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Recommendations for Writing the Discussion Section of a Medical Research Paper

The discussion section of a research paper gives the authors an opportunity to elaborate on their work, describing its creative content and unique insights, comparing is findings with existing knowledge, acknowledging its limitations, and posing questions for further research.

Unfortunately, the discussion section often is seriously flawed—with authors’ effusive or exaggerated praise of their work; expansive review of the literature; unnecessary repetition of background information given in the introduction; repetition of data given in the results section; and wordiness and excessive length. The discussion should be tightly written and centered on the research topic under investigation.

The following are our specific and illustrative recommendations for the discussion section:

1. Begin the discussion with a statement of the major findings of the research. The hypothesis or goal of the paper also can be re-stated or paraphrased. Example: “In this study, designed to test the hypothesis that rhubarb eating prevents colorectal cancer, we found a similar prevalence of the disease in participants who regularly eat rhubarb and those who do not.”

DO NOT begin the discussion with a general statement of the topic, or a repeat of the introduction of the paper. Example: “Epidemiological Studies have found that colorectal cancer is associated with many environmental factors.” This statement is appropriate for the introduction, but it is not focused on the goals or findings of the current research, contains no new information for the reader, and makes a very weak opening to the discussion.

2. After the beginning statement, further details of the present research may be given. Example: “Our randomized, prospective study was carefully designed to eliminate other possible variables that might affect the prevalence of colorectal cancer, such as differences in sex, age, smoking, alcohol consumption, and race/ethnicity. Also, the study population was large (5000 rhubarb eaters and 5000 non-rhubarb eaters).”

3. Describe the important or unique contributions of the current work--objectively and honestly, neither overstated nor understated. Tell how the study has advanced the field of inquiry.

4. Comparison of the present study to published reports then may be made. Example: Two series have suggested that rhubarb eating reduces the prevalence of colorectal cancer; however, study populations were small, and the studies were not controlled.

5. DO NOT make the discussion an exhaustive review of the literature. Keep it focused on the present work and closely related publications. A research paper is not a literature review.

6. DO NOT repeat verbatim or in detail results given in the results section. Example: “The incidence of colorectal cancer in rhubarb eaters was 0.025% and in non-rhubarb eaters 0.031% (p>.05) (see table 2).” Reference to tables and figures usually is not appropriate in the discussion section.

7. Limitations of the current study may be stated. Example: “The study population was derived from a small region of western United States. Thus, the findings may not be pertinent to other geographic regions.”

8. The discussion should conclude with a statement of the study’s major finding(s) and can include recommendations for further study. Example: “In summary, the results of this study do not support the hypothesis that rhubarb eating prevents colorectal cancer. Additional study of large populations in other geographic areas should be considered.” Note: The summary intentionally reinforces the message of the discussion’s opening sentence.

(Please retain the reference in reprint:

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