Reporting guidelines. Requirements for contents and style

Rejection rates are high


Reporting science is an art 

Reporting your research in a competitive, international environment is no easily accomplished task; and most researchers, junior and senior alike, have experienced having their papers rejected. The reasons for this are many, including unclear presentation of how research is conducted, deficient reporting, selective outcome reporting, confusing data, among others; and the number of rejections is reported to be growing for these reasons and because competitive pressures in research are generally growing in light of the ever more rapid pace of new knowledge creation, the globalization of research, and mounting demands on researches to publish more original contributions in ever better journals.

Non-natives must work harder 

For non-native speakers of English (NNSEs), the task of getting published is no less daunting, and it is well-established that although NNSEs have adapted well to the use of English, they have had to work harder than native speaker (NS) authors and do not have equal access to high-impact journals.

You may not be on the priority list

Many researchers, NNSEs and native speakers (NSs) alike will also experience having their papers rejected, not because of deficient reporting of their research, flaws beyond repair or poor language command or presentation, but simply because the topic of their research is not spot on the recipient journal’s priority list. And many more get their papers back with an invitation to resubmit when certain changes have been made.

One-stop site

General and journal-specific guidelines 

The first thing you must do to ease your publication pathway is to familiarise yourself with the general guidelines, the medical journals’ author resources and the research-design specific guidelines that exist, most of which may be found at the organisations’ respective websites or at the Mulford Health Science Library ,which offers links to more than 6,000 journals in the health and life sciences.

Medical journal editors’ guidelines 

General guidelines 

The general guidelines for reporting medical science are issued by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, the ICMJE. These guidelines describe what are best practice and the current ethical standards in the conduct and reporting of the results of (mainly) quantitative research. The guidelines are fairly detailed on the roles and responsibilities of authors and on publishing and editorial issues like clinical trial registration for example, with links to sites where you may see what is required in terms of data sets for a clinical trial registration to be valid and sufficient.

Journals expect you to know the general guidelines

Most journals take for granted that your research is reported in conformity with these uniform requirements, and they supplement the individual journals’ specific instructions, describing general quality criteria and standards for biomedical papers, including the contents elements, e.g. what to list on the title sheet, what to include and not to include in methods and results sections, how to list references, etc.. So when preparing a manuscript for publication and drafting the accompanying cover letter, much valuable advice may be obtained from this indispensable resource. The Danish Code of Conduct for Research Integrity is largely aligned with the Vancouver Standard.

Check journal-specific guidelines 

When you have checked the general guidelines, it is time to consult the specific style guidelines that apply to the kind of article you have in mind for a particular target journal. The more prestigious journals, like the British Medical Journal (BMJ) describe in detail the format and layout of accepted article types and precisely describe article requirements. Strict adherence to these requirements is fundamental for several reasons, one being, as quoted from the BMJ site, “Because we aim to improve our papers’ reporting and increase reviewers’ understanding we ask our research authors to follow such reporting guidelines and to complete the appropriate reporting checklist before submission (or before external peer review if not done sooner)”. Failure to follow these requirements invariably results in publication delay, or maybe even rejection. 

What about style and technicalities?

When it comes to the general style requirements and technicalities like sections and headings, spacing and indentation, special characters, etc. most journals refer to the Chicago Manual of Style, which is available online. It is, indeed, a very useful resource. It gives you much advice on issues related to the publishing process, and not least the rules concerning issues of style and usage, including punctuation, spelling, numbers, abbreviations, mathematics in type, etc. Some journals, like the BMJ, also have their own house style on grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.; and they refer authors to other useful author toolkits and resources.

Read an article in the intended journal

Once you have familiarised yourself with the general requirements for the reporting of science and the more specific requirements of the particular journal you have in mind, it may be valuable for you to read one or more articles from that paper to see how these requirements work out in practice.

Use subscription services

Apart from the journal-specific guidelines, you may get valuable advice and even help as to how to produce well-organised and clear manuscripts from various subscription platforms, like The AMA Manual of Style. You should, of course, take a tour of such sites before subscribing!

The problems are well-known!

Research-design-specific guidelines  

The inherent difficulties in getting published are not unknown either to the research community at large or to educational institutions and established healthcare organisations. The last couple of decades have therefore seen the continual development of general as well as specific disciplinary rules or guidelines to assist researchers in reporting their research.

