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The IMRaD format (Introduction, Method, Results and Discussion) seems to be the gold standard in publishable scholarly articles in certain fields. I am wondering if I could get my literature review published if I modified it to fit this format. It’s not a systematic review and uses a lot of grey literature (unpublished project reports and presentations, newspaper articles, working papers) as it is on a topic which has very little research.

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    There's a hint of the cargo cult around "many excellent papers use this format, so I should use this format to make my paper successful". Different structures will be good for different papers, and I struggle slightly to see a review forced into that. On the other hand, if your reviewers also like to see everything squashed into this structure, you may be in luck ;-) – Flyto Nov 4 '15 at 7:40
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    Why would you even do this? Have any of the unsystematic literature reviews you've read followed IMRaD? If it's not a systematic review, you don't have a much of an M, and you don't have R. – 410 gone Nov 4 '15 at 7:50
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Introduction

People sometimes wonder what they can or should write in the IMRaD format (Introduction, Method, Results, and Discussion). For example, should a literature review be written this way? In this answer, we will examine a toy model for this question, namely stackexchange answers, to produce evidence that although anything can be written in IMRaD format, it is not necessarily helpful.

Method

We prepared an answer on academia.stackexchange.com, wrote it up in the IMRaD format, and submitted it to the website.

Results

The answer appeared on the site, but the IMRaD format yielded no apparent benefits in organizing the answer and it looked eccentric.

Discussion

Stackexchange answers are not a perfect model for literature reviews, but they share one key similarity: they could be written in IMRaD format but usually are not. Our experiment suggests a mechanism to explain this observation. Genuine experimental results fit the "method, results, discussion" paradigm, but most other academic contributions do not. Unless you are carrying out a formal meta analysis for which you can document a precise method, I see no good reason to use the IMRaD format for a literature review (and it would be actively harmful if you had to distort your account to make it fit this organization).

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I am wondering if I could get my literature review published if I modified it to fit this format. It's not a systematic review and uses a lot of grey literature (unpublished project reports and presentations, newspaper articles, working papers) as it is on a topic which has very little research.

Your question suggests that you have trouble getting your literature review published for some reason. While I cannot make a definite statement (I would need to know your work intimately), I am pretty certain that the lack of an IMRaD format is not the reason. I can only suggest that you consult the comments of whoever rejected your review so far or, if you did not try to publish it yet, seek the opinion of colleagues or similar.

Now, there is such a thing as a paper about scientific literature using the IMRaD (or a similar structure), namely a meta study. In this case, the way you select the literature would make your methods section and your results would be a certain statement about this literature, e.g., “In 95 % of all studies, homeopathy was found to be as effective as placebos”. While you could apply such an approach to grey literature as well, you state yourself that what you are doing is “not a systematic review”, so this way does not seem like an option for you.

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From what you've explained, I don't think you should concern yourself about the IMRaD format. If you want to know the right format to use to publish your review, then look at your target journal and examine the literature reviews that they have published. Pick the one that is closest to what you are doing, and then follow its general pattern. However, don't be too strict; let your article speak; feel free to vary the format of your model according to the unique characteristics of your model.

I strongly suggest, though, that before you complete the article, contact the editor-in-chief of the target journal with your idea or draft and make sure that it is acceptable. I do this for almost all articles before I submit, and the best news I can get is the editor telling me that they don't publish that kind of work, which saves me many months of wasted work.

Here are some possible caveats to this advice:

  • You don't have a target journal: You need one! It is difficult to publish research with only a vague idea of where you want to publish it. You should have a definite target in mind and write for it. Even if your article is not accepted at your first target, you should modify it to fit your next target. Except for most high-quality target journals, articles are frequently rejected (sometimes without review) because the writer clearly didn't have the target in mind.
  • Your target journal hasn't published any similar articles: Congratulations! You just saved your self many months of useless work by submitting to an inappropriate journal! Look for another target journal that has already published the kind of work that you are doing.

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