How to Structure a Scientific Article: A Guide

If someone were to ask you what are the important aspects of writing a scientific article, how would you respond? What points would you choose? Inevitably somewhere on your list is how to structure the scientific article. Certain things have to go in certain places. If they don’t, the article becomes confusing and readers stop reading.

How are science and storytelling similar?

When you compare a scientific article with a fairytale, what is similar about them?

The answer is that both of them tell a story. A fairytale tells the story of myths, beasts, princesses, dragons, knights, magic and other elements. It weaves these elements together, introducing them, presenting a challenge, overcoming that challenge and then the outcome. A scientific article tells the story of a question, the process to answer that question and the outcome of the research performed. It also tells the outcome: what did we learn, how did we advance our field, and what is the next question? The only real difference then is that a scientific story is true. Therefore the questions of “how to structure a scientific article” and “how to structure a story or fairytale” are nearly identical questions.

In addition to the sound science behind an article, writing an article from the perspective of a nonfiction story can make articles very successful. In this context, success means:

  1. It is easy to understand your work as a whole
  2. Ideas are easy to understand and memorable 3
  3. The path to the data is easier to remember

When an article does these three things, people notice; we know that because a large audience reads and cites the article. In the scientific publishing world, this is usually the definition of success.

Where is the story in science?

The ultimate goal is not to present data but to interpret what it means and how it affects the field – this is your story. An example of this is the discovery of DNA and Watson, Crick and Franklin (controversy notwithstanding). Franklin had the critical image of DNA and Watson and Crick built the double-helix model. Watson and Crick’s paper (without proper citation/credit of Franklin’s previous work) is widely cited not only because of its groundbreaking science but also because they took the data and were able to make something that was easier to understand.

The ultimate goal of science is to gain understanding. First scientists do experiments and get data. Without any context and individually, these are meaningless. However together and with context, they give us information – trends, relationships and more. Add previous scientific context to this information and you get knowledge. Not only do we have what is happening, but we also have a potential explanation. From here, we can use this knowledge to further the field. This knowledge becomes an understanding of the world around us and its processes. This is the ultimate goal of science.

Going from data to understanding can be a difficult process, both to describe (for the writer) and to follow (from the reader’s perspective). The structure of the scientific article using a story-like structure makes this process easier for both readers and writers.

What is a scientific story?

When you collect data from your experiments, it usually tells you several things. Sometimes it tells you this very loudly (e.g. obvious information) and sometimes it can be quiet (e.g. underlying factors). Trends are a good example of loud information – they are easy to see, especially in graphs and you might want to go directly for that. However loud information can also be hiding “quiet” information. For example, outliers and data that don’t fit the trend well. Are they really outliers? Was there something wrong with the measurement? Is there some deeper meaning?

Sometimes an outlier is just an outlier. It isn’t a quality data point and if re-running the measurement shows that it is an outlier, then it is all good. But if it keeps appearing, then maybe it is trying to tell you that there is a deeper story.

Here is an example of exactly that: Example: Dietrich, William E., and J. Taylor Perron. “The search for a topographic signature of life.” Nature 439.7075 (2006): 411.

In a nutshell, the authors were looking at landscape formation and whether life had any effect on it. They had a nice trend that showed life altered the landscape in relation to soil and rocks with a few outliers. Closer inspection showed that the outliers pointed to certain points where the soiler was deeper than it should be. It turns out that the quiet information was telling a bigger story. These deeper points were wedges that fill with debris and are usually what collapse during heavy rains, leading to landslides. These were outliers to the trend but the story would not be complete without them.

The moral of this very true story is that you need to look deep into the science and figure out exactly what the data is trying to tell you. This is an example of a group of scientists who did and were able to tell the complete story. It is also a successful (widely read, widely cited, memorable) story within their field.

How do you write a scientific story?

