Writing your first research paper: A practical guide for clinicians
Authors: Shania Liu, Deanna Mill, Amy Page, Kenneth Lee | Members of the SHPA Research Leadership Committee
[First published in Pharmacy GRIT Vol 5; Autumn–Winter 2021, some references have been updated]
SHPA proudly supports the Research Toolkit series, which aims which aims to support members in conducting and publishing their research. This series is coordinated by the SHPA Research Leadership Committee, and hence shares the insights and experience of our most research-passionate members. If you’re keen to make a difference to patient care, not just in your daily practice, but in improving practice itself, then this series is for you.
As a pharmacist, writing a paper for publishing may be quite different to our usual activities, but it’s the foundation for sharing our research findings with others. Don’t worry. We have created a concise, practical guide that will give you the know-how to writing for publication.
We won’t just tell you all the key components of a paper, we’ll also share our secret ‘formulas’ for writing a compelling paper.
If you are considering writing a research paper, you will have gone through many research milestones to get to this point. You will have written a detailed protocol, gained approvals or exemptions through a Human Research and Ethics Committee (HREC), spent (what seemed like forever) collecting data, and then (what felt like longer) analysing data. This article is intended to help you get over one of the final hurdles of research — sharing your findings with your colleagues!
Firstly, let’s talk about the main two types of research papers: literature reviews and original research.
Literature reviews contain a summary of available research on a given topic. There are several different types of literature reviews; these will be discussed in a later issue of GRIT but include systematic, scoping, and narrative reviews.
Original research includes any research where you and your research team have either created and tested an intervention (e.g. clinical trial), or observed/interviewed a population (e.g. surveys, cohort studies, quantitative interviews). To keep it simple, we’ll focus on writing a paper for quantitative original research, which involves looking at numerical information. We won’t be covering qualitative or mixed-methods studies in this guide.
Regardless of the type of research, there’s a little writing formula that academics (and publishers) like to use called IMRAD: Introduction, Methods, Results And Discussion. We will flesh out each component of IMRAD in the following sections.
Additionally, just like clinical practice guidelines/protocols that we use as clinicians to assist in decision making, academics use reporting guidelines when writing up a paper. These guidelines provide the breakdown of each of the sections within IMRAD. You can think of these reporting guidelines as a checklist for what content to include in each section. There’s a reporting guideline for almost any type of research paper (e.g. Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews [PRISMA] guideline for writing up a systematic review).1 Individual journals often have their own ‘house writing style’ so it’s a good idea to check your target journals ‘information for authors’ on their webpage before getting started.
Let’s proceed from top to tail. The first part of a paper is the title. This is your paper’s first chance to make an impression on the world. It is what will come up first in search engines and helps everyone decide if they want or need to read your paper. The trick is to make the title catchy, yet informative. You need to include the type of study/review you have performed, as well as pertinent details such as what the study/review is about. For example:
‘Improving Adherence to Medication in Stroke Survivors: A Pilot Randomised Controlled Trial’2
Pro tips for readers:
- Consider the keywords that you would select to describe your study. These should be included in your title!
- Avoid abbreviations in your title — these can be confusing for people not familiar with your field of work.
- Some journals prefer titles which don’t immediately ‘give away’ your findings. For example: ‘Effectiveness of an intervention on function after surgery’ rather than ‘Intervention improves function after surgery’. Check your journal’s recommendations.
The next section of a paper is the abstract. This is the equivalent of a Netflix preview for a new series, i.e. an overview of the important bits so that the reader can decide if they want more! It is a summary of the entire research paper (but in 200–300 words) and usually follows the structure of IMRAD: Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. You should include enough information in the abstract to provide an overall picture of what your research involved and found.
Pro tips for readers:
- Write the abstract at or towards the end the research paper writing process, so you know what you are summarising.
- Make sure your abstract does not contain any information that is not in the full article.
