On Thursday, I’m going to be holding a talk about how to structure a research paper. In preparation, I thought it would be a good idea to write a sort of prose outline of the talk, summarizing the function of each section of a paper in a few simple sentences.
In the introduction you evoke a world, invoke a science, and propose a thesis. You present a familiar but interesting context for your study, frame it with a standing consensus or ongoing controversy in your field, and state a conclusion, based on your research, with significant practical or theoretical implications.
In the background section you inform the reader about the practical context of your research question. You provide the reader with the references to the most reliable public sources that you are aware of, so that the reader may become as knowledgeable as you are about the conditions from which your research object emerges.
In the theory section you tell the reader what you expected of your object of analysis before your did your research. Or, perhaps better, you remind the reader what the reader would have expected your analysis to show if you hadn’t already told them in the introduction. Alternatively, you shape the reader’s curiosity about your object, their curiosity about what your data will reveal, about how the data will support your thesis.
In the methods section you explain what you did to collect your data and why you did it that way. The aim is to win the reader’s trust, respecting their natural skepticism and awareness of typical sources of error.
In the analysis section, you present your data in a way that either challenges the reader’s expectations or satisfies the reader’s curiosity. You offer your interpretation of the data, supported by the observations you have made.
In the discussion section, you explicate the implications of your analysis for either theory or practice (or in some cases both). Now that we believe your results (having seen the data you gathered by a trusted method) what changes to our ways of seeing (our theories) or our ways of doing (our practices) are we rationally committed to? How ought we to proceed from here? What can reasonably be asked of us?
In the conclusion you restate your thesis plainly and simply, with all the presumptuousness your theory allows you and all the confidence your method affords you. And you return the reader to the world or the science with which you began, set in a slightly different light and given a slightly different weight.
A typical research paper in the social sciences is about 8000 words long and consists of about 40 paragraphs, each stating a single claim. Since each paragraph consists of less than 200 words and takes about a minute to read, it should be possible to read a paper reasonably carefully in about three quarters of an hour. For comparison, this post is 500 words and should take you two or three minutes to read.