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REVIEW CRITERIA: RESULTS

Presentation of Results

Regehr, Glenn

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REVIEW CRITERIA

  • Results are organized in a way that is easy to understand.
  • Results are presented effectively; the results are contextualized.
  • Results are complete.
  • The amount of data presented is sufficient and appropriate.
  • Tables, graphs, or figures are used judiciously and agree with the text.

ISSUES AND EXAMPLES RELATED TO CRITERIA

The Results section of a research paper lays out the body of evidence collected within the context of the study to support the conclusions and generalizations that are presented in the Discussion section. To be effective in supporting conclusions, the study results and their relation to the research questions and discussion points must be clear to the reader. Unless this relationship is clear, the reader cannot effectively judge the quality of the evidence or the extent to which it supports the claims in the Discussion section. Several devices can maximize this presentation, and reviewers need to be aware of these techniques so that they can effectively express their concerns about the Results section and provide useful feedback to the authors.

Organization of the Data and Analyses

The organization of the data and analyses is critical to the coherence of the Results section. The data and analyses should be presented in an orderly fashion, and the logic inherent in that order should be made explicit. There are several possible ways to organize the data, and the choice of organization ought to be strategic, reflecting the needs of the audience and the nature of the findings being presented. The reviewer should be alert to the organization being adopted and determine whether this particular organization is effective in conveying the results coherently.

One very helpful type of organization is to use a parallel structure across the entire research paper, that is, to make the organization of the results consistent with the organization of the other sections of the paper. Thus, the organization of the results section would mirror the organization of the research questions that were established in the Introduction, it would be foreshadowed by the descriptions provided in the Method section, and it would anticipate the organization of points to be elaborated in the Discussion. If there are several research questions, hypotheses, or important findings, the Results section may be best presented as a series of subsections, with each subsection presenting the results that are relevant to a given question, hypothesis, or set of findings. This type of organization clarifies the point of each set of results or analyses and thus makes it relatively easy to determine how the results or analyses speak to the research questions. In doing so, this organization also provides an easy method for determining whether each of the research questions has been addressed appropriately and completely, and it provides a structure for identifying post hoc or additional analyses and serendipitous findings that might not have been initially anticipated.

However, there are other ways to organize a Results section that also maintain clarity and coherence and may better represent the data and analyses. Many of these methods are used in the context of qualitative research, but may also be relevant to quantitative/experimental/hypothesis-testing research designs. Similar to the description above, the results may be grouped according to themes arising in response to articulated research objectives (although, because themes often overlap, care must be taken to focus the reader on the theme under consideration while simultaneously identifying and explaining its relationship to the others). Alternately, the data may be organized according to the method of collection (interviews, observations, documents) or to critical phases in the data-analysis process (e.g., primary node coding and axial coding).

Regardless of the choice of organization, if it does not clearly establish the relevance of the data presented and the analyses performed, then the point of the presentation has not been properly established and the Results section has failed in its purpose. If the results are not coherent, the reviewer must consider whether the problem lies in a poor execution of the analyses or in a poor organization of the Results section. If the first, the paper is probably not acceptable. If the second, the reviewer might merely want to suggest an organizational structure that would convey the results effectively.

Selection of Qualitative Data for Presentation

Qualitative research produces great amounts of raw material. And while the analysis process is designed to order and explain this raw material, at the point of presenting results the author still possesses an overwhelming set of possible excerpts to provide in a Results section. Selecting which data to present in a Results section is, therefore, critical. The logic that informs this selection process should be transparent and related explicitly to the research questions and objectives. Further, the author should make clear any implicit relationships among the results presented in terms of trends, contrasting cases, voices from a variety of perspectives on an issue, etc. Attention should be paid to ensuring that the selection process does not distort the overall gist of the entire data set. Further, narrative excerpts should be only as long as required to represent a theme or point of view, with care taken that the excerpts are not minimized to the point of distorting their meaning or diluting their character. This is a fine line, but its balance is essential to the efficient yet accurate presentation of findings about complex social phenomena.