The introduction provides the background and rationale for why you’ve undertaken your research study and states the aim of your research. It’s a good idea to have one (or occasionally two) central research question or study aim. The rest of your paper will be designed around the primary aim (or aims). In this section, set the scene for the reader and explain why your research question is important or relevant. What do we already know and what don’t we know? Will your research address a gap in the literature? The last sentence of your introduction should clearly state the aims of your research.
Pro tips for readers:
- To write this section and the discussion you will likely need to do a literature search to find out what work already exists in your study area.
- Work smarter not harder! You may have already written some form of ‘introduction’ or ‘background’ information for your protocol or ethics application – use this as a starting point if a blank page is overwhelming you.
- It can be helpful to use a ‘funnel’ approach when writing your introduction. Start with the broader setting before getting into the specific context of your study.
- We find it easier to think of paragraphs in this section as answers to the following questions: What is the problem? Why do we care about this problem? What is already known? What is missing from our knowledge? What are you aiming to do? If you answer these questions you are well on your way to writing your background. Don’t forget to keep your references for other studies that you talk about.
The methods section, as the name suggests, provides clear details about what you did to answer your research question. It should be detailed enough that another person could read your methods section and replicate what you did in their own setting. We call this ‘reproducible research’. This section often follows a standard structure. You can look at a reporting guideline such as the PRISMA statement for systematic reviews1, the Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) Statement for observational studies3, or the Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) for randomised controlled trials4 for the structure and specific subheadings to include in this section.
If you are writing a literature review, include details such as the criteria you used to determine if an article is relevant to your review, how you searched the research databases, and how you combined and analysed the information from articles relevant to your literature review.
If you are writing an original research article, include details such as where the study was set, how you chose which participants to include in your study, any tools or interventions used, and how data were collected and analysed.
Additionally, if your research involves human or animal subjects, make sure you include a heading that states which research ethics committee(s) approved your research and the ethics approval reference ID. Since you’re not actually collecting or analysing information from human or animal subjects for a literature review, ethics approval is not required.
Pro tips for readers:
- This is often the easiest section to write first. Again, most of this information may already be available in your protocol and might need to be simply reworked for the journal context.
- Think of this as your recipe or batch sheet. What were your ingredients and processes?
- Research reporting guidelines have handy checklists for you to make sure you’ve included all the relevant information. See below for links to these guidelines.
- The content of these guidelines can be used as subheadings, e.g. study design, setting and subjects, data collection, and data analysis.
In your results section, tell your readers what you found. Start by providing some information about how many articles (for literature reviews) or people (for original articles) were potentially eligible and how many were actually included in your study. Then describe the study settings for literature reviews or baseline characteristics (e.g. demographics) of your included subjects for original research. This helps the reader to compare your study’s subjects to the patient population in their own setting and determine whether they can apply your findings to it.
Next, report on the answers you found to your main research aim. Results can be displayed in many ways, such as numbers, percentages, confidence intervals, and p-values (if this isn’t making any sense, reach out to an academic researcher, your research team, or a colleague/peer with research experience for assistance!). Tables and figures can be efficient, visual ways to present your results.
Pro tips for readers:
- This is often the second section that you write.
- Those checklists that you used for the methods will also likely guide you for what you need to include in the results!
- Here you only write what you found. Do not write interpretations, reasons or speculations for why you found what you found in the results — keep these for the discussion.
- If you decide to include a table or figure in your research paper, make sure it contains enough information for a reader to be able to understand it on its own without reading the rest of the research paper. In particular, include a brief but descriptive caption above each table and below each figure. If you used any abbreviations, ensure these are defined directly below the table or figure.
- Chances are you collected much more data than you needed! Think about the ‘story’ of your paper and, in the results section, keep the results most relevant to your study aims. Appendices/supplementary material for relevant but non-essential information can be your secret weapon for keeping your methods and results sections concise.
The discussion section is your opportunity to expand on the implications of your study findings. We’d like to debunk the myth is that there is no set approach to writing the discussion by providing a structure that you can follow for this section. However, once again check the ‘author information’ of your target journal, as they may have information on how they would like the discussion structured.