Check international design-specific reporting guidelines

These international research reporting guidelines specify what is needed as a minimum in terms of information for the reporting of your research to be complete and clear. Most guidelines reflect consensus opinion of experts within a particular discipline or organisation; and they are therefore usually internationally recognised, endorsed by journals and expected to be followed. For a comprehensive overview, see the NIH guideline overview.

Check the EQUATOR

Guideline overview

The NIH overview is precisely that, an overview; a place where you may find very specialised guidelines, like the ARRIVE guideline on reporting on in vivo animal experiments, but also more common guidelines reflecting ongoing efforts to translate principles of responsible research reporting into practical guidelines according to study type. Familiarising yourself with these common guidelines is simply a must!

Randomised controlled trials follow CONSORT guideline

Detailed guidelines for the most common study types

One of the most well-developed guidelines is the CONSORT which gives detailed advice on clear reporting of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). The CONSORT guideline, which may be accessed via the EQUATOR network or the CONSORT Organisation’s own website, gives you downloadable documents, flow diagrams and texts with the full wording of the statement and its extensions (for example cluster trials and pragmatic trials); very useful checklists with detailed explanations and information about what goes into which sections of a paper; including sample texts showing how to describe in good, plain English what was done. The CONSORT guideline is a veritable goldmine of useful information that should be visited no matter which research design is being used.

Observational studies follow STROBE

For observational studies in epidemiology (cohort, case-control studies and cross-sectional studies), the STROBE guideline should be used. Like with the CONSORT, you may access the full wording of the statement and draw on downloadable checklists.

Reviews follow PRISMA (quantitative) or ENTREQ (qualitative)

Another of the many guidelines available from the EQUATOR is the PRISMA, which offers detailed advice on how to draw up both systematic review and meta-reviews. Like most of these resources, the PRISMA  guideline provides downloadable checklists offering a detailed account of contents of the individual elements that should go into a meta-review or a systematic review.  The only guideline available at the moment for the reporting of systematic review and synthesis of qualitative research is the ENTREQ guideline.

Interviews and focus groups follow COREQ

Whereas standards for the reporting of quantitative research are widely used and regarded as a sine qua non, less attention has been devoted to designing standards for reporting qualitative research. Still, via the EQUATOR homepage, you may access the Consolidated criteria for Reporting Qualitative research, COREQ, which contains a 32-item checklist for interviews and focus groups.

SRQR, a synthesis of advice for qualitative research reporting

Another resource on which items to report and how in qualitative research is the Standards for Reporting Qualitative Research (SRQR); see for example Table 1 on page 3 for a neat list of contents elements that will assist authors during preparation of their manuscripts. The guideline also offers advice to editors and reviewers evaluating qualitative papers.

Implementation research guidelines

The range of applications of implementation research is widening by the day. The WHO has therefore issued a paper on reporting guidelines for implementation and operational research to fill some of the gaps in existing guidelines, which often make it difficult for researchers and journal editors to appraise the value of such research and its contextual use.

SHEERS for health economic evaluationI

Related to implementation research is outcomes research and research into the consequences of health care decisions, including the economic consequences of such decisions. To ensure proper reporting of such studies, the International Society for Pharmacoeconomics and Outcomes Research has published the Consolidated Health Economic Evaluation Reporting Standards, CHEERS, which is endorsed by a number of organisations and journals. Like most of the other guidelines, CHEERS provides authors with a checklist of items to include in the report.

Interviews and focus groups follow COREQ

Whereas standards for the reporting of quantitative research are widely used and regarded as a sine qua non, less attention has been devoted to designing standards for reporting qualitative research. Still, via the EQUATOR homepage, you may access the Consolidated criteria for Reporting Qualitative research, COREQ, which contains a 32-item checklist for interviews and focus groups.

Observe, learn and use the rhetorical conventions

Rhetorical purpose shapes text structure

The general and research-design-specific and journal-specific guidelines determine content-wise what goes into a paper and where; and following these guidelines and instructions will considerably ease your writing process. Valuable extra input to the structuring of your text may also be obtained by observing, learning and using the rhetorical conventions that are traditionally deployed by the discourse community to which you belong when writing up specific research-reporting genres (like papers, conference abstracts and posters). Although you will rarely be required specifically to follow these rhetorical conventions, editors do expect that you know and stick to them. Failure to observe these rhetorical conventions will invariably be interpreted as lack of expertness, and we will therefore go into much further detail with these rhetorical structures in other texts you will be reading later during the course.  

