The IMRaD structure is rarely enough


Imagine you’ve gone out to café and you ask for a salad. What arrives is a chopping board, a knife, a bowl, a lettuce, a tomato, a carrot, a bundle of random herbs, a mystery fruit and sundry bottles and jars. You are surprised. This wasn’t what you were expecting. And you really don’t know what the chef intends that you do with these things. You can see some of it. Lettuce Tomato Carrot. But what is the fruit? And what do you chop and what do you tear or leave as is? And how much of each of the dressing ingredients do you use and how do you mix them together? The instructions are missing so you’ll just have to wing it. Or give up and send the lot back.

This yet-to-be-salad is the equivalent of the paper or thesis written as IMRaD – Introduction, Method, Results and Discussion. When you write four blocks of paragraphs under each of these headings, you have some recognisable ingredients, maybe some less familiar than others. But your reader isn’t going to know how to put them together. They don’t know why you have chosen these specific things to write about, or what they add up to in the end. That’s because you haven’t provided them with any guidance. There are no instructions about how they are to work through the material and make sense of it.

You see, IMRaD by itself isn’t sufficient for a paper or thesis. Yes, these chunks need to be there, But stand alone IMRaD is inadequate. But why?

Well, a paper or a thesis has to argue something. A paper or thesis has to present a problem and then make a case for a particular answer. Even if the answer is equivocal, it is still an answer. The case is where the writer tells the reader about the particular approach they took to the problem – how it was understood and why – and why and how the answer was found in a particular way. And what this leaves out. And the writer presents their evidence – this is the “stuff” from which the answer to the problem is produced. Finally the writer gives their answer together with an explanation about why this is the answer and what the reader is meant to understand from it, and do about it.

And to do all this work, the writer needs to construct a narrative through the four sections. Some people call this narrative a story. Now story is a term which draws attention to the ways in which the writer has to take the reader by the hand and lead them through the sections and however many words there are. The narrative has to keep the reader on track and keep them interested. But there’s a downside to the term story. The not so helpful thing about calling the narrative a story is that the writer can lose sight of the purpose of the paper or thesis – they are persuading the reader through a process of evidenced reasoning. Follow these steps, the writer says, and you too will come to this conclusion.

Doing the IMRaD set of chunks is risky. If the writer doesn’t focus on their line of argument – that’s where their narrative red thread pulls the reader through the text step by step – then they will have presented a load of detail where the reader doesn’t know what matters most or how it matters. The no-argument-writer leaves their reader wondering how they are meant to interpret all the stuff presented.  And the reader also wonders why the writer chose these particular things to write about and what sense they made of them.  And if you’re writing a paper or a thesis, you don’t want to leave your readers wondering about what you were trying to say.

There’s more negative consequences too I’m afraid. If the writer doesn’t actually say what all the chunks and words add up to and why the sum total is important, and indeed why the writer did this work in the first place and is bothering to write about it, then the poor old reader really is in the dark. They don’t know where the work fits or where it might go in future. They are the equivalent of the diner sitting at the table with a bunch of veg, a knife and a chopping board.

Perhaps they’ll chalk the experience up to bad luck and forget about it. Or perhaps, particularly if they are a reviewer or an examiner, they’ll send the IMRaD chunks back to the kitchen with a strongly worded request for the chef to do more and do better.