Writing the Discussion
The Discussion section is widely recognized as the most challenging part of the research article to write. But it’s also the most rewarding section in many ways because it’s where you get to say what your findings mean and why they matter. It’s where you get to talk about your own contributions to the research. Before you start writing your discussion, think critically about your data so that you can share your research story with your reader.
The Discussion section of a research article answers,
The six main components of the discussion section that will help you answer these questions for your reader are
The following list provides a brief overview of each of these components. The Common Structure of the Discussion section provides more details about how these components are integrated and developed within the paragraphs of the Discussion.
Start your Discussion by explicitly answering your research question. If you had a hypothesis, indicate whether or not it was supported. In some cases, you may wish to remind your reader of the research question before providing your research answer.
Provide an overview of your major findings before offering your specific interpretations and comparisons to other studies.
Explain what your results mean and make any claims based on your results. Ensure that you ground all your claims in evidence
Comparison to Other Studies
Compare your findings to those of other studies. Within the Discussion, interpretations and comparisons to other studies are often integrated. As you interpret your findings, you’ll indicate how they compare to existing research, and what the similarities or differences suggest. You’ll repeat this pattern as you move through your findings.
Acknowledgement of Limitations
Highlight the specific limitations of your study to demonstrate your awareness of potential gaps, acknowledge methodological drawbacks, and anticipate potential questions or criticism.
Recommendations for Future Research
Indicate what future researchers can do to build upon your research findings and take the research further.
Six Key Components of the Discussion Section – An Example
This video illustrates the six key components of the discussion section in a scientific research article by examining excerpts from a fictional research article about varroa mites in honeybee colonies.
NOTE: For educational purposes, we’ve created fictional excerpts that resemble passages from scientific research articles. The fictional examples are intended to illustrate writing techniques and are not designed to teach scientific content. Please note that the scientific content and data in this video is fictional.
[Background sounds of bees buzzing and birds chirping]
To illustrate the six key components of the discussion section, we’ll examine excerpts from a fictional scientific research article about varroa mites in honeybee colonies.
The writer starts their discussion with an ANSWER to their RESEARCH QUESTION by noting which two natural chemical treatments are effective. [A laptop displays the following voiceover text on screen.] They state, “Our findings indicate that formic acid strips and oxalic acid trickling are effective natural chemical treatments for reducing the presence of varroa mites in honeybee colonies.”
Next, the writer provides a summary of their KEY FINDINGS by focusing on which of the two treatments are most effective: [A laptop displays the following voiceover text on screen.] “Formic acid treatment was the most effective treatment for reducing the presence of varroa mites in honeybee colonies. This finding suggests that this treatment is an effective option for Ontario beekeepers.”
After providing the key findings, the writer begins to INTERPRET their INDIVIDUAL FINDINGS. The writer provides explanations for the similarities and differences that they observe. [A laptop displays the following voiceover text on screen.] For example, they note that, “Although oxalic acid is stronger than formic acid, formic acid strips were 14% more effective than oxalic acid trickling in reducing varroa mite populations. One reason for this observed difference may be that formic acid can penetrate the wax of the brood chamber whereas oxalic acid cannot.”
The writer also COMPARES their findings to OTHER STUDIES. They state, “Our findings with respect to natural chemical treatments are similar to those of Buzz et al. (2021). Buzz et al. (2021) compared the efficacy of sucrocide spray treatment to formic acid treatment and found that formic acid treatment was more effective for reducing mite populations. These similarities suggest that formic acid treatments are an effective option that beekeepers can use to protect their colonies.”
Note here that the writer moves beyond stating that their research is similar to that of others. [Laptop screen showing the text “These similarities suggest that formic acid treatments are an effective option that beekeepers can use to protect their colonies.”] They also indicate what these similarities suggest about the results.
In addition to highlighting what they found, the writer also ACKNOWLEDGES their LIMITATIONS. [A laptop displays the following voiceover text on screen.] They note, “As our study took place during a single season, we did not have the opportunity to determine how temperature impacts treatment efficacy.”
[Text on screen “SUGGEST FUTURE RESEARCH.] The writer concludes by indicating how this research can be addressed by future researchers, noting, “Further research is needed to determine how seasonal temperature impacts the efficacy of treatment types.”
In their discussion section, the writer uses the six key components to guide their writing process. They answer the research question, summarize the key findings, interpret the individual findings, compare these findings to other studies, acknowledge limitations, and suggest future research. By addressing the six components, the writer helps their reader understand what their findings mean and how these findings contribute to the research field.
Questions to Help You Interpret Your Results
Every claim that you make in your Discussion section must be grounded in evidence. Ensure that you understand your results thoroughly and present them effectively. These are some questions that you can ask yourself to determine what your findings mean and what you plan to write about them:
Examine the results from your study and consider how they relate to your research question or your hypotheses if you’re doing hypothesis-driven research. Which results did you expect? Which results did you not expect?
