Writing up empirical research for publication

I read a lot of academic articles in journals across several disciplines, and most of them are pretty good. I also peer review a lot of manuscripts for journals across several disciplines. Most of those are not so good. Here’s a quick explanation of the difference. If you don’t have much experience of writing up primary empirical research for publication and you’re trying to figure out what’s required, this might help you.

When I come across an article or similar piece of writing that reports primary empirical research, what I most want is to see the following five questions answered concisely in the abstract (that is, the 200-odd word precis at the beginning) and then (if I decide on the basis of reading the abstract that reading onward will be a good use of my time) at much greater length throughout the rest of the article:

  1. What are the research questions?
  2. To which disciplinary areas are those questions of interest, and why?
  3. How did the people who carried out this specific piece of research go about answering those questions?
  4. What was found, and how robust are those findings?
  5. What are the implications?

It doesn’t make much difference what the discipline is, as long as we’re in the sciences, the social sciences, or the more empirical humanities disciplines (e.g. history). Your job in writing up primary empirical research is first to decide what the answers to the above questions are, and then to record those answers as efficiently as possible, using written words supplemented by whatever other forms of communication can best help you to achieve that end: photographs, diagrams, visualisations, tables, formulae, code snippets, etc. That’s how one contributes to knowledge. Disseminating knowledge to people not directly involved in its production is a different matter, and I’m not talking about that here. I’m also not talking about writing polemically. That’s different too. It took me a long time to learn to write in this specific way, and, to be honest, I mostly learnt to do it by getting critical peer reviews. I’m very grateful to all the people who took the time to write those reviews, and to all the editors who made me take their criticisms seriously.

Yes, writing like this can be very frustrating. And no, it won’t make your work more appealing to the majority of people outside your discipline. But that’s why other kinds of writing exist, e.g. science journalism and popular history. Every genre has its purpose. The purpose of this one is to help your discipline to progress by relating what you’ve found to what others within the same discipline have previously found, and in that way to make the current state of knowledge within that discipline as explicit and unambiguous as possible, so that others may contribute to it in turn — or disseminate it further afield, by producing new texts that summarise the primary research for a wider audience.