical methods for measurements and descriptions, it will be easier to home in on your research topic and questions.
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Top 5 share of qualitative methods used in the market research industry worldwide
(Q3 and Q4 of 2018)
Top 5 share of qualitative methods used in the market research industry worldwide In person focus groups: 58
In person focus groups
Top 5 share of qualitative methods used in the market research industry worldwide In person in-depth interviews (IDIs): 42
In person in-depth interviews (IDIs)
Top 5 share of qualitative methods used in the market research industry worldwide Telephone IDIs: 27
Top 5 share of qualitative methods used in the market research industry worldwide Discussions using online communities: 25
Discussions using online communities
Top 5 share of qualitative methods used in the market research industry worldwide Mobile: 19
Source: Greenbook Research Industry Trends Report Q3-Q4 2018
Theoretical research as a broad category has many, many types included. We cannot cover them all. So, in this section, we will only limit ourselves to the discussion of common theoretical themes that you can consider and may find helpful when writing a theoretical research paper in the (i) natural and social sciences and (ii) the formal sciences.
Theory in the Natural and Social Sciences: Answering The “Why” Question
Theoretical research, in the realm of the natural and social sciences, aims to create abstract explanatory accounts of natural and social phenomena. They are valued for their strong predictive power. Put simply, they answer the “why” question.
However, as philosopher Dan Dennett (2012) noted, there are at least two species of why questions in English: “what for” (e.g. ‘Why are you handing me your camera?’) and “how come” (e.g. ‘Why does ice float?’). The former focuses on ends (e.g. goals and intentions) and the latter on mechanisms. Answering these why-questions are the primary goals of theoretical research in the sciences and humanities.
Supernormal stimuli, an example in the last sub-section, can serve as our example of how these forms of why questions can be investigated.
A supernormal stimulus is the exaggerated version of a signal. It was first observed by Niko Tinbergen (1953) and it is characterized by “a paradoxical effect whereby animals show greater responsiveness to stimuli that differ substantially from the “natural” stimulus (Staddon, 1975)”.
Early observations of supernormal stimuli were with the flightless herring gulls (Larus argentatus). Herring gull chicks are born with the instinct to peck on a bird beak. But, when they are presented with a stick with red stripes, they peck at it more vigorously. When certain aspects of the natural stimulus were abstracted and exaggerated and embedded in a man-made artifact, the artifact elicits a greater response.
The “what for” kind of why-question can be answered in the context of adaptiveness. Answers can be posited as to literally, “what is this behavior for?” or “what is in it for the herring gull chicks?”. On the other hand, the “how come” kind of why-question can be answered in the context of cognition and evolution investigating the biological mechanisms for such behavior.
Moreover, supernormal stimuli have also been extended to the realms of social science and consumer studies (Goodwin et al., 2015). It has been used to provide a “how come” explanation for why modern consumer products lead to excessive consumption, which is more preferred than their naturally-occurring alternatives (e.g. junk food over natural foods, etc.). This can even lend a hand to applied research in marketing.
In this vein, “what for” explanations have been presented as to why supernormal stimuli are present in media and used in the advertising industry (see Vidya, 2018). In biology and the social sciences, where more cognitively complex agents than herring gulls are investigated, the “what for” why-question deals with intents. Such is the case in a good amount of primatology research (see de Waal & Roosemalen, 1979; Fischer & Price, 2017; Byrne & Whiten, 1991). Scientists infer the intents and perceptions of complex agents by understanding their behaviors in various contexts.
But even in the natural sciences, intents and the line of thinking of researchers themselves on why they have reached their conclusions or perspectives are also being investigated. This stems primarily from the abstract nature of theoretical research. It deals with ideas that come from the motivations and the lines of thinking of individuals.
For instance, theoretical physicists do not only create descriptions and explanations for natural phenomena. They also infer and analyze “how come” their peers think about research objects similarly or different from them and “what for” do they do this.
