Scientific papers are for sharing your own original research work with other scientists or for reviewing the research conducted by others. As such, they are critical to the evolution of modern science, in which the work of one scientist builds upon that of others. To reach their goal, papers must aim to inform, not impress. They must be highly readable — that is, clear, accurate, and concise. They are more likely to be cited by other scientists if they are helpful rather than cryptic or self-centered.
Scientific papers typically have two audiences: first, the referees, who help the journal editor decide whether a paper is suitable for publication; and second, the journal readers themselves, who may be more or less knowledgeable about the topic addressed in the paper. To be accepted by referees and cited by readers, papers must do more than simply present a chronological account of the research work. Rather, they must convince their audience that the research presented is important, valid, and relevant to other scientists in the same field. To this end, they must emphasize both the motivation for the work and the outcome of it, and they must include just enough evidence to establish the validity of this outcome.
Papers that report experimental work are often structured chronologically in five sections: first, Introduction; then Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion (together, these three sections make up the paper's body); and finally, Conclusion.
- The Introduction section clarifies the motivation for the work presented and prepares readers for the structure of the paper.
- The Materials and Methods section provides sufficient detail for other scientists to reproduce the experiments presented in the paper. In some journals, this information is placed in an appendix, because it is not what most readers want to know first.
- The Results and Discussion sections present and discuss the research results, respectively. They are often usefully combined into one section, however, because readers can seldom make sense of results alone without accompanying interpretation — they need to be told what the results mean.
- The Conclusion section presents the outcome of the work by interpreting the findings at a higher level of abstraction than the Discussion and by relating these findings to the motivation stated in the Introduction.
(Papers reporting something other than experiments, such as a new method or technology, typically have different sections in their body, but they include the same Introduction and Conclusion sections as described above.)
Although the above structure reflects the progression of most research projects, effective papers typically break the chronology in at least three ways to present their content in the order in which the audience will most likely want to read it. First and foremost, they summarize the motivation for, and the outcome of, the work in an abstract, located before the Introduction. In a sense, they reveal the beginning and end of the story — briefly — before providing the full story. Second, they move the more detailed, less important parts of the body to the end of the paper in one or more appendices so that these parts do not stand in the readers' way. Finally, they structure the content in the body in theorem-proof fashion, stating first what readers must remember (for example, as the first sentence of a paragraph) and then presenting evidence to support this statement.