Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

The function of the discussion section in academic medical writing

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 06 May 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:1269
  1. John R Skelton, senior lecturer in communication skills (,
  2. Sarah J L Edwards, lecturer in medical ethicsb
  1. a Department of Primary Care and General Practice, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT
  2. b Department of Public Health and Epidemiology, University of Birmingham
  1. Correspondence to: J R Skelton
  • Accepted 7 February 2000

There is growing interest in the dissemination of research results and concern for how important messages can be most efficiently disseminated. A recent editorial on the writing of discussion sections and the problems connected with this provided a timely contribution.1 The particular problem Docherty and Smith perceive is that authors use “rhetoric” to make claims about their findings which “go beyond the data.” The function of the discussion section is seen as simply a way to “sell the paper” and as such it is “the weakest part of the paper … careful explanation gives way to polemic.” The suggested solution is that contributors should be asked to write highly structured discussion sections as a way of imposing discipline and banishing speculation. The argument in favour of doing so is “[m]uch the same as that for structured abstracts,” which “have been shown to include more important information than unstructured summaries.”

In this article, we highlight several difficulties with this line of argument. We argue that discussion sections already have a fairly conventionalised structure; that some speculative language in the discussion section is desirable; and that, even if speculative language were not desirable, it would be impossible to get rid of it by virtue of a tighter structure.

Summary points

There is concern that authors speculate beyond their results when they write discussion sections and that these sections should therefore be formally structured

If authors do not go beyond their results, however, their discussion is tautologous

In any case, speculation cannot be removed by imposing structural rules

What is needed to assist authors is detailed, evidence based guidance about how to write discussions


To find out how discussion sections …

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