Chapter 5 Sections of a Paper
Now that you have identified your research question, have compiled the data you need, and have a clear argument and roadmap, it is time for you to write. In this Module, I will briefly explain how to develop different sections of your research paper. I devote a different chapter to the empirical section. Please take into account that these are guidelines to follow in the different section, but you need to adapt them to the specific context of your paper.
5.1 The Abstract
The abstract of a research paper contains the most critical aspects of the paper: your research question, the context (country/population/subjects and period) analyzed, the findings, and the main conclusion. You have about 250 characters to attract the attention of the readers. Many times (in fact, most of the time), readers will only read the abstract. You need to “sell” your argument and entice them to continue reading. Thus, abstracts require good and direct writing. Use journalistic style. Go straight to the point.
There are two ways in which an abstract can start:
By introducing what motivates the research question. This is relevant when some context may be needed. When there is ‘something superior’ motivating your project. Use this strategy with care, as you may confuse the reader who may have a hard time understanding your research question.
By introducing your research question. This is the best way to attract the attention of your readers, as they can understand the main objective of the paper from the beginning. When the question is clear and straightforward this is the best method to follow.
Regardless of the path you follow, make sure that the abstract only includes short sentences written in active voice and present tense. Remember: Readers are very impatient. They will only skim the papers. You should make it simple for readers to find all the necessary information.
5.2 The Introduction
The introduction represents the most important section of your research paper. Whereas your title and abstract guide the readers towards the paper, the introduction should convince them to stay and read the rest of it. This section represents your opportunity to state your research question and link it to the bigger issue (why does your research matter?), how will you respond it (your empirical methods and the theory behind), your findings, and your contribution to the literature on that issue.
I reviewed the “Introduction Formulas” guidelines by Keith Head, David Evans and Jessica B. Hoel and compiled their ideas in this document, based on what my I have seen is used in papers in political economy, and development economics.
This is not a set of rules, as papers may differ depending on the methods and specific characteristics of the field, but it can work as a guideline. An important takeaway is that the introduction will be the section that deserves most of the attention in your paper. You can write it first, but you need to go back to it as you make progress in the rest of teh paper. Keith Head puts it excellent by saying that this exercise (going back and forth) is mostly useful to remind you what are you doing in the paper and why.
What are the sections generally included in well-written introductions? According to the analysis of what different authors suggest, a well-written introduction includes the following sections:
- Hook: Motivation, puzzle. (1-2 paragraphs)
- Research Question: What is the paper doing? (1 paragraph)
- Antecedents: (optional) How your paper is linked to the bigger issue. Theory. (1-2 paragraphs)
- Empirical approach: Method X, country Y, dataset Z. (1-2 paragraphs)
- Detailed results: Don’t make the readers wait. (2-3 paragraphs)
- Mechanisms, robustness and limitations: (optional) Your results are valid and important (1 paragraph)
- Value added: Why is your paper important? How is it contributing to the field? (1-3 paragraphs)
- Roadmap A convention (1 paragraph)
Now, let’s describe the different sections with more detail.
126.96.36.199 1. The Hook
Your first paragraph(s) should attract the attention of the readers, showing them why your research topic is important. Some attributes here are:
- Big issue, specific angle: This is the big problem, here is this aspect of the problem (that your research tackles)
- Big puzzle: There is no single explanation of the problem (you will address that)
- Major policy implemented: Here is the issue and the policy implemented (you will test if if worked)
- Controversial debate: some argue X, others argue Y
188.8.131.52 2. Research Question
After the issue has been introduced, you need to clearly state your research question; tell the reader what does the paper researches. Some words that may work here are:
- I (We) focus on
- This paper asks whether
- In this paper,
- Given the gaps in knoweldge, this paper
- This paper investigates
184.108.40.206 3. Antecedents (Optional section)
I included this section as optional as it is not always included, but it may help to center the paper in the literature on the field.
However, an important warning needs to be placed here. Remember that the introduction is limited and you need to use it to highlight your work and not someone else’s. So, when the section is included, it is important to:
- Avoid discussing paper that are not part of the larger narrative that surrounds your work
- Use it to notice the gaps that exist in the current literature and that your paper is covering
In this section, you may also want to include a description of theoretical framework of your paper and/or a short description of a story example that frames your work.
220.127.116.11 4. Empirical Approach
One of the most important sections of the paper, particularly if you are trying to infer causality. Here, you need to explain how you are going to answer the research question you introduced earlier. This section of the introduction needs to be succint but clear and indicate your methodology, case selection, and the data used.
18.104.22.168 5. Overview of the Results
Let’s be honest. A large proportion of the readers will not go over the whole article. Readers need to understand what you’re doing, how and what did you obtain in the (brief) time they will allocate to read your paper (some eager readers may go back to some sections of the paper). So, you want to introduce your results early on (another reason you may want to go back to the introduction multiple times). Highlight the results that are more interesting and link them to the context.
According to David Evans, some authors prefer to alternate between the introduction of one of the empirical strategies, to those results, and then they introduce another empirical strategy and the results. This strategy may be useful if different empirical methodologies are used.
22.214.171.124 6. Mechanisms, Robustness and Limitations (Optional Section)
If you have some ideas about what drives your results (the mechanisms involved), you may want to indicate that here. Some of the current critiques towards economics (and probably social sciences in general) has been the strong focus on establishing causation, with little regard to the context surrounding this (if you want to hear more, there is this thread from Dani Rodrick). Agency matters and if the paper can say something about this (sometimes this goes beyond our research), you should indicate it in the introduction.
You may also want to briefly indicate how your results are valid after trying different specifications or sources of data (this is called Robustness checks). But you also want to be honest about the limitations of your research. But here, do not diminish the importance of your project. After you indicate the limitations, finish the paragraph restating the importance of your findings.
126.96.36.199 7. Value Added
A very important section in the introduction, these paragraphs help readers (and reviewers) to show why is your work important. What are the specific contributions of your paper?
This section is different from section 3 in that it points out the detailed additions you are making to the field with your research. Both sections can be connected if that fits your paper, but it is quite important that you keep the focus on the contributions of your paper, even if you discuss some literature connected to it, but always with the focus of showing what your paper adds. References (literature review) should come after in the paper.
188.8.131.52 8. Roadmap
A convention for the papers, this section needs to be kept short and outline the organization of the paper. To make it more useful, you can highlight some details that might be important in certain sections. But you want to keep this section succint (most readers skip this paragraph altogether).
5.2.2 In summary
The introduction of your paper will play a huge role in defining the future of your paper. Do not waste this opportunity and use it as well as your North Star guiding your path throughout the rest of the paper.
5.3 Context (Literature Review)
Do you need a literature review section?