Preparing a publishable research manuscript: Practical guidelines

November / December 2017   Comments

Abstract

Writing for publication is an important yet challenging form of knowledge dissemination in nursing. This article provides a practical overview of the elements that should be considered when preparing a research paper for publication. It discusses general elements of manuscript preparation, such as the importance of selecting an appropriate journal, the value of writing clearly and concisely, and the importance of seeking informal reviews from colleagues before submitting the manuscript to a journal. It also discusses elements specific to writing a research paper, providing advice on how to write the introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusion sections.


Writing for publication is an art that requires telling a vivid, carefully sequenced story about one’s research that clearly articulates the nature of the work and convinces readers of its importance. It is also a skill that is developed and refined over time with the help of mentors and through practice, perseverance and experience. The art and skill of writing are particularly important when it comes to preparing scientific research papers, as the writer must employ a unique set of writing skills and must have knowledge of the research process. The primary purpose of this article is to highlight and discuss the elements that you should consider when preparing research papers. While the discussion is focused on the preparation of a quantitative research paper, much of this information applies to both quantitative and qualitative research papers.

Before you start writing, choose a journal and read its guidelines for authors (e.g., see Canadian Journal of Nursing Research and Canadian Nurse). By following the guidelines as you write your paper, you can avoid having to make revisions later on to meet the requirements of the journal. When selecting a journal, carefully consider its scope and aims and its target audience. Select a journal that will allow you to reach the broadest possible audience that would benefit from learning about your findings. Consider who would be most interested in your research or who might make the best use of your findings (Oermann & Hays, 2016). For example, Canadian Nurse covers a broad range of topics and reaches a significant portion of the Canadian nursing workforce. It might therefore be particularly suitable for communicating research findings that are of interest to the practising Canadian nurse. Highly specialized research papers with a narrow scope (e.g., in neonatology or emergency nursing) might be better suited to journals that target a specific audience.

Keep in mind that publication is the most important form of knowledge dissemination. Thus, make sure that the journal you select is a legitimate and well-recognized one. Once you have chosen a journal, review its guidelines regarding abstract requirements, page or word limits, reference formatting, general format (font, margins, recommended or required structure) and requirements relating to tables and figures. Read a few articles from the journal to acquire a sense of how they are generally written and structured. This can help you shape your paper to fit the journal and its audience.

Reviewers and readers like papers that are easy to read so they can focus on assessing the content rather than trying to figure out what the writer is trying to communicate. A poorly written, disjointed submission can be frustrating to reviewers, and it is likely to receive unfavourable reviews, irrespective of the quality of its content. Write your paper concisely, using clear and well-linked sentences. Make sure the flow of ideas is sequential and that one paragraph leads logically to the next. Keep your writing style simple and understandable. Sometimes, we try so hard to make our writing sound scientific that we distort our message and make it difficult to follow (Epstein, Kenway, & Boden, 2005). A paper is rarely ready for submission after the first draft. After writing your paper, carefully edit and review it. Check for typos, grammatical errors and formatting gaffes. These errors tend to negatively influence the reviewers’ perception of your ability to pay attention to detail and consequently their perception of the quality of the paper. Critically read your completed manuscript with the lens of a reviewer to make the necessary content and linguistic changes. Seek informal review by an experienced colleague. Such reviews are especially important because authors can become mired in their work and therefore may fail to recognize problematic areas.

After you formally submit your paper to the journal you have chosen, expect to receive reviews that will entail revisions to the manuscript. Regardless of the scope of these revisions, do not be discouraged. Rather, embrace reviewers’ comments and use them to strengthen the paper (Pierson, 2004).

Start your manuscript writing by carefully selecting a title, which should be short yet comprehensive. A good title provides readers with a clear idea about the paper. It should therefore include reference to the study design, what is being studied and the target population.

Although the abstract is the first part of a paper after the title, you may want to write it last, as many find it easier to use the paper to inform the writing of the abstract. The abstract is your opportunity to entice readers to read your paper. It is often the first thing readers will explore to determine whether or not your paper is relevant to their interests. Thus, carefully write it to concisely summarize your research paper.

Structure the main body of your paper into five principal sections: introduction or background (in many journals, this section does not require a heading), methods, results, discussion and conclusion. In the introductory section, set the stage by explaining why you conducted the study. This section is your opportunity to convince readers that your paper is worth reading. Begin with background information that describes the problem, then provide an overview of the state of knowledge on your topic and the rationale for conducting your research (Oermann & Hays, 2016). Limit the introductory section to current literature (but including important seminal work is also acceptable); nursing is an evidence-based practice that is constantly shifting as evidence changes.