Paragraph 1: Start by summarising what your study found, ensuring you address your primary aim(s), and the significance of your findings (e.g. was this the first study in the topic?).
Paragraphs 2, 3 and optionally, 4: Compare and contrast the findings of your study to the results of existing research. Does your research reinforce or refute the findings of another study? Does it add new knowledge about a topic?
Paragraph 5: What are the implications of your article for future research? Is there further research needed to address questions that have not yet been answered?
Paragraph 6: Discuss the broader impact of your research, such as the potential implications of your research for changing clinical practice and policies or guidelines.
Paragraph 7: Address the strengths and limitations of your study. For example, what made your study better than other, similar research? On the other hand, were there any factors that may compromise the accuracy or reliability of your study’s findings or the extent to which the results can be generalised to other settings?
Paragraph 8: Finally, your concluding paragraph should tie up the paper by summarising the key study findings and suggesting directions for future research.
Pro tip for readers:
- Answer your research question here!
- This is often the third section that you write and usually done at a similar time to the introduction.
- The discussion is the section where you should put your ‘clinician hat’ back on to take a step back, thinking about the broader significance of your findings and how your research links back to the patient in front of you.
- Be honest about your research. Don’t overstate (or understate) the significance of your work and be clear about the limitations.
After the discussion section, include details like authorship (who did what in the research), acknowledgements to those who have made a substantial contribution to the study (but who were not part of the research team), sources of funding and declare any competing interests.
At the end of your research paper, include a list of your references. Different research journals require different referencing styles, so follow their recommendations. Each of these references should be referred to in-text, where you discuss their findings or contents in context.
Pro tip for readers:
- If you have access to a reference manager such as EndNote or Mendeley, then use it. The time taken to learn how to use one will save you time in the long term. They can even format your references for you.
- For examples of how to phrase the authorship, acknowledgements, sources of funding and competing interests, take a look at similar published papers.
- A great way to improve your writing is asking for feedback from your peers. Consider swapping draft papers with fellow colleagues. They may pick up on something you didn’t initially notice. Otherwise, try putting the paper away for a week and coming back to it with fresh eyes.
And that’s the basics on how to write a research paper. We hope that this serves as a helpful guide to the process of writing up a paper for publishing. Stay tuned for more in-depth information on different research paper types in future issues of Pharmacy GRIT.
- Reporting Guidelines
- Referencing Software
- International Journal for Quality in Health Care 2004, Writing a research article: advice to beginners5
The authors appreciate the critical feedback provided by the other members of the SHPA Research Leadership Committee: Jaclyn Bishop, Jonathan Penm and Elizabeth McCourt.
1. Liberati A, Altman DG, Tetzlaff J, Mulrow C, Gøtzsche PC, Loannidis JPA, et al. The PRISMA statement for reporting systematic reviews and meta-analyses of studies that evaluate health care interventions: explanation and elaboration. PLoS Med 2009; 6: e1000100.
2. O'Carroll RE, Chambers JA, Dennis M, Sudlow C, Johnston M. Improving Adherence to Medication in Stroke Survivors: A Pilot Randomised Controlled Trial. Ann Behav Med 2013; 46: 358–68.
3. von Elm E, Altman DG, Egger M, Pocock SJ, Gøtzsche PC, Vandenbroucke JP. The Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) Statement: Guidelines for Reporting Observational Studies. Epidemiol 2007; 18: 800–4.
4. Boutron I, Moher D, Altman DG, Schulz KF, Ravaud P, CONSORT Group. Extending the CONSORT Statement to Randomized Trials of Nonpharmacologic Treatment: Explanation and Elaboration. Ann Intern Med 2008; 148: 295–309.
5. Perneger TV, Hudelson PM. Writing a research article: advice to beginners. Int J Qual Health Care 2004; 16: 191–2.