Empirical analysis of the text structure of original research articles in medical journals

PLoS One. 2020 Oct 8;15(10):e0240288. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0240288. eCollection 2020.


Successful publishing of an article depends on several factors, including the structure of the main text, the so-called introduction, methods, results and discussion structure (IMRAD). The first objective of our work is to provide recent results on the number of paragraphs (pars.) per section used in articles published in major medical journals. Our second objective is the investigation of other structural elements, i.e., number of tables, figures and references and the availability of supplementary material. We analyzed data from randomly selected original articles published in years 2005, 2010 and 2015 from the journals The BMJ, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine and PLOS Medicine. Per journal and year 30 articles were investigated. Random effect meta-analyses were performed to provide pooled estimates. The effect of time was analyzed by linear mixed models. All articles followed the IMRAD structure. The number of pars. per section increased for all journals over time with 1.08 (95% confidence interval (CI): 0.70-1.46) pars. per every two years. The largest increase was observed for the methods section (0.29 pars. per year; 95% confidence interval (CI): 0.19-0.39). PLOS Medicine had the highest number of pars. The number of tables did not change, but number of figures and references increased slightly. Not only the standard IMRAD structure should be used to increase the likelihood for publication of an article but also the general layout of the target journal. Supplementary material has become standard. If no journal-specific information is available, authors should use 3/10/9/8 pars. for the introduction/methods/results/discussion sections.

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research*
  • Medical Writing*
  • Periodicals as Topic*
  • Publishing

Grant support

The author(s) received no specific funding for this work.