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June 10, 2024

8 Key Elements of a Research Paper Structure + Free Template (2024)

8 Key Elements of a Research Paper Structure + Free Template (2024)

Table of contents

Welcome to the twilight zone of research writing. You’ve got your thesis statement and research evidence, and before you write the first draft, you need a wireframe — a structure on which your research paper can stand tall. 

When you’re looking to share your research with the wider scientific community, your discoveries and breakthroughs are important, yes. But what’s more important is that you’re able to communicate your research in an accessible format. For this, you need to publish your paper in journals. And to have your research published in a journal, you need to know how to structure a research paper.

Here, you’ll find a template of a research paper structure, a section-by-section breakdown of the eight structural elements, and actionable insights from three published researchers.

Let’s begin!

Why is the Structure of a Research Paper Important?

A research paper built on a solid structure is the literary equivalent of calcium supplements for weak bones.

Richard Smith of BMJ says, “...no amount of clever language can compensate for a weak structure."

There’s space for your voice and creativity in your research, but without a structure, your paper is as good as a beached whale — stranded and bloated.

A well-structured research paper:

  • Communicates your credibility as a student scholar in the wider academic community.
  • Facilitates accessibility for readers who may not be in your field but are interested in your research.
  • Promotes clear communication between disciplines, thereby eliminating “concept transfer” as a rate-limiting step in scientific cross-pollination.
  • Increases your chances of getting published!

Research Paper Structure Template

Research Paper Structure Template

Why Was My Research Paper Rejected?

A desk rejection hurts — sometimes more than stubbing your pinky toe against a table.

Oftentimes, journals will reject your research paper before sending it off for peer review if the architecture of your manuscript is shoddy. 

The JAMA Internal Medicine, for example, rejected 78% of the manuscripts it received in 2017 without review. Among the top 10 reasons? Poor presentation and poor English. (We’ve got fixes for both here, don’t you worry.)

5 Common Mistakes in a Research Paper Structure

  1. Choppy transitions: Missing or abrupt transitions between sections disrupt the flow of your paper. Read our guide on transition words here. 
  1. Long headings: Long headings can take away from your main points. Be concise and informative, using parallel structure throughout.
  1. Disjointed thoughts: Make sure your paragraphs flow logically from one another and support your central point.
  1. Misformatting: An inconsistent or incorrect layout can make your paper look unprofessional and hard to read. For font, spacing, margins, and section headings, strictly follow your target journal's guidelines.
  1. Disordered floating elements: Ill-placed and unlabeled tables, figures, and appendices can disrupt your paper's structure. Label, caption, and reference all floating elements in the main text.

What Is the Structure of a Research Paper? 

The structure of a research paper closely resembles the shape of a diamond flowing from the general ➞ specific ➞ general. 

We’ll follow the IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) format within the overarching “context-content-conclusion” approach:

The context sets the stage for the paper where you tell your readers, “This is what we already know, and here’s why my research matters.”

The content is the meat of the paper where you present your methods, results, and discussion. This is the IMRad (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) format — the most popular way to organize the body of a research paper. 

The conclusion is where you bring it home — “Here’s what we’ve learned, and here’s where it plays out in the grand scheme of things.”

Now, let’s see what this means section by section.

1. Research Paper Title

A research paper title is read first, and read the most. 

The title serves two purposes: informing readers and attracting attention. Therefore, your research paper title should be clear, descriptive, and concise. If you can, avoid technical jargon and abbreviations. Your goal is to get as many readers as possible.

In fact, research articles with shorter titles describing the results are cited more often

An impactful title is usually 10 words long, plus or minus three words. 

For example:

  • "Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria" (word count = 7)
  • “A Review of Practical Techniques For the Diagnosis of Malaria” (word count = 10)

2. Research Paper Abstract

In an abstract, you have to answer the two whats:

  1. What has been done?
  1. What are the main findings?

The abstract is the elevator pitch for your research. Is your paper worth reading? Convince the reader here. 

