Structure of an Academic Argument

Although every piece of academic writing is unique, each has the same goals: persuading the reader of one main idea, ensuring the integrity of your research process, and clearly stating your central finding. Researchers often refer to this central claim as the argument. In this resource we'll focus on the most common structure of academic arguments and on the steps in the story line, or the means by which a narrative thread is developed to carry the argument from the beginning to the end of a piece of writing.

The key elements of an argument include the following:
  1. Statement of problem
  2. Literature review
  3. Precise focus of your research stated as a hypothesis, question, aim, or objective
  4. Method and methodology
  5. Results/evidence
  6. Discussion and conclusion (including implications for future research)

The amount of writing used to accomplish each step will differ widely depending on the discipline and a journal’s specific guidelines. Because of the short length of journal articles, the first three elements are often, but not always, provided in the Introduction, leaving the bulk of the paper free to describe the methods and discuss the results or to present evidence to support the argument.

Academic writing is argumentative writing—instead of simply asserting your own position, however, you need to enter the ongoing conversation, using what others say as a launching pad.—Graff & Birkenstein (2010)

Statement of problem

Like other academic writing, journal papers open with an unresolved problem or an explanation of something important we need to know. This is done to get the reader’s attention, establish the significance of the research, and address the literature the research will contribute to. In some papers, this is accomplished in a few paragraphs; in others it may take several pages, depending on the discipline and the nature of the problem identified. Here’s an example of a clearly-defined problem statement:

Volcanic ash adsorption poses a great environmental hazard because adsorbed volatiles can be rapidly deposited and subsequently leached into the ground. Adsorption can be influenced by magma type, particle size, and humidity conditions. For example, leachate content from volcanoes in close proximity to each other appears alike due to similar magma types. In fact, the greatest hazard to the environment is posed by magmas with a relatively high halogen content and by magmas with high F:SO42- ratios in which many hazardous leachate fluoride concentrations are found. Aside from the magma type, particles <2 mm across seem to have a greater adsorption, and therefore a high leachate hazard exists even with low ash deposition. Additionally, under high humidity conditions, adsorption can be further increased as bigger sulfuric acid droplets make ash adsorption more likely. Unfortunately, currently no uniform leachate analysis methods exist and thus data are difficult to compare. Ideally, the measuring and reporting of leachate results should be standardized. (Witham, 2005)

In the preceding paragraph, the writer provides varying conditions that contribute to the central problem as to why “. . . no uniform leachate analysis methods exist . . . data are difficult to compare.” It’s a solid argument that readers—even those not in the field—find interesting because valid reasons are presented to clearly define the problem.

Student writing in library
Student writing in library

The gap in the literature

This section of an article, often referred to as the literature review, should

  1. critically engage with the research and ideas of others in the field(s) the new research intends to address and
  2. identify limitations of the previous research.

The limitation may be an unresolved question, a missing piece of information, a paradox, a theoretical inconsistency, or some other weakness within the existing understanding of the phenomenon under study.

Identifying a knowledge gap is important because it:

  • introduces and explains findings that support the new research;
  • synthesizes the main conclusions of literature relevant to the topic;
  • highlights unresolved issues or questions within the literature; and
  • establishes the originality or “significance” of the new research.

Hypothesis, question, aim, objective

The literature review is followed by a statement of the precise focus of the research, and this statement builds on the knowledge gap in the problem statement. This can take many forms, including a hypothesis, a question, or, more commonly, a statement of the aims or objectives of the research. To avoid repetition and to keep the focus precise, it’s important to use only one of these forms. Once the focus is clear, it frames the design, the variables and relationships in the subject of study, and the type of knowledge generated.

The statement of the research objectives should use the language of knowledge production. For example, research can provide insights, information, and knowledge; it can investigate, compare, examine and explore. It cannot, in itself, change policy, improve people’s lives, or produce any other physical outcome in the world. For this reason, research objectives are usually confined to claims about the kind or quality of knowledge that was produced.

Methods and Methodology

The first step in summarizing the research design, whether in the Introduction or within a research design section, is to say why you did what you did. Remind the reader of the research objective and  follow with a description of the methods. This description should include the following:

  • The method (e.g., survey, experiment, textual analysis),
  • where the research was conducted (geographical or institutional context,
  • with whom (sample population) and how many participants were involved (number), and
  • any other information the reader needs to understand the core elements of the design.

The next step is to interpret your findings by explaining what your data show or reveal. This is often referred to as the research methodology or the “theoretical framework,” which explains the assumptions that underpin the study design. You are effectively telling your reader how you wish them to read your findings. Within what methodological or theoretical frame or set of limits do you wish your findings to be read? Here are some methodology sentence stems: (a) “The data were analyzed to test the hypothesis that . . . .” ; (b) “The data were analyzed to determine whether a relationship exists between . . . .” ; or (c) “This approach looks at . . . and their involvement in . . . .” The example paragraph below includes all three aspects discussed above.

