How to Write a Research Paper

This is a simple, step-by-step guide on how to write your research paper for submission to a journal. This guide is mainly geared towards ecology and environmental science based journals but the principles can be applied to all forms of scientific writing, including how to write a report for a class or how to to write an essay.

1. Complete your Research

While it isn’t a bad idea to begin writing even before your actual research is completed, you can only really get so far if you haven’t gotten all of your results in and analyzed. While you can start writing the Introduction and Methods sections even before you complete your research, you will likely end up changing them a lot after your research is completed. Therefore, this is a good time to make a rough outline of the main key points that you want in your paper. You can do this by just making a checklist with every single point that you know off the top of your head you have have to state in your paper. Before you start writing, you can reorder this checklist in the format required of you. (e.g. Intro, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion, etc.)


2. Select your Journal and look up guidelines 

The ideal journal to submit to would be something with a large audience and a lot of citations which would do your research the most justice and get your name out there to other scientists in the community. In order to get a grasp on the quality of a journal, you can look at its impact factors. Journal impact factors are a measure of how often articles there are cited and how recently all of this happened. While a publication in a journal such as Nature would definitely get your research read, it is highly unlikely that your research could be of such a high caliber to be accepted for publication there. Ideally what you want to do is compare your research to other research papers which are published in the journals you are considering and decide if it is comparable. A great rule of thumb is: If the papers you are going to be citing have more or less the same impact factor and are published in the same journals, then most likely this is where you would want to send your manuscript for publication. If you do send in your paper manuscript somewhere and they decline it, it is perhaps a good idea to attempt to submit it to a lower level journal.

After you have selected your journal, check the author instructions which are usually posted on their website. These are very strict rules that anything you would submit has to follow. For example, in Ecology, it is customary to write in the first person whereas in other areas of research this is usually not the case, so it is important to check which tense your paper should be written in. The author instructions of a journal are like a rubric for a school assignment. You absolutely have to follow them whenever you submit your manuscript.

3. Write your methods section

Now you can begin the actual writing process! The Methods section of a research paper outlines exactly what you did in your research. This section needs to be written in such a way that if someone knew absolutely nothing about your research when they picked up and read your paper, they could still perform your experiment. Simply write the steps you took to perform everything, in paragraph form, and be sure to mention your materials used.

Writing the methods section first is a fantastic way to get you started because you should have no anxiety about it. You know what you did, just write what you did and you don’t have to feel nervous about it sounding bad or being scientifically incorrect, there’s no real possible way to mess this up. The reason it is a good idea to write this section first is because this section will not vary as time progresses. What you did is what you did. It is best to get this out of the way and just write it. This will jump start your writing process and if you are stuck and don’t know where to begin, this way you will at least have one section of your paper done and it will likely jog your memory to allow you to continue to other sections.

4. Write your results section

You just wrote what you did, now it’s time to write down what happened when you did it. Start this section out by gathering all of your figures, graphs, and tables together and deciding exactly which ones you will include. Your job is to present the results in the simplest, most efficient way possible. If this can be done in only one figure, include only one. More is not necessarily better. Your journal’s author instructions will tell you how you need to format your figures (i.e. captions, titles, etc.). After you have decided on your figures, write a summary of what you did. Your results should start from general to specific. Report the results which are relevant to your experimental question. Do NOT interpret these results. Just write down everything which is presented in your figures.

It’s a good idea to write this section after your methods section because, chronologically it makes the most sense. After you performed your methods – you got some kind of result. This is where your brain will naturally take you and once you do this section you have already actually written everything down as far as your research goes. Now it’s time to introduce the reader to it and then later to discuss your results in detail.

5. Write your Introduction section

After your Methods and Results are done, you have to ask yourself: Assuming the reader knows nothing about my subject, (which they likely don’t) what information do I need to give them so they can read my Methods and Results and understand exactly what I’ve done? You will need first a summary of your overall topic in a general context. Second, you will need to relate how this general context fits into your specific research. You also need to state things like your experimental questions, hypotheses, and predictions. This section should have a lot of citations of other people’s work. If you are looking for an example research paper to base this section on, guess what? This would be your exact papers you are citing! If a paper you are citing has been published in another journal, then you have your ideal example of a sample research paper to base yours on.

6. Write your Discussion section

Many people will tell you this is the most important section of your whole paper. This is true because the discussion is where you interpret your results. Start by first looking at your results section and making a list of every “key” result in your experiment. If your results are “nothing happened” then this is also a result that needs to be discussed. After making this list, one by one discuss possible reasons for why this happened, comparisons to other research where this did or didn’t happen, and possible limiting factors to your study. This section will also be very citation heavy and again if you see other example research papers commonly mentioning the a certain topic, then you also have to mention it. A rich discussion section is key in getting your paper accepted for publication.

7. Write your Abstract

Isn’t this counter-intuitive?  The section of your paper that’s supposed to go first is actually written last! But this actually makes a whole lot of sense if you think about it. You have just completed hours of grueling work to write this paper and you finally have it all organized and done. This means all of the key topics that are supposed to go in your abstract are now fresh in your head. Just write the biggest main points you can. This section should have a sentence or two introducing the topic and how it relates to your research (from your introduction section), a statement of what you did to test this topic (from your methods section), your key results (from your results section), and a simple statement of why those are the results and what this implies for the scientific community (taken from your discussion section).

8. Rearrange your Paper to Meet the Guidelines

Remember how you had to look up the journal guidelines and author instructions? Now that your paper is written it is time to format it just like how the journal wants. Every journal website will have a set of instructions and if you are unclear on something do not hesitate to contact them. Take some time here because it looks a lot more professional if you submit your paper following all their strict guidelines instead of them having to contact you over and over to get it right.

There you have it! A great method and guide to writing your research paper! Once this process becomes more standardized in your mind you will automatically start doing this and this will reduce stress regarding scientific writing as well as speed up your process, making it more efficient and more likely to get accepted to a scientific journal!