An example would be a controversial critique of the field of string theory by Lee Smolin (2007) where he successfully or unsuccessfully (depending on your take) cast doubt on aspects of the research program. He did not only analyze the lines or reasoning or “how come they might think this.” He also provided his account of “what for.” The research motivations of others are a part of his research.
This is also a big part of what is getting published in theoretical papers—commentaries on commentaries, responses to articles, and rebuttals to responses. So popular and engaging among researchers, this approach can even lead to acrimonious back and forth (see Koehn, 2011, for the duel between Hayek and Keynes; see Miller, 2003, for the war between behaviorists and cognitivists for domination psychology).
So, if you opt to choose to go for a theoretical research paper, you have to at least be aware of the current abstract theoretical constructions in understanding research objects in your field. Just keep in mind that these mainly revolve around answering the different why-questions. And, you can do research in the manner of offering your critical analysis of the work of others—may it be a somewhat neutral survey, or either a positive or negative appraisal. These can be a start in finding a good research question.
Source: National Science Foundation
Theory in the Formal Sciences
Theorizing in the natural and social sciences can become abstract. But then, there is the stranger and even more abstract world of formal sciences. Types of research papers here range from pure mathematics and logic to applied mathematics and scientific modeling. In this subsection, we will discuss the main research themes. This may spur you to consider going into the formal science research direction or incorporating some of its techniques.
In a simple sense, researchers in the formal sciences study and use formal symbolic language systems to generate knowledge. Most research work in the formal sciences generates knowledge about formal systems themselves and the abstract objects in them.
This is most common in pure mathematics where research objects have virtually nothing to do with the real world and without a care for practical use. Thus, many thinkers, including the great mathematician G.H. Hardy, do not categorically consider the formal sciences—especially mathematics—as a part of science in the strict sense. In fact, Hardy (1992) considered mathematicians more as artists than scientists.
There are many reasons for this. But mainly, in the formal sciences, the concept of proof or evidence for the admissible existence of abstract research objects does not rely on physical experiments. Existential proofs rely on approved abstract logical inference (see Bilaniuk, 1991; Bonato, 1996; Lockhart, 2009, for good discussions).
Unlike theories in the natural and social sciences, they are not primarily valued for their explanatory and predictive power. They mostly are valued for their analytic precision, elegance, and even beauty.
So, what goes on? Usually, practitioners discover necessary formal systemic truths called ‘theorems’ and invent proofs by showing that they follow from a system’s accepted assumptions or ‘axioms’ using the allowable symbolic manipulations for producing them called ‘rules of inference’ (Hofstadter, 1979). This structure helps them put a rigid logical structure of exploring concepts.
(Also, mostly, these have nothing to do with the real world. However, an understanding of this structured inference-making design can help in developing a research paper outline. This will be further discussed in a later section.)
In other traditions, especially in mathematics practice, researchers go about proofs by creating abstract arguments for the admissible “existence” or “truth” of abstract objects and statements (see Frank, 2017, for Georg Cantor’s different proofs that real numbers are uncountable). These proofs can come by contradiction, mathematical induction, and mathematical construction, among others.
There are also practitioners who work on modifying systems, creating new rules of inferences, adding or deleting axioms, and see what new propositions follow from them. These practitioners, therefore, create their own systems (see Hofstadter, 1979; Priest, 2008, for some examples). And, some of these abstract concepts and systems become popular enough for other researchers to entertain and work on.
This is basically how the formal sciences, especially mathematics as we know it, developed over the years. Acceptance or consensus in the formal sciences acts quite like empirical confirmation or refutation in the sciences. It validates results. Moreover, full consensus does not necessarily arise.
There are pockets of dissent within formal fields and disciplines. For example, many scholars became angry opposing the concept of actual infinity as treated by Georg Cantor (Hodges, 1998). They opposed the idea of an infinite set that goes on and on (e.g. the set of natural numbers) or a set which “already has infinitely many members (Schecter, 2009).” For them, these cannot exist. And, this also led to acrimonious debates with tragic consequences for the personal lives of the proponents (Cantor was left depressed and spent time in sanatoria in his later years).
