39 Writing research

So far, you have learnt the about process of research: asking a RQ, designing a study, collecting data, describing and summarising the data, and analysing the data (confidence intervals; hypothesis tests). In this chapter, you will learn to:

  • write research effectively and clearly.
  • appropriately structure your research writing.

39.1 Introduction

All students in scientific, engineering and health professions need to read the research of others; that's how they stay up-to-date with the discipline. Some students will also need to write about their own research or the research of others. Understanding the language of research is important in either case.

The purpose of writing research is to effectively and clearly communicate. Formal guidelines for writing and reporting research exist, for experimental studies (CONSORT) and observational studies (STROBE), though we will not delve into these specifically.

Research may be shared using presentations (Sect. 39.3) or written documents (Sect. 39.4). The style and expectations vary widely between these two formats, and also between disciplines. Even journals in the same discipline have differences. Hence, in this chapter, general comments are made about writing about research, rather than give specific requirements.

39.2 General tips

The purpose of writing about research is to effectively and clearly communicate the research. In the scientific disciplines, writing carefully and precisely is important: using the correct words appropriately is crucial. Think carefully about every word you use to ensure it conveys the correct and intended meaning. With this in mind, all scientific writing:

  • should avoid ambiguity.
  • should use terminology consistently.
  • should use simple, clear but technically-correct language.
  • should present the facts in an unbiased manner.
  • should be clear, concise and complete.
  • should use facts to make statements.
  • should avoid unnecessary repetition.


  • should not contain unnecessary words and phrases.
  • should not be haphazard, jumbled or illogical.
  • should not promote personal opinions (such as describing results as exciting, and so on).
  • should not reach conclusions not supported by the given evidence.
  • should not overstate what has been learnt from the study.

After completing a first draft, make sure you revise your document: remove unnecessary words, phrases and sentences; ensure consistency. Writing well is difficult; editing can be painful. Having someone else read and comment on your writing can be useful.

William Howard Taft (27th president of the United States) is claimed to have said (emphasis added):

Don't write so that you can be understood; write so that you can't be misunderstood.

Example 39.1 (Write what you mean) A student project at my university was titled:

Driving behaviours: Are dark-coloured car owners more likely to park undercover?

What they actually studied was:

Driving behaviours: Are drivers of dark-coloured cars more likely to park undercover?

Don't just be understood; avoid being misunderstood!

A series of experimental studies (Oppenheimer 2006) concluded that students often believe that using fancy words makes them appear smarter. However, one conclusion of the research was that using 'fancy' language does not achieve this: 'needless complexity leads to negative evaluations...' (Oppenheimer (2006), p. 151; emphasis added). Always use the best and most appropriate word; only use fancy words if necessary. One recommendation from the study is to (p. 153)

... write clearly and simply if you can, and you'll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent.

39.3 Preparing presentations

Presentations are often used to share progress reports of research, or give an overview of completed research. They are often used at conferences, workshops, and progress meetings. Presentations are often given to peers, stakeholders, funding bodies, small groups of other researchers, or work teams.

Presentations are a verbal medium (speaking) and a visual medium (preparing slides).

As an verbal medium, speak slowly, clearly, loudly, and with expression. Use eye contact... and practice!

As a visual medium, presentations usually omit technical details and give the audience an overview of the major points; sharing technical details in a presentation is unlikely to produce an engaging presentation. Presentations tend to focus on the why and the what of the research, rather than the how. They may encourage audience members to learn more by reading your written documents (Sect. 39.4).

Presentations also tend to use many graphs and images, use short sentences, and use minimal text. Presentation software encourages the use of fancy fonts, transitions and animations, but these are usually more distracting than informative; avoid. Ensure your fonts are colours are readable from a distance!

Using bullet points on slides, while common, is not necessary; short sentences are fine. Slides should not contain information that you just read to the audience; a good presenter adds important details around the structure provided by information on the slides. The slides guide, but do not have to tell, your story of your research.

39.4 Writing documents

Written documents are more likely to be formally written and prepared than presentations, and to contain details omitted in presentations. Unlike presentations, written documents usually provide details of how the research was conducted. Written documents may be journal articles, progress reports, reports to stakeholders, or funding applications. In what follows, all these types of written documents are referred to as 'articles' for brevity.

Journal articles, and sometimes other written documents too, should contain sufficient details so that other professionals can repeat the study.

