Writing an effective Discussion section in a scientific paper
Many consider the Discussion section of a thesis, dissertation or paper to be the most difficult part of the writing process. Introductions rely on other work, where all you need to do is draw from them to present a general background to the reader, and your methods and results speak for themselves. However, the Discussion requires a deeper level of understanding and appreciation of the subject matter and the way in which your data fits into it. There is no need to be afraid of it though; here are some tips on how to write an effective Discussion section.
Refer to your data
It is easy to get ‘too close’ to your work, and to assume that people see the same thing you see in your data. This is a common occurrence, resulting in pieces of data never being fully discussed in a publication. Try to avoid this, as it can raise questions as to why certain data or results were not fully discussed, or why they were there in the first place.
Also, once you have written your Discussion, go through it to ensure you have referenced each figure at least once and to check that you have described and explained each one.
Draw conclusions, don’t speculate
The purpose of the Discussion is to describe your observations, contextualise them within the wider picture of your subject or field and ask the question of whether your hypothesis was addressed adequately. However, be aware that there is a fine line between interpretation and speculation, so be careful not to slip too far into the realm of speculation. Choose your wording carefully to make assertions only about what you have observed and to ensure that any speculations are clearly signposted as such.
Check yourself, inform others
The Discussion is not only an opportunity to pull together all that you have learned from a body of work to inform your next set of projects, but also a chance to reflect on how you approached the problem. Allocate a sub-section or several paragraphs within the Discussion to reflect upon the limitations of your work and discuss how these could be addressed in further or future research.
Note that limitations are not a weakness of the work, but a reality that every researcher needs to contend with. Whether it was a lack of resource or time, demonstrating in your Discussion that you are aware of these issues shows that you understand the optimal way of approaching a problem, and therefore tells the reader that any shortcomings in your work are related to genuine constraints.
You might also use this section to suggest future work, which could be done either by yourself or other researchers. Even if these suggestions are outside of your expertise or capability, they may inspire any researchers reading your work to take the research further.
Your Discussion section or chapter is the time to summarise your work and communicate exactly what it is you were investigating, what you found and how it may or may not answer your hypothesis or research questions. It should present your data again, in plain language, and give the reader an insight into how you interpreted these results, but not go so far as to draw conclusions that may not be fully supported by your data.
Read previous (second) in series: Tips for writing the Results section in a scientific paper
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