Understanding the Anatomy of the Spine

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of the spine in your overall anatomy. Learn about the different parts of the spine so you understand how it’s designed and how it functions.

The spine supports your body and makes it possible for you to move and feel. The spine also has the crucial task of encapsulating and protecting the spinal cord, which is the bundle of nerves that connect the brain and every other part of the body.

The spine has 33 bones or vertebrae, states Mayfield Clinic, although only the upper 24 can move. The vertebrae connect with muscles and ligaments to form the spinal column, which includes the cervical, thoracic and lumbar sections.

The Cervical Spine

The cervical section of the spine includes the first seven vertebrae, according to DePuy Synthes. Beginning at the bottom of the skull, these vertebrae form a backward “c” shape. The two top vertebrae are the atlas and the axis, and these vertebrae are different from the others, because they rotate in special ways so the neck and head can move.

The cervical spine is more flexible than the other sections of the spine. It’s also more prone to injuries, because it’s less protected. The vertebrae in the cervical spine are also different, because they have openings for arteries, which carry blood to the brain.

The Thoracic Spine

The thoracic spine contains 12 vertebrae, and it sits immediately below the cervical section, explains DePuy Synthes. Thoracic vertebrae connect to the rib cage, and this section of the spine forms a forward “c” shape.

The thoracic spine has special rib connections and intervertebral discs, which make this section of the spine less flexible.

The Lumbar Spine

The lowest section of the spine is the lumbar spine. Most people have five vertebrae in this section, although some people have six. Like the cervical spine, the lumbar spine has a backward “c” shape. The vertebrae in the lumbar spine are larger than those in the other sections.

Of the three spinal sections, pain in the lumbar section may be the most common due to the fact that the lumbar vertebrae connect to the weight-bearing pelvis.

Vertebrae, Discs, Nerves and Muscles

The job of the vertebrae is to support and protect the nerves of the spinal cord. The spinal cord contains millions of nerve fibers, and it stops at the second vertebra of the lumbar spine, according to DePuy Synthes. The spinal cord passes through a hollow tube in the center of the vertebrae. Ligaments hold the vertebrae together, and tendons form the connection between bones and muscles.

Intervertebral discs serve as cushions between each vertebra, absorbing shocks and keeping the vertebrae from rubbing on each other.

Muscles present near the spine are paraspinal muscles. Their job is to support and help the spine move.

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Anatomy and physiology of a scientific paper


  • 1 Department of Physiology, College of Medicine, King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
  • PMID: 30505170
  • PMCID: PMC6252020
  • DOI: 10.1016/j.sjbs.2018.01.004

Writing and publishing a scientific paper in academic journals is a highly competitive, time-consuming stepwise process. The road to scientific writing and publication is rarely straightforward. Scientific writing has uniform format, which is perplexing for the novice science writers due to its inflexible anatomy (structure) and physiology (functions). Many obstacles are allied with the scientific writing path which can be minimized by applying some simple guidelines and practices. The scientific papers have an almost similar format but, original articles are divided into distinct sections and each segment contains a specific type of information. The basic anatomy of scientific papers is mainly comprised of the structure of the various components of a scientific paper, including title, abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion, acknowledgments and references. However, the physiology of a scientific paper is difficult to understand. Early career researchers and trainees may be less familiar with the various components of scientific papers. In this study, we applied an observational approach to describe the essential steps to facilitate the readers and writers to understand the basic characteristics, anatomy and physiology of writing the various sections of a scientific paper for an academic science journal.

Keywords: Paper structure, writing tips; Publication process; Scientific paper writing.

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Health. Care. | An Educational Blog

Anatomy of a scientific journal article.

by Erica Mitchell | November 17 2021 | Research | 0 Comments


So, why would an average person want to read a scholarly article? For some, it may be simple curiosity. For others, however, especially when it comes to medical journal articles, it may be someone who is reading all they can about a recent diagnosis they or a loved one is facing. But whatever brings a layperson to a professional academic journal, there will be a learning curve. We hopes this quick overview helps make this curve a little easier to scale!

