I. General Rules
These are the general rules you should adopt when composing your discussion of the results:
- Do not be verbose or repetitive
- Be concise and make your points clearly
- Avoid using jargon
- Follow a logical stream of thought; in general, interpret and discuss the significance of your findings in the same sequence you described them in your results section
- Use the present verb tense, especially for established facts; however, refer to specific works or prior studies in the past tense
- If needed, use subheadings to help organize your discussion or to categorize your interpretations into themes
II. The Content
The content of the discussion section of your paper most often includes:
- Explanation of results: comment on whether or not the results were expected for each set of results; go into greater depth when explaining findings that were unexpected or especially profound. If appropriate, note any unusual or unanticipated patterns or trends that emerged from your results and explain their meaning in relation to the research problem.
- References to previous research: either compare your results with the findings from other studies or use the studies to support a claim. This can include re-visiting key sources already cited in your literature review section, or, save them to cite later in the discussion section if they are more important to compare with your results instead of being a part of the general literature review of research used to provide context and background information. Note that you can make this decision to highlight specific studies after you have begun writing the discussion section.
- Deduction: a claim for how the results can be applied more generally. For example, describing lessons learned, proposing recommendations that can help improve a situation, or highlighting best practices.
- Hypothesis: a more general claim or possible conclusion arising from the results [which may be proved or disproved in subsequent research]. This can be framed as new research questions that emerged as a result of your analysis.
III. Organization and Structure
Keep the following sequential points in mind as you organize and write the discussion section of your paper:
- Think of your discussion as an inverted pyramid. Organize the discussion from the general to the specific, linking your findings to the literature, then to theory, then to practice [if appropriate].
- Use the same key terms, narrative style, and verb tense [present] that you used when when describing the research problem in your introduction.
- Begin by briefly re-stating the research problem you were investigating and answer all of the research questions underpinning the problem that you posed in the introduction.
- Describe the patterns, principles, and relationships shown by each major findings and place them in proper perspective. The sequence of this information is important; first state the answer, then the relevant results, then cite the work of others. If appropriate, refer the reader to a figure or table to help enhance the interpretation of the data [either within the text or as an appendix]. The order of interpreting each major finding should be in the same order as they were described in your results section.
- A good discussion section includes analysis of any unexpected findings. This part of the discussion should begin with a description of any unanticipated findings, followed by a brief interpretation as to why you believe it appeared and, if necessary, its possible significance in relation to the overall study. If more than one unexpected finding emerged during the study, describe each them in the order they appeared as you gathered or analyzed the data. The exception to discussing findings in the same order you described them in the results section would be to begin by highlighting the implications of a particularly unexpected or significant finding that emerged from the study, followed by a discussion of the remaining findings.
- Before concluding the discussion, identify potential limitations and weaknesses if you do not plan to do so in the conclusion. Comment on their relative importance in relation to your overall interpretation of the results and, if necessary, note how they may affect the validity of your findings. Avoid using an apologetic tone; however, be honest and self-critical [e.g., in retrospective, you believe including a particular question in a survey instrument could have revealed additional data].
- The discussion section should end with a concise summary of the principal implications of the findings regardless of significance. Give a brief explanation about why you believe the findings and conclusions of your study are important and how they support broader knowledge or understanding of the research problem. This can be followed by any recommendations for further research. However, do not offer recommendations which could have been easily addressed within the study. This would demonstrate to the reader that you have inadequately examined and interpreted the data.
IV. Overall Objectives
The objectives of your discussion section should include the following:
I. Reiterate the Research Problem/State the Major Findings
Briefly reiterate the research problem or problems you are investigating and the methods you used to investigate them, then move quickly to describe the major findings of the study. You should write a direct, declarative, and succinct proclamation of the study results, usually in one paragraph.
II. Explain the Meaning of the Findings and Why They are Important
Consider the likelihood that no one has thought as long and hard about your study as you have. Systematically explain the underlying meaning of your findings and state why you believe they are significant. After reading the discussion section, you want the reader to think critically about the results [“why didn't I think of that?”]. You don’t want to force the reader to go through the paper multiple times to figure out what it all means. If applicable, begin this part of the section by repeating what you consider to be your most significant or unanticipated finding first, then systematically review each finding. Otherwise, follow the general order you reported the findings in the results section.
III. Relate the Findings to Similar Studies
No study in the social sciences is so novel or possesses such a restricted focus that it has absolutely no relation to previously published research. The discussion section should relate your results to those found in other studies, particularly if questions raised from prior studies served as the motivation for your research. This is important because comparing and contrasting the findings of other studies helps to support the overall importance of your results and it highlights how and in what ways your study differs from other research about the topic. Note that any significant or unanticipated finding is often because there was no prior research to indicate the finding could occur. If there is prior research to indicate this, you need to explain why it was significant or unanticipated.
