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The discussion section contains the results and outcomes of a study. An effective discussion informs readers what can be learned from your experiment and provides context for the results.
What makes an effective discussion?
When you’re ready to write your discussion, you’ve already introduced the purpose of your study and provided an in-depth description of the methodology. The discussion informs readers about the larger implications of your study based on the results. Highlighting these implications while not overstating the findings can be challenging, especially when you’re submitting to a journal that selects articles based on novelty or potential impact. Regardless of what journal you are submitting to, the discussion section always serves the same purpose: concluding what your study results actually mean.
A successful discussion section puts your findings in context. It should include:
- the results of your research,
- a discussion of related research, and
- a comparison between your results and initial hypothesis.
Tip: Not all journals share the same naming conventions.
You can apply the advice in this article to the conclusion, results or discussion sections of your manuscript.
Our Early Career Researcher community tells us that the conclusion is often considered the most difficult aspect of a manuscript to write. To help, this guide provides questions to ask yourself, a basic structure to model your discussion off of and examples from published manuscripts.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Was my hypothesis correct?
- If my hypothesis is partially correct or entirely different, what can be learned from the results?
- How do the conclusions reshape or add onto the existing knowledge in the field? What does previous research say about the topic?
- Why are the results important or relevant to your audience? Do they add further evidence to a scientific consensus or disprove prior studies?
- How can future research build on these observations? What are the key experiments that must be done?
- What is the “take-home” message you want your reader to leave with?
How to structure a discussion
Trying to fit a complete discussion into a single paragraph can add unnecessary stress to the writing process. If possible, you’ll want to give yourself two or three paragraphs to give the reader a comprehensive understanding of your study as a whole. Here’s one way to structure an effective discussion:
While the above sections can help you brainstorm and structure your discussion, there are many common mistakes that writers revert to when having difficulties with their paper. Writing a discussion can be a delicate balance between summarizing your results, providing proper context for your research and avoiding introducing new information. Remember that your paper should be both confident and honest about the results!
- Read the journal’s guidelines on the discussion and conclusion sections. If possible, learn about the guidelines before writing the discussion to ensure you’re writing to meet their expectations.
- Begin with a clear statement of the principal findings. This will reinforce the main take-away for the reader and set up the rest of the discussion.
- Explain why the outcomes of your study are important to the reader. Discuss the implications of your findings realistically based on previous literature, highlighting both the strengths and limitations of the research.
- State whether the results prove or disprove your hypothesis. If your hypothesis was disproved, what might be the reasons?
- Introduce new or expanded ways to think about the research question. Indicate what next steps can be taken to further pursue any unresolved questions.
- If dealing with a contemporary or ongoing problem, such as climate change, discuss possible consequences if the problem is avoided.
- Be concise. Adding unnecessary detail can distract from the main findings.
- Rewrite your abstract. Statements with “we investigated” or “we studied” generally do not belong in the discussion.
- Include new arguments or evidence not previously discussed. Necessary information and evidence should be introduced in the main body of the paper.
- Apologize. Even if your research contains significant limitations, don’t undermine your authority by including statements that doubt your methodology or execution.
- Shy away from speaking on limitations or negative results. Including limitations and negative results will give readers a complete understanding of the presented research. Potential limitations include sources of potential bias, threats to internal or external validity, barriers to implementing an intervention and other issues inherent to the study design.
- Overstate the importance of your findings. Making grand statements about how a study will fully resolve large questions can lead readers to doubt the success of the research.
Snippets of Effective Discussions:
- Summarize the key findings in clear and concise language
“The general recommendations for actions to reduce plastic pollution that emerged from the present study were: (1) refuse non-necessary plastic items, such as straws; (2) reduce dependence on traditionally single-use plastic items (e.g. shampoo bottles), for example by refilling or buying larger bottles; (3) replace plastic items with reusable and/or alternative products with a lower environment impact; (4) correctly dispose of items, such as wet wipes, that may be essential and this impossible to refuse or reuse.”
- Acknowledge when a hypothesis may be incorrect
“All reported neck postures attained by live giraffes in the wild can be replicated with the virtual skeleton range of motion without disarticulating the cervical vertebrae. Therefore, the cervical range of motion of extinct vertebrates should follow the same criteria until evidence suggests otherwise. Hypothesis (ii) “some neck postures attained in life require disarticulating vertebrae”, can be refuted.” Ontogenetic similarities between giraffe and sauropod neck osteological mobility
- Place your study within the context of previous studies
“Our results, consistent with a number of studies of other species suggest that body mass, rather than CIs (condition indices), may be one of the most useful measures for linking nutritional changes to population dynamics.”
- Discuss potential future research
“Our results open an exciting new avenue of study focused on laryngeal variation among further mammalian clades, which will provide the context required to determine how particular the differences we observe here are to the evolution of the primate larynx. If the relative flexibility of the primate larynx is robust to future analyses with more clades, it would indicate an increased capacity to explore trait space in our lineage, which may in turn explain why primates have developed such diverse and complex uses of the vocal organ.” Rapid evolution of the primate larynx?
- Provide the reader with a “take-away” statement to end the manuscript
“This further reinforces the notion that beyond being the apex predator of the latest Cretaceous Laurasian ecosystems, the tyrannosaurids were amongst the most accomplished hunters amongst large bodied theropods. We find that their anatomy, at once efficient and elegant, yet also capable of bursts of incredible violence and brute force, lives up to their monikers as the tyrant kings and queens, of the dinosaurs.” The fast and the frugal: Divergent locomotory strategies drive limb lengthening in theropod dinosaurs