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Is the IMRAD Model Right for You?

When it comes to writing research papers, many students fall back on the tried-and true IMRAD method. After all, it's the first (and sometimes only) way that students are taught to organize research papers, and being able to fit your work inside a pre-made structure is a whole lot easier than having to think up a plan of your own. But just because it's the most common method doesn't mean it's necessarily going to be the one that's right for you.

What is IMRAD?

Before we talk about alternatives to the IMRAD method, we need to talk about this common paper structure. IMRAD is an acronym for the sections of a traditional research paper:
  • Introduction - provides background on the topic and introduces your research question.
  • Methodology - describes how you gathered data.
  • Results - presents the data you've collected.
  • Discussion - analyzes the data and explains why it's important, i.e., how it applies to your research question.
Obviously there can be some variation within an IMRAD paper. For instance, many research papers will contain a literature review as part of the introduction, or, for work where there is no new data being generated, the results section might be shortened or left out. But even with these changes the overall structure of the paper remains the same: introduce the idea, explain how you've gathered data, present the data, then discuss what it all means.

Is IMRAD Right for Your Paper?

If you're working in the sciences, this method is likely seems tailor-made for your work, and there's a good reason for that. As you may have noticed, the IMRAD method closely mirrors the scientific method. It starts with a specific research question and hypothesis that are already known, explains how question will be tested with an experiment, then presents the results of that experiment. It's a fairly rigid structure that places a lot of emphasis on gathering and analyzing data.
So, if you're writing up a traditional scientific experiment, then the IMRAD method will likely be the best (and possibly only, depending on the class requirements) option for organizing your paper. Looking through published articles in a scientific field, e.g., chemistry, biology, physics, etc., you'll find that almost all of them use the IMRAD method. Those doing experiments in the social sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.) will also often find that the IMRAD structure works well for their papers.
What these fields have in common is that they're experiment-driven-the researcher is going out into the world and collected data in order to answer a question. And if you've collected data this way, the accepted paper structure is the IMRAD method.

Alternatives to IMRAD

So what do you do if your research doesn't fit this kind of experimental model? If you're writing in the humanities you almost certainly won't be collecting any sort of analyzable data, and research papers in arts, mathematics, and engineering are also hard to fit into the standard IMRAD structure. Often student try, either because their program requires them to or because they've never been taught that there are other ways to go about this process.
The answer to the question of structure is, unfortunately, pretty complicated. In short, there's no one set organization structure that addresses the needs of every research paper from such a wide array of disciplines. What works for a thesis on the Catholic church in the 16th century might not be the best choice for somebody writing about educational practices in rural Australia. (In fact, this problem is part of the reason that the IMRAD model has crept out of its original home in the sciences and spread to other disciplines-it's a simple, straightforward model that can fit a range of needs.)
There might not be one "right" way to organize a research paper, but there are several different options out there for people looking to break away from the IMRAD model.

The "Big Book" Paper

This method is commonly used for graduate dissertations/thesis in the humanities and social sciences, but it can be adapted to shorter papers as well. Basically, you want to think of your paper as being like a book that's divided into thematically-coherent chapters or sections. Instead of focusing on data to answer a question, the sections of your paper will work together to build a solid argument.
How chapters will be divided depends on your particular research. For example, historians might address certain time periods in each chapter, while a sociology student might tackle a single theory in each section. It really is up to you, but whatever you decide it's important to remember that you want the section breaks to occur naturally. That is, you don't want to force material into a certain number of sections or put a break in the middle of a particular idea. Every chapter should have a clear central idea that sets it apart from the rest of the paper.
While the "big book" method doesn't follow the IMRAD model, it should still adhere to a basic "introduction, body, conclusion" structure, both for the paper as a whole and for individual sections. One common organization method is to have an introductory chapter and short, focused literature review that is then followed by the body of your paper. The body should be the bulk of your paper and should focus on your original ideas, then the paper closes with a discussion that addresses your ideas in the context of your field and looks forward to future areas of research.

Creative papers

Students working in the arts may be asked to complete a paper or thesis that accompanies their original artistic works (e.g., paintings, sculptures, photographs, etc.). Obviously, these papers won't look anything like a traditional research paper, but they should still follow some of the same conventions.
Like all good papers, they should have an introduction that gives background-for example, on a particular theory or movement that influenced the work-and also provides a cohesive theory or thesis statement that clarifies the purpose of the paper for the reader. The body of the paper will consist of text that explains and discusses the accompanying art, usually in order to demonstrate that the writer understands the place of his work in the wider context of his field. Finally, the discussion will draw together all the ideas from the work.

Field-specific models

There are many fields out there in academia that encourage the use of organizational models that are specific to those fields. These models often follow a pattern similar to IMRAD, but with changes that are designed to meet the particular challenge of that discipline. For example, many classes in engineering will require students to write papers that incorporate theoretical models along with real world testing of those models, while a paper in computer science will introduce a research problem then spend the body of the paper addressing how the writer solved that particular problem. Mathematical papers, which rely on proofs and logical arguments, also have their own strict conventions.
In the end, how you organize your research paper will depend on your individual research. Those doing experimental work in the hard or social sciences likely won't have to look any further than the IMRAD model, and students in fields like engineering or mathematics will likely find that their research niche has its own IMRAD-like model. For humanities and arts students, how you organize a paper is often up to you, which can be both a great freedom and a big challenge.

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