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How to Write a Discussion Section | Tips & Examples

Published on August 21, 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on July 18, 2023.

Discussion section flow chart

The discussion section is where you delve into the meaning, importance, and relevance of your results .

It should focus on explaining and evaluating what you found, showing how it relates to your literature review and paper or dissertation topic , and making an argument in support of your overall conclusion. It should not be a second results section.

There are different ways to write this section, but you can focus your writing around these key elements:

  • Summary : A brief recap of your key results
  • Interpretations: What do your results mean?
  • Implications: Why do your results matter?
  • Limitations: What can’t your results tell us?
  • Recommendations: Avenues for further studies or analyses

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Table of contents

What not to include in your discussion section, step 1: summarize your key findings, step 2: give your interpretations, step 3: discuss the implications, step 4: acknowledge the limitations, step 5: share your recommendations, discussion section example, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about discussion sections.

There are a few common mistakes to avoid when writing the discussion section of your paper.

  • Don’t introduce new results: You should only discuss the data that you have already reported in your results section .
  • Don’t make inflated claims: Avoid overinterpretation and speculation that isn’t directly supported by your data.
  • Don’t undermine your research: The discussion of limitations should aim to strengthen your credibility, not emphasize weaknesses or failures.

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Start this section by reiterating your research problem and concisely summarizing your major findings. To speed up the process you can use a summarizer to quickly get an overview of all important findings. Don’t just repeat all the data you have already reported—aim for a clear statement of the overall result that directly answers your main research question . This should be no more than one paragraph.

Many students struggle with the differences between a discussion section and a results section . The crux of the matter is that your results sections should present your results, and your discussion section should subjectively evaluate them. Try not to blend elements of these two sections, in order to keep your paper sharp.

  • The results indicate that…
  • The study demonstrates a correlation between…
  • This analysis supports the theory that…
  • The data suggest that…

The meaning of your results may seem obvious to you, but it’s important to spell out their significance for your reader, showing exactly how they answer your research question.

The form of your interpretations will depend on the type of research, but some typical approaches to interpreting the data include:

  • Identifying correlations , patterns, and relationships among the data
  • Discussing whether the results met your expectations or supported your hypotheses
  • Contextualizing your findings within previous research and theory
  • Explaining unexpected results and evaluating their significance
  • Considering possible alternative explanations and making an argument for your position

You can organize your discussion around key themes, hypotheses, or research questions, following the same structure as your results section. Alternatively, you can also begin by highlighting the most significant or unexpected results.

  • In line with the hypothesis…
  • Contrary to the hypothesized association…
  • The results contradict the claims of Smith (2022) that…
  • The results might suggest that x . However, based on the findings of similar studies, a more plausible explanation is y .

As well as giving your own interpretations, make sure to relate your results back to the scholarly work that you surveyed in the literature review . The discussion should show how your findings fit with existing knowledge, what new insights they contribute, and what consequences they have for theory or practice.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do your results support or challenge existing theories? If they support existing theories, what new information do they contribute? If they challenge existing theories, why do you think that is?
  • Are there any practical implications?

Your overall aim is to show the reader exactly what your research has contributed, and why they should care.

  • These results build on existing evidence of…
  • The results do not fit with the theory that…
  • The experiment provides a new insight into the relationship between…
  • These results should be taken into account when considering how to…
  • The data contribute a clearer understanding of…
  • While previous research has focused on  x , these results demonstrate that y .

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Even the best research has its limitations. Acknowledging these is important to demonstrate your credibility. Limitations aren’t about listing your errors, but about providing an accurate picture of what can and cannot be concluded from your study.

Limitations might be due to your overall research design, specific methodological choices , or unanticipated obstacles that emerged during your research process.

Here are a few common possibilities:

  • If your sample size was small or limited to a specific group of people, explain how generalizability is limited.
  • If you encountered problems when gathering or analyzing data, explain how these influenced the results.
  • If there are potential confounding variables that you were unable to control, acknowledge the effect these may have had.

After noting the limitations, you can reiterate why the results are nonetheless valid for the purpose of answering your research question.

  • The generalizability of the results is limited by…
  • The reliability of these data is impacted by…
  • Due to the lack of data on x , the results cannot confirm…
  • The methodological choices were constrained by…
  • It is beyond the scope of this study to…

Based on the discussion of your results, you can make recommendations for practical implementation or further research. Sometimes, the recommendations are saved for the conclusion .

Suggestions for further research can lead directly from the limitations. Don’t just state that more studies should be done—give concrete ideas for how future work can build on areas that your own research was unable to address.

  • Further research is needed to establish…
  • Future studies should take into account…
  • Avenues for future research include…

Discussion section example

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In the discussion , you explore the meaning and relevance of your research results , explaining how they fit with existing research and theory. Discuss:

  • Your  interpretations : what do the results tell us?
  • The  implications : why do the results matter?
  • The  limitation s : what can’t the results tell us?

The results chapter or section simply and objectively reports what you found, without speculating on why you found these results. The discussion interprets the meaning of the results, puts them in context, and explains why they matter.

In qualitative research , results and discussion are sometimes combined. But in quantitative research , it’s considered important to separate the objective results from your interpretation of them.

In a thesis or dissertation, the discussion is an in-depth exploration of the results, going into detail about the meaning of your findings and citing relevant sources to put them in context.

The conclusion is more shorter and more general: it concisely answers your main research question and makes recommendations based on your overall findings.

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How To Write The Discussion Chapter

The what, why & how explained simply (with examples).

By: Jenna Crossley (PhD Cand). Reviewed By: Dr. Eunice Rautenbach | August 2021

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve reached the discussion chapter of your thesis or dissertation and are looking for a bit of guidance. Well, you’ve come to the right place ! In this post, we’ll unpack and demystify the typical discussion chapter in straightforward, easy to understand language, with loads of examples .

Overview: Dissertation Discussion Chapter

  • What (exactly) the discussion chapter is
  • What to include in your discussion chapter
  • How to write up your discussion chapter
  • A few tips and tricks to help you along the way

What exactly is the discussion chapter?

The discussion chapter is where you interpret and explain your results within your thesis or dissertation. This contrasts with the results chapter, where you merely present and describe the analysis findings (whether qualitative or quantitative ). In the discussion chapter, you elaborate on and evaluate your research findings, and discuss the significance and implications of your results.

In this chapter, you’ll situate your research findings in terms of your research questions or hypotheses and tie them back to previous studies and literature (which you would have covered in your literature review chapter). You’ll also have a look at how relevant and/or significant your findings are to your field of research, and you’ll argue for the conclusions that you draw from your analysis. Simply put, the discussion chapter is there for you to interact with and explain your research findings in a thorough and coherent manner.

Discussion

What should I include in the discussion chapter?

First things first: in some studies, the results and discussion chapter are combined into one chapter .  This depends on the type of study you conducted (i.e., the nature of the study and methodology adopted), as well as the standards set by the university.  So, check in with your university regarding their norms and expectations before getting started. In this post, we’ll treat the two chapters as separate, as this is most common.

Basically, your discussion chapter should analyse , explore the meaning and identify the importance of the data you presented in your results chapter. In the discussion chapter, you’ll give your results some form of meaning by evaluating and interpreting them. This will help answer your research questions, achieve your research aims and support your overall conclusion (s). Therefore, you discussion chapter should focus on findings that are directly connected to your research aims and questions. Don’t waste precious time and word count on findings that are not central to the purpose of your research project.

As this chapter is a reflection of your results chapter, it’s vital that you don’t report any new findings . In other words, you can’t present claims here if you didn’t present the relevant data in the results chapter first.  So, make sure that for every discussion point you raise in this chapter, you’ve covered the respective data analysis in the results chapter. If you haven’t, you’ll need to go back and adjust your results chapter accordingly.

If you’re struggling to get started, try writing down a bullet point list everything you found in your results chapter. From this, you can make a list of everything you need to cover in your discussion chapter. Also, make sure you revisit your research questions or hypotheses and incorporate the relevant discussion to address these.  This will also help you to see how you can structure your chapter logically.

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How to write the discussion chapter

Now that you’ve got a clear idea of what the discussion chapter is and what it needs to include, let’s look at how you can go about structuring this critically important chapter. Broadly speaking, there are six core components that need to be included, and these can be treated as steps in the chapter writing process.

Step 1: Restate your research problem and research questions

The first step in writing up your discussion chapter is to remind your reader of your research problem , as well as your research aim(s) and research questions . If you have hypotheses, you can also briefly mention these. This “reminder” is very important because, after reading dozens of pages, the reader may have forgotten the original point of your research or been swayed in another direction. It’s also likely that some readers skip straight to your discussion chapter from the introduction chapter , so make sure that your research aims and research questions are clear.

Step 2: Summarise your key findings

Next, you’ll want to summarise your key findings from your results chapter. This may look different for qualitative and quantitative research , where qualitative research may report on themes and relationships, whereas quantitative research may touch on correlations and causal relationships. Regardless of the methodology, in this section you need to highlight the overall key findings in relation to your research questions.

Typically, this section only requires one or two paragraphs , depending on how many research questions you have. Aim to be concise here, as you will unpack these findings in more detail later in the chapter. For now, a few lines that directly address your research questions are all that you need.

Some examples of the kind of language you’d use here include:

  • The data suggest that…
  • The data support/oppose the theory that…
  • The analysis identifies…

These are purely examples. What you present here will be completely dependent on your original research questions, so make sure that you are led by them .

It depends

Step 3: Interpret your results

Once you’ve restated your research problem and research question(s) and briefly presented your key findings, you can unpack your findings by interpreting your results. Remember: only include what you reported in your results section – don’t introduce new information.

From a structural perspective, it can be a wise approach to follow a similar structure in this chapter as you did in your results chapter. This would help improve readability and make it easier for your reader to follow your arguments. For example, if you structured you results discussion by qualitative themes, it may make sense to do the same here.

Alternatively, you may structure this chapter by research questions, or based on an overarching theoretical framework that your study revolved around. Every study is different, so you’ll need to assess what structure works best for you.

When interpreting your results, you’ll want to assess how your findings compare to those of the existing research (from your literature review chapter). Even if your findings contrast with the existing research, you need to include these in your discussion. In fact, those contrasts are often the most interesting findings . In this case, you’d want to think about why you didn’t find what you were expecting in your data and what the significance of this contrast is.

Here are a few questions to help guide your discussion:

  • How do your results relate with those of previous studies ?
  • If you get results that differ from those of previous studies, why may this be the case?
  • What do your results contribute to your field of research?
  • What other explanations could there be for your findings?

When interpreting your findings, be careful not to draw conclusions that aren’t substantiated . Every claim you make needs to be backed up with evidence or findings from the data (and that data needs to be presented in the previous chapter – results). This can look different for different studies; qualitative data may require quotes as evidence, whereas quantitative data would use statistical methods and tests. Whatever the case, every claim you make needs to be strongly backed up.

Every claim you make must be backed up

Step 4: Acknowledge the limitations of your study

The fourth step in writing up your discussion chapter is to acknowledge the limitations of the study. These limitations can cover any part of your study , from the scope or theoretical basis to the analysis method(s) or sample. For example, you may find that you collected data from a very small sample with unique characteristics, which would mean that you are unable to generalise your results to the broader population.

For some students, discussing the limitations of their work can feel a little bit self-defeating . This is a misconception, as a core indicator of high-quality research is its ability to accurately identify its weaknesses. In other words, accurately stating the limitations of your work is a strength, not a weakness . All that said, be careful not to undermine your own research. Tell the reader what limitations exist and what improvements could be made, but also remind them of the value of your study despite its limitations.

Step 5: Make recommendations for implementation and future research

Now that you’ve unpacked your findings and acknowledge the limitations thereof, the next thing you’ll need to do is reflect on your study in terms of two factors:

  • The practical application of your findings
  • Suggestions for future research

The first thing to discuss is how your findings can be used in the real world – in other words, what contribution can they make to the field or industry? Where are these contributions applicable, how and why? For example, if your research is on communication in health settings, in what ways can your findings be applied to the context of a hospital or medical clinic? Make sure that you spell this out for your reader in practical terms, but also be realistic and make sure that any applications are feasible.