While there may be some variety in formatting for certain specific journals, most will follow the following sections: Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion, and Literature Cited.

Abstract | Elevator Pitch

The abstract is a one-paragraph description of the entire study. A person should be able to read this paragraph and know the question being investigated, the experimental design, the major findings, and a brief description of the interpretation of those findings. Scientists use abstracts to winnow down the number of journal articles they read in depth, so it’s critical that all the major parts of the study are included.

Tip for the layperson: Read this section first! Skim over words and numbers that don’t make sense and read the last few sentences, which will usually sum up the findings.

Introduction | The Context

This narrative section allows the authors to put their research in context of the bigger problem,  existing research and thoughts of the field, while explaining their unique hypotheses and rationale. Journal articles about hospital-acquired infections, for example, will generally have an introduction that states the magnitude of the issue of HAIs, the specific research in the area they are discussing (for example, a pathogen or treatment), and why they chose to focus on their research area. This section will contain many references to the “literature,” that is, the research already publish in reputable journals.

T ip for the layperson: This section is useful for finding other articles or research you may want to read. Towards the end of the section you will find the goals of the research team.

Materials and Methods | The Experiment

The authors go into detail here about what and how the major topic is being studied such as the setting, the experimental design, how the data was collected, and how the data was analyzed. For example, in a study on hand hygiene protocols as a tool to prevent MRSA, this section would contain a description of MRSA and the infections it causes,  the hospital(s) where the hand hygiene programs were run, any control groups or participant selection protocols, how information on the hand hygiene program and MRSA was collected, and what statistical models were used to analyze the resulting data. Here authors would also present what they believe to be factors that could have influenced the results that weren’t measured (called confounders ). This section is intended to set up the logic of the experiment: What was done and why it was done that way.

Tip for the layperson: This is a section you could probably skip. The amount of detail in this section supports the scientific method step of reproduction, allowing another scientist to conduct the exact same study if they choose, but this degree of detail may not be relevant to you.

Results | The Numbers

This section just provides the results of the study without interpretation . This is just a clear presentation of the key results, often with tables or illustrations. This section will also discuss “ p-value ,” which is essentially how significant any results are. In this context, significant would mean that the results are outside the expected range of just chance. For example, if you flip a coin, the chance you would get a “heads” is about 50%, as established by all statistical models. If you flip a coin 100 times and get “heads” 75 times, this would be a significant departure from what was expected. If you get “heads” 99 times, that would be even more significant.

Tip for the layperson: The numbers stated here will be restated, with interpretation, in the next section. You can skip this on the first reading and come back to it later if you want more specifics.

Discussion | The Explanation

Now the authors get to the fun part: Interpreting the results. This is where the researchers get to pull everything together to tell a scientific story, almost a continuation of the Introduction. The reader now knows the context and the numbers, but now the authors explain whether or not the results adequately answered their original question, how the results increased the body of knowledge on the subject, and what questions remain unanswered. This is the section in which authors can compare and contrast their results to work done before them, how it answers previously unanswered questions, or how it poses new ones. Finally, the discussion allows authors to put their results into context, bring up possible issues with their results such as confounders.

Tip for the layperson: After the Abstract, this is the section you will be interested in first. You’ll get some broad data as well as the overall results, but also get an idea of what reasons the research team has come up with for why those results were attained.

Literature Cited | Past Research

This is just a list of all the research referenced, or cited, in the article. The specific works are cited in the article itself in one of two ways: the author and date in a parenthesis or a superscript number at the end of the sentence mentioning the study. In either case, you look in the Literature Cited section to find the title of the article, the journal name, publication date, and page numbers. Authors will be listed alphabetically for the parenthesis style, but for the superscript style, articles appear in order that they are referenced.

Tip for the layperson: Are you looking to read even more about the topic? Consider this section your reading list!