Example study design introduction, including objective, method and methodology

To assess the impact of management control systems and strategy upon performance in not-for-profit organizations,
links from question
the study compared the perceptions of not-for-profit senior executives with performance indicators from their organizations. Senior executives were targeted because they can provide critical information about the overall strategic philosophy of the organization and can play an instrumental role in defining and building its strategic plan.
provides methodological rationale for choice of sample population
From a sample of 400 not-for-profit executives in all industry sectors from all states of Australia, one hundred thirty surveys were collected, and 30 semi-structured interviews were conducted.
provides description of method including sample size, survey size, interview type, and number of interviews conducted
Statistical survey results were compared with interview themes to illuminate the relationship between management approach and performance outcomes.
provides methodological rationale

As you read through the example, you should have noted that the past tense is used to report methods because these were conducted in the past (e.g., “Interviews were conducted,” “Surveys were distributed”). The present tense is used to describe how data are presented in the chapter because this information is still true (e.g., “The results show that . . . “).

When trying to determine how much detail to include in this section, consider the following:

  1. If the methodology, technique, or model is simple, well known, or uncontroversial, don’t add extensive detail. Consider covering the method within the introduction of the paper and adding any further detail to the section in the Results and Discussion sections.
  2. When the methodology, technique, or model is less straightforward, requires more detail to explain, or is more open to question, consider dedicating a separate section to a discussion of method and methodology.
  3. When the methodology, technique, or model is unique, highly detailed, or your study design is likely to raise significant questions in the reader's mind that could affect how they view your findings and the validity of your evidence, provide enough descriptive information and explanation to justify and clarify your research design and its rationale.

Whatever the level of detail necessary, always provide references and be as concise as possible.

In summary, research methods are the tools, techniques or processes we use in our research. These might be, for example, surveys, interviews, or specific experiments,. Methods and how they are used are shaped by methodology. Research methodology is about the principles that guide our research practices. Methodology, therefore, explains why we’re using certain methods or tools in our research.

Results/evidence

The next step in the argument is to provide the results—or discussion of the evidence—to answer the question or support the argument stated in the introduction of the paper. Here you’re telling the reader what you found. In the introduction of the results section, identify the themes or topics you’ll cover. Then organize your evidence around the elements of your methods, central themes, theories, ideas, case studies, historical periods, policies, fields of literature, context, or geographical area. However you organize it, this section should be clearly tied to the overarching question or the argument of your thesis.

Report findings

Report all results or evidence pertinent to the research question or argument (not just those that support the hypothesis). Additionally, report results or evidence in order of importance or persuasiveness (most important first), or chronologically (for staged experiments), or in order of questions asked (for survey research).

Explain significance

Instead of stating that a result is significant, explain the significance of the result. For example: instead of saying, “Results for the distance traveled were highly significant,” write, “While the average distance traveled is five kilometers, the sample population traveled on average 10 kilometers farther. This can be explained by. . . “

Write results followed by specific data

Provide a statement of the main result(s) or argument in the introduction to the results section, then follow with the data. In reporting the data, provide precise measurements.

One way to ensure you are summarizing, synthesizing and interpreting data rather than simply reporting it is to state the result first, then follow with a description of the data that supports it. This will avoid a results section with a litany of figures and tables, quotes from research subjects, or descriptions of statistical outcomes with little story line to explain the data or draw out the significance to the central research question.

Use figures, tables, and graphs appropriately

Present complex data within figures, tables, or graphs, but if the data can be explained just as well in the text, don’t use them.

Avoid using a figure or table title as a topic sentence. Instead, cite tables and figures in brackets after relevant results statements. For example, instead of writing, “A summary of grocery retail transaction data are presented in Fig. 2,” write, “Grocery retail transaction data show that . . . (refer to Figure 2).”

Figures, tables, and graphs

  • are necessary only when they provide information that expands upon, or cannot be explained in, the text;
  • should contain sufficient information to enable them to stand alone;
  • are always briefly discussed and summarized in the text;
  • must include titles to describe core content (name of variables, type of analysis);
  • are clearly and consistently labeled and numbered;
  • list one column of data per heading; and
  • are uncluttered and easy to interpret.

Discussion and conclusion

The final step in the story line is to provide the answer to the question, or to summarize the argument and the main evidence used to support it. This is followed by an explanation of the significance of the research and the implications that arise from the research.

Some papers have separate discussion and conclusion sections. The difference between the discussion and conclusion is one of inference. The discussion section discusses actual results. Conclusions are more speculative in tone, exploring the possible implications of the results. In many qualitative papers, results or findings are difficult to disentangle from the discussion and are combined within the main body of the article.

The goal of the conclusion is to highlight the importance of the argument, to draw together the discussion into a final point, and to leave a lasting impression on the reader. In the same way that the paper opens with a statement of a problem that is of broad concern, it should close with commentary that highlights the take home message. The aim in the conclusion is to make this message as clear and accessible as possible.

