How To Write the Findings Section of a Research Paper
Each research project is unique, so it is natural for one researcher to make use of somewhat different strategies than another when it comes to designing and writing the section of a research paper dedicated to findings. The academic or scientific discipline of the research, the field of specialisation, the particular author or authors, the targeted journal or other publisher and the editor making the decisions about publication can all have a significant impact. The practical steps outlined below can be effectively applied to writing about the findings of most advanced research, however, and will prove especially helpful for early-career scholars who are preparing a research paper for a first publication.
Step 1: Consult the guidelines or instructions that the targeted journal (or other publisher) provides for authors and read research papers it has already published, particularly ones similar in topic, methods or results to your own. The guidelines will generally outline specific requirements for the results or findings section, and the published articles will provide sound examples of successful approaches. Watch particularly for length limitations and restrictions on content. Interpretation, for instance, is usually reserved for a later discussion section, though not always – qualitative research papers often combine findings and interpretation. Background information and descriptions of methods, on the other hand, almost always appear in earlier sections of a research paper. In most cases it is appropriate in a findings section to offer basic comparisons between the results of your study and those of other studies, but knowing exactly what the journal wants in the report of research findings is essential. Learning as much as you can about the journal’s aims and scope as well as the interests of its readers is invaluable as well.
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Step 2: Reflect at some length on your research results in relation to the journal’s requirements while planning the findings section of your paper. Choose for particular focus experimental results and other research discoveries that are particularly relevant to your research questions and objectives, and include them even if they are unexpected or do not support your ideas and hypotheses. Streamline and clarify your report, especially if it is long and complex, by using subheadings that will help you avoid excessive and peripheral details as you write and also help your reader understand and remember your findings. Consider appendices for raw data that might interest specialists but prove too long or distracting for other readers. The opening paragraph of a findings section often restates research questions or aims to refocus the reader’s attention, and it is always wise to summarise key findings at the end of the section, providing a smooth intellectual transition to the interpretation and discussion that follows in most research papers. There are many effective ways in which to organise research findings. The structure of your findings section might be determined by your research questions and hypotheses or match the arrangement of your methods section. A chronological order or hierarchy of importance or meaningful grouping of main themes or categories might prove effective. It may be best to present all the relevant findings and then explain them and your analysis of them, or explaining the results of each trial or test immediately after reporting it may render the material clearer and more comprehensible for your readers. Keep your audience, your most important evidence and your research goals in mind.
Step 3: Design effective visual presentations of your research results to enhance the textual report of your findings. Tables of various styles and figures of all kinds such as graphs, maps and photos are used in reporting research findings, but do check the journal guidelines for instructions on the number of visual aids allowed, any required design elements and the preferred formats for numbering, labelling and placement in the manuscript. As a general rule, tables and figures should be numbered according to first mention in the main text of the paper, and each one should be clearly introduced and explained at least briefly in that text so that readers know what is presented and what they are expected to see in a particular visual element. Tables and figures should also be self-explanatory, however, so their design should include all definitions and other information necessary for a reader to understand the findings you intend to show without returning to your text. If you construct your tables and figures before drafting your findings section, they can serve as focal points to help you tell a clear and informative story about your findings and avoid unnecessary repetition. Some authors will even work on tables and figures before organising the findings section (Step 2), which can be an extremely effective approach, but it is important to remember that the textual report of findings remains primary. Visual aids can clarify and enrich the text, but they cannot take its place.
Step 4: Write your findings section in a factual and objective manner. The goal is to communicate information – in some cases a great deal of complex information – as clearly, accurately and precisely as possible, so well-constructed sentences that maintain a simple structure will be far more effective than convoluted phrasing and expressions. The active voice is often recommended by publishers and the authors of writing manuals, and the past tense is appropriate because the research has already been done. Make sure your grammar, spelling and punctuation are correct and effective so that you are conveying the meaning you intend. Statements that are vague, imprecise or ambiguous will often confuse and mislead readers, and a verbose style will add little more than padding while wasting valuable words that might be put to far better use in clear and logical explanations. Some specialised terminology may be required when reporting findings, but anything potentially unclear or confusing that has not already been defined earlier in the paper should be clarified for readers, and the same principle applies to unusual or nonstandard abbreviations. Your readers will want to understand what you are reporting about your results, not waste time looking up terms simply to understand what you are saying. A logical approach to organising your findings section (Step 2) will help you tell a logical story about your research results as you explain, highlight, offer analysis and summarise the information necessary for readers to understand the discussion section that follows.
Step 5: Review the draft of your findings section and edit and revise until it reports your key findings exactly as you would have them presented to your readers. Check for accuracy and consistency in data across the section as a whole and all its visual elements. Read your prose aloud to catch language errors, awkward phrases and abrupt transitions. Ensure that the order in which you have presented results is the best order for focussing readers on your research objectives and preparing them for the interpretations, speculations, recommendations and other elements of the discussion that you are planning. This will involve looking back over the paper’s introductory and background material as well as anticipating the discussion and conclusion sections, and this is precisely the right point in the process for reviewing and reflecting. Your research results have taken considerable time to obtain and analyse, so a little more time to stand back and take in the wider view from the research door you have opened is a wise investment. The opinions of any additional readers you can recruit, whether they are professional mentors and colleagues or family and friends, will often prove invaluable as well.
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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.
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