The ‘Discussion’ is harder to define than the other sections of a technical report or scientific paper. As a result, it is usually the hardest section to write. And, whether you are aware of it or not, many technical reports and many scientific papers fail to register the authors’ desired impact on readers because of a faulty discussion. Indeed, it is quite common to have valid and interesting data in a scientific paper that is rejected by a good journal, solely on account of its poor discussion. Even more likely, the true meaning of the data may be completely obscured by the interpretation presented in the discussion, again resulting in rejection. When this happens in respect of a technical report, the author may not be given a second chance, as several journals often do.
Many, perhaps most, discussions are too long and verbose. The most common explanation for such faulty writing is that the author is doubtful about his facts (Results or Findings’, or his reasoning, and retreats behind a protective cloud of ink). In developing countries, however, the reason is frequently traceable to ignorance or absence of proper quality control. In any event, poor discussions in technical reports or scientific papers always impact negatively on the author; the objective of this unit is to provide help in eliminating most of the weaknesses found in the discussions of scientific reports or papers.
This unit, then, comprises four parts. In part one, the essential features of a good Discussion are listed and briefly described. In part two, the need to establish appropriate relationships between observed facts is demonstrated. In part three, you are urged to take pains to let your readers appreciate the significance of the results you are discussing. And, finally, in part four, you are guided in trying to lay claim to “truth in science” with great caution. The usual “Conclusion”, “Summary”, and “Reference” sections complete the unit; a self-assessment exercise is incorporated in the text.
At the end of this unit, you should he able to:
- identify and describe the essential features of a good Discussion in a technical report or scientific paper
- show clearly the relationships among established facts, as presented in your Results/Findings section
- demonstrate convincingly the significance of the results you have already presented and discussed
- define accurately and modestly what your conclusions may have contributed to the corpus of knowledge in the area investigated.
3.0 MAIN CONTENT
3.1 Components of the Discussion
The basic question to ask here is, ‘What are the essential features of a good Discussion? In answering the question, you will do well to heed the following injunctions:
Try to present the principles, relationships, and generalisations shown by the Results.
And bear in mind, in a good Discussion, you discuss—you do not recapitulate the Results.
Point out any exceptions or any lack of correlation, and define unsettled points.
Progress is made in science on the basis of being aware of both established and unestablished knowledge. In other words, by reporting the negative aspects of your experiments (Module 1 Unit 3, section 3.2) and discussing them in terms of “exceptions or lack of correlations” and thereby defining “unsettled points,” you are laying a solid foundation for subsequent investigations to build on your work.
Show how your results and interpretations agree (or contrast) with previously published work.
This injunction implies that you must be current with the literature in your area of investigation — a major obstacle for most scientists working in developing countries. Being “current with the literature” also implies access to both print and electronic literature. Increasingly, it is being demonstrated that access to the Internet is a fundamental requirement for research in science, anywhere.
Don’t be shy; discuss the theoretical implications of your work, as well as any practical implications.
As a general rule, technical reports tend to be heavy on “practical implications” in a specific organisational setting and almost silent on theoretical implications. Indeed, theoretical considerations are often consigned to Appendixes. In writing scientific papers for presentation at learned conferences or publication in learned journals, however, the reverse is the case: theoretical implications are given more emphasis. State your conclusions, as clearly as possible.
In earlier units you were enjoined to strive for clarity and brevity respectively in presenting your Results. The same attributes should also be evident in the presentation of the conclusions of your Discussion. Your conclusion should, as often as possible, be in the form of “Therefore …” in one sentence or, at most, two short sentences.
Summarise your evidence for each conclusion, and never assume anything as you do so.
It is a mistake to neglect giving the summary of what your discussion has led you logically to conclude. In other words, neither the facts nor the discussion can be assumed to be ‘self-evident’: you will have to summarise each conclusion, on the basis of the objectives set out in your investigation. And, for emphasis, remember that the conclusion alone is not enough: present the reader with its summary, too.
3.2 Factual Relationships
The primary purpose of the Discussion can be described in simple terms as follows: to show the relationships among observed facts. But, this apparent simplicity doesn’t always translate into simple practical realities when the facts of an investigation have to he discussed. To illustrate the point, we shall consider .a classic story and then invite you to answer several questions, based on the story. The questions are, of course, a series of self-assessment exercises on ‘drawing valid conclusions from the discussion of your scientific work.’