Almost all scientific journal articles will have these sections. Some may have more, or may have several subheadings, but the basic format will be the same. An added note, which may help the average reader better understand the context of the authors' work, is the requirement that authors include any financial, professional, or even personal relationships that may have affected their work. This includes who funded the research, additional income the author receives from a corporation, or a personal affiliation with a entity involved in the research. These notes are often found right after the author list, but sometimes at the end of the article.

A final tip for the non-scientist reading journal articles: Don’t be discouraged after your first reading! Go back and reread the Abstract, and look up terms you aren’t familiar with. Most likely, you will only have to do this level of close (and slow) reading for 1 or 2 articles; after that (as long as you stay within the same basic area of science), you will begin to see the same terms and same concepts come up. Before long, you will be reading scientific journal articles with your morning cornflakes!

Stay tuned as we deep dive into some of the statistical values referenced in these studies in the coming weeks.  

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  Editor's Note: This post was originally published in May 2016 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy and comprehensiveness.


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Scientists all over the world, in laboratories and in the field, work hard every day. They spend countless hours trying to find answers to research questions. Often this all leads up to an "ah-ha!" (or a "that's strange...") moment, when they discover something interesting or something that can change what we know about science.

But once they've made a discovery, what happens? Does the whole world automatically know about their work? Of course not — that would be too easy. In order to spread news of their findings, scientists have to write and publish articles that outline what they did and what they found.

When scientists write these papers, they don't usually write them for the public. Instead, they write them for other scientists. So, if you aren't a scientist, how might you figure out what's in a paper?

How to Read a Scientific Paper

Below, we've mapped out the "gross anatomy" of an article — basically an overview of what goes where in a paper. After you know the basics of what you can expect to find in a scientific article, take a shot at reading one on our Article Dissection page. Together these sections provide tips you can use when reading a scientific paper.

Parts of an Article

Just like you have a name, so does every research paper that is published. Usually the title offers a general idea of the subject of the paper. Sometimes it will also include information on what the scientists found. Show me an example | 1 |

Give credit where credit is due. People that made a large contribution to the project usually end up as an author. If there is more than one author, they are called co-authors. Sometimes, when a lot of people are involved, this makes for a very long list of authors. Show me an example | 1 |

Author affiliations

It may seem odd, but scientists aren't the only ones involved in the completion of a study. Often times the university or institution where the study was completed also had an important role, in providing funds for the work, for example. The universities or institutions that sponsored the work are usually listed under the authors' names. To see which author came from what institution, you can usually match the numbers or symbols listed next to the author and institution names.

The abstract is a one paragraph summary of the most important parts of the article. Reading the abstract is a good way to figure out if you are interested in reading the rest of the paper. Abstracts can also have a ton of information though, so they can sometimes be difficult to read. Show me an example | 1 |

Author Summary

Certain journals like to have the authors of the article write a simplified version of the abstract. This is often written for non-scientists or scientists from other fields. If an article has an author summary, it might be good to read it before you read the abstract. Show me an example | 1 |


Background is very important. If you're trying to learn about a specific lizard, for example, it would be useful to know where the lizard species lives, what it eats, and what kind of behaviors it might show. The introduction of a paper is where the scientists give you all of the relevant background information so you can better understand the study. Show me an example| 1 |

Materials and Methods

It would be great if scientific information would magically appear. But it doesn't. Instead, it takes days, months, or years to carry out experiments for a study. In the materials and methods section, the scientists explain exactly how they did their study. It is kind of a "how to" or "DIY" for other scientists. Because of the complicated nature of some studies, the materials and methods section can sometimes be the toughest part of the paper to read.