39.4.1 Article titles

Titles are important: poor titles can discourage a reader from reading an article. A title should clearly describe the main purpose of the article. Titles sometimes pose questions ('Do warning lights and sirens reduce ambulance response times?'; Brown et al. (2000)) or provide answers ('No harm from five year ingestion of oats in coeliac disease'; Janatuinen et al. (2002)).

39.4.2 Authors

Ensure that everyone who has made an intellectual contribution is listed as an author. This is ethical practice (Sect. 5), and includes (based on Brand et al. (2015)) those who helped with:

  • conceptualisation.
  • methodology.
  • software.
  • validation.
  • formal analysis.
  • investigation.
  • resourcing.


  • data curation.
  • created image or took photographs.
  • writing, including writing drafts, reviewing and editing.
  • visualization.
  • supervision.
  • project administration.
  • funding acquisition.

39.4.3 Abstract

The Abstract is a short section at the start of an article summarising the whole paper, including the results; it is not an introduction! The Abstract is often the most important part of any article, as it is the only part that many people will read. Some (but not all) journals require a structured abstract, where the Abstract contains specific headings.

The Standards for Reporting Diagnostic Accuracy (STARD) statement (Cohen et al. 2017) list essential items for Abstracts (slightly adapted):

  • Background and Objectives: List the study objectives (or the RQs, or the Aims, as necessary).
  • Methods: Describe:
    • the process of data collection.
    • the type of study.
    • the inclusion and exclusion criteria for individuals.
    • the settings in which the data were collected.
    • the sampling method (e.g., systematics or convenience sample).
    • the tools or methods used to collect the data.
  • Results: Provide:
    • the number of individuals in all groups included in the analysis.
    • estimates of precision of estimates (e.g., confidence intervals).
    • results of analysis (e.g., hypothesis tests).
  • Discussion: Provide:
    • a general interpretation of the results.
    • implications for practice.
    • limitations of the study.

These loosely align with the six steps of research used in this book.

Example 39.2 (Structured abstract) Singh and Prasad (2016) examined the long-term effects of mortality after amputation. Here is the structured Abstract, slightly edited for brevity, which contains most of the required elements (p. 545):

Background: Mortality after amputation is known to be extremely high and is associated with a number of patient features. We wished to calculate this mortality after first-time lower-limb amputation and investigate whether any population or treatment factors are associated with worse mortality.

Objective: To follow up individuals after lower limb amputation and ascertain the mortality rate as well as population or treatment features associated with mortality.

Study design: A prospective cohort study [i.e., a forward direction study]

Methods: Prospective lower-limb amputations over 1 year (\(N = 105\)) at a Regional Rehabilitation Centre were followed up for \(3\) years.

Results: After \(3\) years, \(35\) individuals in the cohort had died, representing a mortality of \(33\)%. On initial univariate analysis, those who died were more likely to have diabetes mellitus (\(\chi^2 = 7.16\), \(\text{df} = 1\), \(p = 0.007\)) [...] Diabetes (odds ratio\({} = 3.04\), confidence interval \({} = 1.25\)--\(7.40\), \(p = 0.014\))...

Conclusion: Mortality after amputation is extremely high and is increased in individuals with diabetes...

39.4.4 Introduction

The purpose of the Introduction is to:

  • gain the interest of readers, and encourage them to read more of the article.
  • establish the context and background.
  • define the language and definitions used in the study.
  • introduce the theoretical groundwork of the subject.
  • state the purpose of the paper: why it was written, and what the authors hope to learn.
  • show how the research fills a gap in existing knowledge.

The introduction often includes a literature review too, though sometimes a literature review is a separate section.

39.4.5 Methods

The Methods section (sometimes called Materials and Methods or similar) explains how the data were obtained; for example:

  • how the sample was identified and located.
  • how the data were collected from the individuals (the data collection protocol).
  • how the data were analysed, including the software (and version number) used, and the statistical methods used.
  • what specialized equipment was used (don't list pencils, rulers, paper, etc.).

39.4.6 Results

The Results summarise the conclusions from the analysis, especially regarding the initial RQ. The Results section:

  • shows all the relevant findings from the research.
  • presents a summary of the data: the number of observations, the number of missing values, and a verbal description of all variables.
  • presents tabular, numerical and/or graphical summaries of the data and relationships of importance.
  • gives a brief verbal interpretation of these summaries.
  • gives the results from any hypothesis tests and confidence intervals.
  • identifies trends, consistencies, anomalies, etc.
  • does not interpret or explain the results (that is the purpose of the Discussion).