A well-written introductory section is not a mere summary of the existing literature. Present a focused and precise critical appraisal that highlights gaps, inconsistencies or flaws in the current state of knowledge. Provide your readers with a clear and concrete statement of the problem at hand and its significance. For example, if you are writing a paper on your study of the predictors of hand hygiene adherence among nurses, you should not review everything about hand hygiene. Rather, begin your introductory section with a few sentences highlighting the importance of hand hygiene and then focus on discussing studies pertaining to predictors of hand hygiene among nurses.

Most journals don’t permit authors to highlight the purpose of the study in a separate section. Instead, authors are expected to incorporate the purpose into the introductory section. If you plan to submit your paper to such a journal, use the problem statement to segue to the purpose statement. To summarize: write a few background sentences, provide a critical review of the literature and then identify the problem to be investigated. If your paper includes research questions and/or hypotheses, keep them focused and list them after the purpose statement.

Methods

After telling your readers why you did the study in the introductory section, describe how you did it in the methods section. Think of it as a blueprint for anyone who wishes to replicate your research. This section should provide a specific and technical description of the research protocol, including details on study design, setting, recruitment procedures, sample and sampling procedures (including eligibility criteria) (El-Masri, 2017a), protection of human subjects, conceptual and operational definitions of study variables, and procedures for data collection and data analysis. If the research includes a treatment or an intervention, describe the intervention protocol in sufficient detail so readers can determine if the intervention was adequate to bring about the desired effect or if it can be adapted for use in their own setting.

Organize the methods section under four subheadings: design, variable definitions or instrumentation, data collection procedures and data analysis procedures. Clearly state what type of research is being presented (e.g., observational prospective cohort study [El-Masri, 2014a], self-report descriptive survey, double-blind randomized controlled trial [El-Masri, 2014b, 2015]). Describing the research provides the context from which the sample was obtained or where your intervention took place. In your discussion of the sample, describe the sampling procedure (e.g., convenience sample, quota sample [El-Masri, 2017b], simple random sample [El-Masri, 2017c]), eligibility requirements, method of assigning participants to groups (if applicable) and sample size. Outline the power analysis you conducted to justify your choice of sample size. Be sure to clearly identify the inclusion and exclusion criteria for study participants. Limit your description of the exclusion criteria to exceptions to the inclusion criteria. For example, if you indicate age 18 or above as an inclusion criterion, don’t include age under 18 in the exclusion criteria. However, pregnancy or terminal illness in individuals above the age of 18 could be listed as exclusionary exceptions to the age rule in your study if the inclusion of people with such conditions is contraindicated for ethical or medical reasons.

In the variable definition paragraph, clearly articulate your conceptual and operational definitions of the study variables. The conceptual definitions will allow readers to make an informed judgment as to whether they share your understanding of the variables under investigation. For instance, stress can be physical, emotional or social in nature. Physical stress may not be conceptually relevant to a researcher whose research program is focused on the study of emotional stress. Further, a researcher who is interested in physical stress may not agree with how physical stress was conceptually defined in a study and may therefore not be interested in that study.

Operational definitions are an important defining factor of a well-executed study and should be fully reported. They detail the measurement (i.e., quantification) of concrete or tangible (e.g., weight, height) and abstract (e.g., anxiety, depression, knowledge) research variables. When describing abstract variables, include information about evidence of their reliability (El-Masri, 2016a) and validity (El-Masri, 2016b) so readers are able to judge the suitability of measurement in the study. Failure to clearly define study variables compromises the validity of the study and may render the paper unpublishable (El-Masri, 2016b).

In the subsection for data collection procedures, provide readers with chronological details of the procedures you used to deliver the intervention (in experimental studies) and obtain data. Data collection procedures vary from minimal in secondary data analysis studies to extensive in experimental or randomized controlled studies. Depending on the study design, include details on the recruitment process, who collected the data, the consent process (if applicable), the nature of the collected data and the administration of the intervention (if any). Regardless of the type and extent of data collection, always provide evidence that the rights of human subjects were protected and that data collection procedures were approved by the appropriate research ethics boards before data were collected.

In the data analysis subsection, start by describing how you managed the data to ensure that all appropriate statistical assumptions for the proposed analysis were met (e.g., handling of missing data, outliers, lack of normal distributions), thereby ensuring meaningful analysis. Next, describe the type(s) of statistics used to describe the sample characteristics (e.g., general frequencies and mean scores), then describe the data analysis techniques used to address the research questions or hypotheses. Where multiple research questions or hypotheses in a single paper require different analyses, be clear about which analysis was used for which question or hypothesis. Describe the criterion used to establish statistical inference (e.g., alpha level or level of confidence interval [El-Masri, 2012a, 2012b]). Note that the description of data analysis procedures is part of the methods section and should therefore not include study results.