But this section can also give you the best idea of how research is done.  Show me an example | 1 |

Results (with figures and tables)

Do you ever listen to an overly long story and wish that the storyteller would just get to the point? If you do, the results section will probably be your favorite. This is the heart of the paper, where the scientists tell you exactly what they found. This is usually where you will also find the figures and tables, though some papers put all the figures at the very end. A lot of results are pretty raw data (meaning the data hasn't been interpreted). Interpretation is saved for the next section. Show me an example | 1 |

If you read the results section, you probably take in a lot of numbers, some useful graphs, and you have a good idea of what was found overall. But what does any of it mean? Are the findings important? These questions are answered in the discussion section. Here, scientists present what they learned from the study and what effect the new information will have on science. They also discuss any problems with the experiment in this section. There is one thing to be wary of when reading the discussion...sometimes data can be interpreted in different ways. The interpretation presented in a discussion is not always the only interpretation possible. This is why the discussion section is kept separate from the results section. Show me an example | 1 |

Some journal articles have a conclusion section,  which is basically a summary of the study that is really heavy on findings and what those findings mean. If you want the quick version of what impact the study will have on science, look for a conclusions section. Show me an example | 1 |


Some studies involve many, many people that contribute, sometimes in relatively small ways. If someone helps out but didn't do enough to be an author on a paper, they still get credit for their work by being listed in the acknowledgments section. Show me an example | 1 |

Author Contributions

While an author list tells us which people were most important to completing a study, it doesn't tell us what each author contributed to the process. Some journals don't include an author contributions section, but when they do, they list which author did what during the study. Show me an example | 1 |

You may have heard the phrase that things "do not exist in vacuums." The reference section is proof of that idea. Throughout the entire paper, scientists used other published information to help give you background on their work, to explain why they used certain methods, or to compare their findings to others. The references section is where all those other published studies are listed. As you read through an article,  you will often see either tiny numbers in superscript or last names in parentheses at the end of some sentences. These are cues that link you to specific published articles that are all listed in the reference section. This section is especially helpful if you want to get more information related to the article you are reading. Show me an example | 1 |

Scientific journals

Supplementary Materials

Some studies produce a lot of important information that the scientists want to share with the world. Yet, if you want someone to read a journal article, it can only be so long. Sometimes, if there is too much information for too little of an article, information that can be considered "extra" is listed in a different section of supplementary materials.

Read more about: Anatomy of an Article

View citation, bibliographic details:.

  • Article: Anatomy of an Article
  • Author(s): Karla Moeller
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: June 12, 2014
  • Date accessed: November 22, 2023
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/anatomy-of-an-article

Karla Moeller. (2014, June 12). Anatomy of an Article. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved November 22, 2023 from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/anatomy-of-an-article

Chicago Manual of Style

Karla Moeller. "Anatomy of an Article". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 12 June, 2014. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/anatomy-of-an-article

MLA 2017 Style

Karla Moeller. "Anatomy of an Article". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 12 Jun 2014. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 22 Nov 2023. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/anatomy-of-an-article

anatomy of a scientific paper

More than just highlighting text, reading a scientific paper requires skills in reading and dissecting the story.

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Reading a Scientific Article: Anatomy of a Scientific Article

Anatomy of a scientific article.

Location of article title in scientific article

Titles written according to best practices help readers determine if the article offers the information being sought. Paying attention to an article title can help readers identify relevant articles and avoid those that don’t provide useful information. A best practice is to title an article such that readers can understand the general topic, article/study type, research question(s), and sometimes main findings.

For example, a good place to begin looking for information about the effectiveness of treatment X for condition Y in population Z are clinical trials. If there are many clinical trials conducted on the topic, then systematic reviews and meta-analyses will offer a combined look at treatment effectiveness. Thus, key words to look for in article titles would be: “A randomized controlled trial,” “A clinical trial,” A systematic review,” or “A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Title words indicating a different type of publication such as “case report,” “commentary,” “narrative review,” or “pilot study” cue perceptive readers that these are different and less relevant types of publications.

