This article is part of the How-to… series brought to by Emerald Group Publishing. The other parts of the series you find here.
Ways of Organizing a Paper
One of the most difficult aspects of writing anything is the organization of material, and research papers are no exception. This section presents some very general tips on creating a structure.
Organization can be represented as a flow chart of processes which consider a series of ever decreasing perspectives on the article:
The article’s purpose was considered in the previous section. It should always be the cornerstone of the article and should be borne in mind at all points to prevent aimlessness.
What are the main ideas?
Brainstorm the main ideas relevant to your article. Include within this ideas from the literature, which may be background material or which may also be used to develop hypotheses.
Having done this, look at the main themes that emerge in your notes and group them into major sections. You could try using some organizational device such as colour coding your notes, or index cards. The following questions may be important:
- Why is the topic significant?
- What background material is relevant?
- How is it relevant to my thesis/purpose statement?
- Which are the more important points?
How can these ideas be grouped?
It is a good idea to create an outline of your paper before you start generating the text, so that you have a blueprint. This could be a very rough draft or it could be a series of notes on index cards. Either way, you should by this stage have the main headings, and the main topics within the headings, so that you know where your article is going.
Writing a paper is like stringing pearls to make a necklace. There is an optimum order for these pearls to form a paper, and some pearls are better left out.(Kwan Choi, Editor, Review of International Economics, “How to publish in top journals”)
There are a number of ways of organizing your material.
John A. Sharp, John Peters and Keith Howard refer to the “stimulus-response” pattern of writing, quoting Monroe, Meredith and Fisher’s 1977 book The Science of Scientific Writing:
When you generate a question in writing, the reader will expect you to answer the question soon.
If you present a problem the reader will expect a solution or an explanation of why no solution is forthcoming.
Whether you have mentioned a cause first or an effect first, once you have mentioned one, the reader will surely expect you to mention the other.
When you make a general statement, the reader will expect to be supplied with specifics, which clarify, qualify or explain the general statement.
John A. Sharp, John Peters and Keith Howard, in The Management of a Student Research Project (Gower, 3rd ed., 2002)
If you look at Emerald articles, you will see a number of different structures, for example:
- describing the development of a research project, from literature background to methodology to findings and discussion
- chronological, describing developments over a period of time
- developing a number of hypotheses, and using these to develop a thematic structure for the article.
Whatever your method of organization, it needs to be logical and appropriate to your material.
How can the main sections be broken into sub-headings?
By this stage you will know what your main sections are; the next task is to structure your material within the major sections. Here, the task is basically very similar to organizing material into main headings: select, and group, the main ideas within the sections. You will probably want to organize material into subheadings within the main sections: subheadings help you develop the logical flow of your material, and also act as sign posts to your reader.
Here are a couple of examples of articles which make particularly good use of headings:
- “A comprehensive system for leadership evaluation and development” (Larrson et al., Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 24 No. 1).
- “Children’s visual memory of packaging” (James U. McNeal and F. Ji Mindy, Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 20 No. 3).
Note that Emerald requires that headings be short, clearly defined and not numbered.
Are there smooth transitions between paragraphs?
Lastly, check that within sections there is a smooth flow of ideas. If the purpose statement is the foundation of the article, its paragraphs are the bricks that make its construction sound. Paragraphs are described in the “Use the paragrah effectively” section of our How to… write more simply guide, and should always be concerned with the development of a topic or theme. Paragraphs should also develop and flow from one another, without too many awkward breaks in the sense, or non sequiturs with abrupt changes in topic without explanation.
The Body of the Paper
The body of the paper is where you recount the interesting facts of the research, after you have set the scene and before you sum up the latter’s implications.
John A. Sharp and Keith Howard, in The Management of a Student Research Project (Gower, 2nd ed., 1996, p. 195), propose the following logical order for a research report:
- Survey of prior research
- Research design
- Results of the research
- Summary and conclusions
A similar approach could be taken in a research article.
Emerald articles containing research usually follow a similar structure:
- Literature review
- Research methodology or approach
It is important to remember that an article is not the same as a dissertation: you should not cite all possible references on the topic but only those that are relevant to your research or approach. The literature review is not exhaustive; it is part of the setting of context. Bear in mind the following:
- Quote those papers from which your own research follows.
