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VII. Craft Your Discussion Section

Jun 07, 2016 by Kathryn Betts Adams

The Discussion section is where interpretations, comparisons, conclusions, implications for practice or policy, and directions for future research have a home. This section may be a single entity or it can be formally divided into subsections to address separate topics such as these. Each Discussion section will be somewhat different depending on the scope of the study, the clarity of the findings, and the target journal’s focus and perspective. A careful read of several Discussion sections from the journal you will submit to should help you determine what to include and how to organize this section.

Interpretations of Findings

The first and major task in any Discussion section is to interpret the study’s findings. This means you will have to repeat the findings briefly in plain words, but you should not include the detail from your Findings section above. Too much repetition wastes precious space and makes the manuscript seem less professional. Here is where you elaborate on the most important findings and relate them not only to your research questions or model, but also to the justification and scope of the problem that you described in the manuscript’s beginning.

You should be sure to point to how your study contributes to knowledge in your field or subfield, and to how (or whether) your study’s findings may have filled a gap in the literature that you noted earlier in your manuscript. This interpretation is also known as the “so what” of your study. To help support your claims about the contribution, you should include a few citations of other studies or works that may confirm or be similar to your findings, or that point to the need for knowledge that you have helped to provide in your study. Some of the references you cite here will already be in your literature review, but some will be newly introduced here. Because the write-up of a study follows a chronological progression (from introduction and literature review to research questions and then methods, findings, and discussion), it makes sense to bring in new citations in your Discussion section to address the findings in ways that your introduction could not. Findings that are different from those anticipated--whether negative, puzzling, or ambiguous--require more interpretation. You should attempt to explain what about your particular sample, methodology, or measurement could be affecting your results. Some of this may be considered a limitation of the study, so you will need to organize your section so that you don’t repeat material, but cover both findings and study limitations (see below). Further, you can discuss surprise additional findings that will be apparent in your table(s) but that were not in your original study’s purpose. An example is when a control variable such as gender or marital status, not meant to be a main variable of interest, proved to have a great deal of influence in your analysis. Even with limited space, sometimes something interesting happens and it is appropriate to interpret this new finding briefly as well.

Study Limitations

Somewhere in the Discussion section of every social science or health journal article, the limitations of your study must appear. These vary from just a sentence or two to a couple of paragraphs and may be integrated into the interpretations (see above) or may have a separate subsection. While you must mention any major limitations of your study’s methods (design, sample, measures, etc.), you do not need to belabor them. Many beginning scholars want to go into great detail about the limitations, perhaps because they were well trained in research courses to be aware of threats to validity. However, “less may be more” in your limitations subsection. So while you must include what needs to be said, do not exaggerate any limitations. Instead, make an attempt to place them in a subordinate position. For example, try to combine strengths to offset the limitations, like this: “This study is unique in its attention to the reasons older women may become homeless. Although limited by the small sample size and the missing data in our survey questionnaires, the findings contribute a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by this vulnerable group.”  Note that in this example, there is coverage of two important study limitations while touting the study’s contribution to the literature.  

Implications for Policy or Practice

Journals that serve health, mental health, or social service practitioners or policymakers tend to look for an applied message in manuscripts they accept. While an intervention study (one that tests the effectiveness of a program or practice approach) is clearly practice-oriented, even a basic study often has implications for practice or policy. It is the job of the manuscript author(s) to propose and discuss some of these, based on the findings from the study. Some of your implications may be a call to do something in a clinical or community or healthcare setting. If it follows clearly from your findings, there is nothing wrong with simply stating this implication without further citation. Other implications for practice or policy should be supported by citations taken from research, clinical, or academic literature describing programs or practices that have been proposed or actually carried out. For example, if a study based on a survey of older adults in assisted living communities found that visits from family were more protective against loneliness than other types of visits, an implication for practice would be that administrators and practitioners in age-segregated facilities should encourage families to visit and participate in social events there. One or two citations that describe programs to involve family members in senior housing would support this implication nicely.

Future Directions

Many research manuscripts include two to three sentences summarizing a few recommendations for future research studies. Like the implications piece, suggested future directions for research should be closely based on the actual study and its findings. One common way to introduce future directions is to bring in limitations of your own study and suggest the study you have done should be replicated with one or more of these limitations corrected. While not unduly apologizing or criticizing what you have done, it is appropriate to use these as recommended future directions. For instance, if you have conducted a nonrandomized quasi-experiment, you may write that an important next step will be to conduct a true randomized controlled trial; or if you had a rather small sample size without a good representation of certain ethnic or racial groups, you may suggest an important future direction should be to do this type of study with a larger, more representative sample. Beyond these sorts of recommendations, however, you may have more substantive ideas that arise from your findings about what themes arose, or a variable that was missing, etc. and your brief discussion of these ideas can be a welcome addition.

Finally, if you have the opportunity to add some sort of “conclusion” sentence or two, it is a nice touch. Often, though, space may be too limited to do this, and it is fine to simply stop when you have fulfilled the several goals of your Discussion section. With this and your tables, references, and any figures complete, you are ready to submit your manuscript to your first target journal.

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