Location of author in scientific article

Author lists can offer clues about the content of an article. Some authors are well known for being experts in a given field. While being an expert doesn’t guarantee a quality article, readers can be confident that content was influenced by a respected authority on a topic. Alternatively, some authors are well known for a singular point of view, personal agenda, or bias. Recognizing these authors doesn’t necessarily mean an article should be discarded, but readers can expect the article will be influenced by this view.

When scanning author lists, a good practice is to consider the number of authors. Most research is conducted by teams made up of members with disparate expertise to address complex issues and provide perspectives needed for a thorough and balanced approach. While there is no ideal number, there are limitations to what any single person can do. This means single author articles are less likely to contain the type of balanced analysis and writing that one might expect from an article authored by several.

Author degrees and institutional affiliations can also offer clues. Ideally, author training and experience should complement topic matter. Sometimes, articles may be written by a group authors with only clinical degrees (e.g., MDs, DCs, DOs). When reading this type of article, consider that the authors may not have specific scientific training and/or that a less balanced perspective might be present. Depending on the article topic, this might not be an issue. Sometimes, a lack of diversity in training and experience among authors can lead to a single viewpoint and unintentional bias, which is something to be aware of when reading.

Location of journal title in scientific article

One way of getting a sense of a journal’s reputation is the  impact factor , a metric calculated to understand how often published articles are cited in other scientific literature. Journals with the highest impact factor (IF) tend to carry high reputations, such as the New England Journal of Medicine (IF, 70), Lancet (IF, 59), and the Journal of the American Medical Association (IF, 51). Most journals have impact factors less than 20. Remember: impact factor is only a single component of a journal’s reputation. Low-quality articles can be published in high impact factor journals and high-quality articles can be published in low impact-factor journals. 

Chiropractic is a relatively small healthcare profession with a limited scope. There are naturally fewer scientific articles and authors than for other professions. Journals also have different foci, leaving a limited number of journals focused on musculoskeletal and/or spinal health. For these reasons, most chiropractic relevant articles are published in journals with lower impact factors ranging from 1-3, such as:

Location of abstract in scientific article

Abstracts are brief summaries of a research article. The general purpose of an abstract is to communicate a general understanding. Authors are required to write abstracts to exact requirements, which differ among scientific journals. Some abstracts are limited to less than 200 words, while others may include 350 or more. Lower abstract word limits allow less potential information.

Scientific journals also restrict the word count for articles. Often, authors are challenged with including needed details within word limits ranging from 2000-5000 or more. There is usually no method of summarizing a 2000-5000+ word article in a 200-400 word abstract without leaving out important information. If there was, then there would be no need for the article. Therefore, readers should beware abstracts because they often exclude important information. Many experienced readers use abstracts only to determine whether the article is one of interest. 

Location of introduction and background in scientific article

Introduction & Background

Most reading is accomplished by starting at the beginning and moving toward the end. News media, books, magazine articles are often read from beginning to end. But this may not be the best method for scientific articles. For example, consider Introduction/Background sections.

Most scientific articles begin with Introduction/Background sections. These sections introduce the topic and describe relevant aspects, guiding readers toward the purpose of the article. When familiar with the topic, and especially when searching for something other than background information, readers may wish only to scan the Introduction/Background section for new information. This can save time.

For example, if familiar with the topic, and most interested in article quality, experimental procedures, results, or understanding how study results compare with similar studies, the Methods, Results, and Discussions sections are the key places to focus.

Location of purpose statement in scientific article

Purpose Statement

One might think that a purpose statement might be communicated at the beginning of an article. But that isn’t the case for most scientific writing. Instead, purpose statements are usually located at the end of the Introduction/Background section. Why? Because Introduction/Background sections serve multiple roles. They orient readers to a topic, describe gaps in current knowledge, and offer rationale for conducting the research described in the article. These characteristics are designed to place the purpose of the research into proper context.

Understanding purpose can help readers think critically about whether the reasons for the study are justified and if the methods used are appropriate for answering the research question(s). The purpose statement is therefore a key place to look when reading a scientific article. Experienced readers, familiar with topical content, often look for this statement after reviewing the title, author list, and noting the journal. 