Unless the dataset is small, the data itself is usually not given (though may appear in an Appendix or online).

Cutting-and-pasting software output into reports is rarely acceptable, except for graphs.

39.4.7 Discussion

Sometimes, articles have separate Conclusion and Discussion sections; sometimes they are combined. No new information should be presented in this section. The Discussion section:

  • summarises the results.
  • gives a short evaluation of the results.
  • answers the stated RQ.
  • discusses limitations (Sect. 8), strengths, weaknesses, problems, challenges.
  • tries to anticipate and respond to potential questions about the research.

Readers should reach the conclusions based on the evidence presented.

39.4.8 Referencing

Writing about research almost always refers to using other people's work to formulate the research question, establish ideas and explain the background of the research. However, plagiarism should be avoided: using other people's words and ideas without acknowledgement.

To avoid plagiarism, all sources used when writing research should be acknowledged. Plagiarism is a serious offence: it is theft of intellectual property. Do not plagiarise; use quotes if necessary and cite work (sparingly). Plagiarism applies to words, text, images, photographs, ideas, etc.

Example 39.3 (Plagiarism) A journal published an article to discourage plagiarism (Shamim 2014). Later, the article was retracted because parts of the article were plagiarised.

The References (or Bibliography) section gives the full citations of any work referenced, in the required format (such as APA, Harvard, etc.). This is ethical practice. Most journals have strict guidelines for how references should be listed and formatted.

39.4.9 Optional sections

Sometimes an Acknowledgements section is used to thank and acknowledge other contributions, such as people who legitimately contributed to the manuscript, and research funding bodies. Avoid saying 'The authors would like to thank...'; instead directly thank them: 'We thank...'.

Often an Appendix is included, which contains important material that would otherwise break the flow of the article's narrative. The Appendix may include large tables, images, discussions of technical details, ... Sometimes, this material is placed online.

39.4.10 Article structure

Articles are usually expected to have a more formal structure than presentations. Sometimes the acronym AIMRaD or IMRaD is used to remember these sections:

  • Abstract.
  • Introduction.
  • Methods.
  • Results.
  • Discussion (or Summary, or Conclusions).

These components capture the six-step research process in this book (Fig. 39.1). Ensure your article is logical in its presentation.

The connection between the paper and the steps we have studied.  The Abstract briefly covers all aspects of the study, and the Discussion may combine elements from all areas also.

FIGURE 39.1: The connection between the paper and the steps we have studied. The Abstract briefly covers all aspects of the study, and the Discussion may combine elements from all areas also.

39.5 Specific advice

39.5.1 Constructing tables, graphs and images

Good figures and tables take time and care to prepare. Their purpose should always be to display the data in the simplest, clearest possible way, and should be produced to display the important information of interest. In general, tables, graphs and images:

  • should be discussed (not just presented) in the text.
  • should be clear and uncluttered.
  • should includes units of measurement (such as kg) where appropriate.
  • should be able to be understood without reference to the paper, as far as possible.
  • should use easy-to-read fonts and colours: for example, ensure the font size is sufficiently large when placed in the article.
  • should avoid using different colours, line types or fonts unless these have a purpose (i.e., to differentiate between groups in the study); if they are used, their purpose should be explained.
  • should not include chart junk (such as artificial third dimensions for graphs (Sect. 17.2), and unnecessary lines in tables).

Figures and images typically have captions below, while tables typically have captions above. The source of all images (e.g., the photographer) should be acknowledged, when appropriate. Table should use very few horizontal lines, and no vertical lines.

39.5.2 Presenting numbers

When presenting numbers, ensure all figures are rounded appropriately. Software may report more decimal places than necessary, for instance. When appropriate, ensure units of measurement are given.

Be consistent and careful with decimal numbers. Some journals require numbers to be written with a leading zero, and some do not. For example, some require writing \(P = 0.024\) and some \(P = .024\).

Counts are usually written in words (i.e., 'three') when less than ten (or sometimes twelve), and otherwise presented using digits ('2,041'). However, number are written in full when starting a sentence ('Thirty-seven people volunteered').

Output from software may need to be sensibly rounded before being included in a report (including in tables and graphs).

