How To Present Data Successfully in Academic and Scientific Research
The main point of most academic and scientific writing is to report the findings of advanced research. Doing so necessarily involves the successful presentation of research data, but communicating data can be surprisingly challenging, even when the study is a small one and the results are relatively straightforward. For large or collaborative projects that generate enormous and complicated data sets, the task can be truly daunting. Clarity is essential, as are accuracy and precision, and a style that is as concise as possible yet also conveys all the information necessary for readers to assess and understand the findings is required. Choosing appropriate formats for organising and presenting data is an essential aspect of reporting research results effectively. Data can be presented in running text, in framed boxes, in lists, in tables or in figures, with each of these having a marked effect not only on how readers perceive and understand the research results, but also on how authors analyse and interpret those results in the first place. Making the right choice for each piece of information can be among the most difficult aspects of deciding how to present data in research papers and other documents.
Text is the primary format for reporting research to an academic or scientific community as well as other readers. Running text is used to relate the overall story of a research project, from introductory and background material to final conclusions and implications, so text will play a central role in presenting data in the section of a research document dedicated to results or findings. The main body of text will be particularly useful for conveying information about the research findings that is relatively straightforward and neither too complex nor too convoluted. For example, comparative presentations of the discoveries about two historical objects or the results associated with two groups of participants may prove effective in the running text of a paper, but if comparison of five or ten objects or groups is necessary, one of the more visual formats described below will usually convey the information to readers more quickly and more successfully. Text is also the right format for explaining and interpreting research data that is presented in more visual forms, such as the tables and figures discussed below. Regardless of content, the text in an academic or scientific document intended for publication or degree credit should always be written in a formal and authoritative style in keeping with the standards and conventions of the relevant discipline(s). Careful proofreading and editing are also necessary to remove all errors and inappropriate inconsistencies in data, grammar, spelling, punctuation and paragraph structure in order to ensure clear and precise presentation of research data.
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It is important to remember when considering how to present data in research that text can itself be offered in a more visual format than the normal running sentences and paragraphs in the main body of a document. The headings and subheadings within an academic or scientific paper or report are a simple example: spacing as well as font style and size make these short bits of text stand out and provide a clear structure and logical transitions for presenting data in an accessible fashion. Effective headings guide readers successfully through long and complex reports of research findings, and they also divide the presentation of data according to chronology, research methods, thematic categories or other organisational principles, rendering the information more comprehensible. Longer chunks of textual material that offer necessary or helpful information for the reader, such as examples of key findings, summaries of case studies, descriptions of data analysis or insightful authorial reflections on results can be separated from the main text and framed in a box to attract the attention of readers. The font in such boxes might be slightly different than that in the running text and the background may be shaded, perhaps with colour if the publication allows it, but neither is necessary to achieve the meaningful and lasting impact that makes framed boxes so common in textbooks and other publications intended for an audience of learners. Indeed, using chunks of text in this visual way can even increase the use of a document and the number of times it is cited. Lists of research data can have a similar effect whether they are framed or simply laid out down a normal page, but a parallel grammatical structure should always be used for all the items in a list, and accuracy is paramount because readers are likely to return to lists as well as framed boxes to refresh their memories about important data.
Tables tend to be the format of choice for presenting data in research documents. The experimental results of quantitative research are often collected and analysed as well as shared with readers in carefully designed tables that offer a column and row structure to enable efficient presentation, consultation, comparison and evaluation of precise data or data sets. Numerical information fills most tables, so authors should take extra care to specify units of measure, round off long numbers, limit decimal places and otherwise make the data clear, consistent and useful and the table as a whole effective and uncluttered. The information must be grouped and arranged in the columns and rows in such a way that reading down from top to bottom and across from left to right to compare, contrast and establish relationships is an easy and intuitive process. Textual data can also be presented in a table, which might alternately be referred to as a matrix, particularly in qualitative as opposed to quantitative research. Like tables, matrices are useful for presenting and comparing data about two or more variables or concepts of relevance.
Whether table or matrix, this kind of visual display of tabulated information requires a concise title or heading that usually appears at the top of the table, describes the purpose or content of the table and directs readers to whatever the author wants them to observe. Columns and rows within tables also require clear headings, and footnotes at the bottom of the table (and usually in a smaller font than the rest of the table) should define any nonstandard abbreviations, unusual symbols, specialised terms or other potentially confusing elements so that the table can function meaningfully on its own without the reader referring to the main text. If aspects of a table or matrix have been borrowed from a published source, that source must be acknowledged, usually in the table footnotes or sometimes in its heading. When a document contains more than one table or matrix, a consistent format and style across all of them is advisable, and they should also be numbered according to the order in which they are first mentioned in the main text (e.g., ‘Table 1,’ ‘Table 2’ etc.) . These numbers can then be used, alone or along with the relevant titles, to refer readers to the tables or matrices at appropriate points in the main text.