There are also researchers in the formal sciences that take even a more abstract approach. They study and explore the philosophical nature, underpinnings, assumptions, and implications of these abstract systems themselves. Unlike those that ‘work within systems,’ they critically analyze formal systems and their merits. Lively research areas of this kind include metamathematics, foundations of mathematics, mathematical logic, theoretical computer science, and philosophy of mathematics and logic.
Furthermore, formal sciences are not totally devoid of practical applications. Take computation theory and game theory for instance. They are being used to model natural and social phenomena. Models from such works help scientists explain and predict patterns of behavior like how traits may get passed on from generation to generation.
Examples of using formal techniques in the sciences include John Maynard Smith’s (1982) seminal application of game theory to evolutionary biology and Robert Rosen’s Anticipatory System (1985) that applies category theory in relational biology.
So, research in the formal sciences is not only limited to the exploration of abstract ideas for pure intellectual curiosity. It can also be used to model, analyze, simulate, and predict natural and social phenomena. Thus, if you have a great interest in and some aptitude for abstract-symbolic and mathematical thinking, you can go for a more formal approach in theoretical research. It also helps when you have a background in programming.
Source: National Science Foundation, 2021
Tips on Choosing and Approaching a Topic
As mentioned, it is useful to know the different types of research that you can do when you find difficulty in choosing a research topic. The types of publishable research in journals and conferences essentially limit what you can do. Also, by understanding the zeitgeist of your field or your target journal or conferences, you would be able to further isolate which topics you can work on.
A bit of good advice that one can get on picking a topic to do research is to shortlist the ones you are familiar with and survey the current literature. Look for unanswered questions and areas with less uncertainty or poor consensus. Also, make sure that there are a good amount of people paying attention to these as well. This strategy will increase the likelihood that you choose a relevant topic and get some readership.
Other researchers usually get alerts for when there are papers published in topics they are interested in. If you are not familiar with how to do this, you can easily set this up using your alert settings on Google Scholar or your account on academic databases. This way, you will be able to get alerts on the latest publications and, thus, the latest research issues in your fields of interest.
This will help you stay at the bleeding edge of research. This does not only allow you to know what is relevant to your research community and industry. It also gives you the chance of offering something novel as the issues are also quite new.
Again, another great way to select potential research topics and questions is to download published papers. In them, you will find hot topics, points for discussion, and issues to clarify. Basically, you will find scholarly statements to affirm, posit, or negate. Thus, it is best to get the pulse of your research and professional community.
There are, of course, other ways to help you do this. One is by attending conferences and interacting with other participants or presenters. Another is by just talking to your colleagues, professors, and other researchers. There are also different social networks for researchers and professionals who you can tap to help you gauge what the topics and issues of interest are. Once you have done this and have picked your topic, you have to find out how to approach it.
Approaching a Research Topic
Normally, when people have a desire to write a research paper, they already know what their papers will be about. They, at the least, already have topics in mind. But some have trouble homing in on what to write about especially as research topics can be quite broad. And, in fact, topics can be addressed from different perspectives and levels.
For instance, research in human group behavior can be investigated at different levels of inquiry. An endocrinologist may investigate the effects of certain hormones on behaviors and certain behaviors on hormones. Researchers in the formal sciences, such as logic, mathematics, and theoretical computer science may create game-theoretic models for behavioral interactions. And, social psychologists may provide theoretical explanations for the observed behaviors, and so on and so forth.
The nature of disciplines and research fields, in themselves, are usually structured by which level of research phenomena they address. For example, physics study natural objects on different levels and scales. It mostly cares about abiotic things (non-living matter). Biology concerns itself with everything about living things while chemistry sits in the middle between physics and biology where chemical processes of both abiotic and biotic matter are its domain of research. This goes all the way down to the different specialty areas of research within these fields.
The way you approach a topic ultimately depends on your training and discipline (and your collaborators if any). Just keep in mind that you can always expand the domain of your training’s applicability and the applicability of other disciplines to your main domain of research. And, always consider what paper types that you can use to approach a certain topic.
