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How to Write a Thoughtful Discussion for Your Scientific Paper

Image of typewriter and blank piece of paper to represent writing a scientific discussion

Let’s accept this: writing a good scientific paper, and writing a scientific discussion, in particular, is daunting, and learning to write well is a skill that needs to be honed with plenty of practice.

If you’re a scientist, writing effective papers is essential: disseminating your work is crucial if anyone—from other researchers to the general public—is to benefit from your scientific endeavors.

But if you are someone for whom writing is about as easy as getting your PCR to work on a Friday afternoon when you have weekend plans, don’t panic, Bitesize Bio is here to help.

So, if you have got as far as writing up the results for your scientific paper and formatting and putting together your publication-worthy figures, too, then congratulations. You’re doing really well!

But now you need to write the scientific discussion. Eek. This is often the most difficult and thought-provoking part of any scientific manuscript (or thesis) to write.

It is the penultimate part of your paper, in which you summarize your key findings in light of the existing literature, and explain the significance and value of your work.

You also need to suggest some new directions for future research and address what research questions remain.

Unlike the abstract, the discussion section of a paper does not have a broad readership per se but is written for both beginners to that particular area of science and experts of the same.

How to Structure a Scientific Paper

Most scientific papers follow the hourglass IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) structure, which means that the sections at the top and bottom of the hourglass (the Introduction and Discussion) occupy more space than the Methods and Results sections.

This means that your discussion wants to have a little more meat on its bones than the two sections that immediately precede it.

The discussion needs to be just that—a discussion. It isn’t enough to simply rehash your results; you need to situate your research in the context of previous studies, draw out the practical implications of your own research, address limitations, and suggest areas for future study.

Only then will your paper be ready for submission to a journal and the peer-review process.

So, what are the keys to success when writing a scientific discussion? We’ve pulled together a few do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.

What To Do When Writing A Scientific Discussion

1. Do Summarize Your Results and Outline Their Interpretation in Light of the Published Literature

This is the first thing that you need to do when writing a scientific discussion section. Use the first paragraph to describe very briefly the conclusion from your results, and then explain what it means with respect to what is already known from previous studies.

Try to highlight the practical implications of your findings, and ensure that you demonstrate your ability to think critically about your main findings.

Remember to emphasize how your results support or refute the current hypotheses in the field, if any. Try to offer alternative explanations of results.

This is also a good place to address if your data conflict with what is established in the field. By addressing these conflicts, other researchers in your field will re-examine and rebuild hypotheses/models to then test.

Keep in mind that all results should be discussed, and all parts of the discussion should relate to your results; don’t ignore any results and don’t discuss anything that doesn’t relate to the results obtained.

2. Do Explain the Importance of Your Results

Be sure to advocate for your findings and underline how your results significantly move the field forward. Remember to give your results their due and don’t undermine them.

Make sure you mention the most important finding first; this is what people will remember.

3. Do Acknowledge the Shortcomings of the Study

In this section, explicitly state any potential limitations that your hypothesis or experimental approach might have and the reasoning behind them.

This will help the field to generate hypotheses and new approaches without facing the same challenges.

No study is perfect, and the discussion becomes well-rounded when you emphasize not only the impact of the study but also where it may fall short.

4. Do Discuss Any Future Directions

Depending on which journal you are publishing in, you might have to provide a separate “future directions” section, rather than having it tied into the discussion.

Nonetheless, you should think about the questions that your study might lead to while you are writing the discussion.

Consider posing a few questions, preferably in the form of a hypothesis, to provide a launchpad for future research.

5. Do Decide Between the Active or Passive Voice

Lots of journals stipulate writing in the active voice, as it is more immediate and concise. And because the active voice is more personal, it also creates a better connection with the reader:

            We analyzed the samples.

Sometimes, however, the passive voice will be more appropriate if you wish to foreground the research rather than the researcher:

            The samples were analyzed.

The passive voice is widely used in scientific communication as it creates a kind of objective distance between the researcher and the research. But at the same time, it can come across as a bit dry and impersonal.

The key to writing engaging scientific papers is to vary your choice of the active and passive voice to best suit the point you’re trying to make.

Make sure you also check the preference of your target journal and follow their style guide.

Use the active voice if the people performing an action are important, but opt for the passive voice if it is the action rather than those who performed it that is key. Check out our Grammar 101 webinar for more on this and other top scientific writing tips.

6. Do Pick Your Tenses Carefully

Scientific papers generally switch tenses between different sections of the paper. In the discussion section, a good rule of thumb is to stick to the past tense for describing completed actions (e.g. to summarize your findings):

            We measured the volumes of X and Y.

You should use the present tense to interpret your results or to discuss the significance of your research findings:

            This is significant because X and Y are…

Use the future tense to outline any work that is still to be done:

In a follow-up study, we will measure Z.

What NOT To Do While Writing a Scientific Discussion

Now that we’ve outlined the important features of an authoritative discussion section, here are a few pointers about things to avoid.

7. Don’t Reiterate Your Results

You can open the discussion with a sentence that contains a snapshot of the main conclusion, but make sure you stop right there!

You’ve already written a separate “results” section, so you don’t want to go into too much detail or repeat yourself by describing your results again. Rather, swiftly transition into what these results mean and explain their impact.

8. Don’t Over-Interpret Your Findings

I mentioned giving your results their proper due and underscoring their significance. But be careful not to extrapolate your results and interpret something that is beyond the scope of the study.

Keep in mind the difference between what your results suggest at a given point versus what more can be known from them. You can do this by asking more questions and applying other experimental approaches.

Importantly, you must draw conclusions commensurate with your results.

9. Don’t Introduce a New Piece of Data

Don’t make the discussion confusing by introducing any new results or research questions. Present all of your data in the results section.

10. Don’t Use Too Much Jargon

Although readers in your field of expertise would probably understand any jargon, try to minimize its use to make your paper accessible to a broader audience and to enable a larger impact.

If you need to use abbreviations, for example, make sure that they’re defined on the first mention. Even if a technique or reagent is more commonly known by an abbreviation, provide the full term in brackets.

You’re trying to share knowledge, so your discussion should be as easy to read as possible. Try and use plain English and bear in mind that English may not be the mother tongue of many of your readers, so it’s probably a good idea to avoid lots of idioms.

If you can use a shorter word for something, make sure you use it. Good writing is clear, concise, and simple, and this applies to science writing too. So choose “use” rather than “utilize”, or “ask” rather than “enquire”, for example.

This has nothing to do with dumbing down, and everything to do with clarity; there’s nothing to be gained from trying to make your writing sound overly scholarly or inaccessible.

Check out the resources of the Plain English Campaign for more help.

This also shows why gathering feedback on your writing and editing your work are such important steps in the process of writing scientific manuscripts.

You need to check how your paper sounds to someone else; if something doesn’t make sense to one of your readers, it probably needs to be rewritten.

In a nutshell, remember that the primary goal of writing a scientific discussion is to accentuate your results. Therefore, take the time to ensure that it is well-rounded, succinct, and relevant.

Do all that and your paper should sail through peer review!

What are your top tips for writing a scientific discussion? We’d love to hear from you, so leave us a comment below.

Originally published December 7, 2016. Reviewed and updated on December 22, 2020. Reviewed and updated October 2021.

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Image Credit: Ettore

4 Comments

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