Writing Articles forResearch Journals

Feb 29, 2012

by Chitra Sethi Managing Editor, ASME.org

by Derek Reding and Ritesh Lakhkar

Many undergraduate students pursue higher studies such as a masters or a doctorate degree in their field of interest, but when it comes to publishing their research in the form of a journal article, many struggle to get through their first attempts. To provide some guidance for early career engineers and researchers entering graduate school or pursuing an interest of writing a journal article, we offer the following information on how to go about writing an article for research journals.

Publishing Starts with Research---Journal articles are supposed to contain original research – the more important the topic the better. There are two main types of research, namely basic and applied.  Basic research is focused on fundamental knowledge in a field.  In contrast, applied research is focused on applying fundamental knowledge towards a novel approach or methodology.  It is important to realize that research is the activity of investigating new approaches to problems where an adequate approach is lacking, basic or applied.   Meaningful research is directed towards important problems.  These are problems in which advancement will be of significant benefit in terms of application and/or theoretical developments.  Research involves answering two questions, viz., 1) is the proposed approach new, and 2) is this approach better than all other approaches?

The description for what constitutes research is only briefly discussed here since the focus is on writing a journal article.  Assuming that one is engaged in research, the corresponding journal article is a formality for all practical purposes. 

Motivation to Publish---Research can be performed without writing journal articles.  However, this is not common due to the incentives for publishing in peer-reviewed journals.  Motivation to publish should be clear.  One possibility is to secure a new idea in the pool of knowledge.  Although this motivation is idealistic, it is often not the only one.  Another motivation is to gain professional credibility.  Researchers need to realize that they don't need to publish many journal articles to become credible, but more can certainly help. Publishing journal articles helps to secure research positions, especially for early career researchers.  These positions are typically found in Universities and Research Laboratories.  Industry generally has very limited time to solve problems, thus, research is very difficult and projects usually become advanced engineering initiatives instead of research initiatives. Patents play a vital role as compared to journal publications when it comes to advanced engineering in the industry. Many times, it may not be possible to publish advanced engineering research in a journal publication, or even in a patent, due to proprietary reasons. To secure a research position such as research scientist or professor, one needs to publish as much of their research as possible.  It should be known that only one good article is needed to cement a position in a research circle.  Nobody can afford a bad article or one that has false claims or incorrect information, so it may be important to shelf papers that do not meet the highest standards.  This happens to all researchers because some ideas just don't work. 

Two General Approaches---There are a few main routes one may take towards publishing a journal article.  The easiest and most common approach is to present research at conferences before compiling the completed work in a journal article draft.  This may be referred to as the “feedback approach”. There are serious advantages to this approach.  First, one is able to get valuable feedback on their proposed approach from the research community.  This feedback can be in the form of questions at the end of a presentation, private discussions, and collaboration.  Second, conferences act as intermediate deadlines to aim for during one's research activities.  This is possible because conferences do not require completed work like journals do, so one may present at a few conferences before writing the completed journal article. 

Another approach is what can be called a “direct approach”.  This approach involves journal writing activity from the outset of a research project.  This approach may be a bit more risky since it does not necessarily involve feedback from peers at conference proceedings.  Generally, this approach works best for intermediate and advanced researchers – not beginners unless they are well-advised or unusually gifted. Moreover, this approach works especially well for those who have already published a peer-reviewed journal article.  What is a Journal Article?---A journal article is a peer-reviewed report that contains an original and complete research study.  These articles present a new approach towards solving a problem.  Fortunately, there are many examples in the literature, but not all articles are ideal.  A model article is one that has i) a clear and concise problem identification, ii) a clear and concise proposed approach or thesis, and iii) sufficient evidence to support their approach or thesis.  The layout begins with an abstract, which articulates a brief summary of all three of these aspects.  This is followed by an introduction and/or background section, in which the topic scope is identified, motivation is provided, and relevant previous works are summarized in the context of the current work.  The body sections divide up the topic into simple and tractable bodies that provide all required information, or references that contain information required to reproduce the results of the research.  Findings must sufficiently support the claims made in the article.  Finally, a conclusions section is used to give short statement of the findings and claims that are clearly reached as a result of the research.  This is not a summary.  All discussions should be included in the main body of the article, with the exception of appendices.  An appendix is simply a collection of supplementary material that cannot be found in a reference but would otherwise overly-complicate or detract from the readability of the article.  Footnotes are useful for stating information that is too brief for an appendix.