However, try to be very specific with your topic and research questions. It pays to be very specific as it is easier to create a clear direction for your paper and so you can finish it within your preferred deadline. It is best to try and specify on which level, niche, or the particular aspects that you want to investigate. This way you will not only find the right topic but also a valid methodological approach to investigation.
It is good to note that venues for publishing papers like journals and conferences limit word count and length. So, being specific helps you limit your scope. However, if you want to be more comprehensive and lengthy in your approach, you can always break down your work into a series of papers.
Choosing the Target Venue for Publication
Choosing the target venue for publication can come before or after choosing a research topic and questions. But, it is an important consideration as the venue for publication determines the form and even the content of your research paper or your initial submission.
The two main venues for publication are journals and conferences. Most have constant themes and topics that they are interested in getting published.
For example, the Journal of Number Theory explicitly publishes selected articles in contemporary number theory and allied areas, including computational number theory. It does not entertain other research areas. The same goes for the Journal of Mathematical Psychology, which limits its published articles to certain areas of inquiry and topics.
Also, both journals and conference bodies occasionally invite researchers to submit papers that address specific themes or issues.
For instance, the upcoming event, The 17th International Conference on Education 2021 has the theme of “Empowering Learners in a Digital World.” Organizers are encouraging researchers to present their ideas and results that address the current trends and developments in education amidst the global pandemic. The only requirement for submission here is abstract submission.
Another example is the journal, Behavioral Neuroscience inviting researchers to submit five to ten journal pages for their special issue: The Magical Orbitofrontal Cortex. The invitation is extended to researchers that explore the function of the orbitofrontal cortex from a different range of perspectives, ranging from behavior and pharmacology to anatomy and computational modeling.
The invitation offers a wide array of possible methodologies and approaches while also limiting the topics to relate to the orbitofrontal cortex. Writers are not really welcome to publish anything else but something about it in such an issue.
Furthermore, conferences and journals have different submission formats that are important to be considered by authors. These include the formatting of content, media, and citation formats. Plus, deadlines for submissions and peer review processes are also aspects that need consideration in relation to your normal work-life conditions before setting out to submit your work.
Information on which potential venues to publish is easily available online. You can check journal databases and journal websites to get important details on submission deadlines, calls for papers, special issues, submission formats, and citation styles.
It is best to make a shortlist of possible journals to submit and scout out these details. Again, it is recommended to download free copies of what has been publishable for them to get an idea of whether your topic, approach, or results fit their corpus. If you have yet to write your research paper, then you can better make your writing approach fit your target journal.
A Note on Dealing with Deadlines
If you are writing a paper for a special issue or a conference, you have to work with your target venue’s deadline. On the other hand, if you are working on a project that has multiple potential venues for publishing, you can relatively work at your own pace.
But, it is very important to hold yourself accountable and set a preferred deadline that you want to beat. Of course, when doing empirical research, you have to take account of the time you need to finish your experiments, observations, or surveys. But, when it comes to writing phase, make sure you write religiously. Also, it is important to create a general outline before you start with your drafts.
Developing the Outline
For those who have finished experimenting or understanding the abstract concepts needed, providing their original theses can be a difficult thing to muster. It does not just require an awful lot of rational reasoning work. It also requires a bit of confidence on the part of the researcher to put a view out there.
Moreover, there are those types of research that can be even harder to communicate (i.e. to write). Thus, it is best to be well-versed not just in critical and rational thinking native to one’s discipline but also to be skillful in communicating ideas to your peers. These, of course, are easier said than done. Content and communication go hand-in-hand to successfully create a good publishable paper.
Usually, the development and communication of a particular thesis follow, more or less, the same order. This is because, in general, the sequence of thought patterns that generated a thesis in the mind of a researcher stands as the mirror image of the outline of the paper itself.
A depiction of the most commonly accepted sequence being used is:
Setting up the premises
Discussion of “inference rules”
Showing Results and Demonstration of evidence or “proof”
Limitations, Implications and (healthy) speculations
This, as mentioned, is related to how substantial research work in the formal sciences is being conducted. An analogy relating to other disciplines will be offered below.
