The Science Of Scientific Writing    Set F      The Discussion: Answers    Two Main Parts    Maps for Discussions    Exercise 1       Final Page .

Course Home

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: Paragraph Coherence and Cohesion

SET D: Sentences

SET E: Scientific Sections (including Methods)

SET F: Scientific Sections: The Discussion

SET G : Scientific Sections: The Introduction

SET H : The Paper as a Whole

We use two types of maps for the Discussion

When you made a map for a generic section in Set E, each box contained a sentence that was the landmark sentence, or the basis of a landmark sentence, of a paragraph. The main focus was in creating an effective outline for the section, and in clarifying the content and wording of the landmark sentences. When writing the Discussion we can use this type of map (an outline map) as well, but only after we have first worked with a map of a very different kind: an argument map.

What is argument map? Well, since the main role of the Discussion is to persuade the reader that our results help to answer our lower (and higher-level) questions, in approaching the Discussion, think like a barrister defending a client in court. To help you develop your own case, and to identify any potential chinks in your argument, the most powerful approach is to use an argument map. These diagrams provide a systematic way of developing a thorough and logicallly convincing case, and also serve as an excellent means to then communicate your preliminary case to your colleagues for appraisal. It is NOT a plan for a text, rather its focus is on developing the content that could be later used as the conceptual basis for a text.

When you eventually come to write up an argument there are several things you are trying to achieve:

* You are trying to provide a thorough argument, that considers the evidence both for and against your main claims. This is often referred to as the "logos" of your argument.

* You are trying to keep your readers' attention. Readers typically bring a |"cost-benefit-analysis" mentality to papers: "How much benefit will I obtain reading this paper for the amount of effort required (compared to the many other papers competing for my attention)?"

* You are trying to establish an image of yourself, both for the moment, and also for the long-term, as a suitably intelligent, critical and reliable member of the scientific community. This is technically referred to as the "ethos" of you argument.

All three of these aims are important, and in the early part of your career, the third is particularly important, especially in relation to the reviewers who will decide whether your papers will or will not be published. One of the most effective ways to affirm your trustworthiness in your readership's eyes is to provide the thorough argument mentioned in the first point. Few things decrease your credibilty more than if you appear to approach your research in a biased way. Thus you should always try to play devil's advocate to your own work - this will not only increase your work's credibility, it will often lead to improvements in the science itself. One common suggestion is to try to think of the simplest experiment that could prove your preferred model wrong.

Converting an Argument Map into text

Earlier when we converted an outline map to text, we used some easy rules to determine the sequence in which map items appeared in the text (e.g. left-hand branches before right-hand ones). The architecture of an argument map, at least in its basic form, however, gives fewer clues to the structure of the text. Remember that its purpose is to help us understand the content, and indeed we may decide in the end that large portions of the map are not useful in the text version. But we can add extra features to a basic argument map that both improve its own effectivness and also give us strong clues as to the best sequence in which to present the major branches of the map in the text version.


Annotating Maps for Scientific Impact

Consider the map below.



This map has two types of annotation:

* Map boxes are annotated to reflect their "argumentative strength". Rationale uses two systems to do this:

  • Different shades of green or red, the darker the shade, the stronger the support and counter-support, respectively
  • For colour-blind people, different numbers of round or square dots, the number reflecting the strength of the support and counter-support, respectively.

* Some branches (the major ones) are annotated to reflect the importance of the branch for the argument, if the argumentative support (or counter-support) were 100%

  • Here, stars (from the Teacher Tools part of the Building Panel) have been used to indicate this "potential importance" of the branch.

When any given branch is annotated for both components, then considering them together provides what I call the Impact of the branch. A line of evidence could have a medium level of reliability but may be very exciting, and thus may have higher Impact than another line of evidence which is highly reliable, but does not have the potential to change our thinking much. In the global warming example above, the left-hand branch has been given a higher Impact, because, even though its credibility is rated the same as that of the right-hand branch, the author decided that current correlations are more important than past ones.

How do you combine your assessments of argumentative strength and potential importance to come up with a measure of Impact? This is up to you, there is no precise formula. Each person is going to vary in their assessement. It is of course the relative Impact of one line of evidence versus another that is more important than any absolute value.


Discussions are often sequenced according to scientific impact

It is a good idea to make such assessments explicit to your collaborators because such assessment often guide, consciously or unconsciously, how you will sequence the Discussion. In what way? Well, if we are trying to keep our readers' attention, it makes a lot of sense to present the highest Impact line of the argument first. Written and verbal presentations of scientific findings vary greatly in this respect, because in the first case you do not have an audience as "captive" as when you give a seminar. Thus you must at least consider the benefits of the strategy used in newspaper articles: present the most exciting, highest impact news first! It will not be the only criterion, for example if you study used some controversial methodology you might begin your Discussion by arguing in favour of the appropriateness of the approach.

Organising the Discussion according to considerations of impact represents a major difference on the way that the descriptions and reports of the Methods are Results are organised. In those cases, "natural order" is often more important. Of course natural order can also play a part in arguments too, but its influence is often trumped by considerations of Impact.