Example page of how to structure the abstract section of a research paper with a sentence by sentence breakdown.
Image Source
✏️ NOTE: According to different journals’ guidelines, sometimes the title page and abstract section are on the same page. 

An abstract ranges from 200-300 words and doubles down on the relevance and significance of your research. Succinctly.  

This is your chance to make a second first impression. 

If you’re stuck with a blob of text and can’t seem to cut it down, a smart AI elf like Wordtune can help you write a concise abstract! The AI research assistant also offers suggestions for improved clarity and grammar so your elevator pitch doesn’t fall by the wayside. 

Sample abstract text in Wordtune with suggestions under "Editor's Notes" for better writing.

3. Introduction Section

What Does It Do?

Asks the central research question.

Pre-Writing Questions For the Introduction Section

The introduction section of your research paper explains the scope, context, and importance of your project. 

I talked to Swagatama Mukherjee, a published researcher and graduate student in Neuro-Oncology studying Glioblastoma Progression. For the Introduction, she says, focus on answering three key questions:

  1. What isn’t known in the field? 
  2. How is that knowledge gap holding us back?
  3. How does your research focus on answering this problem?

When Should You Write It?

Write it last. As you go along filling in the body of your research paper, you may find that the writing is evolving in a different direction than when you first started. 

Organizing the Introduction

Visualize the introduction as an upside-down triangle when considering the overall outline of this section. You'll need to give a broad introduction to the topic, provide background information, and then narrow it down to specific research. Finally, you'll need a focused research question, hypothesis, or thesis statement. The move is from general ➞ specific.

✨️ BONUS TIP: Use the famous CARS model by John Swales to nail this upside-down triangle. 

4. Methods Section

What Does It Do?

Describes what was done to answer the research question, and how.

When Should You Write It?

Write it first. Just list everything you’ve done, and go from there. How did you assign participants into groups? What kind of questionnaires have you used? How did you analyze your data? 

Write as if the reader were following an instruction manual on how to duplicate your research methodology to the letter. 

Organizing the Methods Section

Here, you’re telling the story of your research. 

Write in as much detail as possible, and in the chronological order of the experiments. Follow the order of the results, so your readers can track the gradual development of your research. Use headings and subheadings to visually format the section.

This skeleton isn’t set in stone. The exact headings will be determined by your field of study and the journal you’re submitting to. 

✨️ BONUS TIP: Drowning in research? Ask Wordtune to summarize your PDFs for you!

5. Results Section 

What Does It Do?

Reports the findings of your study in connection to your research question.

When Should You Write It?

Write the section only after you've written a draft of your Methods section, and before the Discussion.

This section is the star of your research paper. But don't get carried away just yet. Focus on factual, unbiased information only. Tell the reader how you're going to change the world in the next section. The Results section is strictly a no-opinions zone.

How To Organize Your Results 

A tried-and-true structure for presenting your findings is to outline your results based on the research questions outlined in the figures.

Whenever you address a research question, include the data that directly relates to that question.

What does this mean? Let’s look at an example:

Here's a sample research question:

How does the use of social media affect the academic performance of college students?

Make a statement based on the data:

College students who spent more than 3 hours per day on social media had significantly lower GPAs compared to those who spent less than 1 hour per day (M=2.8 vs. M=3.4; see Fig. 2).

You can elaborate on this finding with secondary information:

The negative impact of social media use on academic performance was more pronounced among freshmen and sophomores compared to juniors and seniors ((F>25), (S>20), (J>15), and (Sr>10); see Fig. 4).

Finally, caption your figures in the same way — use the data and your research question to construct contextual phrases. The phrases should give your readers a framework for understanding the data: 

Figure 4. Percentage of college students reporting a negative impact of social media on academic performance, by year in school.

Dos and Don’ts For The Results Section

6. Discussion Section

What Does It Do?

Explains the importance and implications of your findings, both in your specific area of research, as well as in a broader context. 

