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Academic Coaching & Writing

II. Determine Your Focus for a Journal Manuscript

May 03, 2016 by Kathryn Betts Adams

In applied fields such as the health and mental health professions, and in many social science fields, journal articles most often report on research studies. Typically, the research will be conducted in order to answer a research question or set of related questions, or to test one or more hypotheses. You may come to the stage of planning and writing an article for publication before you have your research done or after you find an interesting dataset that includes variables on a topic you wish to pursue. In any case, because the typical journal article submission is 20 to 25 pages, sometimes including references or figures, the topic needs to be focused enough to allow you to cover the bases in that length. Thus, ideally, you will focus on one or two primary research questions or hypotheses that can be laid out and reported in this limited length. (For other types of journal articles, later posts will consider qualitative or mixed methods research as well as systematic reviews of the literature.)

A research question is simply a question one poses, based on a presenting social or health problem or issue, but without formally predicting the answer. A hypothesis, of course, is a statement in which you predict the answer. Your research question(s) may reach the level of a hypothesis if you have evidence to support a prediction of a certain outcome based on earlier work (e.g., research literature) or theory.

An important step, and one that is easy to overlook when you are excited about a topic, is to review the literature before you go further with your work. This exploration of the literature is not to create the literature review section of your manuscript, although you will find some suitable articles that you will end up using, but to search out that all-important gap in the literature where your study will fit. Try to narrow your article search to those that are the closest to your topic and your participants or sample. When you find these, you will have a better idea of what’s been done and shown already. This is where you will be looking for the gaps in the literature.

A great way to explore research questions in your field or on the topic you’re interested in will be to read the section of journal articles that is usually called something like “Directions for Future Research.” If you find one or more papers that point to a specific gap in the literature, your research question(s) and the purpose of your study will be more strongly justified in your manuscript and you can pursue your study with greater confidence and enthusiasm. As you become familiar with both the literature and the data you have available, you will begin to narrow your scope to a clear set of research questions and the appropriate research design to answer them in the relatively brief format of a journal article.

Due to the practicalities of real life, sometimes your process as a scholar starts from the availability of a dataset (“secondary data”) that includes information on a topic you’re interested in. Or you may have collected your own data and want to report on some interesting findings. In these situations, your research question and research design will be both inspired and constrained by your data’s characteristics and limitations, such as the total “N” (the sample size), the type of sampling that was used, and the specific questions and existing scaled measures that are included. Most datasets will include many variables and several different types of participants—more than you need for a single study or journal manuscript. You have the opportunity to determine which available variables will represent your concepts of interest, and which type(s) of participants to focus on to address your topic of interest.

Once you have identified appropriate research questions or hypotheses that can be answered with your data source and the variables you have to work with, you are ready to conduct your analyses, perhaps with the consultation of a methodology expert. Once you have your findings in hand, you will be ready to begin writing the manuscript. Before you do, however, it is helpful to consider the journals where you might submit your completed manuscript. The next blog post discusses identifying the best journal(s) to target for your manuscript.

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