Setting up the Premises
First, researchers lay out the premise of their paper. This provides the reader with a broader context that their work is embedded in. Usually, for shorter papers, the premise is contained in the introduction section. For longer papers, this may take several sections to establish.
The section(s) usually contain a survey of the current state of research, a little history of the matters at hand, and the initial assumptions of the author(s). Also, researchers usually state their positions about the topics they write or, at the least, give hints of it in these section(s). The limitations of their works may also be disclosed as well.
In the sciences, past experiments and/or recent theories are cited. The same usually goes for the humanities. For the formal sciences like mathematics and logic, the premise generally consists of axioms, established results like theorems, and a bit of explaining.
Researchers in all disciplines usually end these sections (especially the introduction) by stating the gap in knowledge that they try to close. Sometimes, this is also mentioned right at the start. It all depends on their writing styles and types of paper.
What the premise does is set the stage for the whole paper. It shows readers the larger context and demonstrates the value of the work based on the research questions it answers and the way it is answered.
Discussion of “Inference Rules”
Inference rules or the rules of inference in the formal sciences like maths and logics are the allowable manipulation of symbols or objects to generate “theorems” or necessary systemic truths that follow from the premises, or “axioms” as they are called in these fields. Theorems, in the formal sciences, can range from strings of symbols to a rich mathematical statement worded in a mix of symbols and ordinary language. They are deemed to be proven results.
The rules of inference establish how systemic truths are decidable. In most cases, this is usually true or false (see intuitionistic mathematics and dialetheism in logic for more nuanced cases if interested). Put simply, they guide the line of reasoning and also establish the limit on what a certain system can decide on. The validity of the possible chains of inferences is what they seek to establish. And, in extension, the result of such inferences.
This may be a bit technical and too particular to these fields. However, using these concepts for an analogy can be quite useful. It is because, in other disciplines, disclosing a set of allowable inferences in a paper is standard practice, albeit in different forms. In the sciences, these rules of inferences can be roughly translated to the term “methodology.”
Methodologies are included in a paper to establish which methods, techniques, framework, or algorithms are valid within a particular study or a whole field and why they are so. In essence, methodologies are the basis for criteria for the veracity of a claim. And, when methodologies are established by researchers or a field to be valid to use for a particular investigation, readers can have more confidence that the results gained from these can also be considered valid.
Just like how rules of inferences are used by mathematicians and logicians to decide whether claims and conjectures about abstract objects are true or not, methodologies are used to help give credence to or falsify (or at the least place some doubt on) scientific hypotheses or whole theories.
In this sense, ‘rules of inferences’ and ‘methodologies’ are conceptually homological or they share a likeness in structure and intent. These are established to help researchers decide which research claims have merits. And research claims and statements can take up many forms, ranging from an author’s theoretical position, the null hypothesis, a mathematical conjecture, or even assertions of the proper rules of inferences and methodologies themselves.
Showing Results and Demonstration of Evidence or “Proofs”
Once the rules or criteria for deciding on the merits for particular research claims are established, researchers usually go about demonstrating why such and such claim has merits or (e.g. true or false, more probable or less probable, possible or impossible, warranted or unwarranted, etc.).
But, to convince readers that indeed a research statement has merit or not, writers need to convince them. This is usually done by demonstrating how the quality of the statements (i.e. validity and/or veracity) are decided upon using the chosen methodology or established rules of inferences. There are many ways researchers can demonstrate this.
In experimental research articles, experimental procedures, methods of measurement, and pertinent data are shared with readers for review. They show that they have done the experiments in the proper conditions and have measured and observed the target phenomena in the most objective way they can—leaving out their biases, accounting for anomalies, and minimizing inaccuracies.
In theoretical work, researchers try to bring credence to their main thesis by bringing the reader over to their ways of thinking about certain phenomena or abstract research objects. This is usually a mix of informal (using words) and formal (using symbols) languages like a discussion in English sprinkled with mathematics here and there. They usually build a case why a particular point of view can help in explaining and predicting phenomena.
