Research Reports: Introductions
The research report throughout science is organized according to an idealized version of the "scientific method".
Each of the subsections is assigned a functional heading: Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion. The headings are functional because they do not name the content of the section, but its relationship to the overall structure of the article. As already mentioned, each section has its own goals.
More than any other type of publication, the research report must both inform AND persuade. Resources have been spent creating new knowledge, and the reader wants to be convinced early that those resources were well spent.
The steps used to persuade are present in the case report and review, too, but are more obvious in the research report because it is supposed to "solve" a problem, to fill in missing information where a gap exists. This gap may or may not have been the scientist's original motivation; it doesn't matter. The "problem --> solution" model of writing the introduction is an effective means of establishing the value of the research. The "narrative" structure is familiar to readers (including reviewers), enabling the writer to build a rapport in just the first few paragraphs.
The 5 Steps to an Effective Introduction
- Establish the Topic -- what is the paper about?
- Provide Significance -- why does the topic matter? (practical, clinical, or research)
- Review the (Relevant) Literature -- what key ideas, concepts, definitions must the reader know to understand the paper AND be convinced that the research is warranted? (leads to gap)
- Point out the Gap/Motivation -- what missing information (in the published literature) motivates the paper? (this can be left implied, although readers appreciate an obvious mention)
- Reveal the Reason -- what question does this paper answer?
The 5 steps should look pretty familiar by now!
Most scientists readily admit that after reading the abstract, they skip forward to the Methods and Results sections. They want the data and how it was attained. While the Introduction and Discussion sections are the most readable parts of the paper, the Methods and Results are "science" itself. Writing needs to be accurate, sufficient, and largely free of interpretation.
Method sections vary quite a bit between disciplines, and even between sub-disciplines in the same field. Still, there are three types of information conveyed.
1. Participants/Subjects/Sample -- who participated or what material was participated upon; in current parlance, humans beings are called "participants" and animals are "subjects", though the more general "sample" can be used for both. (Other biological or non-biological components may be called "materials" or simply listed by their names, e.g. "serotonin compound, PAT", and not occur in a separate section).
NOTE: In the social and behavioral sciences, the final experimental population descriptors are listed in the Methods section; recruitment and selection are in the Results section. In the medical sciences, the general target population is described in terms of eligibility criteria and exclusion criteria is described in the Methods section -- the actual, final population who took part in the study is described in the Results section.
2. Materials and Instruments -- the instruments, machines, or materials used to complete the research -- be as specific possible. If new materials were developed, include thorough description and add an appendix with instrument, if possible (ex: surveys, stimuli).When possible, provides names and numbers of all equipment, software, etc used.
3. Procedure -- explains how data was collected and how it was analyzed, including specific names of tests, procedures, and statistical tests.
In publication, relatively few articles have the classic triad of subheadings listed above. However, the Method section is organized using subheadings and must include the three types of information.
Decisions will have to be made about how much information should go into the published article's Method section. Minimally, readers must be able to determine whether the research is replicable -- that is, enough information for another person to run the test and achieve the same results. In reality, few articles provide enough information to actually replicate the study (this is not evil intent on the part of the scientist but an unavoidable outcome of what is called "tacit knowledge": lots of stuff happens in labs that contributes to study outcomes, but we are rarely fully aware of all of them). Despite demanding sufficient information to ensure judgments of replicability, journals also place limits on the lengths of Method section, opening up two avenues of information -- the supplemental information and corresponding author.
Here is what the American Journal of Hypertension (a Nature Group publication) has to say about supplemental information (SI). It is typical of what is provided in the "Guide for Authors" information regarding supplemental information.
Supplementary information is peer-reviewed material directly relevant to the conclusion of an article that cannot be included in the printed version owing to space or format constraints. It is posted on the journal's web site and linked to the article when the article is published and may include data files, graphics, movies, or extensive tables. The printed article must be complete and self-explanatory without the supplementary information. Supplementary information must be supplied to the editorial office in its final form for peer review. On acceptance, the final version of the peer-reviewed supplementary information should be submitted with the accepted paper. To ensure that the contents of the supplementary information files can be viewed by the editor(s), referees, and readers, please also submit a 'read-me' file containing brief instructions on how to use the file
Some journals also specify that while the SI is peer-reviewed, it is not edited, so will be submitted in exactly the form provided by the authors.
The correspending author is the investigator to whom inquiries will be sent -- not all journals require a corresponding author to be designated. Some journals mandate that the PI is listed as one of the authors (regardless of direct involvement in the study) and is the corresponding author.
Results should include:
results that answer the research question (most important)
data you can use to outline important trends
results that you intend to address in the discussion section
results of statistical analyses, often in conjunction with measurements analyzed
results related to those obtained by other researchers, especially if they disconfirm other results, or are controversial
negative results also
Results sections can be the most frustrating for novices to read and most interesting to experts. Consider both of these audiences when constructing the results. Clear, even redundant labeling of figures can be useful. Figure legends should stand on their own, but restricted only to the figure. The text should reference specific figures as they come up, but should not merely refer readers to a table or figure for the information; some contentful statement must be included with the reference to the figure. Balancing the needs of both expert and non-expert readers will increase the impact of your research. (from Enhanced heme oxygenase-mediated coronary vasodilation in Dahl salt-sensitive hypertension / http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14700508)
Stylistically, results can be organized in a variety of ways, and you should employ subheadings as needed. If there is only a single protocol on a non-human subjects with no control group, there may be no need for subdivisions in the results section. If there are multiple trials or multiple groups, then subheadings should be used to label what is being discussed. The organization of results most commonly "matches" the research question -- groups or trials should be indicated in the last paragraph of the introduction and evident in the results section.
Note that results are written in the past tense, using mostly the active voice.
Functionally, the purpose of a Discussion section is to explicitly demonstrate how the new information generated by the study fits into what is already known. This is how the new data you've created is "situated" in the field -- by your careful placement of what is new against that which is established. Results can take the form of data, hypotheses, models, definitions, formulas, etc.
The Discussion section is carefully orchestrated -- no wild speculation is allowed. Instead, a conversation is crafted between the new information and others' results, data, models, hypotheses, etc. Four relational moves can be made: claim, corroborate, clarify, or conflict.
- Claim -- add new information to what is already known
- Corroborate -- support what is already known
- Clarify -- extend or refine what is already known
- Conflict -- counter or contradict what is already known
Steps to Crafting a Discussion Section
- Briefly restate RQ and main result/s.
- Situate current research findings through "dialogue" model -- speculate on outcome.
- Discuss relevant limitations.
- Provide suggestions for future research or application.