The genre of research articles: The sections after methods

Neurobiology of WritingIt took a loooong time. But this post concludes my series on writing a research article (RA) based on John Swale’s Create-A-Research-Space (CARS) model. See my first post for an overview of publishing in peer-reviewed journals. This time the focus is on the sections that appear in an RA after the methods are explained. Commonly called the Results and Discussion,  this portion of an RA may also include a Conclusion section so I’ll also say a few words about it, too.

The good news is that this portion of the RA is somewhat less rhetorically sophisticated than an Introduction or Literature Review.  The bad news is that research results — and their implications — don’t write themselves. Jorge Cham has been making that clear over at Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD) Comics for many years now.

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Results and Discussion (plus Conclusion) Section(s)*

Why am I tackling all three RA sections together? In one study of 20 RAs in 4 journals within the same discipline, the researchers found all of the following:

  • Results (as a separate section heading) in 75%
  • Results and Discussion (under a single heading) in 25%
  • Discussion (as a separate heading) in 40%
  • Conclusion (as a separate heading) in 65%
  • [Practical] Implications (as a separate heading) in 30%

That’s why.

The pattern of rhetorical moves for the Results and Discussion + Conclusion is shown in the table below. (I’ve combined findings from two previous studies — see the end of this post.) You might think of Moves 1 and 2 as the “Results,” Move 3 as the “Discussion,” and Moves 4, 5 & 6 as the “Conclusion.” Just don’t expect those exact headings to appear in every article you read. Or write.

Rhetorical Move Step
Move 1 Preparing the scene   Provide background about theory/research aims/methods
Move 2 Reporting the results   Present findings
Move 3 Commenting on results Step 1A Interpret findings
Step 1B Refer to previous research
Step 2 Comment on expected or unexpected finding
Step 3A Evaluate findings
Step 3B Account for findings
Step 3C Claim contribution of study
Move 4 Summarizing results   Provide summary
Move 5 Evaluating the study Step 1A Describe limitations
Step 1B Claim contribution of study
Move 6 Making deductions from the study   Recommend future research directions

Analysis of Rhetorical Moves in a Sample RA

Let’s apply the rhetorical moves to a specific sample. It’s the same one from previous posts about the sections of an RA. (See the complete article.)

In this sample RA, we find the results and discussion in a single section with the heading, “Interpretations of Rapport Management and (In)Justice,” and the conclusions in a section with that exact heading. I found examples of all 6 rhetorical moves and their subordinate steps in the sample.

Move 1 appears in the first paragraph of the section containing results and discussion. Moves 2 and 3 are interwoven within each of its subsections (i.e., “Quality Face Wants and Injustice,” “Social Identity Face Wants and Injustice,” etc.). In RAs reporting qualitative research, combining data/results and analysis/discussion into a single section of the RA is the norm. In RAs reporting quantitative research, these would be presented sequentially.

As the table shows, Move 2 in the sample RA involves displaying findings with a single quantitative summary plus a quoted narrative (these represent the data in this qualitative study).  In quantitative studies, data is normally displayed in tables.

In the sample RA, Move 3 represents a large portion of each sub-section. After each quoted narrative, there is a paragraph or two of comments about it. These comments include examples from all of the subordinate Steps shown in the table of rhetorical moves from above. In general, discussion occupies more of the real estate in a journal article. It’s where researchers make their actual contribution.

Moves 4, 5, and 6 appear in the section of the sample RA headed “Conclusions.” One of the differences between this qualitative study and quantitative ones is that Move 6 also apppears at the end of each sub-section where results and discussion are presented. In the sample RA, these take the form of propositions to guide future research based on the data analysis in that sub-section.

Analysis of Style in a Sample RA

Because the rhetorical purpose of Results and Discussion/Conclusions is different, the way textual elements are used is also dissimilar. Here are some examples from the portions of the sample RA where results appear (Move 2).

Textual Element Usage when presenting results Examples from Sample RA
Tense  present is low &past is high
  1. In 33 (31%) of the 108 narratives, we found autonomy rights violations.
  2. In the following narrative, the subordinate perceived injustice when the manager assigned a heavier workload to the subordinate compared to his or her coworkers’ workload …
Passive use is low
  1. The narratives have not been edited and are presented as originally written by participants.
  2. The subordinate’s anger and sense of injustice in this case were prompted by the fact that …
Citation use is low No examples identified
Hedging use is mid No examples identified

For the sample RA, use of past tense for presentation of results follows the common pattern. However, passive usage was mid in contrast to Swales prediction of low. The use of passives serves to promote cohesion.  Whatever appears in the subject slot of a sentence is the focus and creates a link with whatever came in the previous sentence. Check out my video tutorial on cohesion if you want to understand how valuable passive voice can be.

I found no citations as predicted. But I also found no hedges in presenting the data, which is counter to expectations. This may be a consequence of the nature of the data reported in the sample RA. Qualitative data is raw or unanalyzed so any hedge about reporting it makes little sense. Plus the descriptive statistics reported require only simplistic manipulation of the data — as opposed to the complexity of choices involved in inferential statistics.

Here are some stylistic examples from the portions of the sample RA where discussion and conclusions appear.

Textual Element Usage when discussing results & study Examples from Sample RA
Tense  present is high & past is mid
  1. The subordinate’s narrative makes it clear that …
  2. Combining rapport management and organizational justice theory, we make the following propositions …
Passive no pattern
  1. Thus, perceptions of injustice are influenced by ….
  2. Restricting the employee’s workplace autonomy is often considered to be the primary function of managers.
Citation use is high
  1. In other words, the subordinate’s face wants are elevated when the manager lowers his or her own (Brown & Levinson, 1987). The relative raising or lowering of face to manage rapport appears to be related to Lind and Tyler’s (1988) concept of standing.
Hedging use is high
  1. …the choice to communicate a request rather than the way in which the manager communicated it seems to us to be the salient issue to which the subordinate responded.
  2. we believe sociolinguistic theory can explain why perceptions regarding the social sensitivity of interpersonal treatment relate to justice judgments.

The sample RA follows the normal expectations for style when discussing results and the study as a whole.

* I should have added more parentheses to that heading. Geez! I’m in half-academic mode here.

Research Sources

Ruiying & Allison (2003). Research articles in applied linguistics: Moving from results to conclusions. English for Specific Purposes, 22, pp. 365–385.

Peacock (2002). Communicative moves in the discussion section of research articles. System,  30, pp. 479–497.

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