I was asked several times by my students if there was a template for writing an academic paper. The short answer is: “Yes. Several”. The somewhat longer answer follows here.
First of all, anything you write should be interesting. Even academic papers. You should think about your paper as a Hollywood movie. You step in from the street into the movie theater, where you will be entertained for a while before you return to the real world with a new perspective on the world.
Like a Hollywood movie is divided into parts, the academic paper is similarly divided into parts. The introduction is an appetizer that sets the stage of the paper. Next follows an introduction to the problem area (the environment), the central authors (main characters) and the problem or research question (conflict). Then comes the elaboration where all the relevant background knowledge such as theory and method is presented. Then follows the analysis (escalation of the conflict), which is the core of the paper. This ends in the conclusion (conflict resolution). The final part is what perspectives this raises. After this you will return to the world a changed person.
A more detailed description follows here:
Introduction – This is where you create interest in the subject of the paper. Why should anyone care about your paper? It will typically be something that surprised you or made you wonder. What made you curious? This will lead to the research question.
Theory – depending on the type of paper this could be minimal or fairly comprehensive. Descriptive papers will typically have very little if anything, since it is fairly trivial to state that your theory is that through observation you will find out something. More theoretical papers will survey theories and end up with one or more hypotheses. This part serves as the box inside which you will now be thinking, so to say.
Method – This part describes the procedure you will follow when you move around inside your box. It may also be trivial if the paper is about reading other papers. It may also be central if it is an experimental setup, where the protocols have to be described.
Analysis – this is the actual movement inside the box. This is the backbone of the work. It maybe a structured description of a field work, data analysis, experimental findings or readings of other scientific works (meta analysis or theoretical syntheses).
Discussion – here is where you have a chance to reflect critically on your analysis. If you imagine that you presented your work at a conference you would get some critical remarks. This section replaces this interaction, only you will have to ask all the critical questions yourself. It is of course difficult to be critical towards your own perfect creation, but typically a discussion will circle around validity, that is, how valid the results are.
Conclusion – This is where you bring it all together. You extract the most important findings from the analysis. Sometimes it is just a summary. Sometimes it is where the hypotheses are evaluated. Anyway this is the part that will be cited by other researchers, if it were an article, so it’s best to keep it as clear as possible. Think about how you can condense it into one sentence, that people can remember and cite you for.
Perspectives – this is the “so what” section, where you tell the reader why he hasn’t wasted his time and what practical and theoretical issues it raises and very important, what future research could follow. This is where you lay the seeds for future research grants.
In the table below I have collected a number of key insights for the academic paper. You can print it and always keep it on you, or you can hang it as poster next to One Direction at your dorm room.
|Part||Personal opinion||References||Proportion of paper||“The box”|
|Introduction||Yes||Yes||2-5%||Locating a site for the box|
|Theory||No||Yes||0-10%||Build the box|
|Method||No||Yes||0-10%||Rules for moving inside the box|
|Analysis||No||Yes||60-80%||The actual movement inside the box|
|Discussion||No||Maybe||5%||Reflections on the movements|
|Conclusion||No||No||2-5%||The gold nuggets found inside the box|
|Perspectives||Yes||Maybe||1-2%||Stepping out of the box|