The next discussion point is the opportunity for future research . In other words, how can other studies build on what you’ve found and also improve the findings by overcoming some of the limitations in your study (which you discussed a little earlier). In doing this, you’ll want to investigate whether your results fit in with findings of previous research, and if not, why this may be the case. For example, are there any factors that you didn’t consider in your study? What future research can be done to remedy this? When you write up your suggestions, make sure that you don’t just say that more research is needed on the topic, also comment on how the research can build on your study.

Step 6: Provide a concluding summary

Finally, you’ve reached your final stretch. In this section, you’ll want to provide a brief recap of the key findings – in other words, the findings that directly address your research questions . Basically, your conclusion should tell the reader what your study has found, and what they need to take away from reading your report.

When writing up your concluding summary, bear in mind that some readers may skip straight to this section from the beginning of the chapter.  So, make sure that this section flows well from and has a strong connection to the opening section of the chapter.

Tips and tricks for an A-grade discussion chapter

Now that you know what the discussion chapter is , what to include and exclude , and how to structure it , here are some tips and suggestions to help you craft a quality discussion chapter.

  • When you write up your discussion chapter, make sure that you keep it consistent with your introduction chapter , as some readers will skip from the introduction chapter directly to the discussion chapter. Your discussion should use the same tense as your introduction, and it should also make use of the same key terms.
  • Don’t make assumptions about your readers. As a writer, you have hands-on experience with the data and so it can be easy to present it in an over-simplified manner. Make sure that you spell out your findings and interpretations for the intelligent layman.
  • Have a look at other theses and dissertations from your institution, especially the discussion sections. This will help you to understand the standards and conventions of your university, and you’ll also get a good idea of how others have structured their discussion chapters. You can also check out our chapter template .
  • Avoid using absolute terms such as “These results prove that…”, rather make use of terms such as “suggest” or “indicate”, where you could say, “These results suggest that…” or “These results indicate…”. It is highly unlikely that a dissertation or thesis will scientifically prove something (due to a variety of resource constraints), so be humble in your language.
  • Use well-structured and consistently formatted headings to ensure that your reader can easily navigate between sections, and so that your chapter flows logically and coherently.

If you have any questions or thoughts regarding this post, feel free to leave a comment below. Also, if you’re looking for one-on-one help with your discussion chapter (or thesis in general), consider booking a free consultation with one of our highly experienced Grad Coaches to discuss how we can help you.

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Psst… there’s more (for free)

This post is part of our dissertation mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project. 

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33 Comments

Abbie

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Nts'eoane Sepanya-Molefi

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Cheryl

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Solomon

Me too! I was kinda lost on how to approach my discussion chapter. How helpful! Thanks a lot!

Wongibe Dieudonne

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Robin MooreZaid

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John Amaka

Thank you. This is very helpful.

Syed Firoz Ahmad

Dear sir/madame

Thanks a lot for this helpful blog. Really, it supported me in writing my discussion chapter while I was totally unaware about its structure and method of writing.

With regards

Syed Firoz Ahmad PhD, Research Scholar

Kwasi Tonge

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Sudesh Chinthaka

Dear Sir/Madam,

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Nann Yin Yin Moe

This is helpful for me in writing my research discussion component. I have to copy this text on Microsoft word cause of my weakness that I cannot be able to read the text on screen a long time. So many thanks for this articles.

Eunice Mulenga

This was helpful

Leo Simango

Thanks Jenna, well explained.

Poornima

Thank you! This is super helpful.

William M. Kapambwe

Thanks very much. I have appreciated the six steps on writing the Discussion chapter which are (i) Restating the research problem and questions (ii) Summarising the key findings (iii) Interpreting the results linked to relating to previous results in positive and negative ways; explaining whay different or same and contribution to field of research and expalnation of findings (iv) Acknowledgeing limitations (v) Recommendations for implementation and future resaerch and finally (vi) Providing a conscluding summary

My two questions are: 1. On step 1 and 2 can it be the overall or you restate and sumamrise on each findings based on the reaerch question? 2. On 4 and 5 do you do the acknowlledgement , recommendations on each research finding or overall. This is not clear from your expalanattion.

Please respond.

Ahmed

This post is very useful. I’m wondering whether practical implications must be introduced in the Discussion section or in the Conclusion section?

Lisha

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Colbey mwenda

Thanks alot.., I have gained much

Obinna NJOKU

This piece is very helpful on how to go about my discussion section. I can always recommend GradCoach research guides for colleagues.

Mary Kulabako

Many thanks for this resource. It has been very helpful to me. I was finding it hard to even write the first sentence. Much appreciated.

vera

Thanks so much. Very helpful to know what is included in the discussion section

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Joseph Nkitseng

Simplified explanation. Well done.

LE Sibeko

The presentation is enlightening. Thank you very much.

Angela

Thanks for the support and guidance

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How to Write the Discussion Section of a Research Paper

The discussion section of a research paper analyzes and interprets the findings, provides context, compares them with previous studies, identifies limitations, and suggests future research directions.

Updated on September 15, 2023

researchers writing the discussion section of their research paper

Structure your discussion section right, and you’ll be cited more often while doing a greater service to the scientific community. So, what actually goes into the discussion section? And how do you write it?

The discussion section of your research paper is where you let the reader know how your study is positioned in the literature, what to take away from your paper, and how your work helps them. It can also include your conclusions and suggestions for future studies.

First, we’ll define all the parts of your discussion paper, and then look into how to write a strong, effective discussion section for your paper or manuscript.

Discussion section: what is it, what it does

The discussion section comes later in your paper, following the introduction, methods, and results. The discussion sets up your study’s conclusions. Its main goals are to present, interpret, and provide a context for your results.

What is it?

The discussion section provides an analysis and interpretation of the findings, compares them with previous studies, identifies limitations, and suggests future directions for research.

This section combines information from the preceding parts of your paper into a coherent story. By this point, the reader already knows why you did your study (introduction), how you did it (methods), and what happened (results). In the discussion, you’ll help the reader connect the ideas from these sections.

Why is it necessary?

The discussion provides context and interpretations for the results. It also answers the questions posed in the introduction. While the results section describes your findings, the discussion explains what they say. This is also where you can describe the impact or implications of your research.

Adds context for your results

Most research studies aim to answer a question, replicate a finding, or address limitations in the literature. These goals are first described in the introduction. However, in the discussion section, the author can refer back to them to explain how the study's objective was achieved. 

Shows what your results actually mean and real-world implications

The discussion can also describe the effect of your findings on research or practice. How are your results significant for readers, other researchers, or policymakers?

What to include in your discussion (in the correct order)

A complete and effective discussion section should at least touch on the points described below.

Summary of key findings

The discussion should begin with a brief factual summary of the results. Concisely overview the main results you obtained.

Begin with key findings with supporting evidence

Your results section described a list of findings, but what message do they send when you look at them all together?

Your findings were detailed in the results section, so there’s no need to repeat them here, but do provide at least a few highlights. This will help refresh the reader’s memory and help them focus on the big picture.

Read the first paragraph of the discussion section in this article (PDF) for an example of how to start this part of your paper. Notice how the authors break down their results and follow each description sentence with an explanation of why each finding is relevant. 

State clearly and concisely

Following a clear and direct writing style is especially important in the discussion section. After all, this is where you will make some of the most impactful points in your paper. While the results section often contains technical vocabulary, such as statistical terms, the discussion section lets you describe your findings more clearly. 

Interpretation of results

Once you’ve given your reader an overview of your results, you need to interpret those results. In other words, what do your results mean? Discuss the findings’ implications and significance in relation to your research question or hypothesis.

Analyze and interpret your findings

Look into your findings and explore what’s behind them or what may have caused them. If your introduction cited theories or studies that could explain your findings, use these sources as a basis to discuss your results.

For example, look at the second paragraph in the discussion section of this article on waggling honey bees. Here, the authors explore their results based on information from the literature.

Unexpected or contradictory results

Sometimes, your findings are not what you expect. Here’s where you describe this and try to find a reason for it. Could it be because of the method you used? Does it have something to do with the variables analyzed? Comparing your methods with those of other similar studies can help with this task.

Context and comparison with previous work

Refer to related studies to place your research in a larger context and the literature. Compare and contrast your findings with existing literature, highlighting similarities, differences, and/or contradictions.

How your work compares or contrasts with previous work

Studies with similar findings to yours can be cited to show the strength of your findings. Information from these studies can also be used to help explain your results. Differences between your findings and others in the literature can also be discussed here. 

How to divide this section into subsections

If you have more than one objective in your study or many key findings, you can dedicate a separate section to each of these. Here’s an example of this approach. You can see that the discussion section is divided into topics and even has a separate heading for each of them. 

Limitations

Many journals require you to include the limitations of your study in the discussion. Even if they don’t, there are good reasons to mention these in your paper.

Why limitations don’t have a negative connotation

A study’s limitations are points to be improved upon in future research. While some of these may be flaws in your method, many may be due to factors you couldn’t predict.

Examples include time constraints or small sample sizes. Pointing this out will help future researchers avoid or address these issues. This part of the discussion can also include any attempts you have made to reduce the impact of these limitations, as in this study .

How limitations add to a researcher's credibility

Pointing out the limitations of your study demonstrates transparency. It also shows that you know your methods well and can conduct a critical assessment of them.  

Implications and significance

The final paragraph of the discussion section should contain the take-home messages for your study. It can also cite the “strong points” of your study, to contrast with the limitations section.

Restate your hypothesis

Remind the reader what your hypothesis was before you conducted the study. 

How was it proven or disproven?

Identify your main findings and describe how they relate to your hypothesis.

How your results contribute to the literature

Were you able to answer your research question? Or address a gap in the literature?

Future implications of your research

Describe the impact that your results may have on the topic of study. Your results may show, for instance, that there are still limitations in the literature for future studies to address. There may be a need for studies that extend your findings in a specific way. You also may need additional research to corroborate your findings. 

Sample discussion section

This fictitious example covers all the aspects discussed above. Your actual discussion section will probably be much longer, but you can read this to get an idea of everything your discussion should cover.

Our results showed that the presence of cats in a household is associated with higher levels of perceived happiness by its human occupants. These findings support our hypothesis and demonstrate the association between pet ownership and well-being. 

The present findings align with those of Bao and Schreer (2016) and Hardie et al. (2023), who observed greater life satisfaction in pet owners relative to non-owners. Although the present study did not directly evaluate life satisfaction, this factor may explain the association between happiness and cat ownership observed in our sample.

Our findings must be interpreted in light of some limitations, such as the focus on cat ownership only rather than pets as a whole. This may limit the generalizability of our results.

Nevertheless, this study had several strengths. These include its strict exclusion criteria and use of a standardized assessment instrument to investigate the relationships between pets and owners. These attributes bolster the accuracy of our results and reduce the influence of confounding factors, increasing the strength of our conclusions. Future studies may examine the factors that mediate the association between pet ownership and happiness to better comprehend this phenomenon.

This brief discussion begins with a quick summary of the results and hypothesis. The next paragraph cites previous research and compares its findings to those of this study. Information from previous studies is also used to help interpret the findings. After discussing the results of the study, some limitations are pointed out. The paper also explains why these limitations may influence the interpretation of results. Then, final conclusions are drawn based on the study, and directions for future research are suggested.

How to make your discussion flow naturally

If you find writing in scientific English challenging, the discussion and conclusions are often the hardest parts of the paper to write. That’s because you’re not just listing up studies, methods, and outcomes. You’re actually expressing your thoughts and interpretations in words.

  • How formal should it be?
  • What words should you use, or not use?
  • How do you meet strict word limits, or make it longer and more informative?

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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

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The purpose of the discussion section is to interpret and describe the significance of your findings in relation to what was already known about the research problem being investigated and to explain any new understanding or insights that emerged as a result of your research. The discussion will always connect to the introduction by way of the research questions or hypotheses you posed and the literature you reviewed, but the discussion does not simply repeat or rearrange the first parts of your paper; the discussion clearly explains how your study advanced the reader's understanding of the research problem from where you left them at the end of your review of prior research.

Annesley, Thomas M. “The Discussion Section: Your Closing Argument.” Clinical Chemistry 56 (November 2010): 1671-1674; Peacock, Matthew. “Communicative Moves in the Discussion Section of Research Articles.” System 30 (December 2002): 479-497.

