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Types of Academic Articles


Dr. Zachary M. Wilmot, Senior Associate Editor

March 2024

While original research articles are the backbone of scientific inquiry, there are a wide range of article types across academia that all serve important functions in progressing knowledge. Being familiar with the different types of articles, as well as their uses, can be helpful in navigating and making one’s mark on the academic world.

Original Research Articles
Original research articles make up the majority of scientific manuscripts and count the most towards one’s degree or tenure. Original research articles contribute to the field by asking and answering an original and important research question, and are the primary way that new discoveries are made.

Original research articles typically follow very similar formats, including an introduction that asks a research question, a literature review that summarizes previous research on the topic, a materials and methods (or experimental) section that describes how the question will be investigated and answered, a results section that outlines what was discovered, a discussion section that explains the significant of the results and how they can be generalized, and a conclusion that succinctly answers the question and discusses potential implications. Social science and humanities papers also sometimes have a theory section that discusses the theoretical/conceptual framework that the authors are employing to explain a phenomenon.

This type of article should be cited the most often when writing papers, as they make up the majority of the academic discourse that researchers are contributing to. If pressed for time, reading the abstract, results, and conclusion can usually provide a good summary of the content of the rest of the article, and help one decide if they need to read it in more detail.

Review Articles
Review articles are perhaps the second-most common type of article, and are essentially a literature review extended to the length of a full paper. These articles summarize the history and/or current state of a subfield within a larger discipline. Instead of asking a research question and then presenting the answer, review articles identify and define a specific area of research interest, collate a list of important original research articles and case studies in that area, and then organize, summarize, and connect the findings of these publications in a way that helps other researchers obtain a solid understanding of the subfield.

Review articles do more than simply list the findings of previous studies; a good review article clearly delimits the subfield being examined and identifies major themes, methodologies, and topics that have been investigated, while also identifying weaknesses and future areas of research. Some authors of review articles employ bibliometric analysis methods and software to make claims about the state of research backed up by statistical evidence, while other authors will define their field by limiting the articles they discuss to those published in specific journals and/or between specific years.

Review articles can be incredibly helpful for scholars trying to identify important articles in a subfield and for those who wish to quickly familiarize themselves with the research done in a particular area. Review articles are particularly useful for graduate students or scholars switching academic gears. While one should certainly cite review articles used to aid in their research, it is best to only cite one or two in any paper.

Meta-analyses are somewhere between an original research article and a literature review, and are especially common in fields that publish a large number of case reports (such as medicine) or that generally have small sample sizes. Meta-analyses apply specific methodologies to statistically combine the data and findings of previous studies to obtain greater statistical power and make conclusions about topics and the literature that could not be made from one study alone. Typically, meta-analyses are used to combine and further analyze the results of randomized controlled trials to identify patterns across studies that are only apparent at a large scale.

Meta-analyses can be treated like either original research articles or review articles when citing them, depending on if they focus on describing the findings of past studies or on summarizing the literature in a highly regimented and quantitative manner.

Theory Articles
Theory articles are an essential part of the academic structure of the social sciences and humanities, but do not have a precise analogue in the natural sciences (though some fields that rely more on abstract concepts, such as theoretical physics, have rough equivalents). Theory articles are a cross between original research and review articles in that they deal almost entirely with abstract, theoretical concepts to develop a conceptual framework that can be used to explain or understand phenomena. Generally, theory articles are published in journals dedicated to this type of research.

These articles synthesize, modify, and refute the conclusions and theoretical work of previous researchers and then add their own insights, based either on the empirical work of the authors or their own thoughts, to propose a new way of understanding or thinking about specific phenomena. Many of these articles then go on to illustrate the usefulness of their framework by applying it to a small case study.

Theory articles are the core of the schools of thought that make up the social sciences and humanities, and the most important theory articles are often more cited than original research. In the fields in which they are used, theory articles inspire original research and provide the frameworks by which this research this organized, while also providing a clear narrative that researchers can use to highlight the importance of their work.

Methodology Articles
Methodology articles are articles that describe a novel innovation in a particular method or lay out the tenets for a new approach to research. These can be found in many fields and are published in both general and specialized journals. Methodology articles typically describe a method or its modification in detail, connect it to previous methods, identify the type of questions it can be used to answer, and then briefly test the method through a small empirical trial.

Technical notes are a subtype of methodology article that are significantly shorter and focus in very narrowly on a small part of an existing method or technique. Methodology articles can be very helpful for researchers trying to find the best way to answer their question, and they are best written when the primary result of research is the development of a new technique or the creative application of an existing one.

Case Reports
Case reports are a type of short article closely related to original research. Case reports are very common in the medical field, where they are used by practitioners to report on the particularities of unusual cases or the efficacy of a particular technique. Unlike original research, case reports do not try to make generalizable claims, and typically only review the literature related to the case, describe the case, and briefly discuss its implications. Similar articles can be found in the social sciences, particularly management science, and are typically referred to as case studies.

The use of case reports is very field-specific, but they can be used as a part of meta-analyses or literature reviews and to inform a research question, though one should be cautious in generalizing from them.

Brief Communications
Brief communications are very short original research articles. They are typically used to report academically rigorous and generalizable findings that do not warrant a full article. Where possible, it is usually best to write a full original research paper instead of a brief communication, especially early in one’s career. However, these can be useful for publishing small, interesting results from larger projects that do not make it into the larger publications. These articles have the same sections as original research articles, but typically focus most heavily on the results.

Many journals provide a space for (usually senior) researchers to write short responses to the research published within them, often in the form of rebuttals, criticisms, or extensions. Sometimes, journals also publish short editorial letters pointing out general issues in the field. These are known as commentaries, editorials, or letters, and typically do not contain any original research, but instead serve as a post-publication forum for critique and reflection. While these writings are typically not cited (although some particularly powerful rebuttals, particularly in the social sciences, have gone on to found new fields of inquiry), they can be useful for helping one rethink their understanding of an article or the state of a field.

Though there are many other types of articles, such as book reviews and literary analyses, having a working familiarity with the above article types can help one better understand and contribute to their field of study.

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