Guide to Writing a Research Paper

Abstract: An abstract is a shortened version of the paper and should contain all of the highlights of your study, including: objectives of your study, how the study was conducted, your results, and the significance of the results.

Frequently, people will skim through the abstracts of scientific papers and then choose to read the papers that are most interesting to them. When you write your abstract, try to have the greatest impact in very few words.

Introduction: In this section, you build your case as to why your current study is of scientific interest. This goal is accomplished by summarizing related studies that relate directly to your own. Do not just present a list. It is important to cite sources in the introduction section of your paper as evidence of the claims you are making. For example,

"Jones (1983) found that N-fixing plants could be found more commonly in environment 1 than in environment 2."

Emphasize your own specific contribution to the topic. In the last paragraph, state your own objectives and your research hypotheses.

Methods: In this section you explain how you proceeded to meet your objectives and test your hypotheses. This section provides all the details necessary for another scientist to possibly duplicate your work. It should be a description of the steps you took in your experiment or study, not a list like you might find in a cookbook. You should assume that the other scientist has the same basic skills that you have, but does not know the specific details of your experiment. For example, you could say,

"We added 30 ml of N-free fertilizer to each of 24 pots."

An important part of writing a scientific paper is deciding what bits of information needs to be given in detail. Do not quote your laboratory manual. Write the methods in your own words. In the last paragraph, provide a brief description of statistical tests you used.

Results: In this section describe the results of the experiment but you do not yet interpret their meaning. Do not present the raw data that you collected, but a summary of the important data in tables or figures. A table is a good way to present your data in a summary form. A graph is useful if it can do a better job of describing the pattern in the data than a table can. Do not use both for the same set of data. Use the text of the paper to state the results of your study, and refer to each table or figure where the reader can see the data for themselves. You must explicitly state the measure you are using.

For example you could write,

"Nitrogen fertilizer significantly increased plant biomass (p=0.05) (Table 1)."

Make sure to label each table and figure and to number them consecutively. If your table includes the results of a statistical analysis, be sure to provide the information necessary for the reader to properly evaluate the analysis (probability levels, degrees of freedom, sample size, etc.). Do not explain each step in your statistical analysis; you should assume that the reader knows them.

Discussion: In this section, you are free to explain what the results mean or why they differ from what others have found. You should interpret your results in light of other published results, by adding additional information from sources you cited in the introduction as well as by introducing new sources. Provide accurate citations. Tie your discussion back to your objectives and questions in the introduction. Make statements that bring together all the evidence (including previous work and the current work). Do not make statements that are too broad. It is unlikely, for example, that through one experiment, you will discover something new. Limit your conclusions to those that your data can actually support, such as:

"We did not find a significant effect of inoculant on plant biomass in this experiment."

You can then proceed to describe your ideas for why this occurred and how your results compared with what you had expected. Then, you should suggest future directions for research, new methods, etc. If necessary, describe any problems with your methods. Do not simply list the problems but try to provide thoughtful discussion about how any problems in your experiment might have affected your results and conclusions.

Conclusions should be restated at the end of your discussion. Try to state what you have found in as few sentences as possible. Make sure to explain the evidence you have for making the statement. Also, it is a good idea to state any other evidence or information that would be helpful, if you had it, that would strengthen your claim.

Literature Cited: This is the last section of the paper. Here you should provide an alphabetical listing of all the published work you cited in the text of the paper. Only include the works you actually cited in the text of your paper.

Please note: An alternative version of this information is available from George Mason University.

Want to improve your paper?

Click on the links to see a draft paper with suggested editorial comments and the subsequent final paper.