39.5.3 Lexically ambiguous words

Avoiding the possibility of readers misinterpreting your writing is important, so write carefully and precisely. One potential source of confusion is words with a different meaning in research compared to every-day use (lexical ambiguity; Richardson, Dunn, and Hutchins (2013); P. K. Dunn et al. (2016)). The Glossary (Appendix D) may prove helpful. Some specific words where care is needed include:

  • Average: in research, 'average' refers to any way of measuring the typical value (Sect. 11.5) including the mean and the median, but also other measures too. Use the specific word 'mean' or 'median' when that is what you intend.
  • Confidence: In research, 'confidence' is usually used in the phrase 'confidence interval' (Sect. 25.3).
  • Comparison: In research, distinguishing between a 'within-individuals' and 'between individuals' comparison is important (Sect. 2.7).
  • Control: In research, a 'control' refers to a specific situation, and is helpful for maximising internal validity (Def. 2.15).
  • Correlation: In research, correlation describes the (usually linear) relationship between two quantitative variables (Sect. 16.4.1). In general use, 'correlation' is often used to mean 'association'.
  • Estimate: In research, 'estimating' usually means to calculate a sample estimate for an unknown population parameter. In general use, 'estimate' often means to guess.
  • Experiment: In research, an experiment is a specific type of research study (Sect. 4.5). Use the word 'study' to talk about experimental and observational studies more generally.
  • Graph: In research, a 'graph' is used to summarise data (Chap. 17.2).
  • Independent: This words has many uses in statistics and research, in science, and in general use. The word 'independent' in this book refers to events that do not impact each other in a probabilistic sense (Sect. 18.5).
  • Intervention: In research, an 'intervention' (Sect. 2.7) is when the researchers manipulate the comparison.
  • Normal: In research, 'normal' often refers to the 'normal distribution' (Chap. 21.3). If this is not the meaning you intend to convey, consider using the word 'usual'.
  • Odds: In research, 'odds' has a specific meaning (Sect. 12.5) and is different that probability. In general use, 'probability' and 'odds' are often used interchangeably.
  • Population: In research, the 'population' refers to a larger group of interest (Sect. 2.2.1). In general use, 'population' usually refers to groups of people.
  • Random: In research, 'random' has a specific meaning. In general usage, it often means 'haphazard' or 'without planning'.
  • Regression: In research, 'regression' refers to the mathematical (usually linear) relationship between two quantitative variables (Sect. 38).
  • Sample: In research, we say (for example) that we 'have one sample of \(30\) fungi' (Sect. 6.2); in some disciplines, this could be described as 'taking \(30\) samples'.
  • Significant: This is perhaps the most misused word in scientific writing. In research, 'significance' is usually understood to refer to 'statistical significance' (Sect. 32.6). If this is not the meaning you intend to convey, consider using the word 'substantial'.
  • Variable: In research, a 'variable' is something that can vary from individual to individual (Def. 2.10).

Some symbols may also have different meanings in research than in some other scientific disciplines; again, care is needed when using these symbols:

  • \(\beta\): In research, \(\beta\) refers to the regression parameters (Sect. 38.3).
  • \(\rho\): In research, \(\rho\) refers to the population correlation coefficient (Sect. 16.4.1).

39.6 Style

Different disciplines and journals have their own styles; read articles from your discipline or target journal to see how to write in the required style. Some general style recommendations include:

  • Use short sentences.
  • Write using complete sentences.
  • Use inclusive language (e.g., 'fire-fighter' rather than 'fireman').
  • Omit words, phrases, sentences that add nothing to the paper.
  • Check for commonly confused words: there/their; your/you're; affect/effect; chose/choose; etc.
  • Ensure capitalisation is correct.
  • Use apostrophes (not apostrophe's!) correctly.
  • Crucially, be unambiguous: Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
  • Ensure correct content, grammar, spelling, punctuation, format.
  • Use, but do not rely upon, the spell checker.

39.7 Chapter summary

Presentations are a verbal and visual medium., and usually do not include details of what was done; instead, they focus on the major points and conclusions.

Written documents are more formal, and include more details of what was done. They should be written carefully, and words used precisely. Use short sentences and omit unnecessary words.

Remember: 'Don’t write so that you can be understood; write so that you can't be misunderstood' (attributed to William Howard Taft), and 'Write what you mean; mean what you write' (attributed to many).

39.8 Quick review questions

Are these statements true or false?