- Make it clear what the position was prior to your own paper, and how your paper changes it.
- Make sure that the papers you cite are relatively recent.
- Cite only your own articles in so far as they are directly relevant to your research/approach.
- Cite papers of potential referees, explaining the significance of the work to your own analysis.
- Once you have decided which articles are really important, create a “package” and have the articles to hand as you write.
A common approach is to use the literature to develop a series of hypotheses, which are in turn used to develop a new framework or as a determiner of the research objective.
“Children’s visual memory of packaging” (James U. McNeal and F. Ji Mindy, Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 20 No. 3) is an example of an article which takes such an approach.
If you have done empirical research, you need to state your methodology clearly and under a separate heading. The methodology should:
- Indicate the main methods used
- Demonstrate that the methodology was robust, and appropriate to the objectives.
Focus on telling the main story, stating the main stages of your research, the methods used, the influences that determined your approach, why you chose particular samples, etc. Additional detail can be given in Appendices.
Efthymios Constantinides, in “Influencing the online consumer’s behaviour: the Web experience” (Internet Research, Vol. 14 No. 2), presents the results of a review of the issue of online customer behaviour from 48 academic papers. He describes the majority characteristics in terms of time of publication, journal, etc. rather than giving a detailed list.
“Some moderating effects on the service quality-customer retention link” (Chatura Ranaweera and Andy Neely, International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 23 No. 2), describes the stages in research, the methods (including prior studies and their impact on use of the methods), the sample and how it was selected, and a brief description of the instrument (greater detail is given in the Appendix). Again, the focus is on the main details in so far as they lend weight to the credibility of the research.
Clyde A. Warden et al., in “Service failures away from home: benefits in intercultural service encounters” (International Journal of Service Industry Management, Vol. 14 No. 4), describe the pretest, including the research that influenced the approach, and the actual survey, with essential details of the instrument, measure, and participants.
James U. McNeal and F.Ji Mindy, in “Children’s visual memory of packaging” (Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 20 No. 3), describe the two studies they did to test the hypotheses developed through their literature survey. The first was a content analysis of cereal packets; the method of determining the packages is described, as is the coding criteria for content analysis. The second was a study of children drawing cereal boxes; the rationale for use of this technique is given, and the sample, procedure and coding approach are all described.
In the case of a theoretical paper, where you are not actually reporting on research which you did, but perhaps putting together other people’s research and developing it into a hyphothesis or framework, you will still need some sort of section on methodology which details the criteria you used in selecting your material. Alternatively, you will need to show how researches in literature lead you to derive new conclusions.
As with the methodology, focus on the essentials, the main facts and those with wider significance, rather than giving great detail on every statistic in your results. Again, tell the main story: what are the really significant facts that emerge? Your section on results may well include one on discussion of the significance of the findings.
Efthymios Constantinides, in “Influencing the online consumer’s behaviour: the Web experience” (Internet Research, Vol. 14 No. 2), summarizes the main issues of web experience for the online consumer under the main headings which they found to be important in the literature, in such a way both researcher and practitioner can get a good idea of the main themes.
In “Some moderating effects on the service quality-customer retention link” (Chatura Ranaweera and Andy Neely, International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 23 No. 2), the authors describe their results, and the statistical tests they ran, in sufficient detail to give several pages of discussion on their results.
Clyde A. Warden et al., in “Service failures away from home: benefits in intercultural service encounters” (International Journal of Service Industry Management, Vol. 14 No. 4), start their discussion of results by stating what they included in the analysis – only those service failures that were equally represented in both cultural settings. The statistical tests (ANOVA, Chi-square) are discussed in relation to how they impact on the study’s overall objectives. The results are linked back to the hypotheses.
James U. McNeal and F. Ji Mindy, in “Children’s visual memory of packaging” (Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 20 No. 3), present the results of their study summarized according to relevance to visual memory. There is also an extensive discussion section.
The purpose of an appendix is to contain material which is important to give a full understanding of the topic of the paper, but which is too cumbersome to be given in the text; to do so would disrupt the reader’s train of thought. If material is relatively short, it can be integrated into the text. If in doubt, study the examples given, and also other examples from the journal you are hoping to publish in.