When doing research, as much effort should be put into writing a paper
on the work done as was expended in the preparation/execution of the project
and the subsequent data analysis. So as not to waste the time spent on
the research, the paper should clearly present the objectives, research
methodology and findings of the research to the reviewer/reader.
Unfortunately, our graduate students tend to write their research papers
in a hurry so that they can get on with the next research project. With
so little time given to preparing each paper, it is no wonder that a relatively
large number of papers are not acceptable for publication due to poor
presentation. Consequently in this article, I wish to share with fellow
teachers the advice that I give to my graduate students on how to write
A good research paper is one that is “clearly, precisely and attractively”
written such that not only is the reader enticed to read it, but also
he or she can easily understand the contents1. Contrary to popular belief,
clear equations are insufficient for effective communication in a scientific
paper; they should be accompanied by clear prose that leads the reader
through the paper. The following are some guidelines for your students
to consider when writing different sections of a scientific research paper:
Title: Make the title short, attention grabbing,
and above all, reflect the central theme of the paper. It should not claim
generality when the paper is specific in nature.
Author’s name and affiliation: Spell
your name and affiliation in the same way for each paper so that all your
papers are cited accurately. Include your email address if you wish for
readers to communicate directly with you.
Abstract: People make a decision to read or
not to read the rest of the paper based on the abstract. So summarise
concisely the main claims (and secondary claims, if any) of the paper
and the conclusions drawn from the study. Limit the number of claims to
prevent confusing the reader as to what the key message of the paper is.
Reserve other major claims for future papers. Do not include references,
figures and equations in this section.
Introduction: Describe briefly the importance
of the area of study. State why your paper should be published (e.g. explain
how your work fills an important gap in existing knowledge/provides new
methods for solving difficult problems). Provide the background of the
current work (e.g. review existing literature or give an overview/history
of the problem).
Problem definition: Define the problem/topic
studied, explain basic terminology, and establish clearly both the objectives
and hypothesis/assumptions of your paper. Note that papers are often rejected
for publication because authors provide only objectives without any hypothesis.
Theoretical formulation, materials and methods: Present the theoretical
formulations and assumptions plainly. List comprehensively all materials
and methodology used so that readers are able to reproduce your study.
For experimental studies, do not describe everything through a diary of
events; instead, reorganise details into a coherent account. Use more
efficient and accurate methods, rather than outdated techniques. Give
credit to other people’s work through references: furnish details
of concepts discussed and/or refer to sources.
Results: Tabulate results, but withhold the
inferences for the ‘Discussion’ section. As papers with tabulated
results will obtain more citations because later researchers can use your
results for comparative purposes, compose tables well with proper headings
for rows and columns. If possible, use attractive figures, graphs and
other diagrammatic representations to illustrate data clearly—well-designed
figures make the paper come alive. Common faults in research papers include
inappropriate usage of tables and figures that confuse readers, display
of wrong statistical tests, and/or lack of sound statistical analyses.
Discussion: Reviewers will accept your paper
for publication if they are convinced that your results are valid. So
provide adequate and convincing arguments, mathematical proofs, examples,
equations, statistics, patterns/trends, opinions and ideas beyond the
collection of tabulated and graphed numbers. Make comparisons with previous
researchers’ results (if any). Suggest applications for your work.
Propose future work, but be frank and realistic about what needs to be
done as a continuation.
Conclusion: Summarise/highlight and stress
main ideas and contributions.
Acknowledgements: Give credit to persons and organisations for any technical
and/or financial help you received while completing the study. Also acknowledge
any copyrighted material for which you have permission to use.
References: Give complete information on references.
Appendices: Insert, as appendices, information
that is not provided in the main text (e.g. questionnaires and software
Besides paying attention to good organisation and unambiguous presentation
of objectives, facts and conclusions, you should spell accurately and
write grammatically so that the reader does not have extra problems in
understanding what you are trying to say.
We as teachers play a critical role in helping our graduate students
to become effective writers. Apart from encouraging students to say what
they mean clearly, precisely, concisely, and attractively, we can also
relate to them the satisfaction of having one’s research paper being
cited and appreciated by fellow researchers as well as being archived
for perpetuity (if the paper is published). Suitably inspired, students
will probably begin to write their own papers. The more experience they
gain in writing papers well, the easier they will find to write even more
and better papers.
- G. Batchelor. (1997). ‘Research as a Life Style’. Applied
Mechanics Review, ASME. Vol. 50, No. 8, R11-R20.