Importance of a Good Discussion

The discussion section is often considered the most important part of your research paper because it:

  • Most effectively demonstrates your ability as a researcher to think critically about an issue, to develop creative solutions to problems based upon a logical synthesis of the findings, and to formulate a deeper, more profound understanding of the research problem under investigation;
  • Presents the underlying meaning of your research, notes possible implications in other areas of study, and explores possible improvements that can be made in order to further develop the concerns of your research;
  • Highlights the importance of your study and how it can contribute to understanding the research problem within the field of study;
  • Presents how the findings from your study revealed and helped fill gaps in the literature that had not been previously exposed or adequately described; and,
  • Engages the reader in thinking critically about issues based on an evidence-based interpretation of findings; it is not governed strictly by objective reporting of information.

Annesley Thomas M. “The Discussion Section: Your Closing Argument.” Clinical Chemistry 56 (November 2010): 1671-1674; Bitchener, John and Helen Basturkmen. “Perceptions of the Difficulties of Postgraduate L2 Thesis Students Writing the Discussion Section.” Journal of English for Academic Purposes 5 (January 2006): 4-18; Kretchmer, Paul. Fourteen Steps to Writing an Effective Discussion Section. San Francisco Edit, 2003-2008.

Structure and Writing Style

I.  General Rules

These are the general rules you should adopt when composing your discussion of the results :

  • Do not be verbose or repetitive; be concise and make your points clearly
  • Avoid the use of jargon or undefined technical language
  • Follow a logical stream of thought; in general, interpret and discuss the significance of your findings in the same sequence you described them in your results section [a notable exception is to begin by highlighting an unexpected result or a finding that can grab the reader's attention]
  • Use the present verb tense, especially for established facts; however, refer to specific works or prior studies in the past tense
  • If needed, use subheadings to help organize your discussion or to categorize your interpretations into themes

II.  The Content

The content of the discussion section of your paper most often includes :

  • Explanation of results : Comment on whether or not the results were expected for each set of findings; go into greater depth to explain findings that were unexpected or especially profound. If appropriate, note any unusual or unanticipated patterns or trends that emerged from your results and explain their meaning in relation to the research problem.
  • References to previous research : Either compare your results with the findings from other studies or use the studies to support a claim. This can include re-visiting key sources already cited in your literature review section, or, save them to cite later in the discussion section if they are more important to compare with your results instead of being a part of the general literature review of prior research used to provide context and background information. Note that you can make this decision to highlight specific studies after you have begun writing the discussion section.
  • Deduction : A claim for how the results can be applied more generally. For example, describing lessons learned, proposing recommendations that can help improve a situation, or highlighting best practices.
  • Hypothesis : A more general claim or possible conclusion arising from the results [which may be proved or disproved in subsequent research]. This can be framed as new research questions that emerged as a consequence of your analysis.

III.  Organization and Structure

Keep the following sequential points in mind as you organize and write the discussion section of your paper:

  • Think of your discussion as an inverted pyramid. Organize the discussion from the general to the specific, linking your findings to the literature, then to theory, then to practice [if appropriate].
  • Use the same key terms, narrative style, and verb tense [present] that you used when describing the research problem in your introduction.
  • Begin by briefly re-stating the research problem you were investigating and answer all of the research questions underpinning the problem that you posed in the introduction.
  • Describe the patterns, principles, and relationships shown by each major findings and place them in proper perspective. The sequence of this information is important; first state the answer, then the relevant results, then cite the work of others. If appropriate, refer the reader to a figure or table to help enhance the interpretation of the data [either within the text or as an appendix].
  • Regardless of where it's mentioned, a good discussion section includes analysis of any unexpected findings. This part of the discussion should begin with a description of the unanticipated finding, followed by a brief interpretation as to why you believe it appeared and, if necessary, its possible significance in relation to the overall study. If more than one unexpected finding emerged during the study, describe each of them in the order they appeared as you gathered or analyzed the data. As noted, the exception to discussing findings in the same order you described them in the results section would be to begin by highlighting the implications of a particularly unexpected or significant finding that emerged from the study, followed by a discussion of the remaining findings.
  • Before concluding the discussion, identify potential limitations and weaknesses if you do not plan to do so in the conclusion of the paper. Comment on their relative importance in relation to your overall interpretation of the results and, if necessary, note how they may affect the validity of your findings. Avoid using an apologetic tone; however, be honest and self-critical [e.g., in retrospect, had you included a particular question in a survey instrument, additional data could have been revealed].
  • The discussion section should end with a concise summary of the principal implications of the findings regardless of their significance. Give a brief explanation about why you believe the findings and conclusions of your study are important and how they support broader knowledge or understanding of the research problem. This can be followed by any recommendations for further research. However, do not offer recommendations which could have been easily addressed within the study. This would demonstrate to the reader that you have inadequately examined and interpreted the data.

IV.  Overall Objectives

The objectives of your discussion section should include the following: I.  Reiterate the Research Problem/State the Major Findings

Briefly reiterate the research problem or problems you are investigating and the methods you used to investigate them, then move quickly to describe the major findings of the study. You should write a direct, declarative, and succinct proclamation of the study results, usually in one paragraph.

II.  Explain the Meaning of the Findings and Why They are Important

No one has thought as long and hard about your study as you have. Systematically explain the underlying meaning of your findings and state why you believe they are significant. After reading the discussion section, you want the reader to think critically about the results and why they are important. You don’t want to force the reader to go through the paper multiple times to figure out what it all means. If applicable, begin this part of the section by repeating what you consider to be your most significant or unanticipated finding first, then systematically review each finding. Otherwise, follow the general order you reported the findings presented in the results section.

III.  Relate the Findings to Similar Studies

No study in the social sciences is so novel or possesses such a restricted focus that it has absolutely no relation to previously published research. The discussion section should relate your results to those found in other studies, particularly if questions raised from prior studies served as the motivation for your research. This is important because comparing and contrasting the findings of other studies helps to support the overall importance of your results and it highlights how and in what ways your study differs from other research about the topic. Note that any significant or unanticipated finding is often because there was no prior research to indicate the finding could occur. If there is prior research to indicate this, you need to explain why it was significant or unanticipated. IV.  Consider Alternative Explanations of the Findings

It is important to remember that the purpose of research in the social sciences is to discover and not to prove . When writing the discussion section, you should carefully consider all possible explanations for the study results, rather than just those that fit your hypothesis or prior assumptions and biases. This is especially important when describing the discovery of significant or unanticipated findings.

V.  Acknowledge the Study’s Limitations

It is far better for you to identify and acknowledge your study’s limitations than to have them pointed out by your professor! Note any unanswered questions or issues your study could not address and describe the generalizability of your results to other situations. If a limitation is applicable to the method chosen to gather information, then describe in detail the problems you encountered and why. VI.  Make Suggestions for Further Research

You may choose to conclude the discussion section by making suggestions for further research [as opposed to offering suggestions in the conclusion of your paper]. Although your study can offer important insights about the research problem, this is where you can address other questions related to the problem that remain unanswered or highlight hidden issues that were revealed as a result of conducting your research. You should frame your suggestions by linking the need for further research to the limitations of your study [e.g., in future studies, the survey instrument should include more questions that ask..."] or linking to critical issues revealed from the data that were not considered initially in your research.

NOTE: Besides the literature review section, the preponderance of references to sources is usually found in the discussion section . A few historical references may be helpful for perspective, but most of the references should be relatively recent and included to aid in the interpretation of your results, to support the significance of a finding, and/or to place a finding within a particular context. If a study that you cited does not support your findings, don't ignore it--clearly explain why your research findings differ from theirs.

V.  Problems to Avoid

  • Do not waste time restating your results . Should you need to remind the reader of a finding to be discussed, use "bridge sentences" that relate the result to the interpretation. An example would be: “In the case of determining available housing to single women with children in rural areas of Texas, the findings suggest that access to good schools is important...," then move on to further explaining this finding and its implications.
  • As noted, recommendations for further research can be included in either the discussion or conclusion of your paper, but do not repeat your recommendations in the both sections. Think about the overall narrative flow of your paper to determine where best to locate this information. However, if your findings raise a lot of new questions or issues, consider including suggestions for further research in the discussion section.
  • Do not introduce new results in the discussion section. Be wary of mistaking the reiteration of a specific finding for an interpretation because it may confuse the reader. The description of findings [results section] and the interpretation of their significance [discussion section] should be distinct parts of your paper. If you choose to combine the results section and the discussion section into a single narrative, you must be clear in how you report the information discovered and your own interpretation of each finding. This approach is not recommended if you lack experience writing college-level research papers.
  • Use of the first person pronoun is generally acceptable. Using first person singular pronouns can help emphasize a point or illustrate a contrasting finding. However, keep in mind that too much use of the first person can actually distract the reader from the main points [i.e., I know you're telling me this--just tell me!].

Analyzing vs. Summarizing. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Discussion. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Hess, Dean R. "How to Write an Effective Discussion." Respiratory Care 49 (October 2004); Kretchmer, Paul. Fourteen Steps to Writing to Writing an Effective Discussion Section. San Francisco Edit, 2003-2008; The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Sauaia, A. et al. "The Anatomy of an Article: The Discussion Section: "How Does the Article I Read Today Change What I Will Recommend to my Patients Tomorrow?” The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery 74 (June 2013): 1599-1602; Research Limitations & Future Research . Lund Research Ltd., 2012; Summary: Using it Wisely. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Schafer, Mickey S. Writing the Discussion. Writing in Psychology course syllabus. University of Florida; Yellin, Linda L. A Sociology Writer's Guide . Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2009.

Writing Tip

Don’t Over-Interpret the Results!

Interpretation is a subjective exercise. As such, you should always approach the selection and interpretation of your findings introspectively and to think critically about the possibility of judgmental biases unintentionally entering into discussions about the significance of your work. With this in mind, be careful that you do not read more into the findings than can be supported by the evidence you have gathered. Remember that the data are the data: nothing more, nothing less.

MacCoun, Robert J. "Biases in the Interpretation and Use of Research Results." Annual Review of Psychology 49 (February 1998): 259-287; Ward, Paulet al, editors. The Oxford Handbook of Expertise . Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Another Writing Tip

Don't Write Two Results Sections!

One of the most common mistakes that you can make when discussing the results of your study is to present a superficial interpretation of the findings that more or less re-states the results section of your paper. Obviously, you must refer to your results when discussing them, but focus on the interpretation of those results and their significance in relation to the research problem, not the data itself.

Azar, Beth. "Discussing Your Findings."  American Psychological Association gradPSYCH Magazine (January 2006).

Yet Another Writing Tip

Avoid Unwarranted Speculation!

The discussion section should remain focused on the findings of your study. For example, if the purpose of your research was to measure the impact of foreign aid on increasing access to education among disadvantaged children in Bangladesh, it would not be appropriate to speculate about how your findings might apply to populations in other countries without drawing from existing studies to support your claim or if analysis of other countries was not a part of your original research design. If you feel compelled to speculate, do so in the form of describing possible implications or explaining possible impacts. Be certain that you clearly identify your comments as speculation or as a suggestion for where further research is needed. Sometimes your professor will encourage you to expand your discussion of the results in this way, while others don’t care what your opinion is beyond your effort to interpret the data in relation to the research problem.

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How to structure the discussion of your scientific paper

paper discussion you tube

The discussion of a scientific paper is the resolution of its story: Everything comes together to shed light on the question that motivated the research. A well-written discussion leaves the reader inspired and satisfied—a noble goal and a difficult one to achieve. If you are struggling to write the discussion of your scientific article, know that you are not alone. Writing an interesting discussion is a craft that few people master. In this post, I tell you what you need to know to make this craft your own. 

Before diving into your discussion, you may want to learn about the other sections of a scientific paper. Don’t hesitate to check my Ultimate Guide to Scientific Writing as well as these other posts on the introduction , the materials and methods , and the result section.

The structure of the discussion

The discussion of a scientific article follows a triangular shape. It begins narrowly with a reminder of the niche and a summary of the main findings. The discussion then broadens with the interpretation of the results and a description of their implications, problems, and limitations of the research. Finally, it usually closes with a conclusion highlighting the take-home message. In the following paragraphs, I elaborate on each of these parts.  

paper discussion you tube

1.    Goal(s) and summary of the main results

Begin your discussion by reminding the reader of the goals of your research and its main findings. Restating the research goals, i.e., the problem it aimed to solve, may seem redundant; after all, you have already described it at length in the introduction . Still, you should begin your discussion with this recap.

Not everyone reads your article from cover to cover. Many readers go straight to the discussion to get the gist of the paper. Your job is to make it easy for them. Besides, even readers who have been with you from the first few sentences of the introduction will appreciate a reminder of the reasons that motivated your research. They’re just coming out of the methods and results sections, and their brains are fogged with details. You need to help them zoom out and see the big picture again. 

