One of the most useful acronyms in a medical communicator’s toolkit is IMRAD.
It stands for the sections of a scientific research paper: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion.
What is this organizational system, and how did it evolve to become the standard for research papers? And how can medical communicators benefit from using IMRAD to organize and understand manuscripts?
The Evolution of IMRAD
According to a history of IMRAD in the journal Landscape Ecology, scientific papers were published for two centuries without a standardized format. Some scholars believe that Louis Pasteur debuted the structure in his book Etudes sur la Biere in 1876. However, it was not until the 1970s that IMRAD emerged as the standard presentation.
A survey of hiring managers conducted by the AMWA Advanced Writing Skills Working Group found that employers wanted medical communicators to be able to build logical and scientific-based arguments for specific audiences. Because IMRAD is the industry standard, knowledge of this structure is an essential skill.
IMRAD: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion is the standard for most scientific reports and journal articles. However, some types of field research or case studies may differ in format. It is always a good idea to double-check the requirement before submitting an article for publication.
In an article titled “Improving the Writing of Research Papers: IMRAD and Beyond,” the journal Landscape Ecology provides a useful figure to illustrate the basic IMRAD structure. It demonstrates the importance of the format for conveying the results of scientific research and poses basic questions that each section is meant to ask.
Title and Abstract
Two important elements appear before the Introduction of a scientific paper: the Title and the Abstract.
The title should be clear, concise, searchable, and interesting. The title answers the question, “What is it about?”
The abstract is the condensed version of IMRAD—a summary of the methods, results, and implications of the research study. Abstracts answer the question, “What is the story in a nutshell?” Most publications have strict word limits for abstracts; they may vary from 50 to 300 words.
The Introduction describes the problem that is being investigated in the study. The fundamental questions answered in the Introduction are, “What did you do?” and “Why did you do it?” The underlying question for the reader is, “Why should I care?”
The writer introduces the problem, the importance of the research, what is known, and what is not. It is where the research questions, hypotheses, and objectives are introduced. Introductions provide context, key terms, and concepts for the reader. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center’s guidelines suggest that the Introduction answer the following questions:
What is the problem? This includes a summary of relevant research to provide context.
Why is it important? Again, the relevant research provides a rationale for the study. What is the unanswered question, untried method, or untested population?
What solution (or step toward a solution) do you propose? This description of the experiment includes a hypothesis, research question/s, general design of the experiment, and justification of the method.
An additional mention of the study site may be included in the Introduction or in Methods.
The Methods section describes the research methods and the justification for using the chosen methods. This section delves into the details of the experiment. It is usually written in past tense.
How did you study the problem?
What materials, subjects, or equipment did you use to conduct the research? Some papers have a subheading called Materials.
What steps did you take? Procedures are usually labeled chronologically or by the type of procedure.
The Results section describes what the investigators observed in the experiment or procedure. This section answers the question, “What did you observe?” The main results are reported and supported by data. Results should include both representative (most common) and best case (the ideal or exception).
Some experts recommend ordering multiple results from most important to least important, from simple to complex.
The Results section is not the place to interpret the results; it is where selected data are used to answer the research question.
The Discussion section answers the questions, “What does it mean?” and “So what?” It is where the reader explains the results of the study, reports whether the objective was achieved, and shares the limitations of the research. This section explores the patterns, principles, and relationships that were uncovered in the course of the research. It also compares and contrasts the results to those in prior research and literature.
The Discussion also includes implications for future research and application, as it builds on a body of prior knowledge to advance the scientific literature.
Although the basic IMRAD structure features only four sections, many research papers have additional sections labeled Conclusions and Acknowledgments. The Conclusion does not repeat information from the Discussion section, but it can further explore the significance of the major findings. Acknowledgments is a self-explanatory section where the researchers and authors credit those who contributed to the paper. Furthermore, all scientific publications include a References section that includes a list of cited sources.
Resources for Medical Communicators
The IMRAD structure can bring order from chaos without squelching creativity.
Medical communicators use the modular structure of IMRAD to help organize and standardize the ideas that propel scientific discovery. Many editors look at the structure of manuscripts to determine whether the authors are clearly identifying the research problems and questions. IMRAD ensures that the bases are covered.
However, IMRAD does not leave writers without freedom. Within this basic structure, there is room for creativity and expression.
For medical communicators seeking resources to organize and polish documents, AMWA’s Medical Editing Checklist provides general guidelines for macroediting and microediting and covers the essentials.
With these tools at our disposal, medical communicators can feel confident when submitting a research paper for publication.