For many authors and researchers, writing a scientific article can be a daunting task. This is especially true when it comes to the ‘Discussion’ section where the author is supposed to elaborate his/her findings, explain ambiguities arising from the study results, and put things into perspective.
There are no fixed or rigid rules in writing ‘Discussion’. There are however, some general guidelines to assist in making sure that all the important aspects are covered and that readers get a good understanding of the subject matter, thus making the best out of the study. Note that discussions can be written differently according to the type of article (original study, review, evaluation, etc).
Here are some basic tips or guidelines on how to draft the discussion section in your paper, if you are reporting a primary study:
- Start with reminding the readers of your study objectives. Then state your main findings to indicate how your objectives have been fulfilled.
If you have stated earlier that there are primary and secondary objectives, present the findings that fulfill the primary objective first. Then, mention what you have found pertaining to the secondary objective(s). It can be tempting to jump straight to some ‘accidental’ or intriguing findings that you feel might attract the readers’ attention, but remember that this is a scientific article. Order is important, and primary objectives should always be prioritized.
- Compare your results to prior studies
After explaining what your data shows (in answering your main research questions), compare your results to prior studies. To know if a study is suitable for comparison, take the following into account: its objectives, respondents’ characteristics, setting, tool, study design and limitations. You want to make sure that you are comparing an apple to an apple. Comparison is most appropriate when two studies are not too different from each other.
For example, if you want to compare the prevalence of smoking in your study to the prevalence of smoking reported in study x, think – where was study x conducted? Could geographical distance form a barrier to comparison? Next, think of the respondents – how similar are your respondents to study x participants in terms of sex, age group and other demographic characteristics? You also need to consider the tool – is the same questionnaire being used, or are both studies using a similar method of determining if one smokes? Different ways of measurement can yield different results.
- Explain your findings in details, backed by scientific evidence.
Following comparison, elaborate the subject matter. For instance, suppose your main finding is that buying health insurance does not contribute to better health (contrary to your hypothesis); make an attempt to come up with possible explanations. Show how and why having health insurance might actually work in the opposite way – as opposed to the common assumption – and make sure your arguments are supported by empirical evidence.
Next, you can demonstrate the contradictions; quote studies that report the opposite and explain the possible reasons for these contradictions. Could it be because of the differences in healthcare systems between the two countries, or could it be due to differences in the nature and type of health insurance being studied? Or could it be simply because the outcome (‘better health’) has been assessed differently? Again, back your arguments with scientific literature.
- Discuss your study limitations.
Every study has limitations. It is very important that you list down and explain each of them in a transparent and objective manner. Limitations are crucial as they assist readers in making a sound judgment on the study findings. Remember, the goal of doing research is not to look good or to show that your research is perfect. Good researchers are those who are aware of their limitations, and are able to interpret their findings in the light of existing constraints.
For each limitation, mention whatever attempt you have made to minimize its impacts (if any). Briefly describe how the limitations could have affected the study outcomes or the interpretation of findings.
- Conclude your study and give recommendations.
Here you need to summarize your findings in two or three sentences, and show the implications of these findings. Implications can be at the level of health care or community or policy. Think of the following: how do my findings add to the current body of knowledge, or how do they change current practices? How can healthcare providers or policy-makers make use of my findings?
Last but not least, you can make a few recommendations for researchers who wish to investigate topics in the similar field in the future, based on your results and what you have experienced in the study period.
Raudah Mohd Yunus