How To Write a Scientific Discussion for a Research Paper
The part of a scientific manuscript dedicated to discussion offers the author a unique opportunity to move beyond the strict report of facts and results to in-depth interpretation of those results. The immediate goal of a scientific discussion is to explain the meaning and value of the research findings to readers, but an excellent discussion is also a demonstration of the investigator’s critical, analytical and logical acumen that eagerly invites the reader to think in similar ways. A very fine balance must be negotiated between writing too little and writing too much to achieve the main purposes of a scientific discussion. The following tips include advice not only on what should be done in an effective scientific discussion, but also on what should not be done. They can be usefully applied to scientific discussions of all kinds, but do remember to prioritise any specific publisher or instructor guidelines that must be followed as the decisions about how to write a scientific discussion are made.
Do offer succinct restatements of results, especially of major and unexpected findings that are closely related to the main research problem or question and require explanation and discussion to clarify their importance. Wording and content should go beyond the earlier report of results in the manuscript by focussing on the interpretation of those results, their connection with the research objectives presented in the manuscript’s introductory material, their relationship to the published findings of previous studies, and their implications for future research and practice.
Do not simply repeat information and sentences from the report of results and assume that they will serve as interpretation and explanation. They will not, but they will create a highly repetitious and unnecessary chunk of text that will leave the reader – the reader, that is, who is patient enough to slog through such a discussion – free to interpret the findings without the experience and informed perspective that the researcher should provide in a scientific discussion.
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Revisiting the Introduction
Do revisit key ideas and especially research questions, problems and hypotheses that were presented in the introduction or background for the manuscript. Indeed, the relevance of these elements to the discussion is part of the reason for their inclusion in the introductory material in the first place, and a scientific discussion tends to pick up where the introduction left off. The point in the discussion, however, is to relate the results to the questions, problems and hypotheses in an interpretive manner, providing answers, resolutions and explanations.
Do not repeat information already available in the introduction or background except briefly as a bridge to interpretation and further discussion. Introducing entirely new ideas, questions and problems is also inadvisable in a scientific discussion, although interpretations and explanations can lead to lines of thought and other developments that involve unexpected concepts and directions. In such cases, the usual strategy is to turn back to the introduction and adjust the text there to accommodate background information for the new material.
Do explicitly interpret the results obtained from the research and make it absolutely clear to readers exactly how and why they are important to researchers, practitioners and society as a whole. A logical argument should be constructed, but alternative explanations must also be considered, particularly in terms of how they might relate to or alter the principal interpretations and their implications. Keep in mind that unexpected results often require a good deal more explanation and discussion than anticipated results do, but they can also lead to the most significant contributions to knowledge.
Do not over-interpret the results or inflate their importance for the sake of a good scientific discussion. When pondering how to write the scientific discussion, remember that wringing meaning from evidence that does not actually support it only detracts from the presentation of the truly significant findings and implications of a study. Avoid focussing too narrowly on proving or disproving a particular hypothesis or even on providing a single definitive answer for a complex research question, as this sort of approach can blind a researcher to new and surprising discoveries.
Citing Published Studies
Do discuss the results in relation to the published literature in the field. Citing studies similar to the one reported in the manuscript is the key here, and the focus should be on the results of those studies. Comparison of the current research with previous studies that confirm the present findings will always be appealing, with the earlier results both supporting and being supported by the new research, but contradictory results must also be considered. Like unexpected results, previous findings that do not agree with the current results can lead to some of the most thoughtful and engaging interpretations and discussions.
Do not write a literature review or general introduction to scholarship on the topic. If one is required for the manuscript, it should appear earlier (usually before methods are described and results are reported) and should not play a major part in decisions about how to write the scientific discussion. The point of citing previously published studies in a scientific discussion is to compare and contrast earlier results and interpretations with the current findings and explanations. While the most relevant studies should therefore inform the discussion, the ideas and arguments of other scientists should not guide or dominate the discussion.
