Historical Perspectives IMRAD organization of scientific papers


Human beings have been able to communicate for thousands of years. Yet scientific communication as we know it today is relatively new. The first journals were published about 350 years ago, and the IMRAD (introduction, methods, results, and discussion) organization of scientific papers has developed within about the past century.

Knowledge, scientific or otherwise, could not be effectively communicated until appropriate mechanisms of communication became available. Prehistoric people could communicate orally, of course, but each new generation started from essentially the same baseline because, without written records to refer to, knowledge was lost almost as rapidly as it was found.

Cave paintings and inscriptions carved onto rocks were among the first human attempts to leave records for succeeding generations. In a sense, today we are lucky that our early ancestors chose such media because some of these early “messages” have survived, whereas messages on less-durable materials would have been lost. (Perhaps many have been.) On the other hand, communi­cation via such media was incredibly difficult. Think, for example, of the dis­tributional problems the U.S. Postal Service would have today if the medium of correspondence were 100-lb (about 45-kg) rocks. It has enough troubles with 1-oz (about 28-g) letters.

The earliest book we know of is a Chaldean account of the Flood. This story was inscribed on a clay tablet in about 4000 BC, antedating Genesis by some 2000 years (Tuchman 1980).

A medium of communication that was lightweight and portable was needed. The first successful medium was papyrus (sheets made from the papyrus plant and glued together to form a roll sometimes 20 to 40 ft [6-12 m] long, fastened to a wooden roller), which came into use about 2000 BC. In 190 BC, parchment (made from animal skins) came into use. The Greeks assembled large libraries in Ephesus and Pergamum (in what is now Turkey) and in Alexandria. Accord­ing to Plutarch, the library in Pergamum contained 200,000 volumes in 40 BC (Tuchman 1980).

In AD 105, the Chinese invented paper, the dominant medium of written communication in modern times—at least until the Internet era. However, because there was no effective way of duplicating communications, scholarly knowledge could not be widely disseminated.

Perhaps the greatest single technical invention in the intellectual history of the human race was the printing press. Although movable type was invented in China in about AD 1100 (Tuchman 1980), the Western world gives credit to Johannes Gutenberg, who printed his 42-line-per-page Bible from movable type on a printing press in AD 1455. Gutenberg’s invention was immediately and effectively put to use throughout Europe. By the year 1500, thousands of copies of hundreds of books were printed.

The first scientific journals appeared in 1665, when two journals, the Journal des Sgavans in France and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in England, began publication. Since then, journals have served as the primary means of communication in the sciences. As of 2014, there were nearly 35,000 peer-reviewed journals in science, technology, and medicine, of which more than 28,000 were in English. Altogether, these journals were publishing about 2.5 million articles per year (Ware and Mabe 2015, p. 6). The number of scientific papers published per year has been increasing exponentially (Born- mann and Mutz 2015).


When many older scientists began their careers, they wrote their papers in pen or pencil and then typed them on a typewriter or had a secretary do so. They or a scientific illustrator drew graphs by hand. They or a scientific photographer took photographs on film. They then carefully packaged a number of copies of the manuscript and sent them via postal service to a journal. The journal then mailed copies to the referees (peer reviewers) for evaluation, and the referees mailed them back with comments. The editor then mailed a decision letter to the scientist. If the paper was accepted, the scientist made the needed revisions and mailed back a final version of the manuscript. A copy editor edited the paper by hand, and a compositor re-keyboarded the manuscript. Once the paper was typeset, a copy was mailed to the scientist, who checked for typographical errors and mailed back corrections. Before the paper was published, the scien­tist ordered reprints of the paper, largely for fellow scientists who lacked access to libraries containing the journal or who lacked access to a photocopier.

Today the process has changed greatly. Word processors, graphics programs, digital photography, and the Internet have facilitated preparation and dissemi­nation of scientific papers. Journals throughout the world have online systems for manuscript submission and peer review. Editors and authors communicate electronically. Manuscript editors typically edit papers online, and authors elec­tronically receive typeset proofs of their papers for inspection. Journals are available online as well as in print—and sometimes instead of in print; increas­ingly, accepted papers become available individually online before appearing in journal issues. At some journals, electronic extras, such as appendixes and video clips, supplement online papers. Many journals are openly accessible online, either starting at the time of publication or after a lag period. In addition, readers often can access papers through the authors’ websites or through resources at the authors’ institutions, or the readers can request electronic reprints. Some of the changes have increased the technical demands on authors, but overall, the changes have hastened and eased the publication process and improved service to readers.

