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Writing Research Articles

Below are some tips for specifically writing a research article for submission to a peer-reviewed process.


Each research paper should answer a specific question. You will be judged on the importance, urgency, and newness of the question you asked, and whether you had a great study design.

Focus first on the Title, Goals, and Key Figures and Tables. These are the focus for the reader and the rest of the paper should support them. The figures are tables should contain your primary results.

Writing research papers is a team sport. Each of us has different strengths and weaknesses. Figure out who can help you; complete the content, review the initial content and then, edit the final paper. I've found the smoothest approach is to give the paper to each person, in the right order, and give them just 2 days to a week to get back comments to you. Then, review their comments, integrate the changes and get it to the next person. Some folks may need longer times to do edits and then you may need to send it to a larger group all at once. This works but makes it harder to integrate all the changes together.

Don't use "Flowery" language. When editing papers one of the most common tasks is simply removing words like "very", "great", "huge", "outstanding", "amazing", and "tiny". This is "overusing adverbs and adjectives". Your research does not need them - it will stand on it self and adding these words will make the reader feel like you are trying to sell them something (i.e. it actually reduces the credibility of the paper).

Use bold and italic instead of the MS-Word styles. The MS-Word styles change between versions of word. Journals tend to prefer bold for section headings and bold with italics for sub-sections.

Find a template paper. If your paper doesn't fit the traditional scientific research paper outline, then find a paper that has a similar theme and copy it's structure.


There is a specific structure that is defined for research articles. However, over half the articles I see, vary from this structure in some ways. There are small articles that have only one or two sections and there are others that have an introduction and conclusion and then have a number of sections in between where each section covers some methods, results, and discussion for each stage of the research. In the end, the structure of the paper must follow the nature of the story. One approach is to use the structure below unless it starts to feel awkward. Then, try different structures until you find one that your story fits into.

Some journals will provide guidelines on the structure they expect. Follow it unless you can explain to the editors why you did not.

Title Page - Typically contains the title, authors names, and contact information. Sometimes this is a separate file. Authors should typically be those who contributed a large portion of the text for the paper. Authors can also include those who did research and prepared figures and tables. You may find yourself feeling you need to provide authorship to someone who did extensive data collection and/or preparation, ran experiments, or even helped invent your methods. You can include these individuals by having them write up the appropriate sections for the paper based on their contributions. Otherwise, they should just be mentioned in acknowledgements.

Abstract - A very compressed version of the sections below (Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, and Conclusion). Writing good abstracts is a challenge and best done after the rest of the manuscript has been created. Abstracts have very limited work lengths of 200 to 500 words.

Introduction - Introduces your audience to your topic and then states your research goals in the last paragraph. Think about who your audience is going to be and don't assume they know the background for your material. At the same time, don't explain everything to them, just mention the background and provide a citation. Technically, you must mention everything that your research is based on (data, methods, and results) and provide a citation for everything you mention. If something is obvious to the average person (not a fellow researcher), then you don't have to find a citation for it. The last paragraph in the Introduction should state the goals of your research and the rest of the paper should talk almost exclusively about those goals.

Methods - Here you describe what you are did in your "experiment". For natural resource articles, this typically includes sub-sections for: study area, data collection, data qualification process, analysis, and uncertainty. For articles with a modeling component it would include: modeling approach(s), validation, and sensitivity testing.

Results - The results section is the most cut and dry of all the sections and can just be a listing of the measurements you made in table format with explanations. You can point out interesting results but save any comments on the results for the discussion.

Discussion - The discussion provides insight into your results and a comparison with other recent research that your results may support. It's best to You can also add the short comings of this research and what would be required to improve it in the future. On short papers, the discussion may be integrated with the conclusion.

Conclusion - The conclusion should first point out your primary finding(s) and then give a quick summary of why the result is important. It's common to then mention steps that can be taken for future research.

Acknowledgements - Don't forget to mention your funders and those who helped with data collection, processing, analysis, and documentation in this section.

Citations - The format of the citations will be specified by the journal.

Figures - It was traditional that figures would follow the citations but some of the open access journals now ask that figures (and tables) are placed within the text. this makes reviewing manuscripts much easier. Remember to check the resolution and format requirements for the figures. Captions for figures go under the figure and should explain the entire figure.

Tables - Keep the tables simple and the number of digits short, just enough to convey your story. The caption for a table goes at the top of the table.


Personal Communications should be cited parenthetically in the text. An example would be "Dr. Stohlgren found that plots had been trampled by wild buffalo (personal communication).

Hyper links can be included either in the text or as citations. If the hyper link is very long, I will put it in the citations. Remember that we are trying to make the paper as readable as possible.


Cite papers that disagree and agree with your findings. Being up front about the strengths and weaknesses of your paper is not only good science, it actually makes the paper stronger.

The Journal

There are a wide variety of research journals available for publication. This includes online and traditional and open-access and fee-based. Some journals are indexed by the search engines while others, especially the new ones, are not. There are also government reports to access federal agencies.

Select a journal whose readers will find your article of value. A good guide is that if you have a lot of citations for that journal in the manuscript, their readers will probably find your paper of interest as well.

Follow the "Guide to Authors". Some journals require double-spaced text and separate files for images. Some of the new ones want the paper formatted as closely to how it will be printed as possible which includes putting the figures in their appropriate location in the content.

Acceptance, rejection, and resubmitting

Move quickly on changes when accepted. Some of the online journals ask for two week turn-around on journals once they have been accepted.

"Resubmit with major changes" is actually an acceptance. Unless you disagree with the changes, go ahead and make them and resubmit. It may take a while but if you address all or even most of the issues, the manuscript will be accepted.

Editors are other researchers, just like you. They make mistakes and you can contact the editor and ask for another reviewer if you feel one of yours is not providing appropriate feedback. You can also move on to another journal, there are lots of them.

Don't let rejections keep stop you. Keep improving the paper and resubmitting it to other journals.

Additional Resources

Verb tense in scientific manuscripts from American Journal Experts