Results

In the results section, display the outcome of your analysis without any discussion or explanation of these results (Pierson, 2004). Start with a description of the sample characteristics. If the research involves group comparisons, compare the sample characteristics across the groups. Results pertaining to the research questions or hypotheses are often presented after the sample characteristics. Keep the presentation of the results succinct and focused on findings that are specific to research questions or hypotheses you outlined earlier. Reporting results that are not pertinent to the stated research questions or hypotheses distracts readers and compromises the focus and rigour of the paper.

Avoid describing results in more than one format. That is, if a result is displayed in one form (e.g., table), don’t repeat it in another form (e.g., text) except for the purpose of summarization or if it is a unique finding that requires special highlighting (Pierson, 2004). Instead, refer readers to the table or figures containing that finding. Keep in mind that most journals limit the number of tables and figures in a paper. Thus, be creative in keeping them to a minimum while also comprehensively reporting your results. All tables and figures should be clearly labelled with proper captions, and all notations and statistical abbreviations should be explained in a legend.

Discussion

While the other major sections of a research paper describe why you did the study, how you did it and what you found, the discussion section is where you attach meaning to the findings and deliver the take-home message from the research. Include a general discussion of the study findings within the context of previous work, provide an overview of the implications of these findings and highlight the study limitations.

Writing a general discussion of the study findings is one of the most challenging tasks in preparing a research paper, and this subsection of the text is often the weakest component of a manuscript (Perneger & Hudelson, 2004). Writing this subsection requires a deep understanding of the study findings, the research topic and the existing literature. This is your opportunity to explain your results and attach meaning to the findings within the context of the studies that came before yours. Instead of simply repeating the literature review of the introductory section of your paper, integrate that literature with the findings of the current study. If your results differ from those of previous studies, consider providing some possible explanations for these differences.

No research study is free of limitations. Include a paragraph in the discussion section highlighting the limitations of your study. This will allow readers to make a sound judgment about the internal validity of the study. Of course, you should also mention the strengths of the research, including how it is unique.

Conclusion

Close your research paper by summarizing the main findings of the study and outlining the take-home message from these findings. This section should be precise and to the point. All conclusions should be specific and directly related to the study findings. It is important to discuss the implications of the study findings for research and practice (and for education, administration and policy, if applicable) and to make recommendations. However, avoid sweeping generalizations and overreaching recommendations that are not supported by the study findings. Also, note that the findings of a single study are rarely used to change practice. Thus, be cautious about what you recommend.


References

El-Masri, M. M. (2012a). Confidence intervals: Part 1Canadian Nurse, 108(2), 8.

El-Masri, M. M. (2012b). Confidence intervals: Part 2Canadian Nurse108(5), 10.

El-Masri, M. M. (2014a). Prospective cohort study design. Canadian Nurse, 110(2), 14.

El-Masri, M. M. (2014b). Randomized controlled trial study design. Canadian Nurse, 110(7), 10.

El-Masri, M. M. (2015). Blinding in RCTsCanadian Nurse, 111(2), 9.

El-Masri, M. M. (2016a). Reliability of psychometric instruments. Canadian Nurse, 112(5), 16.

El-Masri, M. M. (2016b). Validity of psychometric instruments. Canadian Nurse, 112(4), 12.

El-Masri, M. M. (2017a). Introduction to research sampling. Canadian Nurse, 113(1), 20.

El-Masri, M. M. (2017b). Non-probability sampling. Canadian Nurse, 113(3), 17.

El-Masri, M. M. (2017c). Probability sampling. Canadian Nurse, 113(2), 26.

Epstein, D., Kenway, J., & Boden, R. (2005). Writing for publication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Oermann, M. J., & Hays, J. C. (2016). Writing for publication in nursing (3rd ed.).New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Perneger, T. V., & Hudelson, P. M. (2004). Writing a research article: Advice to beginners. International Journal for Quality in Health Care, 16(3), 191-192.

Pierson, D. (2004). The top 10 reasons why manuscripts are not accepted for publication. Respiratory Care, 49, 1246-1252.

Maher M. El-Masri, RN, PhD

Maher M. El-Masri, RN, PhD, is a professor and nursing research chair, faculty of nursing, University of Windsor, Windsor, Ont.

Susan Fox-Wasylyshyn, RN, PhD

Susan Fox-Wasylyshyn, RN, PhD, is associate dean, faculty of nursing, University of Windsor.

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