Academic writing - my first research project
Updated: Jan 25
My first research experience was my Student Selected Component in my 2nd year of medical school. I chose to undertake my project in the role of vitamins in one carbon metabolism. Once we were assigned a supervisor for the project, we were expected to meet with them at least once every 2 weeks. I would spend time in the lab to learn the ways that blood samples were analysed for serum vitamin levels. Since I had to briefly talk about this in my Methods section, I found it helpful that I got some real-life exposure to what actually happens 'behind the scenes' of the blood tests I will be ordering as a future doctor.
My supervisor also gave me guidance on how to formulate my research question. You don't want a research question that is too broad because it will be extremely difficult to try and answer it in only one paper / within word limits. Therefore, I chose to focus specifically on Vitamin B12. I told my supervisor that I was happy to work on a topic that could lead to future publication and sicne she already had collected patient data, I expressed that I was keen to analyse this big data set for her (~50,000 patients)! When my access to the data was confirmed, I was good to go!
I often get questions about how to get published / how to appear keen and I don't have one clear answer. My only advice is to genuinely appear enthusiastic and committed to whatever project you choose from the beginning. Choose your project wisely (I saw that this particular SSC could possibly lead to publication as previous students had been published) but also because you have an interest in it / you're happy to do it. Seemingly 'small' things like replying to emails promptly, coming up with original ideas or new perspectives on the topic given and going above and beyond what is required of you, will naturally make a supervisor want to invest more time in you and your work = better quality output. However, if you're not particularly interested in what you've chosen, doing all of this will feel like a chore.
Below are each of the steps I took to write my research project:
1. Research question
After I' d decided that I wanted to focus on Vitamin B12, I brainstormed possible research questions with my supervisor. There was a range of patient information that I could analyse so I chose to investigate the association (if any) between Vitamin B12 and ethnicity. I did a preliminary search of available literature on the subject (i.e. a quick a google search of what's already out there). Published work revealed that Asian people often had low Vitamin B12 blood levels and a few papers found that Black people had higher Vitamin B12 levels. So, there was already a small amount of information out there and I had to figure out the gaps in the research that my project could potentially fill.
My research question(s) ended up being:
Are there differences in serum vitamin B12 concentrations between ethnic groups in UK primary care patients? And why? (primary)
Is there a need to establish specific reference ranges to account for this? (secondary)
Primary question = what you are mainly focusing on answering
Secondary question = the answer to your primary question will inform what your answer to this quesiton will be and help inform your recommendations for future research / changes to clinical practice.
2. Data collection and analysis
Once you have decided your research question, you can go about collecting and analysing the data in order to answer that question. Since the data collection was already (fortunately) done for me, I could begin my analysis straight away. However, if this wasn't done, I'd have needed to have a detailed plan on how I was going to record blood test results from every patient etc. In qualitative projects, data collection will be in the form of interviews or long-answer surveys.
All of my data was analysed using SPSS (26.0) statistical software. I downloaded this through my university student account (which should make it free) and it helped me compute statistical tests on a large data set. This would not have been feasible to do on Microsoft Excel, so I had to teach myself how to use SPSS! You can have your data on an Excel file and transfer it to most statistical softwares.
I watched numerous YouTube videos and wrote down the steps to compute each statistical test. I also did A LOT of reading about what tests were best to use and how to interpret their results. This will be forever useful to me when analysing scientific papers throughout my medical degree and beyond - and I highly recommend doing a research project to strengthen these skills.
3. Recording results
This was one of the things I underestimated the most but it is extremely important that you keep a record of what tests you did and what the results were. In SPSS, you can export graphs, tables and other outputs directly to your computer. I made sure to keep an ongoing record of when I was running tests and made sure to give a title to all graphs I produced. I also saved these in an output file (using SPSS) that I could come back to. This ensured that when it came to writing up everything, I already had to my figures and tables sorted.
4. Writing the research paper
Now that you have your results, you can begin to write your research paper to answer your research question. The best structure to follow is the one that I briefly mentioned in my scientific writing blog post. This is the order in which I completed each section of my research paper:
I always try and write my results first as this typically consists of DESCRIBING what you found out. This is also where you include tables and figures with captions. However, you do not need to elaborate on the reasons for your findings. I found this the hardest to do as I often fall into the trap of interpreting / giving reasons for why my results were seen which needs to be saved for the discussion section. This is also why I try and write results and discussion at the same time.
This is where you summarise your primary findings (and any secondary findings you came to discover - you should report something if it was relevant, even if you weren't looking into it specifically). You then comment on those findings, comparing and contrasting them with evidence from similar research papers. This, along with your introduction, is where your reading around the subject will really need to be taking place. Ultimately, your discussion needs to determine whether your findings matched or contradicted the evidence already published and answer your research question(s). You should also discuss the limitations of your work here (such as bias), and suggest what additional research needs to be done in the future that would eliminate these limitations and answer the research question more accurately.
