Put it all together
I’ve been debating what to write in this post. I want to outline what a research paper looks like and what each section is for, but it’s so dry! My husband assures me that he didn’t know a lot of this information before he met me though, so I’m going ahead with it. Fair warning! (And blame him if it’s boring.)
Let’s start with the abstract. This is the part I hate writing because it has pretty strict space limitations (usually 250 words). That seems like less work, but it actually means you have to cram your entire background, hypothesis, results and conclusions into less than a page! This is often the only section that gets read in your paper. That’s kinda sad, but true. There are simply too many articles that get published daily to be able to read them all, so the abstract is a peak through the keyhole to see if it’s worth opening that metaphorical door. Which means you have to be very picky about which results to mention (only the absolute highlights), word things very succinctly, and make sure to not overstate results. Not an easy job, but a skill worth developing.
The second section is the Introduction; pretty self-explanatory. This is where you lay out the background information a reader needs to be able to understand your study. Keep it to the point and well referenced. No one likes a meandering storyteller who you’re pretty sure is making stuff up on the spot. Unless you’re playing D&D I guess.
Next up is Results, although sometimes it’s the fourth after Materials and Methods. Here you get to put up your pretty graphs and tables, and briefly describe them. You might need to discuss them just a bit in order to justify your next experiments, but that’s pretty much it.
Now for the Discussion. This can be tricky to write as you don’t want to simply re-state the results. This is the area to summarize what you discovered and put it into a broader picture, both in terms of what else is known about this area of research and also how it might impact the world. In my case, this often means how it might help human health and medicine. It’s a big of an odd thought experiment when you’re researching very basic cell biology. But keep in mind that antibiotics revolutionized medicine after one dedicated researcher decided to figure out why his moldy bacteria plates had rings of non-growing areas. It had been observed many times before, but Dr. Fleming was the first to consider the impact it might have on human disease and fully develop that idea.
Finally, Materials and Methods. This is typically the section I start with, because it’s tedious but I can feel productive which helps motivate me for the rest of the writing. One of the foundations of science is reproducibility. If no else can get the same results as you, that means one of 3 things:
- There’s something different with the details of how the experiments are performed between labs. This can sometimes lead to really cool science, such as how in the past 10 years we’ve realized that results from animal models can vary widely between facilities because their healthy intestinal bacteria is slightly different! But mostly, this just stinks.
- The published results are not real. Not necessarily malevolently, but sometimes an interesting phenomenon is simply an artefact.
- You’re lying, but that’s a worst-case scenario (ahem I’m looking at you Andrew Wakefield).
The most frequent result is simple frustration from a graduate student who wants to try out a cool new technique, but can’t because the paper is too scarce on details. For the love of glob, just take an hour and read this section over, no matter how mind-numbingly boring it is!
So I lied. The Materials and Methods isn’t really the final section. You also have a references section, but you’d be absolutely crazy to not use some sort of citation software to generate this for you. Seriously, how did people get any research done without computers for manuscript writing and the internet for journal database searches?? #grateful #tryingtoberelevant #i’mhipi’mcool #idon’tevencapitalizefirstpersonpersonalpronouns #nailedit
And that’s it. 5 easy steps to write a paper, or something like that. The hard part is over, right? Sure. Until you get a grumpy peer-reviewer that makes you re-write most of the paper. Not that I’m talking from current experience or anything. (I am.) I love reviewers of all shapes, sizes and dispositions. Please don’t reject my paper if you’re reading this. Please?