IV. Consider Alternative Explanations of the Findings
It is important to remember that the purpose of research in the social sciences is to discover and not to prove. When writing the discussion section, you should carefully consider all possible explanations for the study results, rather than just those that fit your hypothesis or prior assumptions and biases. This is especially important when describing the discovery of significant or unanticipated findings.
V. Acknowledge the Study’s Limitations
It is far better for you to identify and acknowledge your study’s limitations than to have them pointed out by your professor! Note any unanswered questions or issues your study did not address and describe the generalizability of your results to other situations. If a limitation is applicable to the method chosen to gather information, then describe in detail the problems you encountered and why.
VI. Make Suggestions for Further Research
You may choose to conclude the discussion section by making suggestions for further research [this can be done in the overall conclusion of your paper]. Although your study may offer important insights about the research problem, this is where you can address other questions related to the problem that remain unanswered or highlight previously hidden questions that were revealed as a result of conducting your research. You should frame your suggestions by linking the need for further research to the limitations of your study [e.g., in future studies, the survey instrument should include more questions that ask..."] or to critical issues revealed from the data that were not considered initially in your research.
NOTE: Besides the literature review section, the preponderance of references to sources is usually found in the discussion section. A few historical references may be helpful for perspective but most of the references should be relatively recent and included to aid in the interpretation of your results or used to link to similar studies. If a study that you cited disagrees with your findings, don't ignore it--clearly explain why your research findings differ from theirs.
V. Problems to Avoid
- Do not waste time restating your results. Should you need to remind the reader of a finding to be discussed, use "bridge sentences" that relate the result to the interpretation. An example would be: “In the case of determining available housing to single women with children in rural areas of Texas, the findings suggest that access to good schools is important," then move on to explaining this finding.
- Recommendations for further research can be included in either the discussion or conclusion of your paper, but do not repeat your recommendations in the both sections. Think about the overall narrative flow of your paper to determine where best to locate this information.
- Do not introduce new results in the discussion section. Be wary of mistaking the reiteration of a specific finding for an interpretation because it may confuse the reader. The description of findings [results] and the interpretation of their significance [discussion] should be distinct sections of your paper. If you choose to combine the results section and the discussion section into a single narrative, you must be clear in how you report the information discovered and your own interpretation of each finding.
- Use of the first person is generally acceptable. Using first person can help emphasize a point or illustrate a contrasting finding. However, keep in mind that too much use of the first person can actually distract the reader from the main points [i.e., I know you're telling me this; just tell me!].
Analyzing vs. Summarizing. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Discussion. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Hess, Dean R. "How to Write an Effective Discussion." Respiratory Care 49 (October 2004); Kretchmer, Paul. Fourteen Steps to Writing to Writing an Effective Discussion Section. San Francisco Edit, 2003-2008; The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Sauaia, A. et al. "The Anatomy of an Article: The Discussion Section: "How Does the Article I Read Today Change What I Will Recommend to my Patients Tomorrow?” The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery 74 (June 2013): 1599-1602; Research Limitations & Future Research. Lund Research Ltd., 2012; Summary: Using it Wisely. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Schafer, Mickey S. Writing the Discussion. Writing in Psychology course syllabus. University of Florida; Yellin, Linda L. A Sociology Writer's Guide. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2009.
How to Write a Strong Discussion in Scientific Manuscripts
Release Date: May 3, 2014
Category: Manuscript Writing
Author: Rita N., Ph.D.
A strong Discussion section provides a great deal of analytical depth. Your goal should be to critically analyze and interpret the findings of your study. You should place your findings in the context of published literature and describe how your study moves the field forward.
It is often easy to organize the key elements of a Discussion section into distinct paragraphs (or groups of paragraphs).
- Paragraph 1: This paragraph provides a “big picture” perspective for readers to remind them of the importance of your study.
- Summarize the major gap in understanding that your work is attempting to fill. What was the overarching hypothesis? In the first few sentences of the Discussion, state the main problem that you were trying to address. Although this should relate to the information that you provided in the Introduction, this paragraph should not repeat statements that have already been made.
- Why is filling this gap important? How will answering this question move the field forward? After identifying the problem, state the main reason that this study was needed. Describe how answering this specific research question will make a significant contribution to your field.
- In the following example, we statethe problem (bold) as well as the significance (underline), the ultimate “big picture” reason for performing the study.
Example: EGFR-overexpressing cancers are highly aggressive and have a higher tendency to metastasize. Currently, available drugs specifically target the EGFR and elicit high response rates. However, the majority of patients eventually develop progressive disease. The mechanisms through which cancers escape EGFR-targeted therapies remain unclear. Identification of specific molecules that mediate resistance to EGFR-directed treatments will facilitate the development of novel therapies and may improve responses to currently available therapies.
