Discussions: Discuss.

Apr 04 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

An interesting point brought up by the ever-insightful becca in one of Drugmonkey's recent posts  made me think. Why do we write discussion sections for our papers? No--I mean, why do we really write them? I'd imagine that a good number of you agree with becca, that if we're prioritizing reading sections of a paper, the discussion is almost always last or never. Nobody cares what you have to say about your own stuff; let ME decide the significance of your work.

But when it comes to writing and reviewing manuscripts, I find that there's quite a bit of emphasis on the discussion. "The authors did not discuss the implications of their findings in light of the work of Fancypants et al 1997, 2000, and 2010a & b," "The authors overstate the clinical relevance of the results from Experiment 2," "The authors' explanation for their findings in experiment 3 are unfounded." I myself have been that reviewer--the one who demands that the authors dedicate at least 150 words to speculation (with citations, of course) on why they failed to replicate Generally Accepted Phenomenon. But what do I care? Am I on the authors' thesis committee or something? Do I reject the data if the authors can't come up with an acceptable reason for why things turned out the way they did?

It seems to me that in general, the discussion section IS like a thesis defense: are you enough of a scholar about your own work to warrant publication of the work itself? Do you know the literature, have you thought about alternate interpretations, can you see where your work is taking the field? If the answer is "no," then the paper must be revised and resubmitted until it's deemed suitably "discussed." But honestly, does anyone besides the people who review your manuscript give a shit about these things?  In other words, if a poor interpretation of one's own work is made, but nobody reads it because it was made in the discussion, does it make a sound?

15 responses so far

  • Hermitage says:

    I basically glance at the discussion to see if the authors are out of their fucking minds. Discussions that say their results are flawless, entirely complete, and are going to fix/change the universe indicate to me that I need to go back and eyeball the data a little harder.

    Otherwise, I almost never read discussions of work in my own field. I will read them for papers outside my expertise because they can have some nice insight.

  • Dave says:

    I was once advised only to read the discussion of a paper. That way you will not need to worry about the details and just get the facts. Quite possibly one of the worst pieces of scientific advice I have ever received.

  • Odyssey says:

    I read Discussion sections. I'm interested in seeing how the authors position their work relative to the field, and how they view the field in general. This can sometimes provide fresh insights and/or give clues as to where the authors are headed next. That doesn't mean I don't form my own opinions. I'm just open to the idea that someone might have a better one than me.

    • Hermitage says:

      Discussions (outside grandiose bullshit), are almost depressingly boilerplate in my field. I'm jelly of ppl who have lots of lots of papers to read where authors actually have something insightful to say in the discussion.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I'm interested to know if they cited us.

  • katiesci says:

    I'm still a grad student so I find them very useful, especially if it's not in my sub-field. I make my own conclusions and then see if I missed anything. Also, I like to make snarky comments on my PDF file if they overstate things.

  • Terry says:

    It's a relic of the past. It used to be the case, a few decades ago, when you could actually write your opinion in the discussion, and people wanted to read it.

    Now, it's just connecting the stupid obvious logical dots from the discussion and to kiss the appropriate asses with the right citations.

    Anything that looks like an opinion is banished during the review process.

    The one thing that I love about being an editor is that I can allow, and sometimes encourage, the expression of only moderately substantiated opinions and speculation in the discussion, as long as it's labeled as such.

  • M says:

    I love reading well-written discussion sections (and introductions). Well-written (and I suppose that includes scientifically sound) is the key here. Maybe this attitude is field-dependent. I'm chemistry/physics/materials science.

  • Confounding says:

    I've read some genuinely useful discussion sections, that actually did prompt me to think about their study, possible extensions to it, and directions I haven't seen.

    Then I've read some utterly useless, self-satisfied nothing. But I'm pretty sure that's true for every paper section.

  • neuropolarbear says:

    If a paper is a slice of cake, the discussion is the frosting.

    The Discussion section is my favorite part to read and also to write.

    I place people who hate the Discussion in the same category as snobs who say they don't own a TV.

    I often read it first, and sometimes stop there. It's my guilty secret.
    I tell my grad students to do as I say (focus on results) not as I do.

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