The Discussion is the final section of your research paper. The purpose is to conclude your research story by answering your research question and explaining what your results mean. This is important because it helps the reader to realize the value of your work. However, many scientists struggle to write a well-structured Discussion and often fail to answer their research question properly. In this blog post, I describe how to structure your Discussion so that your reader understands the value of your findings.
Unlike the Introduction section, where we describe general information and then gradually focus on the specific research question, the Discussion should start with the specific findings before moving on to the broader implications.
In the first paragraph, repeat the research question and then answer it by summarizing the main findings. This will remind your reader what your study is about and will prepare them for your analysis and interpretations. For example:
The purpose of this study was to see whether intravenous administration of dexamethasone before intrathecal injection of morphine reduces nausea and vomiting after Caesarean delivery. We found that dexamethasone significantly reduced the incidence of nausea and vomiting in the first 24 hours after surgery.
This is a credible start to your Discussion section because it tells the reader what the specific research question was and then presents results that answer this question rather than making bold, generalized statements that are not supported by your results.
A logical structure
To maintain a logical structure when writing your Discussion, make sure that each paragraph deals with one topic. Start the paragraph by introducing the topic, continue by developing that topic, and finish by concluding the topic. For more guidance on writing paragraphs, check out my blog post on the importance of paragraphs.
The specific paragraph topics will depend on your research story. For example, your research question may comprise various sub-questions and you may wish to answer these in turn. Other possible topics may include:
- Comparing your findings with those of others: you can back up your findings by describing published results that support your own. Or if your results disagree with those of others, you can explain why (e.g., you used a different methodology or a different study population) and justify why your findings are valid.
- Explaining unexpected results: don’t be tempted to ignore unexpected results that do not align with your original hypothesis. These can often lead to exciting new perspectives and insights. Take some time to discuss what these unexpected findings could mean and what new avenues they may open in your field.
- Describing a new theory: if your results have helped you to develop a new theory, then explain this. Or tell your reader if your results support or dispute an established theory in your field.
Strengths and weaknesses
Every study has limitations, and it is important to identify and discuss these before you draw your main conclusions. Doing so will show the reader (and the peer reviewer) that you have considered the potential weaknesses of your work and that will strengthen the integrity of your research.
Address each limitation in turn. Start by describing the limitation and then explain how it may affect your results and interpretations. You can also discuss how these limitations could be improved in future studies.
Conclusions and implications
Finish your Discussion by summarizing your main conclusions and describing the wider implications of your work. These may include potential applications of your findings or new research directions inspired by your results. Explaining how your work has contributed to the field will create impact and provide a strong ending to your research story.
A common mistake in the Discussion is to repeat background information that was presented in the Introduction. Remember that the purpose here is to discuss the implications of your results based on published findings and not to introduce the topic, so stick to the point.
Also avoid repeating your results in detail. It helps to briefly remind the reader of a result but giving specific figures and p-values is too much. For example:
Dexamethasone significantly reduced the incidence of nausea and vomiting
is better suited to the Discussion section than
Dexamethasone reduced the incidence of nausea by 43% and the incidence of vomiting by 32%.
Another no-no is drawing conclusions that are not supported by the results. For example:
Our study shows that dexamethasone can significantly improve the quality of life of women after Caesarean section.
Although a reduced incidence of nausea and vomiting is a positive outcome, we cannot draw conclusions about quality of life if valid questionnaires have not been used to measure this.
Also, avoid promising future results to the reader. For example, phrases like:
This work is ongoing and will be published in the near future.
should be avoided because you cannot be sure that these results will be published. Only promise future results if the study is already accepted for publication.
A strong finish
Answering your research question and emphasizing the importance of your results in the Discussion section will help your reader to realize the value of your research. Following the tips outlined in this article will help you to structure your Discussion properly, giving your research story the strong finish it deserves.
A well-structured Discussion will provide the perfect ending to your research story.
Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copyediting and medical editing. She edits scientific research papers and teaches courses on scientific writing.