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It Is More Than Data: It Is a Story That Summons Interpretation

Post-White, Janice PhD, RN, FAAN

doi: 10.1097/NCC.0b013e31822f7362

Author Affiliation: School of Nursing, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Correspondence: Janice Post-White, PhD, RN, FAAN, 707 Kenwood Parkway, Minneapolis, MN 55403 (

Accepted for publication July 22, 2011.

The author has no funding or conflicts of interest to disclose.

When you read a research paper, where do you turn to first? Do you jump to the discussion section or even shortcut right to the conclusions? Do you flip to the tables and figures to see the results in a snapshot, like I do? Or do you start at the beginning and read it to the end, like a novel? Readers of scholarly research enter the paper with different objectives and expectations. They should leave having learned something new. It is our responsibility as authors, reviewers, and editors to ensure that scientific rigor, comprehensive and critical analysis, and accurate interpretation are adhered to from beginning to end. But accurate scientific reporting does not require insight. An accurate and insightful paper does more than report; it deciphers and translates the data beyond the facts. The influential paper makes sense of the data for the reader and interprets its meaning and significance.

As a student apprentice in a writing program, I am learning that there is so much more to the story than just the narrative or the events. A crime story or mystery with just the evidence lacks the depth provided by a portrayal of relationships, interactions, patterns, and the unknown. The elements of good writing apply to many types of literary genres, including research. Just as the reader of a novel, memoir, or literary nonfiction seeks more out of the story than just the plot, the reader of a research paper seeks more than just the facts. Researchers want to know how the study builds theory, shapes the scientific field, and informs our own research. Clinicians want to grasp the significance the findings have for their patients. Can the results be applied to practice? If not, what else needs to be discovered before they can be translated to the bedside? If the evidence is sufficient and strong, how can clinicians translate the mean scores from a specific research population to individual patients? If the results hover somewhere in the gray area in between pilot data and evidence, do the findings tell us anything to consider, to watch for, or to anticipate as we care for our patients?

Clinical research studies are stories that tell 1 aspect of patients' lives. The snapshots, measured as outcomes, reflect a specific point in time. The investigators have followed the story from the beginning to the end, allowing them perspective on the whole, whereas the reader sees only the final scene. By reflecting on their own expectations and surprises, the authors gain a distanced perspective where serendipitous findings incubate. Narrating the facts alone does not provide this insight.

Finding insight sometimes requires reflection that is not logical and rational. Consider approaching the data as you would an adolescent. Ask what the data are not telling you. What do the data really mean, behind the black and white graphs and tables on the page? Is there hidden emotion? Are there differing opinions or innovative ideas about what the data portray? What is missing might be the clue to the next exciting and innovative idea or may be the link between patterns or connections not yet measured among variables.

I recently reviewed a stack of manuscripts for a variety of cancer-related nursing, medical, and interdisciplinary journals. They quite consistently lacked insightful interpretation. The studies were well designed, the data were sound, and the conclusions emanated from the findings, but the data stood as an island surrounded by water without any bridges to help interpret their significance and relevance to practice. As a reader, I wanted the thoughtful reflection of the authors as they made sense of the numbers and quotes and interpreted the meaning of the findings for me. I felt far inferior to be able to infuse their findings with my own interpretation. After all, they were the experts who had labored over these studies for years before the critical patient characteristics were translated to words on paper. Each word on the page weighed hours of research time. I wanted more insight, more introspection, and more interpretation of what worked, what did not, why some aspects of the study were more successful or consistent with the aims, and why other aspects did not hold up as expected. I wanted to know what the authors learned in the process of doing this study and what they would do differently next time. What insights did they come away with that could help the next generation of studies be efficient and effective at generating new and good science? I wanted the sentences to light up the story behind the data, thereby providing a bridge between the story and the findings.

So, as you approach that next paper, do not just tell the facts, reflect on and interpret the findings for the reader. Push towards wisdom. Make your story a compelling read and a scientific document that is more than just a line on your curriculum vitae. As you drive the next generation of science, do not just follow the trail but explore it, lead it, pave it. Your insights might just be the bridge to the next scientific advance.

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.