Rethinking Your Discussion

Rethinking Your Discussion

There's no doubt that every part of a research paper is important. From the title to the acknowledgements, every section of an IMRAD (Introduction, Methodology, Results, and Discussion) paper has a role to play, and messing up one can reflect poorly on your entire paper. But while every section matters, there's one that rises in importance above all the other: no matter what kind of results you get, your paper is only going to be as good as your Discussion section.

Your Closing Argument

Anyone who's ever watched a cop or legal drama on TV has seen a closing argument, which is a lawyer's final speech at the end of a trial. Usually the lawyer's big moment comes at the end of the episode. Witnesses have been called, evidence has been presented, and all that's left is for the main character to tell the jury (and the audience) what it all means. The lawyer summarizes everything that we've seen, and then, over swelling music, makes an impassioned plea for the jury to really understand what's going on and do the right thing. In real life, of course, it's much less dramatic, but the idea is the same: the closing argument reminds the listener of the facts and provides a cohesive interpretation of those facts that helps the listener understand the significance of every detail.
If you've ever written a research paper discussion, that description might sound familiar to you. Just like a closing argument, your discussion is where you make your case to the reader. While your research paper may not be as exciting as a TV courtroom drama, there are lots of parallels that can be drawn between a lawyer's closing argument and the discussion section of a paper.
  • Interpret the facts, don't just state them. The Results section is where your lay out the facts of the case. In figures, tables, and text you tell the reader exactly what your found, but not why any of it is important. When you get to the discussion, that's the time to start explaining to the reader why all your evidence builds a solid case. Every result needs to be given context and fleshed out with information about what exactly it means in the grand scheme of thing.
  • Tell a story. The human mind loves a good story, and just like jury wants to be able to see the whole tale from beginning to end, your readers will also find your paper more memorable if you're able to present a strong narrative. Obviously, a scientific paper won't read like the tale of a bank robbery, but you can still take the basic parts of a story-the beginning, rising action, climax, and conclusion-to structure your discussion so that it captures the reader's attention and paints a clear picture of what you think happened in your experiment.
  • Finish strong. There's a reason closing argument are the climax of every courtroom TV show and movie-that lawyer's big speech makes the perfect strong finish. After an hour of examining evidence and fighting with criminals, finally the main character gets to stand up and tell it like it is. When working on a research paper, your discussion needs to finish in much the same way. After carefully laying out your introduction, methodology, and results, you need to finish strong in the conclusion. Make your case so that the reader leaves your work with a clear idea of what you accomplished and a strong understanding of your work. Every discussion should end with one or two sentences that clearly state what the reader should take away from your paper.

The Triangle

Discussion sections should always have a certain flow: unlike the introduction, which flows from broad to narrow, the discussion should start narrowly then gradually expand. You want to start narrowly, with the focus on your particular research question, then slowly broaden your discussion until it encompasses the larger issues in your field. Think of this shape as a triangle: the first paragraph of the discussion should have the narrowest focus, like the very tip of the triangle, and the section should widen until, at the base of the triangle, you're addressing the big research issues in your discipline.
  • The top of the triangle: your research question. Way back in your introduction, you likely ended with a statement of your research question. As the writer, this question is obviously front and center in your mind, but for the reader it's been awhile since they've seen it (remember, they've just gone through the methodology and results). So, when it comes time to discuss your results, start out very specific by restating your research question and then plainly stating the answer you obtained. It's as simple as that. You can even reuse the same language you used in your introduction to remind the readers of what you said earlier in the paper.
  • The middle of the triangle: explaining your results. Once you've given the reader the answer to your research question, you need to be explicit about how your results back up your claims. The point of that triangle can't just be there on its own-it needs to have a solid foundation to support it. Connect the dots for the reader so he can see exactly how the findings you described in your results section lead to your conclusions.
  • The bottom of the triangle: the rest of your field. Finally, at the very bottom of your triangle, you want to talk about how your results fit within the research landscape. Do they support or contradict the findings of others? Do they fill in holes in the current research? Think of the work being done by other in the field as the base of your triangle-it provides the foundation for all of your work. And once you've explained what you've discovered, it's important to also explain how those discoveries will impact your field.

Discussion Dos and Don'ts

The previous two sections gave you some idea of how to shape the style and content of your Discussion, and below are a few more hints to help you along the way.
  • Do give credit where credit is due. You won't gain anything by claiming your work is original or novel when it really isn't. Other professionals in your field will quickly be able to spot if you've used a particular methodology without citation or claimed a theory as your own. So, to avoid looking like the bad guy, always make sure to cite your sources. Research never happens in a vacuum, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging the hard work of others that paved the way for your research.
  • Don't cover up your problems. Nobody's research is perfect, and it's likely that during your experiment you ran into a problems. Maybe your data collection methods failed or the results were wildly different than you predicted. Whatever your troubles, it's important that you acknowledge them in your discussion. Your work will be stronger and stand up to criticism much better if you're able to address your own shortcomings and then explain why your results still matter.
  • Know your limits. Along with speaking to potential problems in your study, you also need to directly address the limits of the work you're doing. Obviously your experiment isn't addressing every question there is to ask about a huge, diverse topic, so at the end of the discussion acknowledge what your limitation are. Tell the reader how your results can be understood and how far they go in addressing a particular question. It's always tempting to stretch this point, but a good discussion will intentionally keep the focus narrow and precise.
  • Don't give just one explanation. Any good debater will tell you that being able to anticipate your opponent's argument is the key to winning, and that's true in academic writing as well. Your discussion is basically one long argument that's trying to convince your reader that your idea is the best one, which means you need to acknowledge and refute counterarguments. Think about other possible explanations for your results and detail in the Discussion why your interpretation is the correct one.
  • Transition smoothly. Discussion are like any other part of academic writing in that you want to transition smoothly from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph. Transitions are particularly important in this section, however, because they help create the narrative structure that's so important in discussion results. A good transition will help the reader figure out the connection between each of your results and between your results and the larger research landscape.
Discussions are, and should be, the most difficult section of a paper to write. It's here that you have to focus on what exactly your results mean and make the case that the work you've done actually matters. But the strain of this task doesn't have to weigh you down. Remember, the discussion is difficult, but it's also your chance to shine.
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