Whereas much regarding the mechanics of publication has changed, much else has stayed the same. Items that persist include the basic structure of a sci­entific paper, the basic process by which scientific papers are accepted for pub­lication, the basic ethical norms in scientific publication, and the basic features of good scientific prose. In particular, in many fields of science, the IMRAD structure for scientific papers remains dominant.


The early journals published papers that we call descriptive. Typically, a scientist would report, “First, I saw this, and then I saw that,” or “First, I did this, and then I did that.” Often the observations were in simple chronological order.

This descriptive style was appropriate for the kind of science then being reported. In fact, this straightforward style of reporting still is sometimes used in “letters” journals, case reports in medicine, geological surveys, and so forth.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, science was beginning to move fast and in increasingly sophisticated ways. Microbiology serves as an example.

Especially through the work of Louis Pasteur, who confirmed the germ theory of disease and developed pure-culture methods of studying micro-organisms, both science and the reporting of science made great advances.

At this time, methodology became all-important. To quiet his critics, many of whom were fanatic believers in the theory of spontaneous generation, Pas­teur found it necessary to describe his experiments in exquisite detail. Because reasonably competent peers could reproduce Pasteur’s experiments, the prin­ciple of reproducibility of experiments became a fundamental tenet of the phi­losophy of science, and a separate methods section led the way t oward the highly structured IMRAD format.

The work of Pasteur was followed, in the early 1900s, by the work of Paul Ehrlich and, in the 1930s, by the work of Gerhard Domagk (sulfa drugs). World War II prompted the development of penicillin (first described by Alexander Fleming in 1929). Streptomycin was reported in 1944, and soon after World War II the mad but wonderful search for “miracle drugs” produced the tetracy­clines and dozens of other effective antibiotics.

As these advances were pouring out of medical research laboratories after World War II, it was logical that investment in research would greatly increase. In the United States, this positive inducement to support science was soon (in 1957) joined by a negative factor when the Soviets flew Sputnik around our planet. In the following years, the U.S. government (and others) poured addi­tional billions of dollars into scientific research.

Money produced science, and science produced papers. Mountains of them. The result was powerful pressure on the existing (and the many new) journals. Journal editors, in self-defense if for no other reason, began to demand that manuscripts be concisely written and well organized. Journal space became too precious to be wasted on verbosity or redundancy. The IMRAD format, which had been slowly progressing since the latter part of the nineteenth century, now came into almost universal use in research journals. Some editors espoused IMRAD because they became convinced that it was the simplest and most log­ical way to communicate research results. Other editors, perhaps not convinced by the simple logic ofIMRAD, nonetheless hopped on the bandwagon because the rigidity of IMRAD did indeed save space (and expense) in the journals and because IMRAD made life easier for editors and referees by indexing the major parts of a manuscript.

The logic of IMRAD can be defined in question form: What question (prob­lem) was studied? The answer is the introduction. How was the problem studied? The answer is the methods. What were the findings? The answer is the results. What do these findings mean? The answer is the discussion.

It now seems clear that the simple logic of IMRAD does help the author organize and write the manuscript, and IMRAD provides an easy road map for editors, referees, and ultimately readers to follow in reading the paper.

Although the IMRAD format is widely used, it is not the only format for scientific papers. For example, in some journals the methods section appears at the end of papers. In some journals, there is a combined results and discus­sion section. In some, a conclusions section appears at the end. In papers about research in which results of one experiment determine the approach taken in the next, methods sections and results sections can alternate. In some papers, especially in the social sciences, a long literature review section may appear near the beginning of the paper. Thus, although the IMRAD format is often the norm, other possibilities include IRDAM, IMRADC, IMRMRMRD, ILMRAD, and more.

Later in this book, we discuss components of a scientific paper in the order in which they appear in the IMRAD format. However, most of our advice on each component is relevant regardless of the structure used by the journal to which you will submit your paper. Before writing your paper, be sure, of course, to determine which structure is appropriate for the journal to which you will submit it. To do so, read the journal’s instructions to authors and look at papers similar to yours that have appeared in the journal. These actions are parts of approaching a writing project—the subject of our next chapter.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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