Storytelling and the thread of scientific papers

As scientists, we’re not just researchers; we’re also storytellers. Every paper we write is a narrative, taking readers on a journey through our research question, hypotheses, our methods, our findings, and their implications. Yet, all too often, instead of a compelling story, scientists write the different sections of their papers with no clear thread binding them together.

The problem often lies in our inability to maintain an overview of the paper’s structure. This post aims to familiarize you with each section of a scientific article, shedding light on how it unravels the story. You’ll find essential tips for improving these sections and references to other blog posts to delve deeper into each of them. Moreover, at the end of this post, you’ll find a downloadable visual guide designed to remind you of each section’s role in your research article.

1. The Title

The title of your article is similar to the title of a book: it must be concise, intriguing, and representative of the story that awaits readers. In scientific articles, it’s also essential that the title contains the main keywords. These keywords clearly signal what the article is about and optimize your article for search engines such as Google Scholar, Pubmed, or other databases.

If you can think of a good idea to make your title catchy, don’t hesitate. Most scientists like amusing or inspiring titles. But don’t overthink it. A catchy title isn’t necessary, and it won’t get your paper published in a top journal (the paper as a whole will). In any case, make sure your title represents your work and doesn’t promise more than it can deliver.

In this post, you’ll find many practical tips and wordings for writing catchy scientific titles.

2. The Abstract

The abstract is like a mini-version of your scientific story, a trailer that excites readers to read the full paper. Like any story, your abstract needs five elements:

  1. An Opening: Start by introducing the “character” of your story, i.e., your research topic. Your research topic is the specific subject your research advances, be it a protein, a disease, or a psychological function. Highlight its importance to immediately engage readers.
  2. A Challenge: Next, outline the problem your research aims at solving.
  3. An Action: Now, provide an overview of your methods, i.e., the action you have taken to overcome the challenge.
  4. A Climax: Share your story’s climax, i.e., your primary research results.
  5. A Resolution: Finally, close your story by elucidating how your findings resolve the problem and advance the broader research topic.

For more on storytelling in science, see this post and this one for details on crafting a compelling abstract.

3. The Introduction

The principal aim of the introduction is to convey the following:

  1. The appeal of your character, i.e., the relevance of your research topic.
  2. The setting in which this character evolves, i.e., the scientific background.
  3. The central challenge of your story, i.e., the problem that your research intends to solve.
  4. Your approach to tackling this challenge, i.e., the study you have undertaken to solve the research problem.

An essential element of a good introduction is to paint a vivid picture of the problem your research is tackling. Describing the problem before stating the hypotheses is an excellent way of emphasizing the importance of your research. It creates tension in the readers, encouraging them to continue reading the article. This method is simple and extremely effective. Yet few articles use it. Be smarter and devote a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire section of your article to the challenge/problem at the root of your research.

In this post, you’ll find more tips for writing introductions and access to my introduction workbook to help you determine their content. And in this other post, you’ll discover the subtleties of crafting a good opening (i.e., the first sentences of the introduction).

4. The Materials and Methods

The material and method section illustrates the action of your scientific narrative, detailing how you approached the challenge. This is the “how” of your story, the path you chose to explore, and the steps you took to answer your research question.

Remember to use your methods section to highlight the quality of your research. Conducting a scientific study is a colossal task, and you have certainly given it a lot of thought in advance. Do not hesitate to explain the reasons that led you to choose a certain methodology. Underline all the elements that support the idea that you have done a good job.

For an in-depth explanation of how to write a methods section, see this post.

5. The Results Section

The results section presents the climax of your story, when everything comes together, and the problem is solved.

Statistical results without explanations are as exciting as a pasta meal without sauce: They are tasteless and hard to swallow. The results section of an article is more than the output of a series of statistical tests. It is part of your story. So to make your results section easy and interesting to read, explain the meaning of your results and how they solve the challenge described in the introduction.

For tips on presenting results in a way that contributes to your narrative, see this post.

6. The Discussion

The discussion is where your story comes full circle, providing resolution – the “so what” moment of your narrative. It focuses primarily on the implications of your research, particularly how the results respond to the challenge outlined in the introduction.

Think of the discussion as a response to the introduction. It usually begins with a concise recap of the problem and a summary of your main findings. Gradually, it extends to interpreting these results, delineating their implications, potential problems, and the study’s limitations. It usually ends with a conclusion highlighting the take-home message.

To dive deeper into what makes a good discussion, see this post.

In Sum

Writing a research paper is all about creating a coherent narrative. Yet many scientific writers struggle to unfold a logical thread throughout their papers. In this post, you’ve learned how to unfold the story at the heart of your research paper through its various sections. By incorporating these tips, you’ll be able to write a convincing scientific narrative.

To help you remember these tips when writing your article, we’ve created a visual guide – a free document you can download here.

This guide is designed to remind you of the role each section plays in your research article. It’s perfect for printing out and displaying in your office as a reference while you write.

Happy writing!

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