The Balance of Descriptive and Inferential Statistics for Quantitative Data

In quantitative/hypothesis-testing papers, a rough parallel to the qualitative issue of selecting data for presentation is the balance of descriptive and inferential statistics. One common shortcoming in quantitative/hypothesis-testing papers is that the Results section focuses very heavily on inferential statistics with little attention paid to proper presentation of descriptive statistics. It is often forgotten that the inferential statistics are presented only to aid in the reasonable interpretation of the descriptive statistics. If the data (or pattern of data) to which the inferential statistics are being applied are not clear, then the point of the inferential statistics has not been properly established and the Results section has failed in its purpose. Again, however, this is a fine balance. Excessive presentation of descriptive statistics that do not speak to the research objectives may also make the Results section unwieldy and uninterpretable.

The Use of Narration for Quantitative Data

The Results section is not the place to elaborate on the implications of data collected, how the data fit into the larger theory that is being proposed, or how they relate to other literature. That is the role of the Discussion section. This being said, however, it is also true that the Results section of a quantitative/hypothesis-testing study should not be merely a string of numbers and Greek letters. Rather, the results should include a narrative description of the data, the point of the analysis, and the implications of the analysis for the data. The balance between a proper and complete description of the results and an extrapolation of the implications of the results for the research questions is a fine line. The distinction is important, however. Thus, it is reasonable—in fact, expected—that a Results section include a statement such as “Based on the pattern of data, the statistically significant two-way interaction in the analysis of variance implies that the treatment group improved on our test of knowledge more than the control group.” It is not appropriate for the Results section to include a statement such as “The ANOVA demonstrates that the treatment is effective” or, even more extreme, “the ANOVA demonstrates that we should be using our particular educational treatment rather than the other.” The first statement is a narrative description of the data interpreted in the context of the statistical analysis. The second statement is an extrapolation of the results to the research question and belongs in the Discussion. The third is an extreme over-interpretation of the results, a highly speculative value judgment about the importance of the outcome variables used in the study relative to the huge number of other variables and factors that must be weighed in any decision to adopt a new educational method (and, at least in the form presented above, should not appear anywhere in the paper). It is the reviewer's responsibility to determine whether the authors have found the appropriate balance of description. If not, areas of concern (too little description or too much interpretation) should be identified in feedback to the authors.

Contextualization of Qualitative Data

Again, there is a parallel issue regarding the narrative presentation of data in qualitative studies. In the process of selecting material from a set of qualitative data (for example, when carving out relevant narrative excerpts from analyzed focus group transcripts), it is important that data not become “disconnected” and void of their original meaning(s). Narrative results, like numeric data, cannot stand on their own. They require descriptions of their origins in the data set, the nature of the analysis conducted, and the implications of the analysis for the understandings achieved. A good qualitative Results section provides a framework for the selected data to ensure that their original contexts are sufficiently apparent that the reader can judge whether the ensuing interpretation is faithful to and reflects those contexts.

The Use of Tables and Figures

Tables and figures present tradeoffs because they often are the best way to convey complex data, yet they are also generally expensive of a journal's space. This is true for print (that is, paper) journals; but the situation is often different with electronic journals or editions. Most papers are still published in print journals, however. Thus, the reviewer must evaluate whether the tables and figures presented are the most efficient or most elucidating method of presenting the data and whether they are used appropriately sparingly. If it would be easy to present the data in the text without losing the structure or pattern of interest, this should be the preferred method of presentation. If tables or figures are used, every effort should be made to combine data into only a few. In addition, if data are presented in tables or figures, they should not be repeated in their entirely in the text. Rather, the text should be used to describe the table or figure, highlighting the key elements in the data as they pertain to the relevant research question, hypothesis, or analysis. It is also worth noting that, although somewhat mundane, an important responsibility of the reviewer is to determine whether the data in the tables, the figures, and the text are consistent. If the numbers or descriptions in the text do not match those in the tables or figures, serious concern must be raised about the quality control used in the data analysis and interpretation.

RESOURCES

American Psychological Association. Publication Manual. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1994.
    Harris IB. Qualitative methods. In: Norman GR, van der Vleuten CPM, Newble D (eds). International Handbook for Research in Medical Education. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 2001.
      Henry GT. Graphing Data: Techniques for Display and Analysis. Applied Social Research Methods Series Vol. 36. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995.
        Regehr G. The experimental tradition. In: Norman GR, van der Vleuten CPM, Newble D (eds). International Handbook for Research in Medical Education. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 2001.
          Tufte ER. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1983 (1998 printing).

            Section Description

            Review Criteria for Research Manuscripts

            Joint Task Force of Academic Medicine and the GEA-RIME Committee

            © 2001 Association of American Medical Colleges