How to write a results section

Do you want to know how to present your research results to help you create a top-quality dissertation, thesis or manuscript for publication? In this blog, you’ll learn how to write a results section that will give your work maximum impact.

Summary

  • The results section is likely to be the largest part of your document, but there’s only so much you can include. So, pick the best content to support your argument(s).
  • You can use figures to compare your data with other studies and you can use a table to display just your own results.
  • Make your figures and tables self-explanatory, clear and concise to prevent your readers from getting confused.
  • Make sure your figures and tables are just as well understood in black and white as well as in colour.
  • Any results that don’t make the final cut in a manuscript can be included as supplementary material. But check the Guide for Authors of your target journal for more information on this.
  • Use sub-headings to organise your results section and present everything in a logical order so that readers can easily follow your journey.
An example of a graph with four different coloured curves to give an idea of what can be used in writing a results sections.
Presenting your results is the most important part of your research. After all, this is what you’ve been working towards for a long time. So, make your results impactful by making them self-explanatory, clear and concise.

In the abstract section, you present the problem you’re trying to solve and summarise your key findings. The introduction section tells your story to the readers. The methods section tells everyone how you did your research. Now comes the results section where you explain what you found. The results section is likely to be the largest part of your document so it’s important to include only the most relevant data to support your arguments. Once you’ve presented your results, you then discuss them and describe to the reader what they mean. Throughout this blog, I will use a previous article that I authored, to draw on examples.

Preparing your figures and tables

This is probably one of the most time-consuming steps but one of high importance so take your time. Remember that a picture paints a thousand words. So, paint something with quality and clarity.

Figure or table?

Deciding how to best present your results can be quite daunting. At the end of the day, you want to convey your information in the most effective manner possible. So, do you use a figure or a table? Generally speaking, figures, such as graphs, are used to compare experimental results with literature data whereas tables are used to present actual experimental results alone.

Must be self-explanatory, clear and concise

Your figures and tables have to speak for themselves without leaving the reader confused. For every figure, use as few data sets as possible to avoid overcrowding and overwhelming your readers. Also, adjust the axes and labels so they can be read without any problems. Reading oversized or undersized fonts will just drive readers away, so keep it to a similar font size as the rest of the main body text. Keep label texts concise. So, use symbols and common abbreviations where possible e.g. Fe instead of iron. If you’re going to include a photograph or a micrograph remember to use a high-resolution image and a scale bar.

Black and white

I mention in another blog ‘Manuscript publishing: a beginner’s guide’ that you should prepare all of your content to be presented in black and white as well as colour. It may not seem obvious at first and the temptation can be there to produce colourful artwork, but what if your work is printed in black and white? Would readers be able to understand what’s going on?

Nowadays, your work can be made available online in which case it would appear in colour. However, producing diagrams that can be understood regardless of colour is never a bad thing. Fig. 1 has been used in my article and I specifically designed it to be read in colour as well as black and white. Note, the legend features black and white symbols with only one red curve which would not impact the figure if it was to appear in black. In instances where I have used colour, I have made sure that no real detriment will be done to the figure if it appeared in black and white.

A plot of hydrogen permeability versus temperature for various membrane samples taken from a scientific article as an example of how to produce a figure for a results section.
Fig. 1 is an example of a graph that I produced for a scientific article I previously authored. Source: NA Al-Mufachi, S Nayebossadri, JD Speight, W Bujalski, R Steinberger-Wilckens, D Book. Effects of thin film Pd deposition on the hydrogen permeability of Pd60Cu40 wt% alloy membranes. Journal of Membrane Science. 2015;493:580-8.

Supplementary material

I know the feeling. You have so many figures, tables, charts and other manner of data that you just want to share it with the world. But realistically, only a handful of them will make the final cut. If you’re preparing a manuscript, check the Guide for Authors of your target journal to see what the limit is on figures and tables. Once you’ve decided what gets included in the manuscript you can also add the less-important content as supplementary material. Elsevier has a set of requirements for content that can be added as supplementary material, but these requirements may vary for different publishers and journals.

Hiding results

Always avoid omitting data that could be used in your manuscript for future publications. Doing this may weaken the arguments presented in your manuscript and therefore jeopardise its quality.

Presenting your results

The presentation of your results must be logical and easy to follow. You can do this by introducing sub-headings that bunch certain data together and number them appropriately.

In my article, I combined the results and discussion section, but do check the Guide for Authors of your target journal to see if this is permissible. In this article, I measured the flow of hydrogen gas through a series of dense metal foil membranes using a bespoke kit referred to as a membrane permeability rig (MPR). To make it easier for the peer reviewers and general readers, I split the results and discussion section into four sub-headings: pre-MPR membrane characterisation, MPR results, Post-MPR membrane characterisation and discussion of findings.

By doing this, I show the reader in a logical order the results from analysis before the MPR test, results of the MPR test, results from analysis following the MPR and discussion of all the findings. This helps to take readers on your journey and tell your story. This can follow a similar sequence as your methods sections, but not always. In the methods section of my article, I describe sample preparation, then the MPR test followed by the various characterisation techniques I used in the study. This felt like a more logical order to me.

Including references in your results section is optional. After all, you’re presenting your results and not anyone else’s. Although, including references can have its place. In my article, I use data sourced from the literature to help me interpret my results. I, also, compare my findings with literature data to show the readers any corroboration. If there’s no agreement then I attempt to explain why my results differ. But bear in mind I combined both the results and discussion section in my article.

Statistical convention

It’s really important to be consistent with how you present numbers and figures. To be on the safe side, follow the Guide for Authors of your target journal, consult your institution’s guidelines or just ask your supervisor. When in doubt, just take a look at published articles, textbooks as well as theses to get an understanding of what the rules are. Indicate what type of statistical analysis has been used such as standard deviation, standard error, etc. Avoid including numbers like 3.141592 unless absolutely necessary, rather round the number down to 3.14. Also, try to be consistent with the number of significant figures or decimal places that you use for numbers.

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Naser Al-Mufachi
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