- Paragraph 2: This paragraph provides a critical analysis of your major finding(s).
- What was your overall approach for studying the gap? In one or two sentences, state the main models or strategies that you used to study this specific research question. This should recapitulate whether the work included animals, cell culture, human subjects, or other novel techniques. (Some investigators prefer to place this section at the end of the first paragraph. This decision may vary depending on the specific study.)
- What was the most important result of your study? The focus of this paragraph is to highlight the most important contribution that your study has made. Explicitly state this result. Additional findings (major and minor) can be described in subsequent paragraphs. Do not repeat detailed results that can be found in the Results section. In general, specific figure numbers do not need to be re-stated in the Discussion unless you feel that doing so would substantially enhance your argument or discussion point. A schematic of your proposed mechanism or model can often be helpful for clearly and concisely summarizing your major result(s).
- How does your result(s) fit with existing literature? This is an important part of the paragraph and may require multiple paragraphs depending on the number of key studies that exist on your topic. This paragraph should be well-rounded, meaning that contrary reports must also be discussed. In the case of a contrary report, you should state your interpretation of how and why the results of the two studies differed. For example, did the approaches differ or were there major differences in sample sizes that may have affected results? (Depending on how much information is available in the literature, a critical analysis of your major finding may require multiple paragraphs.)
- In the following example, we statethe approach (bold)andthe main result (underline).
Example:In this study, we measured secreted factors in the media of sensitive and resistant cell lines to identify differentially expressed cytokines that may mediate resistance. Through a combination of ELISAs and mass spectrometry-based assays, we identified cytokine A as being significantly up-regulated in resistant cells. Cytokine A is a major activator of the ABCD signaling cascade (literature citations). The ABCD cascade is a known target of EGFR signaling and is usually blocked in response to EGFR inhibition (literature citations). A previous study demonstrated that exogenous stimulation of ABCD signaling reduces the response to EGFR-targeted drugs (literature citations). This report is consistent with our finding that a major stimulus of ABCD signaling is overexpressed in resistant cells. Based on these data, we propose that hyperactive ABCD signaling is a major mechanism of resistance to EGFR-targeted therapies (Figure XX, schematic of proposed mechanism of resistance). This section will be greatly expanded in a real Discussion section to place your finding in the context of multiple published studies.
- Paragraph 3: Discuss additional findings and how these fit with existing literature.
Most studies yield multiple results. After you discuss your main result in the paragraph above, discuss additional major or minor findings. Unexpected and intriguing findings may be especially important to convey to readers. In addition, if a finding is contrary to what has been suggested in the literature, acknowledge this, and offer explanations based on your study. Even if a result was not statistically significant, it can be helpful to discuss a potential trend that may be important to assess in a future study. If these additional findings relate to your main finding, discuss the associations.
- Paragraph 4: Discuss the limitations of the study.
Discuss potential limitations in study design. For example, how representative was your model? Did sample size affect your conclusions? Consider how these limitations affect the interpretation or quality of data. Do they affect the ability to generalize your findings?
- Paragraph 5: Discuss future directions.
- What major follow up studies are indicated based on your results? Most studies yield new discoveries that prompt additional studies. Consider what new directions are supported by your findings. For example, do your experiments suggest that a specific molecule should be tested as a new drug target or that tissue-based studies or clinical investigations should be performed to translate your animal studies to patients? Making recommendations for follow-up studies is an important part of a Discussion.
- Paragraph 6: Discuss your overall conclusion and the major impact of your study.
- What is the main take-home message of your study?
- What is the main contribution that your study makes to your field?
- Relate this section to the first paragraph of the Discussion. In other words, how does your study fill “the gap” or address the problem that you presented in the Introduction and re-stated earlier in paragraph 1 of the Discussion?
In summary, a strong Discussion includes a concise summary of the problem you are investigating and a critical discussion of major and minor findings in the context of published literature. The limitations should also be acknowledged, and future directions should be discussed. A strong ending is important; discuss the significance, overall conclusion, and major impact of your study.
Scientific Writing Workshops
If you like our articles, try our workshops! Our articles are based on the material from our scientific writing workshops, which cover these and many other topics more thoroughly, with more examples and discussion.
We offer on-site workshops for your event or organization, and also host workshops that individual participants can attend. Our on-site scientific writing workshops can range from 1-2 hours to several days in length. We can tailor the length to suit your needs, and we can deliver a writing workshop as a stand-alone activity or as part of scheduled meetings.
Our scientific writing workshops consistently receive high praise from participants including graduate students, post-docs, and faculty in diverse fields. Please see our scientific writing workshop page for details.
If you found this article helpful or if there is a topic you want us to address in a future article, please use our online comment submission form, or contact us directly. Your comments and suggestions are valuable! Click here to return to our scientific editing article library.