When writing, tell us your biological results!

Quick quiz! Let’s imagine you are reading the results section of a manuscript. Which of these is the most useful/interesting/compelling/informative?:

  1. Figure 2 shows the relationship between infection and lifespan.
  2. Our experiment on the relationship between infection and lifespan found unambiguous results (Figure 2).
  3. Including infection treatment as a predictor improved model fit for lifespan (stats, Figure 2).
  4. Infected hosts lived, on average, half as long as uninfected hosts (20 days vs. 40 days; stats, Figure 2).

I think we’d mostly agree that option 4 is the most informative and interesting by a long shot. It focuses on the biological results, which, as ecologists, are usually our primary interest – presumably you did the experiment because you wanted to know whether and how infection impacted reproduction, not because you just really like making figures or doing stats!

But, in my experience, it’s very common for manuscripts to say something along the lines of the first one. It devotes an entire sentence (often the topic sentence of the paragraph!) to something that is not particularly informative; as option 4 shows, you can not only tell me that Figure 2 shows that relationship, but also tell me exactly what the relationship was, which is much more useful and interesting! The second option is a modification of something that I recently read in a published paper, and left me wanting to shout TELL ME THE RESULTS!!! THIS IS NOT A MYSTERY NOVEL!!! (Apparently I get worked up while reading papers sometimes.) The third is another common thing I see in manuscripts – in this case, the focus is on the stats, not the biology. Unless your research focuses on statistical method development, people are much more likely to be interested in the biology than the stats.

So, when writing manuscripts, I urge you: Be specific and focus on your biological results!

If I read the first (topic) sentences of each paragraph of the results, I should be able to come away with the gist of what you found biologically. Many times, you’ll need the subsequent sentences in the paragraph to help explain the nuances of the result. But, similar to having your figures tell your story, the topic sentences of the results section should tell your biological story.

Aside: if you aren’t sure about topic sentences, here’s a quote from p. 150 of Stephen Heard’s excellent book on writing:

In scientific writing, the topic sentence is nearly always the first in the paragraph. This is one of a paragraph’s two “power positions”, where readers expect to find important information. The other is its last sentence, a good place for a succinct statement of the paragraph’s take-home message. When you structure a paragraph this way, you announce your destination right up front, bringing the reader along for a smooth ride to the expected finish.

Speaking of Stephen Heard, my advice relates to something else he wrote:

When you refer to multiple figures and/or tables at once, you ask the reader to do your work for you.  It’s the writer’s job, not the readers, to find and point to the pattern in the data that supports a particular point.

I’ll add: when you aren’t specific and don’t focus on your biological results, you are also asking the reader to do your work for you; you are asking the reader to find the biological pattern in your data. Don’t do that. Make life easier, less frustrating, and more interesting for the reader: tell us your results clearly and specifically, focusing on the biology!

9 thoughts on “When writing, tell us your biological results!

  1. I agree! Version 3, a verbal description of the test statistics that doesn’t even tell the direction of the effect, is especially common among undergraduate students, who are maybe more impressed (intimidated?) by the effort involved in obtaining test statistics. I like to tell students “keep the stats parenthetical – they are your license to make a verbal interpretation of your results – but they are not the results.”

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  4. Meghan, what do you think about a 5th option, that goes beyond #4 by trying to walk the reader through the figure? Much like how a speaker will walk listeners through a figure when giving a talk. Something like “Infected hosts lived half as long as uninfected hosts on average (Fig. 2, compare filled squares to open squares).”

    Ok, there’s no need for such phrasing if the figure just comprises, say, two means with error bars, as would probably be the case for the hypothetical example in the post. But for more complicated figures, I think such phrasing calls the reader’s attention to the bit of the figure that illustrates the point the text is making.

    I suppose one response would be “If you feel the need to do that, you need to simplify the figure”. Which might be a correct reply in some cases. But not in all, I don’t think.

    • Well, I’m not Meghan, but I’m not a big fan of figure descriptions in the text. Depending on figure placement it makes the reading awkward, as you need to flip back and forth. For me, it also breaks the flow of the reading, but I may be a minority in that I usually prefer to first read the text through to then go look at the figures. I’d rather have a concise description like 4) that lets me keep on reading, and then have a fully fleshed, text-independent figure caption (which also helps when just skimming the paper abstract and figures without giving it a full read).

      • “and then have a fully fleshed, text-independent figure caption”

        Yes, I was also taught that figures should be understandable without reference to the text. Though that of course begs the question of just how well the reader needs to understand the figure, since “understandable” is a matter of degree.

    • I do think that it can sometimes help to be very specific about what comparison to make in a figure (and sometimes suggest something like that as a reviewer). But I do agree that it might also indicate that something about the figure design could be improved.

  5. I agree, I wish more people would go for Option 4. Fully understandable figures – I’m old enough to remember the days when Japanese journals only published in Japanese and the only English was in the Figure captions. They were descriptive enough for you to work out what the paper was about 🙂

  6. This is a great writing tip — super simple and effective. I will definitely be teaching this to my undergraduate students.

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