There are also types of research where writers use previous experimental results and theoretical work of other scholars to lend credence to their claims. A body of evidence is built for readers to judge. It is, to some extent, can be likened to the proceedings of a court case. You show results and draw conclusions from them.
A similar thing is done in mathematics, albeit the “pieces of evidence” here are previously established theorems widely considered to be true. Also, mathematicians and logicians often take a literal approach to ‘demonstration’ where they show that the chain of symbolic manipulation they performed follows from the established rules of inference and axioms. They show how their conjectures were indeed theorems in a step-by-step manner. This constitutes mathematical “proof”. Hence the use of Q.E.D after the proof which stands for quod erat demonstrandum or “thus it has been demonstrated”.
However, you may slice the pie, demonstration of the different levels of evidence and/or proof is always essential to show your readers how you got to one conclusion given your premises and the methods you used. This is usually the “meat” of a research paper. This can take up one section or many depending on your topic, research questions, and discipline.
Limitations, Implications, and (Healthy) Speculation
After demonstrating how one gets to their conclusion, researchers often expound on their views. They may do this with a long discussion section, with key points broken down into several sections, or very briefly in the conclusion. There are also research papers in the formal sciences that just end after a “proof” (see Kaczynski, 1964, for an example).
But research authors normally expound on their conclusions to establish the significance of their work to the lines of current research. Not only that, but researchers exercising modesty also remind their readers about the limitations of their results. Limitations can range from theoretical applications, explanatory scope and power, and the specificity of experimental results to fully admitting that what they are proposing is at the level of conjectures.
Moreover, it is in these later parts of the paper that the authors put forth their speculations as well. They may give hints about where their works can further be used. Writers may speculate that their theories may help explain other phenomena, even those outside their normal domain. Also, it is in these sections where researchers include their recommendations for further research.
Creating the Outline and Making Drafts
The general flow of a paper as characterized above can take many forms as mentioned. In practice, you need to be paper-specific when creating your own outline. This means you list down the sequence (in bullet points or number form) then fill out the details. You can start with your main thesis at the beginning. Then, list the points, pieces of evidence, and arguments that support your thesis. It is also best to keep it in a logical manner with an easy-to-follow narrative if possible.
Here is a generic outline that you can use as a reference:
Title (e.g. “Towards a More Holistic Performance Measurements Private Secondary Schools Operations Effectiveness in the New Normal”)
Intro – state main thesis (e.g. new rubrics based on previous ones should be produced to measure different aspects of running an educational institution).
Set the Premise (e.g. The Past and the Future States of Education)
Point #1: (e.g. give context by showing past education statistics and future predictions by other scholars)
Note: Include diagram and charts
Point #2: (e.g. there are existing performance measurement methods in classrooms)
Point #3: (e.g. there is a need for more holistic performance measurement methods that integrate other related components, such as administrative and financial aspects)
Set the Rules of Inferences (e.g. Drawing Inspiration from Other Industries)
Point #1: (e.g. other industries have better analytics than private secondary schools)
Point #2: (e.g. show successful cases of adopting new measures and analytics by educational institutions)
Point #3: (e.g. outline ways on how these can be best translated into an educational setting)
Showing of Results and Demonstration of Evidence: (e.g. Component-Based and Integrated Performance Metrics)
Contribution #1 (e.g. show proposed old normal to new normal conversion for class performance measurement)
Note: Discuss the merits and possible issues
Contribution #2 (e.g. show proposed old normal to new normal conversion for administrative performance measurement)
Note: Discuss the merits and possible issues
Contribution #3 (e.g. show proposed old normal to new normal conversion for financial performance measurement)
Note: Discuss the merits and possible issues
Contribution #4 (e.g. show proposed integration of these measurements and how to measure correlation)
Note: Discuss the merits and possible issues
Contribution #5 (e.g. show proposed tracking mechanisms and possible adoption issues)
Note: Include diagrams and charts
Limitations, Implications, and Healthy Speculation (e.g. On Testing the Proposed Performance Tracking Metrics)
Point #1 (e.g. show how proposed measurement methods can be tested via ensemble populations)
Point #2 (e.g. show limitations because of the inductive method and the generality of the proposal)
Objective #1 (e.g. summarize the paper, proposed methods, merits, and limitations)
Objective #2 (e.g. urge other researchers to test the proposed methods and show recommendations for further research)
After creating the outline, you can fill out the details and start writing your first draft. Then, try to improve it in later versions. It is also good practice to show your outline and drafts to colleagues, mentors, or your professor so they can help you better structure your thoughts, arguments, and writing.