This is the most important part of your paper - so once you've completed this part, you've pretty much got the hardest part over and the paper is nearly done!
I tend to write the conclusion after I've managed to write the results and discussion sections because, at this point, I have a summary of the final answer(s) to the research question(s). Reiterate what your primary and secondary findings were with one or two sentences summarising the key reasons you think these results were found. You must also touch on the parts of your research question that you didn't manage to answer and recommend what further research needs to be done in order to do so.
Materials & Methods
This section is where you write about how you conducted your research including:
The population, location and sample size
Methods and equipment
Reference ranges (if you are using words like 'low', 'normal' and 'high' in regard to clinical values, readers need to know exactly what you mean)
You can write this at any time (as long as you remember what you did) because it is one of the easiest sections to write. I tend to write notes for this section as I go along as it is extremely important to know exact values and definitions. This section needs to be explicitly clear, so that someone else could replicate your study exactly and see if they achieve the same results.
This is where you provide a background of current research and make a case for why your research matters. I recommend noting down any references you accessed when you were first creating your research question, either in a Word document or reference manager like Mendeley / EndNote. My supervisor had her own published studies and an extensive background in Vitamin B12 so she really helped me navigate the wider reading on this topic / what was already published. Other than that, I googled any articles about ethnicity and Vitamin B12, especially PubMed search, and made a note of relevant ones that would back up the evidence presented in my own study.
My introduction included:
What Vitamin B12 is and its role in the human body
What is currently known about Vitamin B12 and its ethnic differences
What the gap in the research currently is, what is not known
What my study will be focusing on: 'The objective of this study is...'
This is traditionally the last part of a research paper that you need to write. This is usually 200-300 words and must give a clear outline of your study. Someone who does not have access to the rest of your paper should be able to read and understand your abstract and it should give them an overall summary of what your paper is about. Essentially, this is like the 'blurb' or synopsis of a book that makes someone want to read it. It needs to be engaging, concise and clear. The abstract for original research follows the same structure as your paper, but instead, will be a very condensed version: Background, Objective, Design, Results, Conclusion
I HATE this part of writing up a project but it is extremely important that your references are accurate and appropriate for the type of article. I tend to do referencing last but it is better to do it as you go along so you don't have to keep searching for where you got certain information from.
I highly recommend reading up on different referencing techniques, which are provided by every university and the type of referencing your university prefers. The King's College London Referencing guide can be found here
Referencing is not a complicated practice at all but it was one of the things I used to stress so much about when starting university. Referencing work is simply ensuring that any points you have made (that are not common knowledge) are backed up by appropriate literature. For research projects, your references should mainly come from other peer-reviewed journal articles.
After the completion of your write-up, make sure your work is all the same size and font, double spaced and proofread multiple times. It is vital that you try and send a full draft to your supervisor and check in with them in advance of your deadline. This was especially important for checking graphs and figures.
5. Cutting down words
I try to not go more than 1000 words over the original word limit when sending a first draft to my supervisor (try and stay as close to the word limit as possible though - different supervisors may or may not be willing to put up with >1000 words over but building a good rapport with them helps when it comes to things like this). After my supervisor provides me with comments, I will then start cutting down words. Most of my waffling comes from the discussion and results sections. Common pitfalls (for me) are: over-explaining things / elaborating too much and discussing irrelevant findings. Read your paper a few times and keep your research question in mind the entire time. Delete anything that does not add to the overall answer to your research question.
6. Make sure you haven't plagiarised
This tends to be the taboo bit of writing up research but you will have probably reiterated similar ideas mentioned in other papers and need to make sure you have referenced these correctly. I always check my work with the practice Turnitin programme that my university provides (King's students, you can enrol through KEATS here). This gives you a percentage similarity and then you can go about deleting content / rephrasing things so you are not repeating what has been said in another paper / committing plagiarism. Percentage similarities < 20% are ideal but I wouldn't stress out too much about this if you haven't copied and pasted a whole other paper. Scientific papers often have higher similarities due to technical language being used, lots of citations and similar figures/graphs.
Now it's time to submit your project!
For my SSC, I was really happy to achieve the highest mark in my year group (96)! My paper is being submitted for publication next month and I'm excited to present my work to a panel of university professors in March for a £1000 prize fund (look out for The Nicola Claire Hood Memorial Prize if you're a King's medic).
Below are some helpful resources that I used to write my research paper and get my head around the appropriate language / structure and getting my manuscript ready for publication: