Writing the discussion section

December 3, 2009 at 5:30 pm Leave a comment

The purpose of the discussion section is straightforward enough — to describe the significance of your results and what they mean to your field of study. However, organizing this section can be a challenge because the structure is much more loose than in the methods, results or even the introduction.

Structuring the discussion

A good place to start is with a one-paragraph review of your major findings that ends with a one- or two-sentence statement about their overall importance. You can then expand from there by answering the following questions:

  • How do your results fit into the larger context of what is already known about your subject? Do your findings agree or contrast with the findings of others?
  • What are the theoretical and/or practical implications of your study? How are your findings an advance over what others have shown?
  • What are the limitations of your study? Could these limitations have biased your results in any way?
  • What future directions does the research suggest?

Note: Keep in mind the inverted pyramid style. That is, it’s generally a good idea to lead with the most important points you want to make and follow with points of lesser and lesser importance.

Common pitfalls to avoid

Overstating the significance of the work. Many articles on scientific writing will caution you against this, and with good reason. However, an even bigger pitfall may be the one directly below.

Understating the significance of the work. While it’s true you should take care not to oversell things, it’s also true that young scientists tend to downplay the importance of their research. So, do think about the larger meaning of what you’ve done and then don’t be afraid to say it. As William Wells (2004) writes, there probably was a bigger idea behind your work than the possibility of protein X and Y binding to one other, so “make sure you convey that reason and that excitement.” In other words, readers should not come away from your paper thinking, “so what?”

Being vague. Related to the point above, if you make general statements such as, “We believe our model can help experimental biologists understand their own systems better,” or “Our findings are valuable for the future design of bacteria that can do X and Y” be sure to explain what you mean. What specific insights will your model offer biologists? What exactly will your models contribute to the future design of microorganisms? If you’re hazy about this, reviewers are likely to ask you to provide some explanation and evidence.

Failing to address the question or problem posed in the introduction. “The Introduction and Discussion should function as a pair,” say Day and Gastel (2006). “Be sure the Discussion answers what the Introduction asked.”



Entry filed under: Parts of the paper.

Writing the results section Exploratory writing in scientific writing

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Science of Scientific Writing

This article describes what readers expect when they read - and how scientific writing often violates those expectations.

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