Here are some tips I can share with you:

1. Keep the ideas as simple (but not simplistic!) as possible.

Stick to the core of the problem. Figures, equations, models, etc. can all explain things very well in a very short amount of space. There is a saying in English that a picture is worth 1,000 words. If you can explain it with a picture and it is clearer than describing it with words, use a figure.

2. Use a schema (or multiple)

According to Wikipedia, it is “a pattern of thought or behaviour that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them” (Wikipedia). For example, when you think of the word “car”, you probably have an idea in your head of what a car is. Yours might be slightly different than someone else’s but it is likely that they have many things in common. It likely has 4 wheels and a steering wheel. Hopefully, it has brakes and other common items in a car. When you use a schema, you as a writer are using ideas and knowledge that your reader has and building off of it. In doing so, you are making it easier for the reader to understand.

Let’s look at the example of the flavour of alligator meat. You could say (non-schema example) “It’s a light-coloured, finely textured meat, with very little fat. It cuts easily and is moist if not overcooked. The flavour is mild.” Using a schema, you could say “It tastes like chicken, but a little meatier.” In this case, your schema is the flavour of chicken, which you assume your audience is familiar with. Not only has it saved you a lot of writing but it has also created a link in the reader’s mind between the taste of chicken and the taste of alligator meat.

Another example of a schema is the structure of university courses. In your first year, you start with basic courses that introduce you to the foundations of the field. In subsequent classes, you use this information to learn more advanced information. What you learn is related back to what you learned previously. This foundation information is a schema to teach more advanced information.

3. Use something unexpected/new to capture readers’ attention

A great way of capturing the readers’ attention is to show that there is a gap in knowledge somewhere (especially if it is unexpected) and then fill it. This is often difficult or uncomfortable for scientists, so we tend to skip this part. However as C. Heath and D. Heath state in Made to Stick (Random House, 2007), “Our tendency is to tell people the facts. First, though, they must realize they need them.” If your readers do not understand why you are telling them something, they probably won’t be interested in what you are telling them.

4. Be concrete, specific and definite

When writing an article, scientists often go off course during the initial drafts. Rather than writing about what they did and what they found, they start going on tangents about abstract ideas and theories without presenting concrete information. This can be great for people in your field, but what about others who need/want to access your work? This usually leads to jargon that is unintelligible to the masses. Instead, these ideas and theories need to be based on concrete observations and data. Rather than skipping directly to abstract things, presenting concrete information means that we can bring everyone to the level needed to understand abstract concepts.

Quick note: a good way of helping people to understand the “jargon” is to define these words and break down the words. Definitions and explanations turn jargon into something that anyone can understand.

6. Don’t force your paper into a scientific story

I cannot stress this point enough! Forcing your data to fit a story that you think it should fit is bad science. This leads to you throwing out perfectly good data and not telling the whole story. Even worse, it is probable that someone will eventually catch this and publish a paper that refutes your own. There is nothing worse than having your paper usurped when you already had the same information simply because you didn’t want to do the work to create a great paper.

What are some of the structures I can use?

Now that we have the above 6 items in our mind, it is time to look at the structures of a scientific article. There are a couple:

Traditional stories (OCAR)

Traditionally, stories have an opening that presents the characters, then they face some kind of challenge, they do something to overcome the challenge and there is some kind of resolution or conclusion (opening, challenge, action, resolution – OCAR). Let’s look at an example fairytale:

A princess lives in a kingdom but is confined to the castle and is unhappy (opening). One day she escapes. While walking, she is kidnapped by a dragon (challenge). A knight comes to save her, killing the dragon and rescuing the princess (action). They get married and live happily ever after (resolution).

The opening introduces the characters, the location, and what we need to know to understand the story. In scientific terms, these are background information, the current state of the research, and any other related topics that your audience needs to understand your article.

The challenge shows what the characters need to accomplish. For a scientific article, this is the specific research question or hypothesis that you are proposing and why it is important.

The action shows what the characters in the story did. For science, this is the work that you did or (for a proposal) what you hope to do.

