The Science Of Scientific Writing    Set F      The Discussion     Coherence: Speculative and Non-speculative Content      Exercise 1      Maps for Discussions    Exercise 2      Final Page .

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OVERVIEW: The way to well-written science

How to do the Course


PART I: Paragraphs and Sentences

SET A: Paragraphs: The Maps Behind Them

SET B: Paragraphs: Using Maps to Meet Readers' Expectations

SET C: Paragraphs with Something Extra: Points and Tails

SET D: The Generic Section: Expectations and Maps as Blueprints

SET E: Scientific Sections: The Methods and Results

SET F: Scientific Sections: The Discussion

SET G : Scientific Sections: The Introduction

SET H : Sentences

SET I : The Paper as a Whole



PART II: The Paper and its Sections


SET 1: Argument Parts

SET 2: Indicator Words

SET 3: Refining Claims

SET 4: Locating Arguments in Prose

SET 5: Rationale's Essay Planner

SET 6: Evidence in Arguments: Basis Boxes

SET 7: Assessing

SET 8: More on Assessing

SET 9: Analysis Maps

SET 10: Assessing Again

Synthesis 1: Position-Early Paragraphs

Synthesis 2: Position-Final Paragraphs

Synthesis 3: Writing a Discussion I

Synthesis 4: Writing a Discussion II

How the type of paper influences the balance of speculative and non-speculative content

A second important way of categorising a scientific paper is as follows:

* Primarily Descriptive (information-driven) (e.g. What species are found in a given area?)

* Primarily Argumentative (hypothesis-, or model-driven)

- Explanatory (e.g. Why are certain species found in a given area?)

- Methodological (e.g. What is the best method to detect the presence of species X in a given area?)

The particular category that a paper belongs to will typically infuence the relative importance of speculation in the Discussion. In fact in a descriptive paper, there often seems little else left to do in the Discussion but speculate. The basic "payload" of a paper is delivered in different places in argumentative and descriptive papers. In an argumentative paper, the Results section is often just a "means to and end" and the information there may have little inherent scientific interest (e.g. what hapened in Pasteur's meat broth system). The Discussion is where the readers looks for the necessary interpretation of the Results. In a descriptive paper, the Specific Research Question being addressed always concerns a lack of basic information, and the Results section directly addresses that problem; thus the information presented there may be "the end" itself, not just a means, and will always have inherent scientific interest. If the Results section of a Descriptive paper is well organised, it may be where readers spend most of their time.

For an argumentative paper to be coherent, the authors must first be very clear about the difference beween speculative and non-speculative content

In an explanatory or metholodological paper, if you are to maintain a clear distinction beween non-speculative and speculative content for the reader, you first must be very clear about it in your own head. One of the most common bad habits of science writing, and which has already been discussed, is that researchers become over-excited by new ways of thinking about their work. This excitement often leads them to over-emphasise the newer, often quite advanced, material, instead of providing readers with the necessary background information, however boring that might be for the writer (Remember: Familiar First!). I once came across a very extreme example of this in a paper I was reviewing: the part of Discussion devoted to the relevance of the results to the Specific Research Question consisted of three sentences! The remainder of the Discussion (eight pages in all) dealt with speculation (implications of the results). The author obviously felt that the results "spoke for themselves". But when writing the Discussion in an hypothesis- or model-driven paper, you should never presume that the reader has even read the Results! While you should never repeat the Results in their entirety, nevertheless you must pick out the most relevant parts and interpret them, with respect to the Specific Research Question/s, for the reader.

A useful analogy to writing an argumentative Discussion (as is always the case for hypothesis-driven papers) is with a lawyer giving a closing address in a criminal trial. Prior to the address the jury will have heard all the evidence (the equivalent of the Results), but now the lawyer will pick out the important bits and string them together in the way that best supports the guilt or innocence of their client (equivalent to taking one side of an argument about a scientific question). Further, the types of evidence that are considered most valuable are those that indicate that the crime actually occurred, whereas evidence that the crime should have occuured (e.g. that the accused had a motive) is much less important. Likewise in an argumentative Discussion, the most important thing is to persuade the reader that the Results help us to directly solve the Specific Research Question. For example, in the Pasteur experiment described previously, the author might need to address concerns such as:

(1) Is the swan-neck of the flask too long for room air to reach the meat broth?

(2) Is the non-cloudy broth actually free of all microbial growth, or is it just free of contamination by microbes that cause obvious cloudiness?

(3) Is the downward curve of the swan-neck trapping, not just dust, but something else that is itself the "vital principle" of air?

Attention to this sort of detail would be much more important than providing any explanation (e.g. germ theory) that suggests that the theory of spontaneous generation is unreasonable.

Once the author is clear about which content is or is not speculative, then he or she is ready to improve the coherence of the Discussion by:

(1) Separating the two types of content, either by using mode-specific langauge, or placing the content in separate sub-sections or paragraphs (see suggestions and schematic on previous page)

(2) Ensuring that the speculative content does not overwhelm the non-speculative content (by placing it after non-speculative content, and by devoting less space to it - see schematic on previous page).


In a descriptive paper, there is still a role for non-speculative content

While the Discussion section of descriptive paper may end up emphasising speculative content (because the Results section delivers the paper's most important content) there is still a place for non-speculative content. In particular the authors should address the following questions:

* How does the descriptive information obtained in the study shape up against the what would have been obtained under "perfect" condition, in terms of the information's

  • completeness?
  • reliability?

* In what ways was the information obtained

  • expected?
  • unexpected

The second question in particular will involve comparison with any papers that supply related information.

As to the sequencing of non-speculative and speculative content, you should follow that suggested for an argumentative Discussion. For example, only after having detailed the ways in which the obtained information matches or does not match expectations, should you progress to speculation about why.