Research Articles (RAs)

In a highly influential monograph, Swales (1990) introduces the genre called research article or research paper. The research article is a written text reporting on an investigation made by a researcher. To see a full version of Swales’ definition, click on the link below.

Definition: Swales’ definition of a Research Article (RA): (click to expand/contract)

"a written text (although often containing non-verbal elements), usually limited to a few thousand words, that reports on some investigation carried out by its author or authors. In addition, the RA will usually relate the findings within it to those of others, and may also examine issues of theory and/or methodology. It is to appear or has appeared in a research journal or, less typically, in an edited book-length collection of papers."

(Swales 1990: 93)

Swales (1990) argues that the fact that most RAs are intended for publication in refereed journals or in edited book volumes means that they have gone through a process in which they have been shaped in an effort to become accepted for publication. In turn, this means that there has been some sort of quality check through the scrutiny of journal editors and peer reviewers.

The research article (RA) is thus a fairly broad term since it is taken to cover the reporting of research activities in several disciplines, and, consequently, it does not lend itself to a clear-cut, uniform description. The question, though, is whether an abstracted, overall organisation of the RA is discernable. A commonly used metaphor when trying to describe this organisation is the hourglass. The hourglass has a wide top and bottom, and a more narrow middle part. An illustration of the hourglass metaphor of RA organisation, taken from Hill et al. (1982), appearing in Swales (1990: 134), is given below.

The hour-glass model of article structure (taken from Hill et al. 1982 (appearing in Swales 1990: 134))

The hour-glass model of article structure (taken from Hill et al. 1982 (appearing in Swales 1990: 134))

The idea behind the hour-glass model is that a transition is made between the general field of study, to the particular study reported in the article, and then another transition at the end of the article, where a move is made from the findings in the particular study to implications for the general field. 

However, it is important to remember that the hour-glass macrostructure of a RA is biased towards more experimental articles. It goes without saying that RAs in all disciplines are not in accordance with the hour-glass model (or experimental for that matter, as pointed out by Swales (2004)).

For example, in a study investigating research articles in the subject of Astrophysics, Tarone et al. (1998) found that the hour-glass macrostructure did not fit these articles well at all. Instead, they argued that an inverted pyramid structure, where authors moved from general physics to more specialised lines of argumentation, was used. Consequently, we must not assume that all RAs follow the hour-glass structure.

By clicking on the tab called 'Three Versions of the RA', in the navigation menu to the left, you will be able to read about three different RA macrostructures: The Experimental RA (IMRD); The Logical Argument RA; The Essay Style RA. Of these three, the Experimental RA will be given more space and material, for the simple reason that this type has been subject to more research and investigation.