Confusing Elements of a Research Paper That Trip Up Most Academics

by Elizabeth Oommen George
Confusing elements of a research paper that trip up most academics

Getting your research published in a top journal is often seen as an indicator of success. However, it is not always easy to deliver a well-structured paper that impresses journal editors and reviewers. The key is knowing that each of the elements of a research paper serves a distinct purpose and has a specific role in communicating your findings. There are many confusing terms in research, which can be difficult to understand, especially for those starting out in academia or those who use English as a second language. This article breaks down the commonly confused sections and elements of a research paper and will hopefully help remove any ambiguity that researchers may face.

  • Research problem vs. research question

These two terms are probably at the very top of the list of most confusing terms in research. A research problem is an issue or problem that requires investigation and forms the basis of your research. The specific direction you take to solve the research problem helps you define the research question.

One way to decode these confusing terms in research is to remember that the research problem can be broken down into many questions whereas the research question is a specific approach on how to tackle the research problem. It helps you formulate the aim and objectives of your research.

  • Aim vs. objectives

While these two elements of a research paper are similar, they should not be used interchangeably in research. The research aim refers to the broad goal or primary purpose of research; it is something that you hope to prove, or solve through your research. Research objectives, on the other hand, are the specific steps through which you will achieve your research aim.

Here is a simple way to understand these confusing terms in research: the research aim is what you want to achieve and objectives are how you will achieve it. Depending on your target journal you may need to either detail your research aim or list your objectives, or in some cases, present both.

  • Background of a study vs. literature review

The study background and the literature review are confusing terms in research that are similar yet have very different meanings. Both delve into existing knowledge in a subject area and help scholars identify gaps in research.

The study background usually appears at the beginning of the introduction section and emphasizes the topic and significance of your research in a concise manner. The literature review follows and is a longer, more detailed analysis of existing literature, highlights current gaps in research, and sets the context for the research question your study will address.

  • Research methodology vs. research methods

These are two of the most confusing terms of research that even experienced researchers often get wrong. Research methodology is the broad choice of methods based on the nature of your research question, such as the use of qualitative or quantitative data for your experiments. Research methods on the other hand are the actual procedures or techniques you choose based on the methodology you adopt.

To put it simply, you choose a research methodology (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed approach) based on the how you want to approach your research. Then, you narrow it down to the specific research methods (interviews, surveys, laboratory experiments, observations) you plan to apply.

  • Abstract vs. introduction

Researchers often misinterpret the purpose of these two elements in a research paper. An abstract offers a glimpse into your research paper by summarizing key details, including findings, methods, and conclusions. It is used by journal editors to assess manuscripts and allows busy researchers to decide whether your paper is relevant enough for them. On the other hand, the introduction provides a background for your research, sets the context, and explains the reason for the study. It includes an overview of previously published papers, highlighting the research gaps, and ends by specifying the aim of your research and the problem you intend to solve.

One important difference to remember is that the abstract is holistic and mentions the research methods and results, while the Introduction section at the beginning of your paper does not; it offers specific context and sets readers up to read the rest of the paper.

  • Results vs. discussion

The results and discussion sections highlight your research findings and are the most important elements of a research paper. Text, graphs and tables are used together to present the results of research derived from the methods employed in the study. This section is essentially a summation of precise results and observations and should not include speculations or assumptions. The discussion section is where you share your detailed interpretations and final comments with regards to the results; however, be careful not to re-state findings here.

While the results and discussions sections are usually presented as separate elements in a research paper, they may also be clubbed together depending on your target journal’s guidelines.

  • Citation vs. reference

One of the most commonly confused terms of research, citations and references are both used to credit sources of information in your research paper. Citations appear in the main text in a paper where you have mentioned data, quotes, or paraphrased sentences from previously published work. How citations are written (numbers or text) is dependent on the style your target journal follows. References appear as a list at the end of your manuscript and offers detailed information on each citation, which allows readers to easily find and refer to these sources.

One essential check all authors must do before submission is to ensure each cited source is detailed in the references and each item in the reference list has a matching citation in the article text.

We hope that the explanations provided in the article serves to remove the confusion regarding different elements of a research paper and equips you better as you conduct your research and write your manuscript. All the best!

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