Pre-Writing Questions For the Discussion Section

  1. What is the relationship between these results and the original question in the Introduction section?
  2. How do your results compare with those of previous research? Are they supportive, extending, or contradictory to existing knowledge?
  3. What is the potential impact of your findings on theory, practice, or policy in your field?
  4. Are there any strengths or weaknesses in your study design, methods, or analysis? Can these factors affect how you interpret your results?
  5. Based on your findings, what are the next steps or directions for research? Have you got any new questions or hypotheses?

When Should You Write It?

Before the Introduction section, and after the Results section. 

Based on the pre-writing questions, five main elements can help you structure your Discussion section paragraph by paragraph:

  1. Summary: Restate your research question/problem and summarize your major findings.
  1. Interpretations: Identify patterns, contextualize your findings, explain unexpected results, and discuss if and how your results satisfied your hypotheses.
  1. Implications: Explore if your findings challenge or support existing research, share new insights, and discuss the consequences in theory or practice.
  1. Limitations: Acknowledge what your results couldn’t achieve because of research design or methodological choices.
  1. Recommendations: Give concrete ideas about how further research can be conducted to explore new avenues in your field of study. 

Dos and Don’ts For the Discussion Section

Aritra Chatterjee, a licensed clinical psychologist and published mental health researcher, advises, “If your findings are not what you expected, disclose this honestly. That’s what good research is about.”

7. Acknowledgments

What Does It Do?

Expresses gratitude to mentors, colleagues, and funding sources who’ve helped your research.

When Should You Write It?

Write this section after all the parts of IMRaD are done to reflect on your research journey without getting distracted midway. 

After a lot of scientific writing, you might get stumped trying to write a few lines to say thanks. Don’t let this be the reason for a late or no-submission.

Wordtune can make a rough draft for you. 

Write a research paper draft section with AI. Prompt "Please write an Acknowledgments section" with placeholder text.

All you then have to do is edit the AI-generated content to suit your voice, and replace any text placeholders as needed:

Wordtune's AI generation in purple text, placeholder text annotated for easy reference.

8. References

What Does It Do?

Lists all the works/sources used in your research with proper citations. 

The two most important aspects of referencing are: 

  1. Following the correct format; and 
  2. Properly citing the sources. 

When Should You Write It?

Keep a working document of the works you’ve referenced as you go along, but leave the finishing touches for last after you’ve completed the body of your research paper — the IMRaD.

Tips For Writing the References Section

The error rate of references in several scientific disciplines is 25%-54%

Don’t want to be a part of this statistic? We got you.

  1. Choose quality over quantity: While it's tempting to pad your bibliography to seem more scholarly, this is a rookie mistake.  Samantha Summers, a museum professional based in Canada, is a published researcher in Medieval History and Critical Philanthropy studies. According to her, “Adding in a citation just to lengthen your bibliography and without engaging deeply with the cited work doesn’t make for good writing.” We ought to listen to her advice — she has three Master’s degrees to her name for a reason. 
  1. Select the correct referencing guide: Always cross-check with your chosen journal’s or institution’s preference for either Harvard, MLA, APA, Chicago, or IEEE. 
  1. Include recent studies and research: Aim to cite academically ripe sources — not overripe. Research from the past half-decade or so is ideal, whereas studies from the 80s or 90s run a higher risk of being stale. 
  1. Use a reliable reference manager software: Swagatama recommends several free resources that have helped her get her research organized and published — Zotero and Mendeley are top contenders, followed by EndNote

By the end, your References section will look something like this:

References section example from a research paper with correctly numbered, cited sources, and live links.
Image Source

Ready, Get, Set, Publish!

Dust yourself off, we've made it out of the twilight zone. You’ve now got the diamond of the structure of a research paper — the IMRaD format within the “context-content-conclusion” model. 

Keep this structure handy as you fill in the bones of your research paper. And if you’re stuck staring at a blinking cursor, fresh out of brain juice? 

An AI-powered writing assistant like Wordtune can help you polish your diamond, craft great abstracts, and speed through drafts! 

You've got this.