Once you have reiterated the goals, you should describe your key findings and explain how they deliver on the promises made in the introduction .

paper discussion you tube

Here’s what the first paragraph of the discussion of an article testing a new treatment for dragon pox* might look like (that’s the same imaginary study I used to illustrate my previous posts ).

“Dragonpox, the most common disease in children, is usually treated with Aclocyvir. Unfortunately, this drug has significant side effects that lead one-third of patients to interrupt treatment before completion. The research presented in the current article examined the efficacy of a treatment combining Aclocyvir with adeninoside. We compared two groups of patients suffering from dragon pox: one group treated with aclocyvir alone and one treated with aclocyvir combined with adeninoside. We found that patients who received adeninoside reported less nausea, loss of appetite, and diarrhea and were 23 percent more likely to continue treatment to term. As a result, these patients also recovered faster and had fewer complications than the control group who did not receive adeninoside.”

* Dragon Pox is an imaginary disease that affects wizards and witches, like chickenpox (see the Harry Potter series). The symptoms are green and purple rashes and sparks coming out of the nostrils when the patient sneezes.

2. Interpretation of the results

Now that you have summarized your research, you should explain why these results are important and how they fit into the existing literature. By explicitly connecting your results to other important findings, theories, and problems, you help the reader understand the implications of your work.

paper discussion you tube

To achieve this concretely, you can address one or more of the following questions:

  • How does your research contribute to solving a current problem? 
  • How does your research advance an important theory?
  • Does your research clarify an important concept or phenomenon? If so, what did you learn about this concept or phenomenon? Why does it matter?
  • Did you discover the mechanism of an important phenomenon? How does this mechanism work?
  • Did you identify the moderator(s) of an important phenomenon? What are these moderators? Why are they relevant?
  • Does your research say something about the world, society, nature, human beings…? 
  • Does it ask an important new question? What is this question? How can it be answered in the future?
  • Have you replicated a well-known phenomenon? Why is this replication important?
  • Have you failed to replicate a well-known phenomenon? Why do you think this happened? What implications can you draw from this? 

3. Problem resolution

Anyone who has ever done empirical research knows that perfect data only appears once in a blue moon. In real life, scientific studies can go wrong in many different ways. Such as:

  • Your methods didn’t work as expected . For example, the questionnaire that you used to measure patients’ appetite doesn’t show good internal reliability in our sample (internal reliability is a statistical value calculated to test the validity of a questionnaire).
  • Your results contradict your assumptions, previous findings, or theoretical predictions . For example, you expected that patients treated with adeninoside would have less fever than the control group, but your results do not show any significant difference.
  • You realize that there is more than one way to interpret your data . For example, you didn’t give your control group a placebo. Thus, one could argue that patients treated with adeninoside showed an improvement, not because of the drug itself, but because they received two pills (adeninoside + acyclovir) instead of one (acyclovir).

Science is not exempt from life’s messiness! When problems arise during your study – or if a reviewer draws attention to them – you should discuss them.

If the problem is major, such as a serious methodological flaw, you may want to reconsider publishing the data. What is the value of sharing data of questionable validity with the world?

If the problem is minor or raises an interesting discussion, then go ahead: Discuss it! Explain where the problem lies. Don’t sweep it under the rug, but don’t roll in self-depreciation either. Explain why you chose the methodology that you used, provide potential explanations for the problems you encountered, and suggest ways to resolve this issue in the future. Here is an example of how you can do that:

“To measure appetite, we relied on one of the most frequently used scales: the Appetite Inventory (AI). This scale has the advantage of being easy to administer. Besides, previous studies have shown that the Appetite Inventory has good internal validity. However, we did not replicate this result in our sample and found low internal validity. This discrepancy could be due to the fact that our participants were younger than those with whom the scale was originally validated. Since appetite changes with age, especially at puberty, the Appetite Inventory may not be appropriate for school-aged children. Therefore, for the time being, we have decided not to include this scale in our analyses. The development of tailored scales for children would make it possible to study in future studies how the treatment of dragon pox influences their appetite”.

paper discussion you tube

4. Limitations

There are limitations to any research. Limitations are different from problems in the sense that you can anticipate them. Generally, limitations are due to poor representation of the target population (for example, the sample was too small or not diverse enough) or constraints in the practical application of the methods used (for example, the body temperature of different patients was assessed at different times of the day).

Acknowledging your limitations does not mean that you admit having done something wrong. A phenomenon should only be believed once it has been demonstrated using various methods and contexts and once it has been replicated by different research teams. Limitations are inevitable, and discussing them can help put the findings into perspective and emulate new research.

That said, there are some things to keep in mind when addressing the limitations of your research:

  • Be specific and particular. Many scientists acknowledge limitations that are not specific to their study but apply to the entire research field. Let’s take our example of the new treatment for dragon pox and imagine that all your patients were recruited from one hospital. This fact limits the conclusions we can draw for the general population. But while it is true that our study should be replicated in other hospitals, such a limitation need not be mentioned in a scientific article. The scientists who read our work are already aware of such weaknesses.  
  • Keep your section on limitations short. We are so used to being critical of ourselves that we could go on and on about what could have been better in our study. But the truth is that we often don’t really know if another setting would have improved our results. We can only know it if we test it. The discussion is not the place to fantasize about the supposedly perfect experiment you would conduct if you had the opportunity to do it again. The discussion is where you can focus on what you can learn from your research and perhaps mention a few relevant limitations.

5. Conclusion

It is possible to end your article with a conclusion. Some journals expect it, but not all of them. The conclusion is the final hammer to drive your story’s nail into the readers’ minds, a few sentences to remind them of your most important conclusions and their implications. The conclusion is the take-home message.

paper discussion you tube

A few extra tips for writing a great discussion

1. be particular and specific.

This advice is true not only for the limitations but also for the whole discussion. Many authors are far too general in their discussions. They point out vague and generic implications that would apply to dozens of other articles (for example, “This article sheds light on the treatment of dragon pox”). It is much more interesting for the reader to know precisely what the research is about and what can be learned from it.

2. Write your discussion around your results

Some discussions include paragraphs of background information that are not connected to the article’s findings. The discussion is not the place to reiterate the introduction. It should be focused on the discussion of the research results.

3. Emphasize the strengths of your research and its importance

You have done this research for a reason, you wanted to learn about something. Make clear what can be learned from your results.

4. If you are aware of problems in your research, don’t hide them

The reviewers and many of your readers are experts in the field. They won’t be fooled easily, and if you don’t address obvious problems, they will blame you for it.

By taking the lead and confronting these problems, you show honesty and can justify the decisions you have made and the relevance of your results.

That’s it for the discussion! I hope you enjoyed this post. Good luck writing your discussion!

All the best from Austria!

Cover image by Background photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com “>Fre Background photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com ” target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>e Background photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com “>pik ; dragon image by  JL G  from  Pixabay ; results image by  Gerd Altmann  from  Pixabay ; question-solution image by  mohamed Hassan  from  Pixabay ; tips image by  wiredsmartio  from  Pixabay  

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How to Practice Academic Medicine and Publish from Developing Countries? pp 225–230 Cite as

How to Write the Discussion?

  • Samiran Nundy 4 ,
  • Atul Kakar 5 &
  • Zulfiqar A. Bhutta 6  
  • Open Access
  • First Online: 24 October 2021

31k Accesses

1 Citations

Many authors, and editors, think this is the most difficult part of a paper to write well and have described it variously to be the ‘narrating the story of your research’, ‘the movie or the main scientific script’ and the ‘proof of the pudding’. The idea of a discussion is to communicate to the readers the importance of your observations and the results of all your hard work. In this section, you are expected to infer their meaning and explain the importance of your results and finally provide specific suggestions for future research [1, 2]. The discussion places the outcome into a larger context and mentions the implications of the inferences for theoretical and practical purposes [3].

That then is the first draft and you should never think of having fewer than six drafts Stephen Lock, BMJ editor in chief (1929–…)

You have full access to this open access chapter,  Download chapter PDF

1 What Is the Importance of the Discussion?

Many authors, and editors, think this is the most difficult part of a paper to write well and have described it variously to be the ‘narrating the story of your research’, ‘the movie or the main scientific script’ and the ‘proof of the pudding’. The idea of a discussion is to communicate to the readers the importance of your observations and the results of all your hard work. In this section, you are expected to infer their meaning and explain the importance of your results and finally provide specific suggestions for future research [ 1 , 2 ]. The discussion places the outcome into a larger context and mentions the implications of the inferences for theoretical and practical purposes [ 3 ].

figure a

2 How Should I Structure the Discussion Section?

There are three major portions for the discussion of a manuscript.

The first paragraph should baldly state the key findings of your research. Use the same key concept you gave in the introduction. It is generally not necessary to repeat the citations which have already been used in the Introduction. According to the ‘serial position effect’, themes mentioned at the beginning and end of a paragraph are more likely to be remembered than those in the middle [ 1 ]. However, one should remember that the discussion should not look like a second introduction, and all the ancillary information which has been previously cited should not be repeated [ 4 ].

For example, in a paper on the ‘Role of sulfasalazine in the Chikungunya arthritis outbreak of 2016’, the review may start with, ‘Our key findings suggest that chikungunya arthralgia is a self-limiting disorder. Persistent arthritis was recorded in only 10% of the affected population and in those who received sulfasalazine, clinical improvement both in tender and swollen joints, was recorded in 95% of the subjects’.

The middle portion should consist of the body of the discussion. This section interprets the important results, discusses their implications and explains how your data is similar to or different from those that have been published previously.

Discuss in fair detail studies supporting your findings and group them together, against those offering a different perspective (e.g., Western experience, smaller numbers, non-randomized studies, etc.). An explanation should be offered on how your work is similar to others or how it is different from the others. This should be followed by a review of the core research papers. The results should now be divided thematically and analyzed. The discussion should also contain why the study is new, why it is true, and why it is important for future clinical practice [ 4 , 5 , 6 ].

For the above research mention the clinical features, patterns of joint involvement, how long arthritis persisted, and any role of disease-modifying agents. Have any other researchers found different findings under the same circumstances.

The final paragraph should include a ‘take home message’ (about one or two) and point to future directions for investigation that have resulted from this study.

The discussion can be concluded in two ways:

By again mentioning the response to the research question [ 5 , 7 ]

By indicating the significance of the study [ 2 , 4 ]

You can use both methods to end this section. Most importantly you should remember that the last paragraph of the discussion should be ‘strong, clear, and crisp’ and focus on the main research question addressed in the manuscript. This should be strengthened by the data which clearly states whether or not your findings support your initial hypothesis [ 1 , 5 , 8 , 9 , 10 ].

3 What Are the General Considerations for Writing a Discussion? [ 3 , 10 , 11 ]

Start the discussion with the ‘specific’ problems and move to the ‘general’ implications (Fig. 21.1 ).

The discussion should not look like a mass of unrelated information. Rather, it should be easy to understand and compare data from different studies.

Include only recent publications on the topic, preferably from the last 10 years.

Make certain that all the sources of information are cited and correctly referenced.

Check to make sure that you have not plagiarized by using words quoted directly from a source.

The written text written should be easily understood, crisp, and brief. Long descriptive and informal language should be avoided.

The sentences should flow smoothly and logically.

You need not refer to all the available literature in the field, discuss only the most relevant papers.

figure 1

How a discussion should look. First arrow—Mention your key results/findings; Second arrow—Discuss your results with their explanations\step by step; Third Arrow—Enumerate your studies limitations and strengths; Last arrow—Suggest future directions for investigation

4 Discussion Is Not a War of Words

figure b

5 How Long Should the Discussion in the Manuscript Be?

Most journals do not mention any limits for discussion as long as it is brief and relevant (Fig. 21.2 ). As a rule, ‘The length of the discussion section should not exceed the sum of other parts-introduction, materials and methods, and results’. [ 3 ] In any good article, the discussion section is 3–4 pages, 6–7 paragraphs, or approximately 10 paragraphs, and 1000–1500 words [ 1 , 5 , 8 , 12 ].

figure 2

Discussion pyramid

6 What Should Be Written in the Conclusion Section?

The conclusion is the last paragraph and has the carry-home message for the reader. It is the powerful and meaningful end piece of the script. It states what change has the paper made to science and it also contains recommendations for future studies.

