How to write an effective journal article and get it
Graduate school is professionalization into the academy. One of the most important parts of professionalization is being able to publish your research. I was lucky enough to be in a department that had a yearlong seminar dedicated to just that: conducting research and writing a publishable paper prior to starting the dissertation.
But that was just the first step. Much of what I’ve learned about publishing comes from submitting papers to journals, incorporating reviewer comments, workshopping papers and having conversations with colleagues and mentors.
In this essay, I’ll break down and demystify the format of an article for a general journal. Note that I’m a sociologist, so my insights are field-specific. So, too, must I acknowledge that journals, particularly specialty ones, may have their own style of writing, so the articles you read in them may not follow the format I’ll lay out below. One of the things you should always do before submitting a paper is read articles published by the journal to which you are submitting to get a sense of the conversations being had in its pages and to find a model for your own work.
Despite such idiosyncrasies, knowing a few things about the purposes and format of a journal article will help you get published. You should understand the function of each section and write accordingly.
Introduction. The purpose of this section is threefold. First, you want to trace previous work on the subject and set up the problem. Second, you need to identify how your paper addresses that problem. That is key: explaining what you do to address the gaps of literature or problem of the paper. Finally, you should note the broader contributions and implications of the piece. I like to think that the contributions of a paper can be theoretical, empirical and/or policy relevant, although often the papers published in top journals have all three.
Theoretical framework. This is commonly referred to as a literature review, but I don’t like the term because it implies that you are just doing a passive review of what others have said about your topic. Reviewing previous work is necessary but not sufficient. The purpose of this section goes beyond an accounting of what others have done.
One way to understand the purpose of the theoretical framework is to see it as leading your reader through gaps in the literature that your paper addresses. See the theme? It’s specific to what you are doing in the paper. It also includes information that your reader needs to know in order to understand your argument.
For example, you should incorporate any relevant foundational texts. One of the things you see in general journals is that the theoretical framework is often divided into two sections, precisely because general journals want papers that speak to multiple audiences. So one section of your theoretical framework can deal with one set of literature, while the next section deals with another. Part of your contribution can be uniting and filling in the gaps in both sets.
The theoretical framework often gets a bad reputation in the peer-review process, because reviewer comments often make suggestions regarding the theoretical framing of a manuscript. But I see the framework of a paper to be one of its most central parts. If we view research as a conversation, then the framework signals who you are in conversation with — that is, the relevant audience and broader contributions of your work.
Sometimes a case-study section that gives background information on your specific case follows the theoretical framework. For example, for a 2015 City and Community article, I created a section dedicated just to explaining the history of the Subic Bay Freeport Zone in the Philippines, because it was background that my readers needed to understand the data but not part of my results.
Data and methods. This section answers the question “How do you know what you know?” That can be further broken down into three parts:
- On what kind of information or material are you basing your findings (e.g., interviews, statistics, documents)?
- How did you find that information, or where did it come from (e.g., U.S. Census, National Archives, fieldwork)?
- How did you analyze that information? That is, what software or analytic strategies did you use to come up with your findings?
Results. This section contains the meat of the paper, where you present the findings from your work, and you should keep two points in mind. First, make sure that your results speak to the theoretical and empirical questions that your paper raises in the front half — in other words, that your paper is cohesive throughout. Second, and particularly for qualitative papers, organize your results analytically or thematically — not, for example, in chronological order or according to some other simple accounting. You should be thoughtful about how to present your results to get the most out of your findings. (For some reason, academics like the number three, so you will often see three main results in a given paper.)
Discussion or conclusion. You may also find a combined discussion and conclusion at the end of the paper. What are the differences between a discussion and a conclusion? That can vary by author or paper, and it depends on how you’ve written up your results section. One way you can think about it is that the discussion section allows you to step back from the results section and reflect on the broader story or themes of your results and how they tie together. If you see a discussion section this way, then you can think about a conclusion as addressing three things: 1) summarizing what you did in the paper, including its main findings, 2) acknowledging the limitations of your work and 3) proposing steps for future research that builds on what you’ve done in the paper.
These tips will not guarantee you publication in a given journal. Your paper’s research question, data and methods, findings, and broader significance need to be original, clear and well integrated in discussions in the field. In addition, you also still have to do your due diligence about where to send your paper, including which journal is a good fit, the specific format of its articles and the types of conversations that are within its pages. Nevertheless, the tips I’ve provided can serve as a foundation from which to start to understand and break down the sometimes-mystifying format of a published journal article.