Think about how your results compare to the literature that you explored for your introduction, research proposal, or literature reviews. How do your results compare to existing studies? What are the similarities? What are the differences?
Although indicating how your research is similar to or different from existing research is important, you need to move beyond these statements to provide your own interpretations as well. Consider what these similarities and differences suggest. What do similarities between your results and those of other researchers mean? What might be some reasons for any differences that you’ve observed? Are there any interesting implications to note?
These questions will help you approach your data with a critical eye and map out the possible interpretations. Consider the following advice from Joshua Schimel’s Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded (2012).
“What might that shoulder on the spectrum mean? If that nonsignificant treatment effect were real, what would that say about your system? Is that outlier a flag for something you hadn’t thought about but may be important? Overinterpret your data wildly, and consider what they might mean at those farthest fringes. Explore the possibilities and develop the story expansively. Then, take Occam’s razor and slash away to find the simple core” (Schimel 2012, p. 12).
As Schimel emphasizes in this passage, interpreting your data critically is key to telling the story of your research findings. A starting place is to consider all the possibilities for what your research could mean to ensure that you don’t miss possible interpretations. Once you’ve completed this exercise, consider the principle of Occam’s razor – the idea that the simplest explanation is usually the best one – to ensure that you’re not over interpreting your data. Once you start writing, focus your Discussion on the interpretations that you can provide specific evidence to support.
Reflective Exercise – Interpreting Your Results
The following “Interpreting Your Results – Worksheet” is a tool designed to guide your critical reflection and writing process. Use the table on this worksheet to help you interpret your results and discuss your research findings.
NOTE: You can view this document online, but you can also download it as an accessible screen reader document.
This table is divided into four columns:
- Column One: Describe a result from your study.
- Column Two: Explain what your result indicates in a direct way. In other words, what would experts who look at this result logically conclude from it?
- Column Three: Consider what claims you could make about the result. In other words, what are your specific thoughts and interpretations about what the data could mean?
- Column Four: Note any questions that you still have about your result. These could be questions that you could answer by revisiting the literature in your field, or they could be questions that future researchers should consider.
Common Structure of the Discussion Section
In the Discussion section, writers typically move from a specific statement of research findings to the broad implications of the work. This movement is the opposite trajectory of what you typically see in an Introduction section, where the image of a funnel often represents how the writer will move from the broad area of research to the narrow, specific research question. The opposite image – that of a pyramid – is useful for the Discussion section. However, a Discussion section is not simply a backwards Introduction. In the Discussion, writers start with the answer to their specific research question and then move outward to discuss the broad implications of their work.
The following structure is a common one that you will find in the Discussion section of many research articles in the sciences.
Opening Paragraph: Provide your research answer and state your key findings.
Body Paragraphs: Offer your interpretations and comparisons to other studies. Carefully consider the order in which you present your body paragraphs. Often, writers will start with the findings that are most central to the research question and then move into findings that are less critical.
There are two main ways to organize body paragraphs in the Discussion section.
Image description: Two images showing different structures for body paragraphs. The first image [Option 1] has a large box with the text “My result indicates…” and a smaller box beneath with text “… and this … is how my result compares to other literature.” The second image [Option 2] has a large box with the text “The existing literature shows…” and a smaller box beneath with text “… and this … is how my result fits into the literature.”
Option 1 is to discuss the meaning of a result and then compare it to the existing literature. Option 2 is to write about the relevant literature and then discuss how your results fit in. Both options are valid, and you’ll see both in published research articles.
However, option 1, where you start the paragraph with your own findings, more effectively highlights your research contributions. The Discussion section is the part of your article where you get to highlight what your results mean and why your findings are important. Option 2 makes other researchers’ work the primary focus of your Discussion, and then you risk burying your own contributions, and your Discussion section could read like a literature review. It is critical to foreground your own research contributions so that readers know why your research is important.
Concluding Paragraph: Provide your acknowledgment of limitations and recommendations for future research. Note the broader implications of your study by returning to the major topic that you introduced in your opening paragraph of the research article.
Note: Sometimes the concluding paragraph of the Discussion will appear under a separate “Conclusion” heading. A conclusion notes the contribution of the study to the field and indicates what researchers should explore next. When you’re reading articles in your target journal, take note of whether these journals include a separate Conclusion section.
Below are four writing tips for writing your Discussion section:
Tip 1 – Include Specific Limitations
When you’re writing your Discussion section, you may feel hesitant to include limitations. You may worry that by mentioning a limitation, you’ve brought it to the reader’s attention when the reader wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise. You may worry that by drawing attention to a limitation, you’re making your research look weak.
While some readers may not notice your limitations until you point them out, overall, academics are trained to read critically. Academics are often thinking about potential limitations as part of their critical reading practice.