  1. Using long, obscure words makes writing sound more scientific.
  2. Presentations generally focus on the details of what was done.
  3. The Introduction should explain why the study was done.
  4. Numbers should be given to as many decimal places as possible, for the greatest accuracy.
  5. The design of the study should be explained in detail in the Methods section.

39.9 Exercises

Answers to odd-numbered exercises are available in App. E.

Exercise 39.1

  1. Which is the correct word to complete this sentence: to, too or two?
    'Liquid fertiliser was applied [______] pots each morning at 9am.'
  2. Which is the correct word to complete this sentence: its or it's?
    'Each kangaroos was observed for signs that [______] tracking device caused discomfort.'
  3. What are the biggest problems with this sentence?
    'We took \(50\) samples of students; the average age was 26.2 years.'
  4. What is the biggest problem with this text?
    'Subjects are not blinded. Because the subjects would clearly know they were in a study.'

Exercise 39.2

  1. Whichis the correct word to complete this sentence: there, their or they're?
    'The subject were told to eat [______] snacks at about 8am.'
  2. What is the biggest problem with this text?
    'The sample of pedestrians were all taken on a Thursday.'
  3. Which is the correct word to complete this sentence: affect or effect? 'The [______] of the diet was to increase the blood pressure.'
  4. What is the problem with this sentence? 'The new formulation produces better concrete.

Exercise 39.3

  1. Explain why this sentence is poorly written, and write an improved version:
    'There was one rat in the cage that was male.'
  2. Explain how this sentence can be misinterpreted, and write an improved version:
    'The research assistant recorded the pH of the lake water in the beaker after removing weeds.'

Exercise 39.4

  1. Explain why this sentence is poorly written, and write an improved version:
    'Fertiliser was applied to one of the fields that was liquid.'
  2. Explain why this sentence is poorly written, and write an improved version:
    The new diet lost more weight, on average, than the traditional diet.'

Exercise 39.5 Oyerinde, Bamisaye, and Essien (2019) reports (p. 1):

The regression correlation coefficients of \(0.999996066\) and \(0.999653453\) were obtained for the temperatures and speeds respectively.

What is the problem with this statement?

Exercise 39.6 David et al. (2007) published an article entitled 'Are patients with self-inflicted injuries more likely to die?'. What is the problem with this title?

Exercise 39.7 In a student project, students compared the mean reading speed for people when reading two different fonts. Their RQ was:

Which font allows [...] students to read a pangram the fastest, between a default and what is considered to be a 'easy to read' font.

In their Abstract, the conclusion was given as:

The Georgia font was the fastest to be read and is therefore the faster of the two.

  1. Explain why this is a poorly-worded RQ. Rewrite the RQ.
  2. Explain what is wrong with the conclusion. Rewrite the statement.

Exercise 39.8 In a student project, the students compared the heights that students could jump vertically, starting from a squat or standing position. Every student in the study performed both jumps. Critique their numerical summary (Table 39.1).

TABLE 39.1: The information showing how much higher the (standing) jump height is compared to the squat jump
\(n\) Mean Standard deviation Standard error Confidence interval \(95\)% \(t\) value \(P\) value
\(50\) \(7.48\) \(4.674\) \(0.661\) \(6.152\) to \(8.808\) \(11.316\) \(0.000\)

Exercise 39.9 The aim of a student project was 'to determine if the proportion of males and females that use disposable cups on [the university] Campus is the same'. The two variables observed on each person in the study were whether or not the person used a disposable cup, and the sex of the person. In reporting the results in their Abstract, the students state:

Based on the sample results, the \(95\)% confidence interval for the population mean number of disposable cups used by males and females is between \(0.690\) and \(1.625\). Meaning that the population mean is likely to fall between those two intervals.

Critique this statement.

Exercise 39.10 The aim of student project was 'to determine if the average hang time is different between two types of paper plane designs'. The two variables in the study were design type (Basic Dart; Hunting Flight), and the hang time of the flight of the plane (in seconds). In reporting the results in their Abstract, the students state:

Very strong evidence proving a difference (\(P = .000\)) between the Basic Dart mean hang time (\(881.84\pm 140.73\) ms) and the Hunting Flight mean hang time (\(1504.19\pm 699.86\) ms). \(95\)% CI for the means of The Basic Dart (\(829.29\) -- \(934.39\)) and the Hunting Flight (\(1242.86\) -- \(1765.52\)).

Critique this statement.