Writing research articles for peer-reviewed journals requires practice, patience, and persistence. I am by no means a prolific scholar but I worked with one who was amazing (the late Dr. Heather K. Spence Laschinger) for six years and learned a thing or two about writing journal articles (and my record isn’t too shabby for an early career scholar either). I am also an award-winning peer-reviewer for several journals so I have seen a lot of excellent and not-so-excellent submissions which has made me a better scholar too.
One of the things I really love about this role is being able to provide helpful feedback to others that can help strengthen their work. Chances are I will never be your peer-reviewer (unless you are a nursing or management scholar) but I wanted to share some tips on how to present your best work and improve your chances of publishing your research. From a reviewer perspective I think this guidance is important too because we are volunteering our time to review papers (yes, that’s right, we do it for free, mostly because we care and are mega-dorks) and trying to review a poorly written and/or disorganized manuscript is frustrating.
So, without further ado, here’s my unsolicited advice for writing a research article.
Select the journal first
But, how do I choose a journal?
First, read the aims and scope of the journal to make sure it is a good fit for your research. For example, if you did a study on job burnout, you might not want to submit it to the Journal of Applied Physiology. Burnout Research would be a better fit for your work. Journal-research fit, if you will, is super important because the editor wants to make sure that the articles are of interest to their readers. You will not make it past the editor’s desk if your article isn’t a good fit for the journal so save everyone some time and do your homework before you submit (and even better, before you begin writing).
Ideally you should select 2-3 journals that are a good fit for your research and then compare them. Look at their impact factors and take a look at a couple of recent articles from each to get a feel for the kinds of studies they publish. Also look at the word length and author guidelines because sometimes that can be more important than impact factor if you need more space. I recommend always going for the best journal first and then keeping the others in mind in case your work gets rejected from the first choice.
Read the author guidelines and follow them EXACTLY.
Don’t waste your time writing a 10,000 word paper with 10 tables and figures for a journal that wants 5,000 words and a max of 4 tables and figures. Author guidelines are not suggestions – they are rules! Your job as an author is to make it as easy as possible for the editor to give your paper the green light to move on to the peer-reviewers. You also want to make it easy for the reviewers to focus on the content of your paper, not the writing, grammar, and formatting, etc. It is also worth repeating that the journal already gave you the guidelines! It’s not rocket science, it’s attention to detail (and it’s important!).
Use a reference management software program.
While it is tempting to just use the copy and paste feature from Google Scholar, in the long run, it will save you a ton of time to save and organize your articles systematically. I use Mendeley (it’s free) so I will speak directly about that program. Mendeley has many cool features that make life easier for researchers and students.
- You can upload PDFs using drag and drop and the program will populate all of the reference fields automatically (always check for accuracy though because they are often imperfect).
- The program then allows you to highlight and make notes directly on PDFs of your articles so you don’t have to print them out.
- It has a cite and write feature for Microsoft Word that allows you to insert citations from your reference library while you write.
- It generates a reference list for you in the style of your choice. This will save you about a million years if your paper ends up getting rejected and you need to submit to another journal that uses a different referencing style (trust me, it is painful to switch styles manually if you haven’t experienced this).
- You are likely to reuse some of your references in the future for grants or papers so a reference management program keeps you organized (and again, saves you time looking up the same article 20 times).
- Your Mendeley library is saved on a cloud so you can access it on any computer. I love this feature because I can access my libarary at home and work and on my laptop so I never have to worry about where my files are.
Write the literature review/ theory section first.
Although not everyone emphasizes theory in their work I think it is really important. I am really not impressed by empirically-driven papers that dump a bunch of variables into a statistics program and tell me that they are significantly related to one another statistically. I want to know if those relationships are meaningful. In other words, why and how are things related and what are the implications? This is where theory and logic come in. Let’s pause here and think about an example: both ice cream sales and drownings increase significantly in the summer. Logically, we know that drownings do not cause increased ice cream sales or vice versa, but rather, both are related to an increase in temperature (when it gets hot people are more likely to want to eat ice cream and to cool off in the water). Another example: Mud and rain are positively correlated but we know that rain causes mud, not the other way around! In both examples, the data could support relationships that are not logical, demonstrating the need for theory-driven research. Don’t start with your data; start with why! (“Start with Why” is also the title of an excellent book by Simon Sinek, FYI). If you are doing a qualitative study then theory is equally important in terms of identifying and explaining the paradigm and method that you are using. Helter skelter coding of interviews or focus groups doesn’t quite cut it.
Write the methods and results sections next.
