Tips to Improve Your Research Paper: The Results Section
A lot of work goes into a good research project. You have to gather all the background information on your topic, design and perform an effective experiment, and then present the results of that experiment in a format that is easily understood and evaluated by your readers. It's a shame, then, to waste all that effort by completing a paper that doesn't do a good job of telling the reader just what it is that you've accomplished. Obviously every part of your paper, from the introduction to the conclusion, is going to be important, but one section whose importance often gets overlooked is the results. It may be the shortest part of your paper, but a good results section is the key to a powerful research paper.
Below you'll find tips and helpful advice on how to craft a results section worthy of all the hard work you've done.
Results versus data
One of the most important ideas to understand which it comes to presenting the results of your research is the difference between results and data. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but in the world of scientific writing there's actually a distinct difference between them. Data are basically just the raw numbers: they're the calculations that go in tables and figures that describe the data you've collected. Results, on the other hand, are text descriptions of what's important about the data. Here are two examples; see if you can spot the difference.
At the end of the treatment period, the average height of the chlorothalonil group was 62.7 cm and the average height of the control group was 56.3 cm.
At the end of the treatment period, the average height of the chlorothalonil group was 1.11 times as tall as the control group (p < .05).
In the first sentence, the reader has only been given the raw data; in the second, the reader has been shown the relationship between the data and why that data is important. In general, data is usually handled in tables and figures and should only be listed in the main body of the text for emphasis or if there isn't enough data to merit a table or figure. The main body of the text should focus instead on results-that is, on presenting an interpretation of the data that help the reader understand why it's important.
Organizing the results
There are a number of ways you can organize the results section of your paper. Which you choose is up to you and will depend on your topic and the overall organization of your work.
By level of importance
The most common way to organize results is from most to least important. Using this method has a couple of advantages. You can immediately hook your readers by presenting your most impressive results right at the start, and it's a good way to provide emphasis for specific results.
From general to specific
Another very common way to organize results is from general to specific. This method is useful when you have large treatment groups. For these results, you would start with general data that describes the sample population (age, gender, sample size, etc.), then narrow your focus to specific results for each treatment.
For work that has a strong temporal component, for example, a study that tracks a population over a long time period, it can be a good idea to order the results chronologically.
For complex experiments that cover a range of topics it can help the reader to group the results by concept or subject area. Within each topic, you can then organize the results using the other methods listed above.
Leave out the extras (but keep what's important)
Deciding what data to include in your results and what to leave out is probably the most difficult part of writing the results section. Especially if you've been working on a large, multi-part project, you won't be including every piece of data you've ever collected. Often research aims and experimental design can change over the course of a project, which means that some information will be more relevant than others. How you choose to shape the focus of your paper will determine what data you need to include in your paper.
On the other hand, it's also very important that you not leave out any results that are important to your study. Often there are results that you as the author might think can be left out or that you just didn't think to include in the first place, but which are in fact vital to the paper. Think of it this way: if a person set out to recreate your experiment as outlined in your methods section, every result they encounter should be addressed in your paper. This means you shouldn't leave out negative or ambiguous results and that you should also make sure you've included data that's necessary but that might not bear directly on your work (such as dropout rate). Many journals and professional organizations have checklists that can help you determine if you've included all the relevant data in your paper.
Table and figures
Tables and figures are the best way to present lots of data in a manner that will be quickly and easily understood by the reader. Obviously, not every result needs to include in a table or figure, but in general if you have enough related data that you can't fit it in a single sentence, then it should be in a graphic. Keep in mind that every table or figure you include should be referenced in the text (meaning you don't have any graphics that are just standing by themselves without your commentary).
Different fields and specific journals all have their own rules for formatting tables, but for everyone the basic goal of a table is to make a set of data as clear and easy to read as possible. Because you're trying to get as much information as you can into as small a space as possible, when it comes to tables, every lit bit of information is important. The title of the table as well as the row and column headings should include enough specific information for the reader to understand the information in the table, and details like units, error values, and sample size should always be included. Remember, the table should be able to stand alone, meaning the reader shouldn't need to refer back to the text or other sections of the paper in order to be able to interpret the data.
Like tables, figures should be made as clear and concise as possible. You have a lot more flexibility when it comes to figures, since you can choose to include pretty much any kind of graph you'd like, which means it's important you not go overboard with scatter plots, bar graphs, or charts. The best figures will highlight key pieces of data while providing easy-to-interpret visuals-remember, it's better to have a boring figure that cleanly presents data than a fancy graph that is difficult to interpret. And, as with tables, it's important that all the relevant information, including units, error values, and the main point of the figure, be included in caption or the figure itself.
Citing tables and figures in the text.
Generally, if data is presented in a table or figure, you only need to refer to that data using the number of the table or figure. You shouldn't repeat the data found in the table or figure in the main text:
Six months after treatment, the height and leaf number of the chlorothalonil treatment group were significantly higher than the control group (Table 3).
If, however, a table or figure contains a large amount of data or if particular values are hard to find (for example, on a line graph is can sometimes be a lot of work for the reader to locate paired values), then it's acceptable to include the specific data values in the main text:
Six months after treatment, the height and leaf number of the chlorothalonil treatment group were 1.3 and 1.72 times higher, respectively, than the control group (both p < .05, see Table 2).
It's up to you how much data you want to include when citing tables and figures, but remember, it's always best to keep things clear and concise, which means keeping as many numbers as possible in the tables and out of the main text.
For more information on how to write the results section of a research paper, you can check out some of these resources:
Alley, M. The craft of scientific writing. 3rd ed. New York: Springer; 1996.
Annesley, TM. Show your cards: the results section and the poker game. Clinical Chemistry 2010; 56:1066-1070.
Katz, MJ. From research to manuscript: a guide to scientific writing. New York: Springer; 2009.
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