7 Conclusions

Discussion is not a stand-alone section, it intertwines the objectives of the study with how and what was achieved.

The major results are described and compared with other studies.

The author’s own work is critically analysed in comparison with that of others.

The limitations and strengths of the study are highlighted.

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Samiran Nundy

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Nundy, S., Kakar, A., Bhutta, Z.A. (2022). How to Write the Discussion?. In: How to Practice Academic Medicine and Publish from Developing Countries?. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-16-5248-6_21

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  • How to Write Discussions and Conclusions

How to Write Discussions and Conclusions

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. 

paper discussion you tube

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:

paper discussion you tube

Writing Tips

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! 

What to do

  • 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. 

What not to do

Don’t

  • 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:

Consumer-based actions to reduce plastic pollution in rivers: A multi-criteria decision analysis approach

Identifying reliable indicators of fitness in polar bears

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Discussion Section Examples and Writing Tips

Abstract | Introduction | Literature Review | Research question | Materials & Methods | Results | Discussion | Conclusion

In this blog, we look at how to write the discussion section of a research paper. We will go through plenty of discussion examples and understand how to construct a great discussion section for your research paper.

1. What is the purpose of the discussion section?

Discussion example

The discussion section is one of the most important sections of your research paper. This is where you interpret your results, highlight your contributions, and explain the value of your work to your readers.  This is one of the challenging parts to write because the author must clearly explain the significance of their results and tie everything back to the research questions.

2. How should I structure my discussion section?

Generally, the discussion section of a research paper typically contains the following parts.

Research summary It is a good idea to start this section with an overall summary of your work and highlight the main findings of your research.

Interpretation of findings You must interpret your findings clearly to your readers one by one.

Comparison with literature You must talk about how your results fit into existing research in the literature.

Implications of your work You should talk about the implications and possible benefits of your research.

Limitations You should talk about the possible limitations and shortcomings of your research

Future work And finally, you can talk about the possible future directions of your work.

3. Discussion Examples

Let’s look at some examples of the discussion section.  We will be looking at discussion examples from different fields and of different formats. We have split this section into multiple components so that it is easy for you to digest and understand.

3.1. An example of research summary in discussion

It is a good idea to start your discussion section with the summary of your work. The best way to do this will be to restate your research question, and then reminding your readers about your methods, and finally providing an overall summary of your results.

Our aims were to compare the effectiveness and user-friendliness of different storm detection software for storm tracking. On the basis of these aims, we ran multiple experiments with the same conditions using different storm detection software. Our results showed that in both speed and accuracy of data, ‘software A’ performed better than ‘software B’. _  Aims summary  _  Methodology summary  _  Results summary

This discussion example is from an engineering research paper. The authors are restating their aims first, which is to compare different types of storm-tracking software. Then, they are providing a brief summary of the methods. Here, they are testing different storm-tracking software under different conditions to see which performs the best. Then, they are finally providing their main finding which is that they found ‘software A’ better than ‘software B’.  This is a very good example of how to start the discussion section by presenting a summary of your work.

3.2. An example of result interpretation in discussion

The next step is to interpret your results. You have to explain your results clearly to your readers. Here is a discussion example that shows how to interpret your results.

The results of this study indicate significant differences between classical music and pop music in terms of their effects on memory recall and cognition. This implies that as the complexity of the music increases, so does its ability to facilitate cognitive processing. This finding aligns with the well-known “Mozart effect,” which suggests that listening to classical music can enhance cognitive function. _  Result  _  Interpretation  _   Additional evidence

The authors are saying that their results show that there is a significant difference between pop music and classical music in terms of memory recall and cognition. Now they are providing their interpretation of the findings. They think it is because there is a link between the complexity of music and cognitive processing. They are also making a reference to a well-known theory called the ‘Mozart effect’ to back up their findings. It is a nicely written passage and the author’s interpretation sounds very convincing and credible.

3.3. An example of literature comparison in discussion

The next step is to compare your results to the literature. You have to explain clearly how your findings compare with similar findings made by other researchers. Here is a discussion example where authors are providing details of papers in the literature that both support and oppose their findings.

Our analysis predicts that climate change will have a significant impact on wheat yield. This finding undermines one of the central pieces of evidence in some previous simulation studies [1-3] that suggest a negative effect of climate change on wheat yield, but the result is entirely consistent with the predictions of other research [4-5] that suggests the overall change in climate could result in increases in wheat yield. _  Result  _  Comparison with literature

The authors are saying that their results show that climate change will have a significant effect on wheat production. Then, they are saying that there are some papers in the literature that are in agreement with their findings. However, there are also many papers in the literature that disagree with their findings. This is very important. Your discussion should be two-sided, not one-sided. You should not ignore the literature that doesn’t corroborate your findings.

3.4. An example of research implications in discussion

The next step is to explain to your readers how your findings will benefit society and the research community. You have to clearly explain the value of your work to your readers. Here is a discussion example where authors explain the implications of their research.

The results contribute insights with regard to the management of wildfire events using artificial intelligence. One could easily argue that the obvious practical implication of this study is that it proposes utilizing cloud-based machine vision to detect wildfires in real-time, even before the first responders receive emergency calls. _  Your finding  _  Implications of your finding

In this paper, the authors are saying that their findings indicate that Artificial intelligence can be used to effectively manage wildfire events. Then, they are talking about the practical implications of their study. They are saying that their work has proven that machine learning can be used to detect wildfires in real-time. This is a great practical application and can save thousands of lives. As you can see, after reading this passage, you can immediately understand the value and significance of the work.

3.5. An example of limitations in discussion

It is very important that you discuss the limitations of your study. Limitations are flaws and shortcomings of your study. You have to tell your readers how your limitations might influence the outcomes and conclusions of your research. Most studies will have some form of limitation. So be honest and don’t hide your limitations. In reality, your readers and reviewers will be impressed with your paper if you are upfront about your limitations. 

Study design and small sample size are important limitations. This could have led to an overestimation of the effect. Future research should reconfirm these findings by conducting larger-scale studies. _  Limitation  _  How it might affect the results?  _   How to fix the limitation?

Here is a discussion example where the author talks about study limitations. The authors are saying that the main limitations of the study are the small sample size and weak study design. Then they explain how this might have affected their results. They are saying that it is possible that they are overestimating the actual effect they are measuring. Then finally they are telling the readers that more studies with larger sample sizes should be conducted to reconfirm the findings.

As you can see, the authors are clearly explaining three things here:

3.6. An example of future work in discussion

It is important to remember not to end your paper with limitations. Finish your paper on a positive note by telling your readers about the benefits of your research and possible future directions. Here is a discussion example where the author talks about future work.

Our study highlights useful insights about the potential of biomass as a renewable energy source. Future research can extend this research in several ways, including research on how to tackle challenges that hinder the sustainability of renewable energy sources towards climate change mitigation, such as market failures, lack of information and access to raw materials.   _  Benefits of your work  _   Future work

The authors are starting the final paragraph of the discussion section by highlighting the benefit of their work which is the use of biomass as a renewable source of energy. Then they talk about future research. They are saying that future research can focus on how to improve the sustainability of biomass production. This is a very good example of how to finish the discussion section of your paper on a positive note.

4. Frequently Asked Questions

Sometimes you will have negative or unexpected results in your paper. You have to talk about it in your discussion section. A lot of students find it difficult to write this part. The best way to handle this situation is not to look at results as either positive or negative. A result is a result, and you will always have something important and interesting to say about your findings. Just spend some time investigating what might have caused this result and tell your readers about it.

You must talk about the limitations of your work in the discussion section of the paper. One of the important qualities that the scientific community expects from a researcher is honesty and admitting when they have made a mistake. The important trick you have to learn while presenting your limitations is to present them in a constructive way rather than being too negative about them.  You must try to use positive language even when you are talking about major limitations of your work. 

If you have something exciting to say about your results or found something new that nobody else has found before, then, don’t be modest and use flat language when presenting this in the discussion. Use words like ‘break through’, ‘indisputable evidence’, ‘exciting proposition’ to increase the impact of your findings.

Important thing to remember is not to overstate your findings. If you found something really interesting but are not 100% sure, you must not mislead your readers. The best way to do this will be to use words like ‘it appears’ and ‘it seems’. This will tell the readers that there is a slight possibility that you might be wrong.

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Study Skills

Writing a discussion section

In the discussion section, you will draw connections between your findings, existing theory and other research. You will have an opportunity to tell the story arising from your findings. 

This page will help you to: 

understand the purpose of the discussion section 

follow the steps required to plan your discussion section 

structure your discussion  

enhance the depth of your discussion 

use appropriate language to discuss your findings.  

Introduction to the discussion section

When you have reached this stage, you might be thinking “All I have to do now is to sum up what I have done, and then make a few remarks about what I did” (as cited in Swales & Feak, 2012, p.263). However, writing a discussion section is not that simple. Read on to learn more.

reflection icon

  Before you continue, reflect on your earlier writing experiences and the feedback you have received. How would you rate your ability in the following skills? Rate your ability from ‘good’ to ‘needs development’. 

Reflect on your answers. Congratulations if you feel confident about your skills. You may find it helpful to review the materials on this page to confirm your knowledge and possibly learn more. Don't worry if you don't feel confident. Work through these materials to build your skills. 

A discussion critically analyses and interprets the results of a scientific study, placing the results in the context of published literature and explaining how they affect the field . 

In this section, you will relate the specific findings of your research to the wider scientific field. This is the opposite of the introduction section, which starts with the broader context and narrows to focus on your specific research topic.  

The discussion will: 

review the findings  

put the findings into the context of the overall research  

tell readers why the research results are important and where they fit in with the current literature 

acknowledge the limitations of the study 

make recommendations for future research.

study skills task icon

Let's review your understanding of the discussion section by identifying what makes a strong discussion.

Planning for a discussion section

Planning for a discussion section starts with analysing your data. For some kinds of research, the analysis cannot be done until your data has been collected. For others, analysing data can happen early as the data already exists in literary texts, archival documents or similar.  

Before starting to write the discussion section, it is important to:  

analyse your data (usually reported in the Results or Findings section) 

select the key issues that are the substance of your research  

relate the findings to the literature and 

plan for the process of going from your specific findings to the broader scientific field.  

Your analysis of the results will inform the Findings or Results section of your thesis or publication. It is the stage where you organise and visualise your data, and identify trends, patterns and causal relationships in the themes.

As the section discusses the key findings without restating the results, it is important to identify the key issues. For example, you should focus on four or five issues that agree or do not agree with your hypothesis or with previously published work. It is also important to include and discuss any unexpected results.

You refer to previous research in your discussion section for explaining your results, confirming how your results support the theories and previous studies, comparing your results with similar studies, or showing how your results contradict similar studies. 

Therefore, papers that you are likely to refer to in your discussion are those that led to: 

your hypothesis  

your experimental design 

your results.

In writing the discussion section, you will start with your research and then broaden your focus to the field or scientific community. This means you will go from narrowest (your specific findings) to broadest (the wider scientific community). You do this by following the six moves: 

Narrowest      Summarising key results   Critically analysing the key results (significance, trends, relationships)  Relating results to the field (relating to previous work)   Relating results to gaps in the field   Speculating about how the field has changed.   Making recommendations for future research.      Broadest

As you can see, your discussion may follow six moves (stages) which broadens the scope of your discussion section. Watch this video to learn how to apply these moves.

paper discussion you tube

Structuring your discussion

This section reviews how a discussion section can be organised.

A discussion section usually includes five parts or steps, which are illustrated in the image below. 

In some disciplines, the researcher's argument determines the structure of the presentation and discussion of findings. In other disciplines, the structure follows established conventions. Therefore, it is important for you to investigate the conventions of your own discipline, by looking at theses in your discipline and articles published in your target journals. The discussion section may be: 

in a combined section called Results and Discussion 

in a combined section called Discussion and Conclusion 

in a separate section. 

Your discussion section may be an independent chapter or it might be combined with the Findings chapter. Common chapter headings include:  

Discussion chapter 

Findings and Discussion chapter  

Discussion, Recommendations and Conclusion chapter

Discussion and Conclusion chapter 

It is important to have a good understanding of the expected content of each chapter.  Below is an example of a chapter in which discussion, recommendations and conclusion are combined.

Click on the hotspots to learn more.

This section focuses on useful language for writing your discussion.