The resolution shows how things have changed. In your paper, this is how your understanding has changed and how it has affected your field.

You can read more about the OCAR structure here.

Lead/Development/Resolution (LDR)

Another way to structure a scientific article is the LDR structure. Whereas OCAR looks like a traditional story or fairytale, LDR resembles a newspaper article.

In a newspaper, you have a headline that grabs an audience’s attention. For example, “200 die in plane crash on US-Canadian border”. We know immediately from this headline the most information for the story – what happened, where it happened and what was the result. This headline is our lead. In a scientific article, this is often the first sentence or the first few sentences.

After the lead comes the development. In this part, the reader reads more about the details. Who was travelling on the plane? Where was it coming from? Where was it going? Why did it crash? What happened before, during and after the crash? Were there any survivors? This is not the most important information (that is the lead) but they are details that the reader needs to better understand the lead.

Finally, there is a short section at the end dealing with information about questions like “How will this affect aeroplanes in the future” and “Should I worry about flying right now”? This ending is the resolution.

You can read more about LDR here.

Choosing between LDR and OCAR

LDR and OCAR have various pros and cons.

Pros of LDR

  • It gets straight to the point. By placing the most important information upfront, the LDR structure caters to readers who want to understand the key findings quickly.
  • It follows a familiar structure for many readers, resembling a newspaper article.
  • It caters well to interdisciplinary audiences or laypersons who might not have the time or expertise to sift through technical details to get to the heart of your research.

Cons of LDR

  • It may feel disjointed and less narrative than the OCAR structure.
  • Important details could be overlooked or de-emphasized because of the focus on the lead.
  • The effectiveness of the LDR structure might be diminished if the key findings aren’t immediately compelling.

Pros of OCAR

  • It provides a clear, logical flow that makes it easier for readers to follow your research journey.
  • It presents a compelling narrative that can engage readers and make your research more memorable.
  • It ensures all key elements of your research—context, challenge, action, and resolution—are adequately addressed.

Cons of OCAR

  • It can be slower to get to the point, which might frustrate readers seeking quick answers.
  • The significance of your findings might not be immediately evident, particularly if they’re not mentioned until the “resolution” section.
  • It may require more effort from the reader to fully understand your research, especially if they’re not familiar with the topic.

When to Use Each

Choosing between LDR and OCAR often depends on the nature of your research, your intended audience, and the specific guidelines of the journal you’re submitting to.

Use LDR when:

  • Your main findings are immediately compelling and can be stated succinctly upfront.

** This also means that you believe that your audience can understand both the main finding and its importance without having to read anything else first. **

  • You’re writing for an interdisciplinary audience or laypersons who might not be familiar with your research field.
  • You’re submitting to a journal that prefers or requires this structure.

A famous example is Watson and Crick’s paper on the discovery of the structure of DNA. The first line reads: We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.

One type of writing that should always be in LDR is grant/research proposals. This is because readers usually have to go through several of them per session. You want yours to stand out and sound exciting. LDR can do that for you if you use it correctly.

Use OCAR when:

  • You’re telling a complex research story that requires more context and background.
  • Your readers are primarily other researchers in your field who are familiar with your research topic.

This structure is used for 2 reasons with other experts in your field. The first is that you don’t need to capture their attention; they are already interested in the field. The second is that you also need to show that you are an expert, which is done through a discussion of the problem beforehand.

  • You’re submitting to a journal that prefers or requires this structure.

This is the most commonly used structure. It is the easiest to follow, it helps its reader understands what is happening, and it is a tried-and-true structure.

What’s next?

Practice. You don’t become amazing at scientific writing overnight. Several of the articles on TeachTranslateTravelRepeat‘s Scientific Writing page have examples, practice problems, and tips and tricks. I recommend you start there!

Interested in learning more about Scientific English? You can read a brief post on the History and Use of Scientific English here. More posts on Scientific English are available on the Scientific English page.

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