As its name implies, the results section of a scientific paper contains the findings of the study. That might sound like a simple task, but the real trick is to decide which results to present and how to present them. The process also involves a couple of other pitfalls for authors to anticipate and avoid.
Where to place a results section
The results section usually follows the methods section of a paper. Exceptions are some journals that place the methods last or even separately online, with the results following the introduction. And in other cases, journals allow authors to combine their results and discussion, providing context for their findings in the same section where they present them. To determine what your target journal requires, you should consult the author guidelines, sometimes also called “submission guidelines,” “manuscript guidelines,” or “author information.”
What to include in a results section
The first thing to decide is which results you want to include in your paper. That decision depends on the nature of your work, but a guiding principle is to highlight findings that are new to your field or advance understanding in some way. Another principle is to emphasize findings that are significant, either significantly or because of their importance otherwise.
You do not have to include every single result from your study. If some findings are unimportant to the field or your work, you can summarize them in a sentence or two, without giving details.
How to write a results section
The format of your results section will depend on the type of study you have conducted. Some types of studies will follow an expected format, whereas others are less constrained.
Clinical studies, for example, usually follow a conventional format. They begin with the results about the included patients, such as demographic information. Following this subsection is usually a subsection describing the results for the study’s primary aim. The next subsections will address secondary outcomes, adverse events, and sensitivity analyses, if any.
A study using animals, on the other hand, might skip details about the animals in the results and give the basics in the methods section. For the results section, the writer could begin with the main findings of the work and then provide further or more detailed findings in subsections. Other kinds of studies can be even less conventionally presented, leaving authors unsure about how to present their findings.
In these cases, authors must determine the order for presenting their findings. One useful approach is to follow the same sequence you used in the methods. For example, if you described a series of experiments in a certain order in your methods section, you might find it easy—and your readers follow your writing easily—if you use the same order in presenting your results.
How to present your results
One of the biggest mistakes authors make in writing their results section is being repetitive. You have a choice, usually, of presenting your findings in the text, in a table, or in a figure. Which one you use depends on the nature of the data. For example, if you have a list of odds ratios to report, your best option might be a table or a forest plot. You definitely do not want to create a long text list of findings for 20 separate odds ratios results.
But you also don’t want to present your findings in two ways when one will do. So for a list of odds ratios, if you choose to present them in a table, you should not also show them in a forest plot. And for results that you choose to present in either a table or a figure, you should not give the same detail in the text of your results section. Choose one or two main results and/or conclusions from findings results and use the text to tell the reader about them. Then for the details, refer your reader to either the table or the figure where you present more information.
Many journals specifically prohibit authors from repeating findings in two different elements (e.g., text and a figure or a table and a figure).
One last pitfall to watch for is using a table or a figure when text is the better option. If you are reporting only a couple of P values or just a single value for an analysis, you almost never need to turn to a table or figure to do so. Simply summarize that finding in a sentence or two in the text, with the values included.
A good rule of thumb is that a table should have at least 2 columns and several rows, and a figure should involve at least three comparisons or analyses that would be difficult to articulate in text.
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