Some Preliminaries---In either the feedback approach or the direct approach, described above, research should be initiated by identifying the problem that is to be solved.  This will help to identify the scope of the article.  Once a scope is identified, to some extent, one then begins to review relevant literature including books, conference articles, and journal articles.  The literature review helps to identify the journal that one will want to eventually publish in. 

During journal writing, and during research activities, one should pay some attention to the rank of the journals as these are read.  Some journals permit much longer articles than others.  Some journals such as the ones related to theoretical or applied physics have a specific focus. The activity of reading relevant articles on one's research topic will help one to find the most appropriate journal for publishing their work. 

Some journals are regarded as better than others, but there are several ranking methods to choose from.  Two typical methods are 1) article influence (AI) and 2) Eigenfactor.  A good discussion of these methodologies is provided at www.eigenfactor.org.  Another important factor that will influence one's choice of journal is the publishing costs, which may be covered by a research grant. 

An important consideration to keep in mind early in the process is if there will be collaboration.  One must identify who should be involved as a possible co-author.  An adviser or mentor is the most obvious co-author for early career researchers.  It is sometimes difficult to know who is a contributor towards the content of your article.  For example, a technician who helps you to perform experiments may or may not become a co-author.  The important thing to know is that one should discuss co-authorship possibilities with all those who are engaged in any part of the research activities.

General Strategy---The general strategy for writing a journal article is to start by writing a rough abstract.  The abstract may very well be totally scrapped a few times during the research process, but this activity can help one to organize their thoughts.  It can be helpful to write a “working draft”, or an incomplete draft of the article, which is usually heavy on the introduction and relevant background.  Some researchers even write a separate document with a detailed literature review in which each article is summarized in the context of their research.  This “working draft” can also be useful for containing preliminary results and tables that one plans to fill in with the results.  In a way, the article can take a shape holistically by becoming an integral part of one's research effort.  Moreover, as the research comes to a close, one will not have far to reach towards finalizing the article.  In the feedback approach described above, this integral report writing or “working draft” can be in the format of conference articles.  Generally, it is best to publish in a journal that is tied to the conference in which one presents any of the relevant results.  This means that no matter which approach is taken towards writing one's article, it is a good idea to know what conferences and corresponding journals are of most interest.

The last stage in writing a journal article is making sure that the research is complete.  Reaching depth is important – not breadth.  Determining adequate depth brings back the aforementioned two questions regarding the nature of research, namely 1) is the proposed approach new, and 2) is this approach better than all other approaches?  If one can clearly and undeniably answer “yes” to both questions, then the final stages in writing one's article are merely a formality.  Still, one may wish to enlist the help of a colleague for final review of their manuscript. 

During the final stages, one needs to include an acknowledgments section after the conclusions.  This section gives recognition to funding agencies and to those all whose help was significant, but not enough for co-authorship. There is the possibility that one may find that their approach reaches a fork in the road.  It is not uncommon for a proposed approach to be radically different enough from previous approaches that the theoretical or experimental underpinnings do not exist yet.  This is a good time to consider splitting the research into two or more papers. 

Support---Research and publishing, early in one's research career, almost always involves some form of support.  The help of a research mentor is invaluable.   It is important to choose wisely because not all individuals in a research position are doing real research.  This is in no way meant to offend those who are in a faculty or research scientist position.  Many of these individuals make important and valuable contributions, but not always in research.  There can be a fine line between real research and advanced engineering.  It is important to know the difference in advance. A research mentor can help when attempting to know this difference.

The other form of support is financial.  Having enough money is very important when attempting to engage in research activities.  Money buys equipment, time, and help from others. Usually financial support for conducting research activities is provided by the universities, the government research organizations, or at times by the industry.

 

This article gives a brief overview of some of the important aspects of writing a journal article, namely a brief research definition, motivations, journal article definition, journal selection, co-authorship, general strategy, and support. 

The most ideal supplement for this article is the transcription of a talk that was delivered by Richard Hamming titled, “You and Your Research”.  Richard Hamming’s article helps to prepare any researcher, beginner to advanced, for conducting meaningful research, which is at the heart of all great journal articles.

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