Genre’s purpose decides text structure and form

The rhetorical structures are largely unique to kinds of research-reporting texts produced and the purposes for which these texts are used. For example, from the author’s perspective, the primary purpose of a conference abstract is to have one’s research selected for conference presentation and a secondary purpose is to provide information. For a poster, the primary purpose is to elicit on-site response from spectators, i.e. conference participants. For a paper, there are many purposes, among others to position yourself and your research within a field of research by expanding existing knowledge. These purposes are recognised by other expert members of the parent discourse community among others from the way the texts are structured and from the choice of words and sentences used. So, basically, we recognise a particular text genre from the way it is structured and from the kind of language that is used in it.

Genres have conventional move and step structures

The main communicative purpose of the first move, establishing a territory, is conventionally accomplished by reviewing previous research, showing where the unanswered questions are, or by demonstrating that the topic of the research is relevant and important to investigate. The main purpose of the second move, creating a research niche, is often achieved through steps like raising a question, identifying a research gap or making a counter-claim. The main purpose of the third move, occupying the niche, is accomplished through the steps of, for example, saying what the purpose of the research is, indicating the structure of the paper or announcing principal findings. These moves may be repeated each time a new important theme is raised.

Creating a research space

An example of this is given by “the father of genre research”, John Swales, who developed the so-called C.A.R.S. Model for creating a research space in journal article introductions. Swales argues that writers usually design their introductions with the dual purpose of establishing their presence within the area of their research and for attracting their fellow researchers’ interest. Structurally these purposes are accomplished through a series of rhetorical moves. A move is a functional term that refers to a defined and bounded communicative act designed to achieve one main communicative purpose. A move may be a single sentence (for example the aim statement in the Introduction section of a paper), but it will often consist of more than just one sentence.  For example, in the Introduction the first move typically establishes a territory by introducing the importance of the research area in general, which may unfold across several sentences.  The second move creates a research niche, and the third move occupies the niche (see text sample below). 

Do in Rome as the Romans!

The order of the moves and the nature of the rhetorical steps taken to accomplish these moves are highly conventionalised. The conventions guiding the ordering of the moves and steps and how to put these moves and steps into words must be observed, learnt and used so that expert members of your discourse community, i.e. your colleagues and peers, will recognise your text as one that “belongs” to that particular community, viz. as a text that has features typical of that genre.

The language form mirrors the purpose of the step

This functional approach is productive not only in relation to introductions, but to the entire standard research article and is recommended by several online writing communities like ASPIRE and Purdue University Online Writing Lab; and some resources advocating a genre approach, like the Language Centre at Helsinki University of Technology, list useful phrases with which to accomplish these steps. For example, at the end of the first move of the introduction, we often see the word however which signals a transition from the first to the second move, where a gap in existing research is introduced.  

The order of moves is set; that of steps is at your discretion

In the small sample text opposite, the first move (yellow) is accomplished through a series of several steps that come in the follwing order: first, a claim of general importance; second, a summary of previous research; third, a topic generalisation; and then, fourth, more summary of previous research. There is generally no set order of the steps creating the move. How to order the steps is entirely the author’s decision. The second move (red) consists of only one step; and the third move (green) also consists of only one step only. The order of the moves is usually set (1-2-3), and the move outlining the research field is the more comprehensive one, consisting of several steps ordered as the author sees fit.   

Observe and use the conventionalised structures and phrases

Learning to become an expert writer within your field of research is very much a matter of observing how experts in your field communicate. Thinking about the purpose of every text paragraph, you should focus your attention on how they structure the sections of their texts into moves and their moves into steps; and you should observe how they “do things with words”, for example introducing a niche or a gap using words like however or sentence structures like of particular interest is … to claim contrast; occupying the niche by stating purpose, e.g. The aim of this study was to …, etc. So, using typical phrases recognised by other researchers as serving particular purposes in different parts of the paper is another must when writing up your research.

From observation to application 

When you have become conscious of the interplay between structure and language by observing what peers in your field do, the next step is to use these structures and these phrases in your own writing.