Writing Your Research Paper

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The basic structure of a typical research paper is the sequence of Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion (sometimes abbreviated as IMRAD). The authors state: (i) the problem they intend to address—in other terms, the research question—in the Introduction; (ii) what they did to answer the question in the Methods section; (iii) what they observed in the Results section; and (iv) what they think the results mean in the Discussion.

In turn, each basic section addresses several topics, and may be divided into subsections (Table 1).

The Results section is typically fairly straightforward and factual.

All results that relate to the research question should be given in detail, including simple counts and percentages.

In the Introduction, the authors should explain the rationale and background to the study.

What is the research question, and why is it important to ask it?The research question—or study objective or main research hypothesis—is the central organizing principle of the paper.Whatever relates to the research question belongs in the paper; the rest doesn’t.Also, references to unpublished work, to documents in the grey literature (technical reports), or to any source that the reader will have difficulty finding or understanding should be avoided.Having the structure of the paper in place is a good start.It can often (but not always) be expressed in terms of a possible association between X and Y in a population Z, for example ‘we examined whether providing patients about to be discharged from the hospital with written information about their medications would improve their compliance with the treatment 1 month later’.A study does not necessarily have to break completely new ground, but it should extend previous knowledge in a useful way, or alternatively refute existing knowledge.In such cases, authors should define the main research question and design the paper around it.Generally, only one main research question should be addressed in a paper (secondary but related questions are allowed).This is perhaps obvious when the paper reports on a well planned research project.However, in applied domains such as quality improvement, some papers are written based on projects that were undertaken for operational reasons, and not with the primary aim of producing new knowledge.

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