The Story about the Biologist who Trained a Flea
After training the flea for many months, the biologist was able to get a response to certain commands. The most gratifying of the experiments was the one in which the professor would shout the command “jump”, and the flea would leap into the air each time the command was given. The professor was about to submit this remarkable feat to posterity via a scientific journal, but he — in the manner of the true scientist — decided to take his experiments one step further. He sought to determine the location of the receptor organ involved. In one experiment, he removed the legs of the flea, one at a time. The flea obligingly continued to jump upon command, but as each successive leg was removed, its jumps became less spectacular. Finally, with the removal of its last leg, the flea remained motionless. Time after time the command failed to get the usual response.
The professor decided that at last he could publish his findings. He set pen to paper and described in meticulous detail the experiments executed over the preceding months. His conclusion was one intended to startle the scientific world: When the legs of a flea are removed, the flea can no longer hear.
- State, in your own words, the objective of the professor’s study in terms of the relationship(s) being sought.
- Was the professor’s decision to “determine the location of the receptor organ involved” a logical step, in light of the objective stated in (1)?
- How would you summarise the conclusion reached’ by the professor? Was the professor’s conclusion valid? Give reasons for your answer.
3.3 Significance of the Report/Paper
When you write a technical report, it is to attain a specified objective as defined by the authorities that have commissioned you to do it, or according to the specific priorities set by yourself, the writer (see Module 1 Unit 2). Similarly, how to state the objective(s) of writing a scientific ‘paper will have been clearly set out in several of the preceding units already covered in this course.
Your Discussion should end with a short summary or conclusion regarding the significance of your work. If several discernible objectives were set at the beginning, it should be possible to summarise your Discussion by listing how well your study has met each of the set objectives. This is, in itself, a self-assessment exercise: if your set objectives have not been adequately met (that is, you are unable to summarise them by producing a list), it may mean that something has seriously gone missing in your work. Or, it could mean that the original objectives were unrealistic and may have to be reset.
Finally, try to end your Discussion with a memorable climax that links your work to what has been done in your area of investigation and to what subsequent investigators might wish to work on. It should be done in a sentence or two, stressing the significance of continuing the effort you have either initiated or contributed to.
3.4 Defining Scientific Truth
Most investigators, at the beginning of their careers, like to believe that they are involved in some earth-shaking work. And, it does not matter at what level: the small project written by a master’s level student is perceived by the writer as just as ‘earth-shaking’ as the doctoral student’s dissertation. The reality is quite different, however.
In showing the relationships among observed facts, you do not need to reach cosmic conclusions. Seldom will you be able to illuminate the whole truth; more often, the best you can do is shine a spotlight on one area of truth. Your one area of truth can be buttressed by your data; if you extrapolate to a bigger picture than that shown by your data you may appear foolish to the point that even your data-supported conclusions are cast into doubt.
The point being made is just as poignant when you are writing a technical report aimed at providing one or more solutions to specified organisational problems. In drawing your conclusions; always bear in mind that you may not have all the facts. Therefore, make your Recommendations very carefully, and take time to discuss at least one draft of your Recommendations with those who are likely to implement them within the organisation.
Whether you are writing a scientific paper or a technical report, you will do well to reflect carefully on the following words of poetry, so thoughtfully expressed by Sir Richard Burton in the poem, The Kasidah:
- All Faith is false, all Faith is
- Truth is the shattered mirror strown
- In myriad bits; while each believes
- His little bit the whole to own.
So, exhibit your little piece of the mirror, or shine a spotlight on one area of the truth. The “whole truth” is a subject best left to the ignoramuses, who loudly proclaim its discovery every day. And when you describe the meaning (significance) of your little bit of truth, do it simply. The simplest statements evoke the most wisdom; verbose language and fancy technical words are used to convey shallow thought.
Six essential features of a good Discussion in a technical report or scientific paper have been listed and briefly described for you. The features are mutually reinforcing, that is, no Discussion should neglect any of them. Your discussion must be written to explore only factual relationships; nothing should be included which your data have not clearly established. It is a gross mistake to jump a logical step in order to establish factual relationships; your work immediately exhibits an obvious flaw in scientific writing, as the self-assessment exercise tries to show you. Your Discussion should also let the reader know how significant your work is, without being pedantic. If possible, list the specific areas of significance highlighted by your work. Finally, remember that you can only “shine a spotlight on one area of the truth” in your work, no matter how big or long it takes to complete it. Be modest, even conservative, in your claims, always bearing in mind that it is only a matter of time before other workers improve on it.
In this unit, you have learned how to:
- list and describe six components of the Discussion of a technical report or scientific paper
- show clearly the relationships among the established facts presented in the Results/Findings section of your report or paper
- demonstrate convincingly the significance of the results you have already presented and discussed; and
- define accurately and modestly what your conclusions may have contributed to the corpus of knowledge in the area investigated
6.0 TUTOR-MARKED ASSIGNMENT
- What are the essential features of a good Discussion?