Location of methods in scientific article

Methods section describes how a study was conducted. Methods are designed to include many details necessary for determining how to interpret findings and judge the rigor, or quality, of a study. This section should be presented so clearly and with such detail that it could be replicated. Key information includes: how data was collected, how an intervention was applied and by whom, whether and/or how patients were randomly allocated, who was blinded, how patients were chosen, how diagnoses were made, and how outcomes were measured and analyzed, the study setting, etc.

This section usually describes any tests, experiments, or analyses done by the author to solve the problem presented in the introduction. Examples of methods include longitudinal studies (measuring something over time), laboratory or clinical experiments, analysis of research done on the topic, and qualitative studies (analyzing surveys or interviews from a specific group to learn about the topic).

Location of results and discussion in scientific article

Results & Discussion

Scientific articles will often have a section labeled “results” or “findings.” The Results section presents the data resulting from the research methods used by the study. This section often includes tables, charts, or other visualizations of the data. This data indicates the statistical significance of the results. 

The Discussion section contains analysis and interpretation of the data, explaining what conclusions can be drawn from the results. The results are examined in connection to the study’s purpose statement and the wider context outlined in the Introduction/Background. This is where the author(s) addresses how (or if) the evidence answers the study’s research questions, as well as how the results advance, contrast with, or clarify existing studies and dominant thinking in the field. The author(s) may also explain how the results may have implications for future studies or applications in the field through changes in policy or standard practice.   

Location of conclusion in scientific article

A scientific article will end with a conclusion. In some cases, the conclusion is part of the discussion section. Here is where the article summarizes the study’s findings, how those findings are significant, and how they contribute to the research on this topic. The author(s) may also discuss how these results relate to other scholarship or encourage other researchers to extend or follow up on their work. Where appropriate, the author(s) may make direct recommendations about potential research questions for future studies. 

Location of references in scientific article

At the end of a scientific article, you will find a list of the works cited by the author(s). This list will generally be quite long and may include journal articles, books, and other sources. References are publications consulted by the author(s) when developing their research. Each reference listed there corresponds to one or more citation provided in the body of the paper. The citations may be included within the body text, as footnotes at the bottom of the page, or endnotes at the end of the article. 

When you look at the references, make a note of the publication date of the references. Are they recent?  Does this list include historic or current sources? Both? If you are familiar with the topic, do you recognize any of the authors listed? You can also use this list of references to find additional scholarly articles and books written on the same subject through authors or common keywords in titles. 

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How to read a scholarly article: Anatomy of an article

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Articles in the Sciences

Scientific research articles include original studies and review articles that contribute to the current scholarship on a given topic. The table below describes the components of scholarly articles in the Social Sciences and Physical Sciences. The majority of articles in these disciplines will have the sections listed below.

Articles in the Arts & Humanities

Scholarly articles in the Arts and Humanities are set up differently than in the Sciences. Articles may read more like essays, rather than reports on scientific experiments. 

In the Humanities, scholars are not conducting experiments on participants but rather are making logical arguments based on the evidence they have researched and analyzed.

In literature, for example, a scholar may be studying a particular novel of an author. In history, a scholar may look at the primary source documents from the time period they are studying.

The following sections are generally included in humanities scholarly articles, although they may not be clearly marked or labeled. 

Anatomy of a Scholarly Article: Interactive Tutorial

anatomy of a scientific paper

NCSU Libraries Interactive Tutorial

Original Research vs. Review

Original research articles are based on an experiment or study. The authors will report the purpose of the study, the research methodology, and results. This is a familiar structure for original research articles > IMRAD: introduction, methods, results, and discussion.

Review articles summarize or synthesize content from earlier published research and are useful for surveying the literature on a specific research area. Review articles can lead you to original research articles.

This LibGuide is based on the library guide created by the UC Merced Library under licence CC BY-NC 4.0 .

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