Figures are also frequently used tools for presenting data in research, and they too should be numbered according to the order in which they are mentioned in the main body of a paper or other document. They are usually distinguished from tables (e.g., ‘Figure 1,’ ‘Figure 2’ etc.) and since several different kinds of figures are used in academic and scientific writing, the figures might also be divided into separate groups for numbering (e.g., ‘Chart 1,’ ‘Map 1’ etc.). The type of figure used to present a specific kind or cluster of research data will depend on both the nature of the data and the way in which the author is using the data to address research problems or questions. Bar charts or bar graphs are particularly common for revealing patterns and trends in research variables and they are especially effective when presenting discrete data in groups or categories for comparison and assessment. Line graphs or line charts also reveal trends and patterns and can successfully represent the changing values of several continuous variables over time, highlighting significant changes and turning points and enabling effective comparison. These types of visual displays can be combined in a single figure using both bars and lines along with careful shading and colour to expand comparisons among variables or categories and save valuable space in a document.
Each figure in a research document should be given a concise but descriptive caption or heading, which might appear just above or just beneath the figure. The footnotes that explain elements of a table or matrix usually do not feature in a figure, but a figure legend can be used to define abbreviations, explain symbols, acknowledge sources (though that sometimes appears in the caption instead) and clarify any aspect of a figure for readers. Consistency in formatting and style across all the figures used in a research document is desirable, particularly when it comes to key features for understanding the information such as the x and y axes and scale bars in charts and graphs, but if different types of figures are used, each type may have its own format or style. Clear labelling should be provided for all important or potentially confusing parts of a figure (for those axes and scale bars, for instance) and if a photograph is used to illustrate or present data, consent must be obtained from any participants who appear in the photo and identities should usually be obscured.
When a list, table or figure used for presenting data proves to be particularly large or complicated, it is often better to divide it into two or more lists, tables or figures in order to simplify and clarify the intended messages or purposes. This will be especially important for deciding how to present data in research when speaking to listeners instead of writing for readers. Lists, tables and figures offered via slides as a presenter speaks are viewed by the audience for a very short period of time, so simple is best, but longer lists, tables and figures can be distributed as handouts if necessary. When presenting data in research-based writing, the inclusion of even extremely complex lists, tables or figures may be acceptable, but keeping the needs of readers in mind is imperative and so is observing the relevant instructions or guidelines. Course instructors will often have specific requirements that must be met by students, university departments will usually offer formatting specifications for theses and dissertations, and scholarly journals will always have some kind of author guidelines that must be followed. There may be limits on the number of tables and figures allowed, specific requirements for the use of lines or rules within tables, or detailed instructions for ensuring appropriate resolution in photographs.
All such requirements must be met, but many academic and scientific journals permit authors to submit appendices or supplementary materials with a manuscript, offering an opportunity to include, for instance, a detailed table of precise research data as an appendix or supplementary document while using simpler graphs in the paper itself to show important trends that are discussed and interpreted by the author. Relegating detailed data to supplementary files can also help with shortening a manuscript, and editors, reviewers and researchers will appreciate the extra data while general readers will be able to encounter the main argument of the paper without the distraction that too much information might introduce. You may even want to include a list of tables, figures or both to draw attention to the presence of those elements whether the guidelines indicate the need for such a list or not. Do be sure, however, to exercise consistency with any information repeated across different formats, including supplementary materials (the same terminology should be used for an important concept or group, for instance, every time it is mentioned), and remember to use the specified file formats for those supplementary materials as well as for the tables and figures in the main document.
Along with the relevant guidelines, authors should be prepared to take a close look at successful models of how other authors have presented research data. A published research article with especially clear and effective tables and figures will prove helpful if you are preparing a manuscript for submission to the journal that published that research article. A successful thesis recently written by a candidate in your university department who made particularly good use of lists and matrices will provide creative ideas as you design your own thesis. A conference presentation with excellent slides that significantly increased the impact of the spoken message might effectively be emulated as you plan your own presentation. Whatever sort of research document you are writing, it is always essential to plan carefully and give the formats in which you will present your research data considerable thought before you begin writing in order to avoid overlaps, repetitions and wasted time. You may also find that organising data into clear and appealing formats such as tables and charts will reveal or highlight details and patterns that you had not detected or considered important when assessing the raw data from your research. Using a variety of formats throughout a study and ensuring that the best format is chosen and designed for each bit of information as you determine how to present data in research documents means creating an effective comprehension tool not only for your readers, but also for yourself as you draft, revise and perfect your work.
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