Dr. Kim after receiving her doctoral hood from LSU in 1990.
Dr. Kim after receiving her doctoral hood from LSU in 1990.

This post is devoted to the genre of research articles. (If you need a brief introduction to what I mean by genre, read Pros have contextualized knowledge.) The ultimate proving ground for researchers outside the humanities, where books and essays may still be king, is publication of articles in peer-reviewed journals or conference collections. I’m teaching a course on scholarly communication to doctoral students this semester. And we are spending the bulk of our time on writing research articles. So I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about this genre.

You may find it odd that I would tackle this genre on Pros Write. But I intend no April Fools’ Day joke. Let me briefly explain why research articles can count as “professional” writing. As I’ve said many times, I’m not a fan of academic writing because it normally involves asking students to write for teachers, with no real NEED to communicate a message. So it’s really the lack of authentic rhetorical context I object to — not the fact that the writing is done in school.  (I do teach writing myself after all.) That means I am interested in authentic writing.   Nearly all academics in higher ed have to demonstrate their ability to write about research to be recognized as a pro in their specific discipline and in higher ed, more generally. Thus, research articles are arguably the most important genre researchers must master.

So what do we know about the genre of research articles (RAs from now on)? RA content and its arrangement are often described by the acronym, IMRAD, or less frequently, IMRD.

  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results and
  • Discussion

IMRAD vs IMRD n-gramResearchers, especially in the “hard” sciences, have used these terms to describe the pattern of information in research articles since early in the 20th century, but their use became more prevalent in the 1970s.

In some disciplines, and in some journals, it’s common to use headings in an article that are identical to those terms which gave rise to the acronym. But there is quite a lot of variation. Let’s see how this pattern applies to the sample RA shown below.

The table lists the headings in the sample RA and how they correspond to those in IMRAD. Click on the links in the table to see my guidance for each section of an RA.

IMRAD Sample Research Article Rhetorical Function
Introduction (Introduction) Establish research topic and justify need for more research
(Literature Review) Understanding (In)justice Demonstrate current knowledge of research and develop research questions
Rapport Management Behavior
Methods Method Describe approach to answering research questions
Results Interpretations of Rapport Management and (In)justice Describe data gathered via approach
Discussion Provide answers to research questions based on data gathered
(Conclusions) Conclusions Evaluate research and make deductions for the future

There are four apparent discrepancies.

  1. The sample RA doesn’t include the actual heading “Introduction.” But there is a section after the abstract that functions like an introduction (establishing the topic and justifying the research).
  2. The sample RA includes two headings that aren’t easily matched against the IMRAD descriptors. Researchers in the social sciences would call these two sections the Literature Review. It’s so commonplace I’ve added it in parentheses within the IMRAD column of the table. In the “hard” sciences, the literature is reviewed within the Introduction because there is generally less previous research to consider. But more extensive literature reviews are the norm in other fields. (I can explain this but won’t subject you to it right now.)
  3. The sample RA combines the Results and Discussion sections in IMRAD. This is commonplace in social science research that does not generate quantitative data for analysis with statistics — sometimes called qualitative research. But the functions of both sections are achieved by describing data and discussing its relevance for answering questions in an integrated way.
  4. The sample RA includes a Conclusion section, which is not named in IMRAD. While most RAs include a Conclusion, the length of that section varies widely. It tends to be very short — a single paragraph — in much “hard” science, which is why I suspect it is omitted from IMRAD.

Despite the wide range of disciplines producing research journals, most of their articles follow the IM(LR)RAD pattern. That’s because they accept, at least in part, the scientific method. The same rhetorical functions must be achieved by the RA even if researchers can be more or less inventive with the wording of their section headings.

Because the rhetorical function of each section of the RA is different, the textual elements most commonly used within those sections also differ. Building from information in John Swale’s Create-A-Research-Space (CARS) model, ), I provide the table below.

RA Sections Tense Passive Citation Hedging Commentary
Introduction present is high & past is mid Low High Mid High
(Literature Review) present is high & past is mid Mid High Mid Mid
Methods present is low & past is high High Low Low Low
Results present is low & past is high No pattern No pattern Mid No pattern
present is high & past is mid No pattern High High High

There’s much more to say about the genre of research articles. But this post is already pretty long. I’ll do a series of posts on each of the sections of the RA in the future. For now, you’ve learned about the overall structure of RA sections and their rhetorical functions. That’s enough for today!

Related Research

Swales & Feak (1994). Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.