Do explore the implications of the research and especially the findings. Be specific and consider the potential impact in several directions – the implications not only for other researchers, for instance, but also for practitioners, clients, patients, communities and decision makers in a range of fields. Most scientific papers will not stretch beyond a few key implications, but explaining the real value of meaningful results is part of the goal of writing a scientific discussion, so serious reflection is necessary. A return to introductory material about why the research was needed is standard practice and can help clarify the implications of the results.
Do not exaggerate the significance of the results and their implications. While some implications may be speculative and still make useful and engaging discussion material for readers and researchers, most implications should be more firmly rooted, whether they affect the research procedures of future investigators, the practices of healthcare workers or the daily lives of single parents. Explaining a real impact, even if it is small, is of much greater value than wasting words on an unconvincing large one that will only serve to undermine a scientific discussion in the eyes of instructors, editors and peer reviewers.
Do acknowledge the weaknesses and limitations of the research design. All scientific research has limitations, whether intentional or unintentional, and they must be discussed in relation to the results and their validity. Limitations affect the way in which findings can be interpreted, applied and generalised, so clearly explaining them can be useful for other researchers, and so can suggesting possible improvements and modifications to the research design. A scientist demonstrates the ability to think critically and objectively about his or her own research by acknowledging its limitations, and new directions for future research often grow from limitations discovered or clarified during the research process.
Do not make the limitations and weaknesses of a study the central or focal point in the discussion. On the other hand, do not ignore or negate weaknesses, errors or any kind of limitations, both those that are inherent to the research design and those that arise during the research process. Remember that if the author does not acknowledge the limitations, a professor, peer reviewer or alert reader can and usually will spot them. While planning how to write a scientific discussion it is also wise not to declare limitations at the end of the discussion, which should instead leave the reader with the valuable contributions of the research.
Concluding the Discussion
Do finish the discussion with insightful concluding thoughts. Unless a separate conclusion is required, the discussion will end a scientific manuscript, so a final paragraph or two should be dedicated to the key take-home messages for readers. The most important elements of the discussion such as primary interpretations and implications can be briefly reiterated and synthesised into overall conclusions. Keep in mind that scientists, like the readers of novels, often turn to the end first to see how it all worked out, so be sure to make this final part of the discussion as informative, engaging and memorable as possible.
Do not fall into the trap of stretching or inflating the meaning and importance of the research and its findings for the sake of a punchy, provocative or surprising conclusion for a scientific discussion. On the other hand, do not neglect to make the most of the results and their meaning. If the author does not clarify the value of his or her research, that value may be missed by readers. Although conclusions should be brief and memorable, the thoughts themselves should not be over-simplified for the sake of brevity. Finally, do not copy sentences from earlier in the manuscript and paste them together to form concluding paragraphs. Conclusions are challenging to write, but they are what remain with the reader, so new sentences and compelling ideas are advisable.
Achieving a Scholarly Style
Do pay special attention to achieving a scholarly style when writing a scientific discussion. Always cite the sources used and treat the words and ideas of their authors with respect. Follow a clear line of argumentation, but do not forget to consider contradictory evidence and alternative interpretations. Write with authority and confidence as an expert in the field. Stick to the facts – the results and other evidence gleaned from the research – as the basis of the discussion, but use critical, analytical and even creative skills to follow speculative lines of thought and interpretation when productive.
Do not load a scientific discussion with discipline-specific terminology and unexplained abbreviations that may be unfamiliar to readers. Keep such material to a minimum and be sure to explain it carefully whenever it is used. While confidence is an asset for a scientific author, arrogance is not, so a scientist should never be boastful about research achievements or clever ideas. Readers should be informed and persuaded with convincing facts and insightful interpretations, but never be preached at or bullied. Finally, do not produce a scientific discussion riddled with grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors. Proofread and edit to ensure clear and accurate communication at all times.
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