When writing an academic paper, sections help organize the paper and make it more navigable for the reader. I can imagine a number of pros/cons of having more or less sections in a paper, but I'm not sure how to weigh them all when writing my paper.

My Question

How should I determine how many sections/subsections/etc. to include in a scientific journal article?

Obviously this is very paper-dependent, and is subject to the publisher's standards. I'm not looking for advice for a particular paper; I'm looking for general guidelines that would be useful for an academic paper in any scientific field (i.e. I want this to be of value to the community).

  • How does this depend on the length of the paper?
  • How can I determine an appropriate branching factor? (How many sub-sections per section?)
  • How much text per section is too much or too little?
  • What other considerations are important?
  • 2
    Someone once asked Abraham Lincoln: "How long should a man's leg's be?" Lincoln's answer was "Long enough to reach the ground." – JeffE Dec 2 '18 at 1:53
  • @JeffE: That’s easy to say for a leg, which has a clear purpose and needed length. I think it’s a little harder to determine for a paper, which could be organized in a couple ways with fine results. – jvriesem Dec 2 '18 at 8:37
  • 3
    If the results are fine either way, it doesn't matter how you do it. A few subsections/inches more or less won't make your paper/legs any more or less useful. Just pick the structure you think makes your presentation clearest, and then focus on the research results. – JeffE Dec 2 '18 at 20:02
  • 1
    That's the key: "pick the structure you think makes your presentation clearest" @JeffE Beyond that, there's a lot of subjectivity. – user2768 Dec 3 '18 at 10:55
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    I rather think the point of the leg analogy was that the choice seems to matter but actually doesn't. No matter what length your legs are they will reach the ground. Similarly, no matter how many subsections you choose to go with, you can make it work. – A Simple Algorithm Dec 3 '18 at 17:36

As you point out, this is likely field specific and also depends on the type of article you are writing within that field. The old saying of "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler" applies here too. If your article doesn't need a lot of subsections and subsubsections, then don't use them. However, if they are needed, well, then they are needed!

I have found that the STROBE statement and the CONSORT statement are very useful for helping structuring articles that are of the statistical type. Perhaps similar documents are present in other fields too?

But, as JeffE pointed out in a comment to your question, pick the structure of the article that makes it easiest on your reader to understand your results and how you arrived at them.

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