Scientific Journal Articles
Scientific journals vary considerably in terms of formatting protocols both across and within disciplines. If writing for an instructor and the style remains unspecified, it can be useful to examine prominent publications from the relevant field. The details of referencing tend to differ significantly, yet most technical journal articles have a consistent format with similar types of content in each of the six parts: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, & References
The abstract represents a highly condensed form of the entire paper. Many readers will only read the abstract of scientific articles. Given this reality, the abstract should stand alone explaining the motivation of the study, the general approach taken, the most important finding(s), and the significance of the finding. The abstract summarizes each of the main sections and a good general approach to start with can be to capture the essence of the introduction in 2-4 sentences, the methods in 1-2, and the results and discussion in another 2-4.
The introduction should address the background and motivation for the work addressed by the articles. These tasks are often interwoven by framing some of the background information in terms of its importance to society or nature. Background information should also tell the reader salient facts of what is already known of the subject, and identify gaps and uncertainties in the field. If a substantial amount of background information becomes necessary, as may be the case for highly technical work, separate sections with descriptive headings can be used to delineate this information from general background.
Having identified gaps in the field, the introduction motivation should link the overall significance of the topic to the importance of the specific work described in the article by illustrating how it fills or narrows those gaps. A clear statement of objectives should delineate specific goals of the study that motivate the methods described later. If the study necessitates multiple objectives, often an inset list can most effectively display them. The introduction should close with some anticipation of the main results linked to the greater significance, motivating the reader to continue.
This section aims to describe the actions undertaken in the study with sufficient detail for someone else to replicate the study exactly. Typically methods sections begin either with a description of the study area or the datasets/papers used (if the study does not involve specific field sites). From there the section should lay out a detailed description of the data collection process followed by the analyses undertaken. Subsections can help organize this information for more complex studies. Often methods sections refer to other studies from which their methods were copied or modified. For describing the analyses, standard techniques may be referenced but less familiar or novel techniques should likely be written out as equations and explained. Simple equations can be referred to parenthetically but more complex equations should be offset on their own line, numbered, and with all terms defined. For instance:
Explanation of the analysis should be coupled with the intent of each component. Readers unfamiliar with the analyses should be able to understand the general purpose, while better-informed readers should take away the information necessary to replicate the analysis exactly.
Results sections should concisely present the results of the analyses without personal interpretation. While most authors will write introductions and methods largely in first person, writing the results in third-person often helps to keep interpretation that belongs in the discussion from creeping in. Most often tables and figures represent the most effective means of summarizing results. Some degree of interpretation is likely implicit in generating these figures but description of results should be limited to highlighting significant differences and trends. The results of statistical tests should often be discussed as significantly different or not and necessary values referenced parenthetically as appropriate for the test (e.g. p < .001, df=6). Figures may be embedded into this section but complicated word wrapping should be avoided. If many figures seem necessary, they should likely be grouped at the end of the section or even shifted entirely to an appendix. All figures and tables should be captioned with sufficient detail to be interpreted in isolation, since many readers will only read paper abstracts and figures. Captions for tables should be written above the table and for figures below.
The discussion should summarize the most important results and connect them to the motivation and significance developed in the introduction. This portion should make clear how the results contribute to the gaps, debate, or uncertainties mentioned to motivate the study. This portion reflects the author’s interpretation of the results and an explanation of their significance. The discussion should clearly demonstrate how the results answer or fall short of answering those questions outlined in the objectives and, if the latter case is true, why. Commonly the last portion of the discussion will range more broadly in scope with implications of the work for future studies or shifts in the field. Particularly if the discussion has broadened in scope, the final conclusion should summarize the most important contributions of the work. For more recommendations on how to write a journal article, please see Hess’s (2004) How to Write an Effective Discussion.
Journals vary enormously on citation style particularly across discipline. If not given specific instruction, students should use the citation style employed by a prominent journal in the field.
Adapted from Dean Urban’s “Guidelines for Technical Writing” by Ian Markham 09/2014
see also Hess, D. R. 2004. How to write an effective discussion. Respiratory Care 49(10): 1238-1241