Published: June 15, 2017

Argumentative structure for a scientific paper By Leah Colvin

Dry. Proscriptive. Wordy. Jargony. Boring. Many words have been used to describe scientific writing, very few of which would excite a reader to take a closer look into the contents of a paper. With the rate of scientific advancement increasing exponentially, an increasing focus on multidisciplinary research, and a critical need to share discovery with diverse audiences, effectively communicating scientific results has never been more important.

Scientists can greatly benefit from harnessing writing techniques from novelists, journalism, and even Hollywood. Employing such storytelling techniques can make your science more accessible not only to the public, but also to peers and, notably, reviewers (thus helping to avoid the dreaded, “the results do not support the conclusion” comment).

The argumentative or five-paragraph essay is one such technique that can be applied to scientific writing aimed at an audience of peers and reviewers. The power of this technique is that it builds an evidentiary argument to convince the reader of the author’s thesis – or, in science, the main hypothesis – much like a roadmap guides a traveler to their destination.

While the argumentative technique can be applied to some grant applications with a little creativity, its structure most closely resembles that of a scientific paper, less the methods, in that each paragraph in an argumentative essay corresponds to a section or subsection of a research paper (see Figure). This writing method breaks an argument down into five pieces:

This section is synonymous between the argumentative essay and a paper. In a research paper, the introduction should start with a broad topical paragraph that relates to the overarching scientific field, narrow into three subfield-specific ideas that directly support the main hypothesis of the paper, which closes the section.

The results section of a paper corresponds to the body of an argumentative essay, with each subsection corresponding to a body paragraph. Thus, each subheading of the results section should provide a statement in evidence of the central hypothesis in order from strongest to weakest evidence. A topic paragraph explaining the purpose of this particular line of experimentation leads the section, followed by three experiments that provide evidence for the supportive result, followed by a short concluding paragraph that explains how the data support the conclusion.

You may have noticed that the structure of each supportive result outlined in the Figure looks a lot like the overall structure of the argumentative technique. This is no accident: using this technique, each section of a paper is, in essence, a mini argument that combine to comprise the overall argument in support of your main hypothesis.

I would also like to note here that not every paper needs to have three main supportive results. Depending on the journal and the nature of the work, it may be more appropriate to have more or fewer sections detailing your results. Nonetheless, the structure of the argumentative essay can still be applied to your results section.

Finally, the discussion section of a paper is analogous to the conclusion of an argumentative essay. It is structured as a direct mirror of the introduction to relate your experimental results to your overall topic and emphasize why your work is important in the context of the overarching field of study. Here, you restate your hypothesis and objective in the first paragraph, summarize each of your supportive results in the context of the body of knowledge in the following paragraphs, and finish with a concluding paragraph (its own section in some journals) detailing how your results support your main hypothesis and what this means for the field as a whole.