Boosters and hedges should be used to demonstrate your confidence in your interpretation of the results. They help you to distinguish between clear and strong results and those that you feel less confident about or that may be open to different interpretations.

 Boosters       Boosters are used to express certainty and confidence.  Hedges       Hedges are used to express possibility and demonstrate a cautious approach to the literature being reviewed.       Maybe   Perhaps   Likely   Possibly   Seems   Appears   To some extent   Some   Somewhat   Suggest       Example:           Clearly   Obviously   Evidently   Undoubtedly   Importantly   Differently           Example:       It is evident that…   The findings clearly demonstrate that…   There is strong evidence…

 Read both sentences. Which one shows more confidence in the results? 

The Dutch supervisors reported using different types of questions more frequently and deliberately than the Chinese supervisors. This difference may have its roots in the underlying educational philosophies. (Adapted from Hu, Rijst, Veen, & Verloop, 2016)  

The findings clearly demonstrate that psychological capital had considerable influence on the 10 employability skills included in the study, and especially on those related to teamwork, self-knowledge and self-management (Adapted from Harper, Bregta & Rundle, 2021) 

The writers of sentence two are more confident in the interpretation of their results.  

Test your knowledge of hedges and boosters by doing the task below. 

It is important to make it clear in your discussion: 

which research has been done by you 

which research has been done by other people 

how they complement each other.

Image 2: Note that present perfect is also used to refer to other studies when you want to emphasise that an area of research is still current and ongoing. Take a look at the example below which uses present perfect to refer to other studies 

Like other studies (e.g., Larcombe et al., 2021; Naylor, 2020) that have shown a strong connection between course experience and wellbeing, our study shows that a significant portion of international students believe that aspects of their immediate environment could be improved to better support their wellbeing.  

More information on tenses in the Discussion section is presented in Language Tip 4 below.  

Below are some useful discussion phrases that were adapted from Paltridge & Starfield (2020) and the APA Discussion phrases guide (7th edition).

You can download this APA discussion phrase guide here and visit the Academic Phrasebank for further phrases and examples. 

Let's look at these extracts and identify the functions of the paragraphs.  

Past, present and present perfect tenses are commonly used in the discussion section.  

  • Past tense is used to summarise the key findings and to refer to the work of previous researchers  
  • Present perfect is used to refer to the work of previous researchers (usually an area of research that is current and on-going rather than one single study) 
  • Present tense is used to interpret the results or describe the significance of the findings  
  • Future  is used to make recommendations for further research or providing future direction 

Below is an example of some paragraphs in a discussion section in which different tenses are used.

The main objective of this article was to examine the role played by psychological capital and employability skills in explaining how final-year students in Business Administration and Management perceived their own employability. The results of our research supported the findings of previous studies (Cooper et al., 2004; Youssef & Luthans, 2007) which showed that psychological capital was an antecedent variable of employability skills. More specifically, our study showed that psychological capital had cons

Test your knowledge of using the right tenses in the discussion section by doing the task below. 

Use this template to plan your discussion.  

The template is an example of a planning tool that will help you develop an overview of the key content that you are going to include in your section. You can download the draft and save it as a Word document once you have finished. 

You may have more or less than 3 key findings that you would like to discuss in your section.  

If you would like more support, visit the Language and Learning Advisors page. 

Butler, K. (2020, 7 April). Breakdown of an ideal discussion of scientific research paper. Scientific Communications . https://butlerscicomm.com/breakdown-of-ideal-discussion-section-research-paper  

Calvo, J. C. A & García, G. M. (2021). The influence of psychological capital on graduates’ perception of employability: the mediating role of employability skills. Higher Education Research & Development , 40(2), 293-308, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2020.1738350   

Cenamor, J. (2022) To teach or not to teach? Junior academics and the teaching-research relationship. Higher Education Research & Development , 41(5), 1417-1435. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2021.1933395  

Harper, R.,  Bretag, T & Rundle, K. (2021) Detecting contract cheating: examining the role of assessment type. Higher Education Research & Development, 40(2), 263-278, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2020.1724899   

Hu, Y., Rijst, R. M., Veen, K & N Verloop, N. (2016) The purposes and processes of master's thesis supervision: a comparison of Chinese and Dutch supervisors. Higher Education Research & Development , 35(5), 910-924, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2016.1139550  

Humphrey, P. (2015). English language proficiency in higher education: student conceptualisations and outcomes . [Doctoral dissertation, Griffith University]  

Marangell, S., & Baik, C. (2022). International students’ suggestions for what universities can do to better support their mental wellbeing. Journal of International Students, 12(4), 933-954.  

Merga, M., & Mason, S. (2021) Early career researchers’ perceptions of the benefits and challenges of sharing research with academic and non-academic end-users, Higher Education Research & Development , 40(7), 1482-1496, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2020.1815662  

Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2019). Thesis and Dissertation Writing in a Second Language: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors (2nd ed.). Routledge.  

Rendle-Short, J. (2009). The Address Term Mate in Australian English: Is it Still a Masculine Term?. Australian Journal of Linguistics, 29(2), 245-268, DOI: 10.1080/07268600902823110  

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How to Write a Research Methodology for a Research Paper

Ever find yourself stuck when trying to write the discussion part of your research paper? Don't worry, it happens to a lot of people. 

The discussion section is super important in your research paper . It's where you explain what your results mean. But turning all that data into a clear and meaningful story? That's not easy.

Guess what? MyPerfectWords.com has come up with a solution. 

This blog is your guide to writing an outstanding discussion section. We'll guide you step by step with useful tips to make sure your research stands out.

So, let’s get started!

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  • 1. What Exactly is a Discussion Section in the Research Paper?
  • 2. How to Write the Discussion Section of a Research Paper?
  • 3. Examples of Good Discussion for a Research Paper
  • 4. Mistakes to Avoid in Your Research Paper's Discussion 

What Exactly is a Discussion Section in the Research Paper?

In a research paper, the discussion section is where you explain what your results really mean. It's like answering the questions, "So what?" and "What's the big picture?" 

The discussion section is your chance to help your readers understand why your findings are important and how they fit into the larger context. It's more than just summarizing; it's about making your research understandable and meaningful to others.

Importance of the Discussion Section

The discussion section isn't just a formality; it's the heart of your research paper. This is where your findings transform from data into knowledge. 

Let's break down why it's so crucial:

  • Interpretation of Results : The discussion is where you get to tell readers what your results really mean. You go into the details, helping them understand the story behind the numbers or findings.
  • Connecting the Dots : You connect different parts of your research, showing how they relate. This helps your readers see the bigger picture.
  • Relevance to the Big Picture : You get to highlight why your research matters. How does it contribute to the broader understanding of the topic? This is your time to make your research significant.
  • Addressing Limitations : In the discussion, you can acknowledge any limitations in your study and discuss how they might impact your results.
  • Suggestions for Further Research : The discussion is where you suggest areas for future exploration. It's like passing the baton to the next researcher, indicating where more work could be done.

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How to Write the Discussion Section of a Research Paper?

The Discussion section in a research paper plays a vital role in interpreting findings and formulating a conclusion . Given below are the main components of the discussion section:

  • Quick Summary: A brief recap of your main findings.
  • Interpretation: Significance and meaning of your results in relation to your research question.
  • Literature Review : Connecting your findings with previous research or similar studies.
  • Limitations: Discussing any study limitations, addressing potential concerns.
  • Implications: Broader implications of your findings, considering practical and theoretical aspects.
  • Alternative Explanations: Evaluating alternative interpretations, demonstrating a comprehensive analysis.
  • Connecting to Hypotheses : Summarizing how your result section aligns or diverges from your initial hypotheses.

Now let’s explore the steps to write an effective discussion section that will effectively communicate the significance of your research:

Step 1: Get Started with a Quick Summary

Start by quickly telling your readers the main things you found in your research. Don't explain them in detail just yet; just give a simple overview. 

This helps your readers get the big picture before diving into the details.

Step 2: Interpret Your Results

In the next step, talk about what your findings really mean. Share why the information you gathered is important. Connect each result to the questions you were trying to answer and the goals you set for your research.

Step 3: Relate to Existing Literature

In this step, link up your discoveries with what other researchers have already figured out. 

Share if your results are similar to or different from what's been found before. This helps give more background to your study and shows you know what other scientists have been up to.

Step 4: Address Limitations Honestly

Every study has its limitations. Acknowledge them openly in your discussion. This not only shows transparency but also helps readers interpret your results more accurately.

Step 5: Discuss the Implications

Explore the implications of your findings. How do they contribute to the field? What real-world applications or changes might they suggest?

Dig into why your discoveries are important. How do they help the subject you studied? 

This step is like looking at the bigger picture and asking, "So, what can we do with this information?"

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Step 6: Consider Alternative Explanations

After discussing the implications, challenge yourself by exploring alternative explanations for your results. 

Discuss different perspectives and show that you've considered multiple angles.

Step 7: Connect to Your Hypotheses or Research Questions

For the last step, revisit your initial hypotheses or research questions. Explain whether your results support what you thought might happen or if they surprised you. 

Examples of Good Discussion for a Research Paper

Learning from well-crafted discussions can significantly enhance your own writing. Given below are some examples to help you understand how to write your own.

Discussion for a Research Paper Example Pdf

Discussion for a Medical Research Paper

Discussion Section for a Qualitative Research Paper

Mistakes to Avoid in Your Research Paper's Discussion 

Writing the discussion section of your research paper can be tricky. To make sure you're on the right track, be mindful of these common mistakes:

  • Overstating or Overinterpreting Results

Avoid making your findings sound more groundbreaking than they are. Stick to what your data actually shows, and don't exaggerate.

  • Neglecting Alternative Explanations 

Failing to consider other possible explanations for your results can weaken your discussion. Always explore alternative perspectives to present a well-rounded view.

  • Ignoring Limitations 

Don't sweep limitations under the rug. Acknowledge them openly and discuss how they might affect the validity or generalizability of your results.

  • Being Overly Technical or Jargon-laden

Remember that your audience may not be experts in your specific field. Avoid using overly technical language or excessive jargon that could alienate your readers.

  • Disregarding the 'So What' Factor

Always explain the significance of your findings. Don't leave your readers wondering why your research matters or how it contributes to the broader understanding of the subject.

  • Rushing the Conclusion

The conclusion section of your discussion is critical. Don't rush it. Summarize the key points and leave your readers with a strong understanding of the significance of your research.

So, there you have it —writing a discussion and conclusion section isn't easy, but avoiding some common mistakes can make it much smoother. 

Remember to keep it real with your results, think about what else could explain things, and don't forget about any limits in your study.

But if you're feeling stuck, MyPerfectWords.com is here for you. 

Our team of experts knows their way around discussions. Whether you need some guidance or want someone to handle the writing for you, we've got your back.

Don't let discussion writing stress you out. Check out how the best essay writing service can make your academic life easier.

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Barbara P

Dr. Barbara is a highly experienced writer and author who holds a Ph.D. degree in public health from an Ivy League school. She has worked in the medical field for many years, conducting extensive research on various health topics. Her writing has been featured in several top-tier publications.

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Writing a discussion section: how to integrate substantive and statistical expertise

Michael höfler.

1 Institute of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany

5 Chair of Clinical Psychology and Behavioural Neuroscience, Institute of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany

2 Behavioral Epidemiology, Institute of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany

Sebastian Trautmann

Robert miller.

3 Faculty of Psychology, Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany

4 Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden

Associated Data

Not applicable.

When discussing results medical research articles often tear substantive and statistical (methodical) contributions apart, just as if both were independent. Consequently, reasoning on bias tends to be vague, unclear and superficial. This can lead to over-generalized, too narrow and misleading conclusions, especially for causal research questions.

To get the best possible conclusion, substantive and statistical expertise have to be integrated on the basis of reasonable assumptions. While statistics should raise questions on the mechanisms that have presumably created the data, substantive knowledge should answer them. Building on the related principle of Bayesian thinking, we make seven specific and four general proposals on writing a discussion section.

Misinterpretation could be reduced if authors explicitly discussed what can be concluded under which assumptions. Informed on the resulting conditional conclusions other researchers may, according to their knowledge and beliefs, follow a particular conclusion or, based on other conditions, arrive at another one. This could foster both an improved debate and a better understanding of the mechanisms behind the data and should therefore enable researchers to better address bias in future studies.