These should be the easiest parts of your paper to write. In the methods section you simply explain what you did in your study and in the results you describe the findings. Writing these sections makes your paper feel like a “real” article and gives you the content you need for your discussion section and conclusions.
Your methods section should outline your study design, sampling procedures, data collection methods, intervention and control groups (if applicable), and data analysis methods. For quantitative studies, providing accurate information about your measures is really important. Describe each one and provide support for their validity and reliability.
A quick note about tables and figures here – make sure they are formatted the way the journal wants them and that they are easy to read and understand. I suggest using the full names of variables rather than abbreviations (e.g., “job satisfaction” is easier to understand at a glance than “jstotal” or whatever code name you came up with in SPSS or SAS). Never ever copy and paste output from statistics programs! Just don’t. As a reviewer it makes me cringe when people do this. You can easily copy it into a word document and reformat it to meet the journal guidelines. When you don’t it looks like you either didn’t read the journal guidelines or you didn’t care. For bonus points, if you have space to include a diagram that shows your model of how variables are thought to be related in your study, it is super helpful to reviewers and readers (and arguably to yourself).
Tackling the discussion.
The structure of this section is going to depend on your research and the journal guidelines but generally, it is a good idea to have an introductory paragraph that sums up the overall findings and then subheadings to discuss different key findings in further detail (keep it logical and organized). You should interpret the meaning and implications of your results and discuss how they fit with past research. This is one of the toughest sections to write because it requires the synthesis and integration of ideas from multiple sources. You should not just paraphrase or summarize what was found in other studies; you are explaining, linking, comparing, and analyzing your results and those of other studies. You are pulling out the meaningfulness of your study.
Despite common limitations for studies with similar designs, most journals still require that you provide a limitations section. For example, obvious and common limitations include sample size and power, response rate, cross-sectional designs, common method bias, sampling bias, and social desirability bias. Pick two or three of these to address (not all of them!). If there is something particular that you think limits the validity or reliability of your results or their generalizability beyond your study, it is important to include it in this section and explain the potential implications or cautionary interpretation needed. As much as possible, keep this section short and sweet.
You are almost there! Again, make sure you follow the instructions for authors for the journal because some of them are very particular about what to include in each section. Often the introduction includes a statement about the purpose and/or aim of the study and is the place where you need to introduce the reason why your study was needed. The introduction is an excellent place to use some key statistics that highlight the severity or reach of the problem at hand and grab the reader’s attention. At the end of the introduction it should be obvious what the problem is and how your research is going to address that problem.
Writing the abstract.
Think of your abstract as the profile picture of your article. People will decide whether or not to read your paper based just on this short blurb. Whether we approve of it or not, sometimes people only read the abstract because they don’t have access to the full article or they are pressed for time. Abstracts are also used in the systematic review process and for conference presentations so learning to write excellent abstracts is a valuable skill. The biggest challenge is fitting everything you want to say into 150-300 words (just look at the length of this blog post lol!). Not easy and again, every journal has different guidelines. Some want a descriptive paragraph but most have subheadings (e.g., Introduction, Purpose, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion, keywords). Generally you have room for 1-2 sentences for each section so you have to be concise and edit a lot! The best advice I have for this process is to start from scratch instead of cutting and pasting sentences from your paper (always too long and too detailed) and to write only one essential sentence for each section. Then you can add as needed and as room permits.
The last point I want to make is that it is essential that your entire paper is consistent from start to finish. If you are examining the effectiveness of a weight loss intervention on cardiovascular risk factors in overweight men, then the whole entire paper should focus on that. There shouldn’t be new surprise variables like vitamin D consumption or social support introduced in the middle of the paper! Likewise, your discussion and implications should be logical and realistic. One study never proves anything 100%. Recall that with hypothesis-testing research a significant result just means that you are 95% sure (or 99% sure, depending on your p-value) that your results didn’t happen by chance. You are contributing to a body of evidence and an ongoing research conversation. To improve consistency, after your first draft is written take a break and read it from start to finish with fresh eyes. Read it critically and ask yourself if there is anything that doesn’t make sense or flow quite right. Talk about your variables in a logical order and keep the same order throughout your paper and in tables and figures. This creates less work for the reader and makes it easier to follow. Once you are done editing, get someone else to edit it. If you are working in a team and different sections were written by different people, it is especially valuable to have one person edit the whole document and make it flow (everyone has a unique style!). If English is not your first language and you are submitting to an English-language journal definitely try to get it proof-edited by a professional for grammar and spelling before you submit.
Hope you found this helpful and if you are a nurse, please check out my new feature Nursing Research Summaries. I think you’ll find that helpful too!