The structure, purpose and function of research papers

Today’s world abounds with information. All areas and disciplines of life overflow with written and visual data. New science knowledge is reported monthly by hundreds of journals containing dozens of papers in each. This introduction to journals and scientific papers provides insights for understanding scientific papers. If you read this article and want to know more about writing process, you can read our article “How to Write a Good College Science Paper”.

How research papers come to be, peer review of scientific papers

 

The published paper is the important, end result of good research. Many papers are the fruits of government- and foundation-sponsored researches that involve large expenditures of time, personnel and money.

New, interesting, provocative, exciting or innovative research findings lead scientists to organize their data and to write and submit research papers for publication.

Acceptance and publication are not automatic, and the steps to publication typically are:

  • submission of an original, previously unpublished paper, to the editor of a journal.
  • receipt of the paper by the editor.
  • appointment by the editor of two or three anonymous reviewers to check the work and critique the entire paper.
  • reviewers may approve the paper without modification, or
  • reviewers may reject the paper, or
  • reviewers may ask for revisions and clarifications prior to acceptance.
  • editor receives the anonymous reviewers’ commentaries, makes a decision, usually directly based upon the reviewers’ written commentaries, the editor’s judgment, and the authors’ responses to the reviewers’ critiques.
  • research papers typically are revised and resubmitted for another review by the two previous reviewers and the editor.
  • revised manuscript usually is accepted and publication occurs in 1–3 months, depending upon the journal’s backlog.

Therefore, any published scholarly journal paper has been reviewed by a minimum of three individuals. Does this mean the paper is perfect, or without error? No, but the review process assures reasonable scrutiny by experts who should be able to detect errors, inconsistencies or portions of the manuscript that need to be deleted, modified, clarified or expanded prior to publication.
A manuscript may undergo more than one revision trip back to the reviewers before final acceptance. Some published papers seem to be still “works in progress”. Occasional errors, small or large, may escape into final print. Nevertheless, most published scientific papers will be good to excellent presentations of a particular research area.

Organization of scientific papers in journals

Most research papers are organized as follows:

  • Title — provides major information as to the actual subject and content. Good titles always are informative and clear.
  • Authors’ Names and Research Location — enables readers to contact and correspond with the scientist-authors.
  • Abstract — contains a few hundred words summary of major findings and highlights the most important information.
  • Introduction — briefly reviews prior researches foundational to the current research.
  • Materials and Methods -— gives details of how the work was done and what was used.
  • Results — tabular, graphic, pictorial and verbal accounting of what occurred in the experiments.
  • Discussion — presentation of comparative historical, as well as forward-looking, future research perspectives. Logical and reasonable arguments are made throughout the discussion. Critical gaps or needs are pointed out and conclusions are made here, or in a summary conclusions section, as well as the Abstract at the beginning.
  • Literature Cited or References section — show all known similar and corollary studies

In summary, scientific papers are important documents.

Textbooks and scientific review papers usually summarize in one or two sentences and a few dozen words the findings of a 8–10-page paper containing one or two thousand words. That is how textbooks and summary reviews keep things simple for busy folks in today’s information-rich world.