While you want to indicate how your research contributes to the field, you want to be cautious about overestimating or overstating your research findings. Because readers are trained to read critically, you’ll want to be thinking about potential objections or potential questions about your work.
Write these potential objections or questions down, consider which ones are most relevant, and acknowledge them as part of writing your limitations. Acknowledging limitations qualifies your contribution in a meaningful way and strengthens your writing.
Tip 2 – Conclude with Your Contributions
In the final paragraph of your Discussion section, reiterate your major contributions to the field of research that you introduced in your introduction section. Ending with a statement of your contributions is stronger than ending with a description of your limitations. Although stating limitations is important, you also want to ensure that your reader knows why your research matters and how it contributes to the field. Information that you place at the end of a section creates emphasis. This is the information that the reader is left with, so end on a strong note.
Tip 3 – Use Signal Phrases
Throughout your Discussion, use signal phrases to highlight your key components.
Here are a couple of examples of signal phrases that you can use. “Our findings indicate that” is a simple phrase that you can use to provide your answer to the research question. “One limitation of this study is” is a direct way that you can acknowledge your limitations. These phrases are easy for your reader to spot and also easy for reviewers and editors to see.
When you’re reading other research articles, take a look at where and how writers are signalling their key components so that you can get a sense what techniques work well for you as a reader.
Tip 4 – Choose Verbs Carefully
In the Discussion section, choose verbs that accurately reflect your level of certainty about your findings. In research writing, you’ll often see verbs like “suggests,” “indicates,” and “shows.” You’ll rarely see the verb “proves” because of the extreme level of certainty associated with this word.
Within the sciences, you’re working within a tradition where you’re incrementally building upon the findings of others, and within this tradition, it can be perceived as arrogant at best or actively dangerous at worst to overstate your research findings, particularly if you’re making claims that your data don’t support.
Modal verbs like “can” and “may” qualify our level of certainty. Outside of academia, modal verbs can sometimes be viewed negatively because they can be seen to undermine the force of our statements or make our claims seem uncertain or weak. However, within research writing, modal verbs are more acceptable because we’re being cautious.
It’s important to be cautious because people may make major policy decisions or undertake particular treatment plans because of your research, so choose verbs that accurately reflect your certainty and consider that using modal verbs to qualify your level of certainty can help you advance ideas carefully while acknowledging a continued need for research. However, keep in mind that modal verbs can also be overused, so think carefully before you use one. If your findings are novel, don’t let a modal verb detract from that.
In the Discussion section, choose your verbs carefully and revise if necessary. Word choice matters.
In some disciplines within the sciences, Results and Discussion sections are combined into a single section. For example, combined Results and Discussion sections are common in research articles in engineering journals. Combined sections are also common in shorter pieces of writing and more visual mediums, such as scientific posters.
Scientists who carry out modeling and simulations will often combine their Results and Discussion sections. This approach allows them to tell a more cohesive story as they can discuss the significance of each model or simulation right after presenting the results.
If you’re opting to combine your Results and Discussion section, consider using subheadings throughout the section to make it more navigable for your reader. A combined section will often still move from presenting results at the beginning to interpreting results at the end.
When you’re investigating your target journal, explore whether writers typically combine their Results and Discussion section. If you see instances of both separate and combined sections, consider which approach will allow you to tell a cohesive story about your research while also clearly differentiating between the results of the research and your interpretations of those results.
There are many ways to approach writing the Discussion section for a mixed-methods study. Analyzing examples of mixed methods research articles from your field is a good starting place for approaching this writing task.
If you’ve conducted a mixed-methods study and have both quantitative and qualitative data, the Discussion can be a good place to provide an integrated interpretation of any relationships between both data sets. For example, you could use the following approach in a paragraph:
1) Provide a topic sentence that introduces the subject of the paragraph.
2) Discuss a quantitative result and consider comparing it to any relevant literature.
3) Discuss a qualitative result and consider comparing it to any relevant literature.
4) Explain what the quantitative and qualitative results mean when we consider them together.
Our findings show that new beekeepers in Ontario have limited familiarity with using formic acid strips to control varroa mites. In response to our survey question of whether they had applied formic acid strips to their colonies, 70% of new beekeepers noted they had used this method within the past two years, indicating that the treatment method itself is widely known. However, in our interviews, new beekeepers noted that although they had applied formic acid strips, they had received little education and training in how to do so successfully, and the method consequently was not effective in controlling the varroa mite population of their colonies. These findings suggest that new beekeepers lack a developed understanding of how to apply formic acid strips effectively despite their widespread awareness of this treatment method and willingness to use it on their colonies.
For additional examples of Discussion paragraphs that integrate quantitative and qualitative findings, see Bronstein and Kovacs (2013).
Now that you’ve identified the key components of the Discussion section, you can fill out the Discussion page of your research article map, Next, you’re ready to write your abstract and title.
The content of this page was created by Dr. Jodie Salter and Dr. Sarah Gibbons.