After a research article has presented the substantive background, the methods and the results, the discussion section assesses the validity of results and draws conclusions by interpreting them. The discussion puts the results into a broader context and reflects their implications for theoretical (e.g. etiological) and practical (e.g. interventional) purposes. As such, the discussion contains an article’s last words the reader is left with.

Common recommendations for the discussion section include general proposals for writing [ 1 ] and structuring (e.g. with a paragraph on a study’s strengths and weaknesses) [ 2 ], to avoid common statistical pitfalls (like misinterpreting non-significant findings as true null results) [ 3 ] and to “go beyond the data” when interpreting results [ 4 ]. Note that the latter includes much more than comparing an article’s results with the literature. If results and literature are consistent, this might be due to shared bias only. If they are not consistent, the question arises why inconsistency occurs – maybe because of bias acting differently across studies [ 5 – 7 ]. Recommendations like the CONSORT checklist do well in demanding all quantitative information on design, participation, compliance etc. to be reported in the methods and results section and “addressing sources of potential bias”, “limitations” and “considering other relevant evidence” in the discussion [ 8 , 9 ]. Similarly, the STROBE checklist for epidemiological research demands “a cautious overall interpretation of results” and "discussing the generalizability (external validity)" [ 10 , 11 ]. However, these guidelines do not clarify how to deal with the complex bias issue, and how to get to and report conclusions.

Consequently, suggestions on writing a discussion often remain vague by hardly addressing the role of the assumptions that have (often implicitly) been made when designing a study, analyzing the data and interpreting the results. Such assumptions involve mechanisms that have created the data and are related to sampling, measurement and treatment assignment (in observational studies common causes of factor and outcome) and, as a consequence, the bias this may produce [ 5 , 6 ]. They determine whether a result allows only an associational or a causal conclusion. Causal conclusions, if true, are of much higher relevance for etiology, prevention and intervention. However, they require much stronger assumptions. These have to be fully explicit and, therewith, essential part of the debate since they always involve subjectivity. Subjectivity is unavoidable because the mechanisms behind the data can never be fully estimated from the data themselves [ 12 ].

In this article, we argue that the conjunction of substantive and statistical (methodical) knowledge in the verbal integration of results and beliefs on mechanisms can be greatly improved in (medical) research papers. We illustrate this through the personal roles that a statistician (i.e. methods expert) and a substantive researcher should take. Doing so, we neither claim that usually just two people write a discussion, nor that one person lacks the knowledge of the other, nor that there were truly no researchers that have both kinds of expertise. As a metaphor, the division of these two roles into two persons describes the necessary integration of knowledge via the mode of a dialogue. Verbally, it addresses the finding of increased specialization of different study contributors in biomedical research. This has teared apart the two processes of statistical compilation of results and their verbal integration [ 13 ]. When this happens a statistician alone is limited to a study’s conditions (sampled population, experimental settings etc.), because he or she is unaware of the conditions’ generalizability. On the other hand, a A substantive expert alone is prone to over-generalize because he or she is not aware of the (mathematical) prerequisites for an interpretation.

The article addresses both (medical) researchers educated in basic statistics and research methods and statisticians who cooperate with them. Throughout the paper we exemplify our arguments with the finding of an association in a cross-tabulation between a binary X (factor) and a binary Y (outcome): those who are exposed to or treated with X have a statistically significantly elevated risk for Y as compared to the non-exposed or not (or otherwise) treated (for instance via the chi-squared independence test or logistic regression). Findings like this are frequent and raise the question which more profound conclusion is valid under what assumptions. Until some decades ago, statistics has largely avoided the related topic of causality and instead limited itself on describing observed distributions (here a two-by-two table between D = depression and LC = lung cancer) with well-fitting models.

We illustrate our arguments with the concrete example of the association found between the factor depression (D) and the outcome lung cancer (LC) [ 14 ]. Yet very different mechanisms could have produced such an association [ 7 ], and assumptions on these lead to the following fundamentally different conclusions (Fig. ​ (Fig.1 1 ):

  • D causes LC (e.g. because smoking might constitute “self-medication” of depression symptoms)
  • LC causes D (e.g. because LC patients are demoralized by their diagnosis)
  • D and LC cause each other (e.g. because the arguments in both a. and b. apply)
  • D and LC are the causal consequence of the same factor(s) (e.g. poor health behaviors - HB)
  • D and LC only share measurement error (e.g. because a fraction of individuals that has either depression or lung cancer denies both in self-report measures).

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Different conclusions about an association between D and LC. a D causes LC, b LC causes B, c D and LC cause each other, d D and LC are associated because of a shared factor (HB), e D and LC are associated because they have correlated errors

Note that we use the example purely for illustrative purposes. We do not make substantive claims on what of a. through e. is true but show how one should reflect on mechanisms in order to find the right answer. Besides, we do not consider research on the D-LC relation apart from the finding of association [ 14 ].

Assessing which of a. through e. truly applies requires substantive assumptions on mechanisms: the temporal order of D and LC (a causal effect requires that the cause occurs before the effect), shared factors, selection processes and measurement error. Questions on related mechanisms have to be brought up by statistical consideration, while substantive reasoning has to address them. Together this yields provisional assumptions for inferring that are subject to readers’ substantive consideration and refinement. In general, the integration of prior beliefs (anything beyond the data a conclusion depends on) and the results from the data themselves is formalized by Bayesian statistics [ 15 , 16 ]. This is beyond the scope of this article, still we argue that Bayesian thinking should govern the process of drawing conclusions.

Building on this idea, we provide seven specific and four general recommendations for the cooperative process of writing a discussion. The recommendations are intended to be suggestions rather than rules. They should be subject to further refinement and adjustment to specific requirements in different fields of medical and other research. Note that the order of the points is not meant to structure a discussion’s writing (besides 1.).

Recommendations for writing a discussion section

Specific recommendations.

Consider the example on the association between D and LC. Rather than starting with an in-depth (causal) interpretation a finding should firstly be taken as what it allows inferring without doubt: Under the usual assumptions that a statistical model makes (e.g. random sampling, independence or certain correlation structure between observations [ 17 ]), the association indicates that D (strictly speaking: measuring D) predicts an elevated LC risk (strictly speaking: measuring LC) in the population that one has managed to sample (source population). Assume that the sample has been randomly drawn from primary care settings. In this case the association is useful to recommend medical doctors to better look at an individual’s LC risk in case of D. If the association has been adjusted for age and gender (conveniently through a regression model), the conclusion modifies to: If the doctor knows a patient’s age and gender (what should always be the case) D has additional value in predicting an elevated LC risk.

In the above example, a substantive researcher might want to conclude that D and LC are associated in a general population instead of just inferring to patients in primary care settings (a.). Another researcher might even take the finding as evidence for D being a causal factor in the etiology of LC, meaning that prevention of D could reduce the incidence rate of LC (in whatever target population) (b.). In both cases, the substantive researcher should insist on assessing the desired interpretation that goes beyond the data [ 4 ], but the statistician immediately needs to bring up the next point.

The explanation of all the assumptions that lead from a data result to a conclusion enables a reader to assess whether he or she agrees with the authors’ inference or not. These conditions, however, often remain incomplete or unclear, in which case the reader can hardly assess whether he or she follows a path of argumentation and, thus, shares the conclusion this path leads to.

Consider conclusion a. and suppose that, instead of representative sampling in a general population (e.g. all U.S. citizens aged 18 or above), the investigators were only able to sample in primary care settings. Extrapolating the results to another population than the source population requires what is called “external validity”, “transportability” or the absence of “selection bias” [ 18 , 19 ]. No such bias occurs if the parameter of interest is equal in the source and the target population. Note that this is a weaker condition than the common belief that the sample must represent the target population in everything . If the parameter of interest is the difference in risk for LC between cases and non-cases of D, the condition translates into: the risk difference must be equal in target and source population.

For the causal conclusion b., however, sufficient assumptions are very strict. In an RCT, the conclusion is valid under random sampling from the target population, random allocation of X, perfect compliance in X, complete participation and no measurement error in outcome (for details see [ 20 ]). In practice, on the other hand, the derivations from such conditions might sometimes be modest what may produce little bias only. For instance, non-compliance in a specific drug intake (treatment) might occur only in a few individuals to little extent through a random process (e.g. sickness of a nurse being responsible for drug dispense) and yield just small (downward) bias [ 5 ]. The conclusion of downward bias might also be justified if non-compliance does not cause anything that has a larger effect on a Y than the drug itself. Another researcher, however, could believe that non-compliance leads to taking a more effective, alternative treatment. He or she could infer upward bias instead if well-informed on the line of argument.

In practice, researchers frequently use causal language yet without mentioning any assumptions. This does not imply that they truly have a causal effect in mind, often causal and associational wordings are carelessly used in synonymous way. For example, concluding “depression increases the risk of lung cancer” constitutes already causal wording because it implies that a change in the depression status would change the cancer risk. Associational language like “lung cancer risk is elevated if depression occurs”, however, would allow for an elevated lung cancer risk in depression cases just because LC and D share some causes (“inducing” or “removing” depression would not change the cancer risk here).

Often, it is unclear where the path of argumentation from assumptions to a conclusion leads when alternative assumptions are made. Consider again bias due to selection. A different effect in target and source population occurs if effect-modifying variables distribute differently in both populations. Accordingly, the statistician should ask which variables influence the effect of interest, and whether these can be assumed to distribute equally in the source population and the target population. The substantive researcher might answer that the causal risk difference between D and LC likely increases with age. Given that this is true, and if elder individuals have been oversampled (e.g. because elderly are over-represented in primary care settings), both together would conclude that sampling has led to over-estimation (despite other factors, Fig. ​ Fig.2 2 ).

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If higher age is related to a larger effect (risk difference) of D on LC, a larger effect estimate is expected in an elder sample

However, the statistician might add, if effect modification is weak, or the difference in the age distributions is modest (e.g. mean 54 vs. 52 years), selection is unlikely to have produced large (here: upward) bias. In turn, another substantive researcher, who reads the resulting discussion, might instead assume a decrease of effect with increasing age and thus infer downward bias.

In practice, researchers should be extremely sensitive for bias due to selection if a sample has been drawn conditionally on a common consequence of factor and outcome or a variable associated with such a consequence [19 and references therein]. For instance, hospitalization might be influenced by both D and LC, and thus sampling from hospitals might introduce a false association or change an association’s sign; particularly D and LC may appear to be negatively associated although the association is positive in the general population (Fig. ​ (Fig.3 3 ).

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If hospitalization (H) is a common cause of D and LC, sampling conditionally on H can introduce a spurious association between D and LC ("conditioning on a collider")

Usually, only some kinds of bias are discussed, while the consequences of others are ignored [ 5 ]. Besides selection the main sources of bias are often measurement and confounding. If one is only interested in association, confounding is irrelevant. For causal conclusions, however, assumptions on all three kinds of bias are necessary.

Measurement error means that the measurement of a factor and/or outcome deviates from the true value, at least in some individuals. Bias due to measurement is known under many other terms that describe the reasons why such error occurs (e.g. “recall bias” and “reporting bias”). In contrast to conventional wisdom, measurement error does not always bias association and effect estimates downwards [ 5 , 6 ]. It does, for instance, if only the factor (e.g. depression) is measured with error and the errors occur independently from the outcome (e.g. lung cancer), or vice versa (“non-differential misclassification”) [22 and references therein]. However, many lung cancer cases might falsely report depression symptoms (e.g. to express need for care). Such false positives (non-cases of depression classified as cases) may also occur in non-cases of lung cancer but to a lesser extent (a special case of “differential misclassification”). Here, bias might be upward as well. Importantly, false positives cause larger bias than false negatives (non-cases of depression falsely classified as depression cases) as long as the relative frequency of a factor is lower than 50% [ 21 ]. Therefore, they should receive more attention in discussion. If measurement error occurs in depression and lung cancer, the direction of bias also depends on the correlation between both errors [ 21 ].

Note that what is in line with common standards of “good” measurement (e.g. a Kappa value measuring validity or reliability of 0.7) might anyway produce large bias. This applies to estimates of prevalence, association and effect. The reason is that while indices of measurement are one-dimensional, bias depends on two parameters (sensitivity and specificity) [ 21 , 22 ]. Moreover, estimates of such indices are often extrapolated to different kinds of populations (typically from a clinical to general population), what may be inadequate. Note that the different kinds of bias often interact, e.g. bias due to measurement might depend on selection (e.g. measurement error might differ between a clinical and a general population) [ 5 , 6 ].

