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The funnel method: How to guide the reader to your research question

When you write an introduction section, such as for a manuscript or a thesis, you can think of the approach as a "funnel" 

First, you start off very broad, such as a statement of the overall problem. This might be about the prevelance and/or burden of the disease you are focussing on. An example, which we used in this published work is as follows: "Low back pain is the leading cause of disability and the most common of all non-communicable diseases. Chronic low back pain (CLBP) is ...[and providing definitions]"

Second, you narrow down to some more specifics on what research related to your focus has shown. For example: "Previous pairwise meta-analyses have shown that passive treatments such as ultrasound, hot and cold therapy and massage without exercise training failed to reduce pain in adults with non-specific CLBP. In contrast, exercise training has collectively been shown to be effective in ..."

Third, and this is important, you start to point out the "gap" in the literature. For example "However, whether specific types of exercise training are more effective in non-specific CLBP has received limited attention.".. and then you talk about this for a bit.

Fourth, it might be relevant to introduce the methodology you use, but this is not always need. Following the example above: "Network meta-analyses can overcome these limitations by incorporating data from RCTs that do not necessarily have the same kind of comparator groups in a ‘network’ of studies..."

Finally, you bring it all together and state your aim/research question/hypothesis. For example: "We aimed to conduct a systematic review and network meta-analysis on the effectiveness of specific kinds of exercise training in adults with non-specific CLBP"

Structuring paragraphs within a manuscript or thesis

Everyone develops their own style of writing with time. As a general rule, I suggest to my students to initially, whilst they are learning, follow a formulaic method to write specific sections of a thesis or manuscript. Then, over time, one will develop one's own style.

I provide a structured template* here for how to structure some specific sub-sections of a thesis or manuscript:

  • a "general introduction" section at the start of a manuscript or thesis.
  • a "more specific section" which provides the reader information on a specific topic,
  • a "section leading to the hypothesis" which guides the reader to the scientific hypothesis made as part of the study.

In each of those sections, you will find colour coded parts that help to guide you to understand the structure of each paragraph depending on its intent.

*I'd like to thank Scott Tagliaferri for allowing me to use parts of his honours thesis for this resource and also Dr. Clint Miller for his additional comments.


Structuring a research question

A research question is a formal and specific question that can be answered as part of a research study or project. It tells the reader clearly and succinctly what your research is about. This question typically includes statements that refer to:

  • the population of interest (e.g back pain)
  • the primary outcome of interest (e.g. pain, disability etc etc). Typically, it is preferred to nominate ONE primary outcome with the remainder being secondary outcomes. Typically the research question will include only ONE primary outcome and further variables included as secondary research questions. In some of the examples below there may be more that one outcome of interest (dependent variable), but this is typically non-preferred in a specific research question.
  • something that may cause a difference (e.g. different kinds of treatment, e.g. different kinds of sub-populations, e.g. other variables that might be associated with the primary outcome)

Sometimes, the research question also contains information about what relationship is expected (e.g. treatment X is more effective than treatment Y).

Here are some examples from student theses to help guide you:

  • Are psychosocial factors associated with the magnitude of the exercise induced hypoalgesic response in pain-free adults?
  • Which physical, psychological or social factors are associated with kinesiophobia in people without LBP?
  • Are activity accumulation patterns in children associated with reduced adiposity, increased cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular fitness, and are these associations different depending on whether novel or conventional methods are used for accelerometry data reduction?
  • Will six months of general trunk strength and conditioning or motor control with manual therapy show greater improvements in physical and self-reported outcomes in adults with chronic low back pain?

How to draft a scientific publication

Writing one's first scientific publication is a difficult task. One needs to know how to structure the manuscript and what kind of information is relevant or not relevant. One also needs to have an in depth knowledge of the field and also related fields to develop, in a logical but concise fashion, the hypothesis for the study you have done. The latter issue is something between you and your supervisor, but with the former I can help you.

This document contains a information, tips and a template on how to structure and write a scientific publication. The structure of publications differs from field to field and the structure here is typical for medical, biological and related fields. The layout is modelled after that required for the Journal of Applied Physiology. For each journal you write for, you will have different requirements for the layout, but often supervisors will tell their students for their first publication just to model it after "a journal" and then go from there.

It is a very steep learning curve with writing publications. For the very first manuscript I drafted I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall - I reached the 13th (!) version of it before I gave up (for other reasons: the statistics needed to be re-worked). For the first manuscript I wrote that ended up getting published, it felt like a massive struggle at the time and even now when I open up this manuscript, I think to myself "jez, I could write that so much better/concisely now." But, it is a learning process and it requires persistence and practice.

I wish you the best of luck in your endeavours. Additional resources can be found on this useful website 

Again, access the word document here.


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