structuring research articles

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom out there about how to write a publishable journal article.

What do I mean by an academic journal article? Well, I think of an academic journal article as a reasoned presentation of material gained through a scholarly process – such as examining and deconstructing texts, hard thinking, generating and analyzing data. The writer builds up a logical argument, step by step, in order to persuade the reader about a particular point/result. The paper’s argument is situated in a context – for example, the extant literatures, policy and or practice, a debate of an ongoing blank or blind spot. And the paper is of course written for the particular readers of a specific journal.

The most usual advice given in books and online resources is to follow a scientific report-like structure for a scholarly paper – Introduction, Literature, Methods, Report, Discussion, Conclusion. ILMRDC we might call it. It’s true that a lot of journals do like this structure, particularly in the Sciences and Social Sciences, and it ‘s also true that some of them will penalise writers if they don’t go along with it. But not all of them do. Some journals are more open to other ways of approaching a paper. And of course Arts and Humanities routinely use structures other than the ILMRDC.

There are some limits to how much you can experiment with journal article structures. It’s not a case of anything goes. Unless your paper is deliberately and explicitly something other than argument, you do want to reason throughout the paper – you start your reader off somewhere and then take them somewhere through the paper, in a way that is convincing. But ILMRDC is not the only way to do this. The ILMRDC approach to paper structure focuses primarily on the content that is to be discussed in the paper, not the logical structure that the paper might take. And it’s worth thinking about the logical structure. There is much more available to writers than ILMRDC.

If abandoning ILMRDC brings out out in a cold sweat it’s perhaps helpful to think about your material as a set of moves that you can choreograph in multiple ways – but one or two of these patterns of moves are likely to be a better fit with your material than the others. It’s a question of trying a few out and seeing what works best.

So what are other paper structure options? Well here’s some*:

 Thesis to ‘proof’ – you begin with a proposition and then demonstrate its veracity by considering evidence and counter evidence.

Problem to solution – a problem or problematisation is outlined and then the steps to a ‘solution’ – or a different problematisation – are laid out. Alternative solutions are considered and reasons for rejecting them given.

Question to answer – a question is posed at the start, and justified – and the answer built up. Alternative answers are considered and dealt with along the way.

Compare and contrast – the topic is presented and the need for a comparison is given. Material which compares and contrasts is presented and lessons drawn from the exercise.

Cause and effect, or effect and cause – either the cause or effect is presented and justified. The connections are traced and evidenced. The implications of knowing the now apparent causal relationship are elaborated.

Known to unknown or unknown to known – the initial state of knowing or unknowing is outlined and a rationale given for why it is important to un/know it. The reader is led through a set of steps to the opposite condition and the So What – why we needed to do this – is explained.

Simple to complex – a simple or commonsense understanding is presented, and then a set of issues which complicate the initial situation are outlined. Reasons are offered for the importance of these more nuanced understandings.

Each of these logical structures could be presented via the ILMRDC, although they might equally be organised – and more naturally – around the flow of moves that you need to make.  The maxim here is that form follows function.

If you want to jettison ILMRDC than you need to have the alternative logical structure in your mind at the start of constructing a paper. You need to focus on the meaning you want to convey.  If you focus on the logical structure of the paper then you have to consider carefully how you will make the intention of the paper clear and explicit. What do you want the reader to understand at the beginning? Then you need to be clear about the end point. What does the reader need to be convinced of by the end of the paper? Then it’s a question of thinking about the middle… How will you get the reader through the argument, what moves do you need to make from A to B?

You see, each logical structure requires you to do different rhetorical workFocusing on the actual argument you want to make, rather than a set of headings or chunks, means that you have to think first of all about the way that you will introduce the topic of the paper. Then you think about the way in which you will write the moves in the argument.  How do you write these moves in ways that are persuasive and convincing? What signposting do you need to put in to keep the reader on track and to follow the logic of the paper? And finally, what you need to say to the reader in the conclusion – to leave them in no doubt about your take-home message.

While there’s nothing wrong with ILMRDC, there are other approaches that are worth giving a go. It may even be the case that focusing on the structure frees you up to write in more engaging ways and to play with the text a little more.


* These moves are my adaptation of p.19, Ballenger, Bruce (2012) The curious researcher. A guide to writing research papers. Boston: Pearson

See more about writing for journals in Thomson P and Kamler, B (2013) Writing for peer reviewed journals. Strategies for getting published. London: Routledge.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in argument, journal, logical structure, scholarly article and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to structuring research articles

  1. Reblogged this on PGR Doc Blog and commented:
    Writing a journal article? Here are some useful tips from Pat Thomson who challenges writers to think about the actual structure of an academic journal article.


  2. evan simpson says:

    Awesome post! Hate to be pedantic but it’s Ballenger not Bellenger (he was one of my professors at Boise State). Feel free to delete this comment 🙂


  3. Pingback: One love. One story | Hull EdD - The Professional Doctorate

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