Link the introduction and the conclusion

Read the introduction and the conclusion, one after another. They should complement one another. If you’ve used examples, metaphors, or other illustrations to highlight the problem or significance of the research, you might return to the same device in the conclusion.

Synthesize, don’t repeat

You can avoid repeating information that has already been provided by drawing the findings together into an overall point that has not been made yet. The sum may be a more powerful conveyor of meaning than the parts.

Go out with a bang

Use the last paragraph or sentence of the paper to provide closure to its overall questions. Pay attention to this paragraph and sentence; draft with care.

A note on “recommendations”

Conclusions offer solutions to issues and suggest courses of action flowing from the research. However, the aim of research is primarily to produce knowledge, not law, policy or a set of recommendations. We cannot ultimately control how our ideas are interpreted or implemented in the world. By maintaining a scholarly tone and exploring the possible implications of your ideas in broad terms, you can avoid dating your research unnecessarily, or limiting the reader's imagination to a specific set of outcomes.

Final thoughts

  • Use the beginning and ending of the introduction, middle sections, and conclusion to provide critical information.
  • Keep the focus on the research story at all times. Do not write about standardized procedures or tangential information.
  • Never describe literature, methods or theory in a general way; always relate these discussions to your research.
  • Do not report twists and turns in the research process, or what you have learned in the research process. The research paper addresses a question, or persuades the reader of a main idea—your central claim.

Example journal article (abbreviated)

To illustrate the structure of a well-written academic paper, a summary of the main steps in the story line of an education journal article has been reproduced below. Each excerpt has been drawn from the Introduction and the opening or closing paragraphs of the Results and Discussion sections.

In a workshop presented at the 7th Pacific Rim First Year in Higher Education Conference, Kutieleh and Egege (2003) argued that critical thinking is specifically a Western approach to knowledge claims and that the challenge for transition programs for international Asian students is the incorporation of critical thinking into first-year programs without taking either an assimilationist or a deficit approach. This follows the arguments of those such as Atkinson (1997) and Fox (1994) that critical thinking is incompatible with Asian cultural attitudes.
Statement of the problem (section introduction)
It can be argued, in contrast, from the perspective of history of science in China, that critical thinking is not the preserve of Western culture and that the comparative lack of "critical" quality in the academic work of East Asian international students in English is due to the difficulties of study in the context of edge-of-knowledge discourse in a second, third or fourth language. Regardless of their cultural background, the majority of typical first-year students need to be inculcated into critical thinking because from the perspective of developmental psychology, even though such students are generally near their peak of fluid intelligence, other cognitive abilities related to critical thinking, such as integrative thinking and reflective judgment are less evident at their stage of development.
Statement of the argument (section introduction)
The paper draws on critical literature to demonstrate the critical tradition of China and Chinese learners, and outlines various teaching and learning strategies developed to assist the development of critical analysis for students new to academic writing.
Method and methodology (section introduction)
A cursory glance at the various volumes that make up Needham's Science and civilization in China (1959, 1962) would indicate that elements of scientific thinking have been a major source of the success of Chinese culture over the millennia (developed in the first part of main body).

Lifespan developmental psychology suggests that it is not only Chinese students but all undergraduate students in their early years of academic study who need to be inculcated into critical thinking and the discourse that this involves in English (developed in the second part of the main body). If students understand that critical analysis is the basis of academic argument, they then understand through this exercise the macro-structural form that their writing should take if it is not to fall into a mere summary of others' ideas. Exercises that prove useful in examining the structure and nature of academic argument include ... (final part of the main body)
Results/evidence (introduction main body)
To conclude, if one considers the history of science in China, it would be almost culturally chauvinistic to suggest that critical thinking is specific to Western culture. The argument presented here is that critical thinking is evident in all cultures in that it is through such thinking that humanity survives. However, critical thinking as the basis of knowledge as seen in the university context is not necessarily easily come by, especially with young adult students who have a tendency to see knowledge as a fixed commodity to be ingested and then spat out in examinations. This, of course, is exacerbated by the plethora of examples of the lack of critical thinking exhibited by those in power in society outside (and sometimes inside) the academy. This lack of critical thinking reinforces any reticence on the student's part to be critical, whether it be because of second language difficulties or stage of cognitive development. Thus, if we as academics are to keep the academy as an institution for adding to the knowledge of society through critical thinking, we should not only model the discourse of critical thinking but also inform students as to the reasons for such a discourse.
Discussion/Conclusion (last paragraph)

Paton, M. (2009). Is critical analysis foreign to Chinese students? In E. Manalo & G. WongToi (Eds.), Communication skills in university education (pp. 1–10).

The content of this module is adapted with permission from resources developed by Dr. Wendy Bastalich, Teaching Innovation Unit, University of South Australia—as part of the University’s Research Education Support Program.