Writing the Results Section

//This is part of a series of tutorials I wrote for my students. Toward the end of the semester as deadlines were looming, they became more specific for the assignment in my course. So it’s taken me a while to modify them. Since part of this series got picked up over at the Addgene.org blog, I feel like I should really finish up this series. This series is compiled on the page A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Scientific Manuscripts.//

The results section is the main course of your manuscript. This is where you lay out all of your data in carefully arranged figures to build the case for your conclusions. Since you have already decided what data get to leave the pages of your lab notebook and have rendered them as informative figures, the majority of the work of your results section is finished.

General

The results section is written in the past tense because you are describing experiments performed and observations made previously. “The ADH purification procedure gave a 6-fold purification with a 20% yield.” In some contexts, your results will yield new truths about ADH, which will always be true. It would be appropriate to use the present tense in these contexts, but be careful how you do this. It is generally easier to restrict results to the past tense and save the new insights for the discussion section where they can be mentioned in the present tense. The reason for this is purely grammatical because it takes some practice to successfully blend tenses within sections/paragraphs without it turning into a hot mess.

Your figures and tables frame your story

The order of your figures is usually not the chronological order in which you did the experiments. Care should be taken in arranging your figures in an order that will best support your conclusions. The first figures typically describe the experimental system and its verification (creation and validation of a mutant, isolation of a protein, demonstration of a new analytical method etc). Subsequent figures show the application of the experimental system to a relevant question to generate new knowledge. These can be used to build evidence for a particular model of how you think something works or to eliminate possible explanations. Either way, the order of your figures should take the reader through a logical sequence that will culminate in your conclusions.

Tell the story

Once you have laid the groundwork with your properly assembled figure sequence, the text of your results section should guide the read reader through each figure and how your data lead you to new knowledge of your research topic. If your writing takes strange circuits or you have difficulty in transitioning between sections, you may want to re-think the order of your figures. It typically means there is some conflict between the data in your figures and the way you want to write about it. Speaking of sections, it is often useful to break up the text of your results into useful sections with headings that describe the analysis or main conclusion from the results.

While your figures should be clearly understandable with legends to describe what the reader is looking at, the text in your results section should give the context for that data and highlight the key findings. When you refer to your data, refer to them by their figure (and panel) or table number. Since you have multiple gels and graphs, you cannot just refer to them generically by experiment type without designating a specific figure without causing confusion. Also, it is more succinct to say ‘Figure 5A’ vs. ‘the graph of absorbance/activity vs. elution volume.’ In the context of the assembled manuscript, the figures and their legends will be pages and pages ahead of the results section. So, you must direct the reader to the proper place. In the final version of the manuscript that actually gets published, the figures will be re-sized and type-set into journal pages where they are closer to their results text, but never assume that your reader will be able to pick out the proper panel of a figure on their own.

Methods context and purpose

To set up the descriptions of your figures and what they possibly mean, it is important to give some context for the experiment. Describe the purpose for the experiment. The data in your figures should accomplish this purpose and you must describe how so in the text of your results section. Remember also that the details of the methods used will likely be pages and pages previous, so it’s perfectly acceptable to reiterate some method highlights for context, especially if they are important for interpreting the data in your figures. You should be able to read your results paragraphs and have a good understanding of what is being done without having to flip back to the methods section.

Discussion within the results section

How much discussion you include in your ‘results’ section will vary depending on the journal for which you are submitting your manuscript. Some journals have a separate discussion section where you are allowed a designated space to expound upon the meaning of your results in a larger context, outstanding questions, links to previous studies etc. In this case, keep your results section focused on the data at hand. Don’t dwell too much on implications or what the results may mean unless those conclusions transition into your next figure. If there is no separate discussion section, then write your conclusions where appropriate, but overall your writing should still stay grounded in your data. Too much elaboration is a symptom of over-interpreting your results and reaching beyond what the data actually means. Stick to the facts and qualify the conclusions where appropriate. It’s always a good idea to connect your work to other studies, but too much may again be stretching your data more than is necessary. Too many conclusions or integrating your work into a complex model at the end also risks a call for additional experimentation by the reviewers that get the first look at your manuscript. If your data along with previously published work doesn’t support every aspect of your conclusions, they maybe you should do some more work in the lab. If that suggestion just made you throw up in your mouth a little, then maybe you should be more conservative in the interpretation of your results.

Johnna

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