The purpose of the Results section is to present your findings in a clear, objective, and logical manner. It should report the findings of the experiments you described in the Methods and prepare the reader for the interpretations you will provide in the Discussion. Typically, this is done through tables, figures, and narrative text. In this blog post, I explain how to structure this information so that your findings are communicated effectively to your reader. I also describe common mistakes in the Results section and how to avoid them.
Follow the guidelines
The structure of your Results section will depend on the specific design and methodology of your study. Check the guidelines of your chosen journal. Most give specific instructions on what to include and how you should arrange the results.
Reporting guidelines provide a checklist of important information needed for the reader to understand and use the results. There are specific guidelines for different study designs. For example, the CONSORT checklist for clinical trials suggests seven subsections for the Results section (participant flow, recruitment, baseline data, numbers analysed, outcomes and estimation, ancillary analyses, and harms), which provides a useful template.
A logical order
Present your results in different subsections, each with its own subheading. These subsections should follow a logical order. For example, you could order your results to match the research question and hypotheses you outlined in the Introduction or the experiments you described in the Methods. It also helps to highlight the most relevant results first, that is the primary outcome followed by secondary findings. To maintain focus, any information that is not directly relevant to the research question should be put into the supplementary information.
Design tables and figures for each subsection. Tables and figures help your reader to interpret complicated datasets and to extract the data for meta analyses. To engage your reader, summarise these tables and figures in the text to create a narrative of your findings.
A clear narrative
Refer to all tables and figures in consecutive order in the main text and number them correctly. Your narrative should not repeat data from the tables and figures in detail but rather focus on the relationships between variables so the reader can see how the results address the research question. For example, consider the following sentences:
The mean heart rate was 145 bpm in the treatment group and 110 bpm in the control group (Table 1)
The mean heart rate was higher in the treatment group than in the control group (Table 1).
The first example repeats values the reader can get from Table 1. The second sentence is more informative because it puts the data into context by telling the reader the difference between the two groups. Avoid vague statements (such as The mean heart rate was different between the two groups) that add no value to your narrative.
Authors often get confused about which tense to use in a research paper. In the Results section, use the past tense to describe your results and the present tense when referring to specific tables or figures:
We showed that heart rate increased as exercise intensity increased. The effect of different types of exercise on heart rate is shown in Table 1.
Interpreting the results
All interpretations should be saved for the Discussion. The job of the Results section is to present your raw data and the relationships you observed between variables in an objective way. Avoiding words like caused, suggesting, and indicating will help here:
The mean heart rate was higher in group A, suggesting that the drug increases heart rate (Incorrect)
The drug caused the heart rate to increase (Incorrect)
The heart rate increased after drug administration (Correct).
This is caused by ignoring unexpected or non-significant results. These results can be difficult to accept and explain but failing to report them leads to research waste and can falsely support potentially harmful interventions. This will damage the integrity of your work. If your study has been properly designed and executed, then the results have value and deserve to be reported.
Describing findings from other studies
The Results section should only describe data from your study. Any comparison of your findings with those of others should be saved for the Discussion – even your own published data.
Not answering the research question
The results you present should answer the research question you asked in your Introduction. If you told your reader that you are investigating the role of a particular gene in limb development using a zebrafish model and you present three figures showing how alterations in this gene affect heart development, then you may need to clarify the focus of your study.
The Results section is often filled with words that are easily misused. Here are some common culprits to watch out for:
Only use both when referring to two things:
We investigated both postoperative nausea and pain and length of hospital stay (Incorrect)
We investigated postoperative nausea and pain and length of hospital stay (Correct)
We investigated both postoperative nausea and length of hospital stay (Correct).
Only use included if the subsequent list is not complete. Consider the following sentence:
Postoperative complications included haemorrhage, wound infection, and ascites.
In this example, the use of included indicates that other complications were detected (and if other complications were detected, why not say so?). Use comprised or were instead of included to indicate that all observed complications are mentioned.
Respectively indicates a one-to-one correspondence between two or more items. In the Results section, it is typically used to make sentences more concise. For example:
The mean age of group A was 56 years, the mean age of group B was 45 years, and the mean age of group C was 49 years
The mean ages of group A, B, and C were 56, 45, and 49 years, respectively.
If you are describing only two values, consider whether respectively really helps your reader:
The mortality rates were 24% and 40% in males and females, respectively
The mortality rates were 24% in males and 40% in females.
The latter example is better because the reader immediately knows which mortality rate applies to which gender.
A common mistake when using respectively is not specifying what the values refer to, for example:
The mortality rates were 24% and 40%, respectively (Table 1) (Incorrect)
The mortality rates were 24% and 40% in males and females, respectively (Correct).
Another common mistake is not matching the values to the descriptions, for example:
The mortality rates were 24%, 40%, and 38% in males and females, respectively (Incorrect).
Here you have three values and two descriptions, which will confuse the reader. You need to clarify what the final value refers to:
The mortality rates were 24% and 40% in males and females, respectively. The overall mortality rate was 38%.
Something else to watch out for: respectively should always follow what it refers to. Putting it before or in between items is incorrect. For example:
The mortality rates were respectively 24% and 40% in males and females (Incorrect).
Data need to be reported clearly and accurately so that your reader can interpret and use your results. Following the tips outlined in this post will help you to communicate your findings effectively in your next research paper.
Effective communication makes your results more useful
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.