Assessment of bias due to confounding variables (roughly speaking: common causes of factor and outcome) requires assumptions on the entire system of variables that affect both factor and outcome. For example, D and LC might share several causes such as stressful life events or socioeconomic status. If these influence D and LC with the same effect direction, this leads to overestimation, otherwise (different effect directions) the causal effect is underestimated. In the medical field, many unfavorable conditions may be positively related. If this holds true for all common factors of D and LC, upward bias can be assumed. However, not all confounders have to be taken into account. Within the framework of “causal graphs”, the “backdoor criterion” [ 7 ] provides a graphical rule for sets of confounders to be sufficient when adjusted for. Practically, such a causal graph must include all factors that directly or indirectly affect both D and LC. Then, adjustment for a set of confounders that meets the “backdoor criterion” in the graph completely removes bias due to confounding. In the example of Fig. ​ Fig.4 4 it is sufficient to adjust for Z 1 and Z 2 because this “blocks” all paths that otherwise lead backwards from D to LC. Note that fully eliminating bias due to confounding also requires that the confounders have been collected without measurement error [ 5 , 6 , 23 ]. Therefore, the advice is always to concede at least some “residual” bias and reflect on the direction this might have (could be downward if such error is not stronger related to D and LC than a confounder itself).

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Causal graph for the effect of D on LC and confounders Z 1 , Z 2 and Z 3

Whereas the statistician should pinpoint to the mathematical insight of the backdoor criterion, its application requires profound substantive input and literature review. Of course, there are numerous relevant factors in the medical field. Hence, one should practically focus on those with the highest prevalence (a very seldom factor can hardly cause large bias) and large assumed effects on both X and Y.

If knowledge on any of the three kinds of bias is poor or very uncertain, researchers should admit that this adds uncertainty in a conclusion: systematic error on top of random error. In the Bayesian framework, quantitative bias analysis formalizes this through the result of larger variance in an estimate. Technically, this additional variance is introduced via the variances of distributions assigned to “bias parameters”; for instance a misclassification probability (e.g. classifying a true depression case as non-case) or the prevalence of a binary confounder and its effects on X and Y. Of course, bias analysis also changes point estimates (hopefully reducing bias considerably). Note that conventional frequentist analysis, as regarded from the Bayesian perspective, assumes that all bias parameters were zero with a probability of one [ 5 , 6 , 23 ]. The only exceptions (bias addressed in conventional analyses) are adjustment on variables to hopefully reduce bias due to confounding and weighting the individuals (according to variables related to participation) to take into account bias due to selection.

If the substantive investigator understands the processes of selection, measurement and confounding only poorly, such strict analysis numerically reveals that little to nothing is known on the effect of X on Y, no matter how large an observed association and a sample (providing small random error) may be [ 5 , 6 , 23 ]). This insight has to be brought up by the statistician. Although such an analysis is complicated, itself very sensitive to how it is conducted [ 5 , 6 ] and rarely done, the Bayesian thinking behind it forces researchers to better understand the processes behind the data. Otherwise, he or she cannot make any assumptions and, in turn, no conclusion on causality.

Usually articles end with statements that only go little further than the always true but never informative statement “more research is needed”. Moreover, larger samples and better measurements are frequently proposed. If an association has been found, a RCT or other interventional study is usually proposed to investigate causality. In our example, this recommendation disregards that: (1) onset of D might have a different effect on LC risk than an intervention against D (the effect of onset cannot be investigated in any interventional study), (2) the effects of onset and intervention concern different populations (those without vs. those with depression), (3) an intervention effect depends on the mode of intervention [ 24 ], and (4) (applying the backdoor criterion) a well-designed observational study may approximatively yield the same result as a randomized study would [ 25 – 27 ]. If the effect of “removing” depression is actually of interest, one could propose an RCT that investigates the effect of treating depression in a strictly defined way and in a strictly defined population (desirably in all who meet the criteria of depression). Ideally, this population is sampled randomly, and non-participants and dropouts are investigated with respect to assumed effect-modifiers (differences in their distributions between participants and non-participants can then be addressed e.g. by weighting [ 27 ]). In a non-randomized study, one should collect variables supposed to meet the backdoor-criterion with the best instruments possible.

General recommendations

Yet when considering 1) through 7); i.e. carefully reflecting on the mechanisms that have created the data, discussions on statistical results can be very misleading, because the basic statistical methods are mis-interpreted or inadequately worded.

A common pitfall is to consider the lack of evidence for the alternative hypothesis (e.g. association between D and LC) as evidence for the null hypothesis (no association). In fact, such inference requires an a-priori calculated sample-size to ensure that the type-two error probability does not exceed a pre-specified limit (typically 20% or 10%, given the other necessary assumptions, e.g. on the true magnitude of association). Otherwise, the type-two error is unknown and in practice often large. This may put a “false negative result” into the scientific public that turns out to be “unreplicable” – what would be falsely interpreted as part of the “replication crisis”. Such results are neither positive nor negative but uninformative . In this case, the wording “there is no evidence for an association” is adequate because it does not claim that there is no association.

Frequently, it remains unclear which hypotheses have been a-priori specified and which have been brought up only after some data analysis. This, of course, is scientific malpractice because it does not enable the readership to assess the random error emerging from explorative data analysis. Accordingly, the variance of results across statistical methods is often misused to filter out the analysis that yields a significant result (“ p -hacking”, [ 28 ]). Pre-planned tests (via writing a grant) leave at least less room for p-hacking because they specify a-priori which analysis is to be conducted.

On the other hand, post-hoc analyses can be extremely useful for identifying unexpected phenomena and creating new hypotheses. Verbalization in the discussion section should therefore sharply separate between conclusions from hypothesis testing and new hypotheses created from data exploration. The distinction is profound, since a newly proposed hypothesis just makes a new claim. Suggesting new hypotheses cannot be wrong, this can only be inefficient if many hypotheses turn out to be wrong. Therefore, we suggest proposing only a limited number of new hypotheses that appear promising to stimulate further research and scientific progress. They are to be confirmed or falsified with future studies. A present discussion, however, should yet explicate the testable predictions a new hypothesis entails, and how a future study should be designed to keep bias in related analyses as small as possible.

Confidence intervals address the problem of reducing results to the dichotomy of significant and non-significant through providing a range of values that are compatible with the data at the given confidence level, usually 95% [ 29 ].

This is also addressed by Bayesian statistics that allows calculating what frequentist p -values are often misinterpreted to be: the probability that the alternative (or null) hypothesis is true [ 17 ]. Moreover, one can calculate how likely it is that the parameter lies within any specified range (e.g. the risk difference being greater than .05, a lower boundary for practical significance) [ 15 , 16 ]. To gain these benefits, one needs to specify how the parameter of interest (e.g. causal risk difference between D and LC) is distributed before inspecting the data. In Bayesian statistics (unlike frequentist statistics) a parameter is a random number that expresses prior beliefs via a “prior distribution”. Such a “prior” is combined with the data result to a “posterior distribution”. This integrates both sources of information.

Note that confidence intervals also can be interpreted from the Bayesian perspective (then called “credibility interval”). This assumes that all parameter values were equally likely (uniformly distributed, strictly speaking) before analyzing the data [ 5 , 6 , 20 ].

Testing just for a non-zero association can only yield evidence for an association deviating from zero. A better indicator for the true impact of an effect/association for clinical, economic, political, or research purposes is its magnitude. If an association between D and LC after adjusting for age and gender has been discovered, then the knowledge of D has additional value in predicting an elevated LC probability beyond age and gender. However, there may be many other factors that stronger predict LC and thus should receive higher priority in a doctor’s assessment. Besides, if an association is small, it may yet be explained by modest (upward) bias. Especially large samples often yield significant results with little practical value. The p -value does not measure strength of association [ 17 ]. For instance, in a large sample, a Pearson correlation between two dimensional variables could equal 0.1 only but with a p -value <.001. A further problem arises if the significance threshold of .05 is weakened post-hoc to allow for “statistical trends” ( p between .05 and .10) because a result has “failed to reach significance” (this wording claims that there is truly an association. If this was known, no research would be necessary).

It is usually the statistician’s job to insist not only on removing the attention from pure statistical significance to confidence intervals or even Bayesian interpretation, but also to point out the necessity of a meaningful cutoff for practical significance. The substantive researcher then has to provide this cutoff.

Researchers should not draw conclusions that have not been explicitly tested for. For example, one may have found a positive association between D and LC (e.g. p  = .049), but this association is not significant (e.g. p  = .051), when adjusting for “health behavior”. This does not imply that “health behavior” “explains” the association (yet fully). The difference in magnitude of association in both analyses compared here (without and with adjustment on HB) may be very small and the difference in p -values (“borderline significance” after adjustment) likely to emerge from random error. This often applies to larger differences in p as well.

Investigators, however, might find patterns in their results that they consider worth mentioning for creating hypotheses. In the example above, adding the words “in the sample”, would clarify that they refer just to the difference of two point estimates . By default, “association” in hypotheses testing should mean “statistically significant association” (explorative analyses should instead refer to “suggestive associations”).

Conclusions

Some issues of discussing results not mentioned yet appear to require only substantive reasoning. For instance, Bradford Hill’s consideration on “plausibility” claims that a causal effect is more likely, if it is in line with biological (substantive) knowledge, or if a dose-response relation has been found [ 30 ]. However, the application of these considerations itself depends on the trueness of assumptions. For instance, bias might act differently across the dose of exposure (e.g. larger measurement error in outcome among those with higher dosage). As a consequence, a pattern observed across dose may mask a true or pretend a wrong dose-response relation [ 30 ]. This again has to be brought up by statistical expertise.

There are, however, some practical issues that hinder the cooperation we suggest. First, substantive researchers often feel discomfort when urged to make assumptions on the mechanisms behind the data, presumably because they fear to be wrong. Here, the statistician needs to insist: “If you are unable to make any assumptions, you cannot conclude anything!” And: “As a scientist you have to understand the processes that create your data.” See [ 31 ] for practical advice on how to arrive at meaningful assumptions.

Second, statisticians have long been skeptical against causal inference. Still, most of them focus solely on describing observed data with distributional models, probably because estimating causal effects has long been regarded as unfeasible with scientific methods. Training in causality remains rather new, since strict mathematical methods have been developed only in the last decades [ 7 ].

The cooperation could be improved if education in both fields focused on the insight that one cannot succeed without the other. Academic education should demonstrate that in-depth conclusions from data unavoidably involve prior beliefs. Such education should say: Data do not “speak for themselves”, because they “speak” only ambiguously and little, since they have been filtered through various biases [ 32 ]. The subjectivity introduced by addressing bias, however, unsettles many researchers. On the other hand, conventional frequentist statistics just pretends to be objective. Instead of accepting the variety of possible assumptions, it makes the absurd assumption of “no bias with probability of one”. Or it avoids causal conclusions at all if no randomized study is possible. This limits science to investigating just associations for all factors that can never be randomized (e.g. onset of depression). However, the alternative of Bayesian statistics and thinking are themselves prone to fundamental cognitive biases which should as well be subject of interdisciplinary teaching [ 33 ].

Readers may take this article as an invitation to read further papers’ discussions differently while evaluating our claims. Rather than sharing a provided conclusion (or not) they could ask themselves whether a discussion enables them to clearly specify why they share it (or not). If the result is uncertainty, this might motivate them to write their next discussion differently. The proposals made in this article could help shifting scientific debates to where they belong. Rather than arguing on misunderstandings caused by ambiguity in a conclusion’s assumptions one should argue on the assumptions themselves.

Acknowledgements

We acknowledge support by the German Research Foundation and the Open Access Publication Funds of the TU Dresden. We wish to thank Pia Grabbe and Helen Steiner for language editing and the cited authors for their outstanding work that our proposals build on.

John Venz is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) project no. 01ER1303 and 01ER1703. He has contributed to this manuscript outside of time funded by these projects.

Availability of data and materials

Abbreviations, authors’ contributions.

MH and RM had the initial idea on the article. MH has taken the lead in writing. JV has contributed to the statistical parts, especially the Bayesian aspects. RM has refined the paragraphs on statistical inference. ST joined later and has added many clarifications related to the perspective of the substantive researcher. All authors have contributed to the final wording of all sections and the article’s revision. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Ethics approval and consent to participate

Consent for publication, competing interests.

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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