Other Things to Consider for New Researchers
When writing a paper for publication, you have other considerations to make. Two of the most critical ones are the title and the abstract. Some researchers may compose them at the end of the paper writing process. Others may prefer to start with the title and abstract before creating the outline. However, there are two things to consider when composing your title and abstract: clarity and getting attention.
Composing the Title: Clarity and Creativity
Titles are very important. They tell your readers what the research work is about and they catch and hold potential reader’s attention. They also are the first thing that a person reads when he or she encounters your work. So, it is important to be both specific and interesting when choosing your title. This can be done in different ways.
There are researchers who choose cut and dry titles that go straight to the point. One example of this would be Alan Turing’s (1952) The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis. It points the reader directly to the matter at hand.
Other researchers exercise more creativity. For instance, take this list of hilarious titles of real published papers. One of them is by Carlson and colleagues (2011) with the title: You Probably Think This Paper’s About You: Narcissists’ Perceptions of their Personality and Reputation. It is written with a healthy dose of humor and wit while also informing readers of what the article is about. Does not this want you to read it?
Writing informative and catchy titles is a good tool to get your paper published and get more attention to it. Just remember not to overdo creativity or the injection of humor in relation to what has been published in your target venue. Try to consider the sensibilities of the audience too.
Writing the Abstract
If your title is clear and interesting, you will have a greater chance that a reader will proceed to read it. And, it is the abstract that they are likely going to read after. Abstracts lead the readers to what your paper is about. And, you should write it as direct as possible. Include the following components in your abstract:
The problem/issue you are trying to solve
The methods you are imploying
Your results (experiments or theoretical)
Scope, Limitations, and Implications
Just like the title, it is best to write it in a clear, concise, and interesting manner. However, it normally does not avail of the flexibility and creativity that titles relatively afford. Take into consideration the Laura Ruetsche (2006) article called Johnny’s So Long at the Ferromagnet. She took the liberty to be creative and funny with the title referencing the old English nursery rhyme. It quite gets the attention of readers. However, when you get to the abstract, it directly discusses the issue at hand which is developing a framework concerning symmetry breaking in quantum physics.
Source: Nature Index, 2020
Important Notes for Those Starting Out
The tips and discussion here are just a depiction or a characterization of the usual flow of research papers and how they can be produced with some generality that spans across different disciplines. Again, there is no single way of producing a paper for publication. So, the best way to get to know them (especially the ones in your field or target publication), is to read up on more research papers of various types published on different sources. This will keep you more in the know.
This is especially applicable to those that have not done any work designed for “professional” academic research publication for a journal or conference. And, maybe, the best advice for those starting out is to first learn how others do it.
For instance, if you want to publish a survey research paper for a sociology journal, then you should read up on articles that were “publishable” for that journal. You study every section not just for their form but also for their content like how their lines of reasoning brought them to their particular theses. Then, you do something similar.
This advice is quite abstract as we cannot discuss this in more detail here since it is beyond the scope of this write-up. But, in the broadest sense, this just means that you should try and learn these by imitation at first.
You learn by imitation just like what you would do when you are first learning a sequence of bodily movements in dance or of inferential steps in some thinking endeavor (e.g. the long division algorithm taught in primary school). Then, from this, you build and develop a better intuition for a particular activity. It starts with imitation and ends up in intuition. Just like most things, it takes practice. You have no choice but to do it.
Now, with these tips and tools, you can hopefully get an idea of how to write a research paper for publication.
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