10 How to Write Quantitative Research Reports
You can determine the best way to organize a research report by considering your purpose and by identifying your audience. If, for instance, you are writing for a professional journal in the sciences or social sciences, then your readers would expect you to present the following:
1. an abstract;
2. a statement of the research question, hypothesis, or problem;
3. a review of literature;
4. a review of materials used and methods followed;
5. a results section;
6. a discussion section; and
7. a notes and bibliography section.
In addition to these basic categories, a lengthy study might include a table of contents, a table of figures, and appendixes. Because these sections are inherently logical in descriptions of research, even essays in the humanities and fine arts are likely to use Some of these sections to report research findings. Few would dispute that it makes sense to first describe a problem, explain how it was studied, and then report results and implications. Because of different philosophical underpinnings, however, academic disciplines differ in how they organize documents. The methods section that appears in the body of a scientist’s report is likely to be relegated to an appendix in a humanist’s report or omitted altogether. Some scholarly journals in the humanities expect authors to begin the essay where the scientist ends that is, with the results section. Argumentative essays and speculative reports are more likely to foreground the importance of a researcher’s results and minimize or even exclude discussions of methods. To create diversity and promote reader interest, some authors will use more engaging headings than “results” or “discussion,” yet the underlying meaning remains the same.
Because the best way to organize a research report is determined by your audience and prevailing conventions, I cannot offer rigid, absolute rules. To my mind, claims that there is only one way to structure research writing are about as valid as claims that snalce oil cures cancer. No one structure can account for diverse audiences and purposes. Instead, you can determine the best way to organize your work by listening to the emerging logic of your prose. Then, when you revise, consider the conventions for structuring ideas that exist for the audience, purpose, and context that you are addressing. With these conditions in mind, therefore, I cautiously present the following conventions as points of departure, not as absolute formulae.
STATE THE RESEARCH QUESTION OR HYPOTHESIS
As discussed in detail in the chapter on introductions and conclusions and the chapter on abstracts, academicians expect authors to provide a brief overview of the research, covering, for example, the significance of the subject, findings, conclusions, and recommendations.
The opening sentences (or paragraphs, depending on the length of the manuscript) of your investigation should identify your research question, methods, and essential conclusions. Don’t be concemed about repeating information expressed in the abstract. Although you are wise to avoid redundancy whenever possible, academicians expect some repetition from the abstract to the introduction. Also, don’t worry about giving away your best conclusions early.
REVIEW THE LITERATURE
After briefly clarifying your purpose, findings, and methods, you may wish to present a separate section that reviews the scholarship related to your topic. However, in most scholarly and professional writing, lengthy discussions of the literature are taboo. Academicians expect scholars to ground observations and interpretations in available literature throughout the document and not just in a section in the introduction. Yet they are quickly bored by serious discussions of what they already take for granted, so you will want to explain succinctly how your ideas or findings refute existing assumptions or previous studies.
REVIEW MATERIALS USED AND METHODS FOLLOWED
Particular disciplines have very specific rules about how to conduct research. To be taken seriously, your research must conform to these methodological conventions. In the sciences and social sciences, authors are usually expected to describe the materials and methods used to conduct the research. Whether you expect others to repeat your study, if you fail to provide the details needed to reproduce it, your work will lack credibility (and publishers). In fact, one of the central tasks of reviewers is to evalu3.te whether the methodology is reproducible.
If you are using a well_known and accepted method, then a few references to the major studies that have employed this method should suffice. On the other hand, if you are adapting someone else’s methods or using a controversial approach, you will need to defend the methodology, explaining why you have chosen it and how it provides an accurate measure of the problem being investigated. You can usually increase your chances of publishing your work by following established methods of inquiry. One of the main problems with using unorthodox approaches is that they require you to substantiate them, thereby diverting attention from What matters: your results.
Because a flawed research design is one of the most common reasons for rejecting a study for publication, ask experienced researchers to look over your plan before you conduct the research. Only after several of your colleagues have agreed that your method seems logical and feasible should you proceed.
While conducting the research, you will find it useful to keep written record of the materials used. Cite generic or chemical names rather than trade names. Remember, be precise in the amount and kind of materials used so that your readers can follow exactly in your footsteps. If your investigation involved selecting subjects, describe the means used to select them.
When you survey people, provide a copy of the questionnaire either in the body of the report or as an appendix. Most academicians want to know how you developed the survey, whom you submitted it to, how many people responded to it, and, as much as possible, the characteristics of the sample who responded to the survey and how closely these characteristics match those of the targeted population (for example, their sex, age, address, years of experience, etc.).
Descriptions of how you conducted an interview are often unnecessary and can even be counterproductive. However, you still may wish to elaborate on the setting in which you conducted the interview and on the specific questions that you asked.
After working night and day on a project, it is quite easy to forget to include some details because they seem obvious. As a result, c nce the study is completed, ask a qualified peer if the methods section includes all the information necessary to conduct the research Here are some standard questions that reviewers and editors ask when critiquing research studies:
1 . Is the method traditional and accepted? Did the author cite the appropriate authorities who have used the method?
2. If the method is unusual, did the author provide sufficient evidence to warrant its application? Was sufficient credit given to the originators of the method?
3. Did the author use the best possible methodology to study the research question?
4. Was the method used correctly?
5. Finally, did the author provide sufficient details so that the study can be replicated? Has the author explained what, how, how much, and when?
The heart of a successful research report, of course, is the results. After quickly scanning an abstract or introduction, many readers will skip ahead to the results and discussion. In fact, many readers will only study the method section if they doubt the results. Academicians are curious about how your results refute or support clrlier studies that explored a similar research question and explored a similar methodology (if, of course, such scholarship is able). In some disciplines, such as the sciences, authors are expected to separate the results from a broader discussion of their implications. In contrast, scholars in the humanities expect authors to interweave their results with a discussion or argument.
Most research studies generate more data than need to be reported. On some issues you may have gone fishing and come up empty, while other issues that may have appeared tangential to your primary theme may prove significant and require emphasis Academic honesty need not translate into going into monotonous detail about all of your results, yet if some results appear to contradict major patterns in the data, you cannot ignore them. When seeking a thesis that explains the data, question whether any common themes or major points of disagreement can be found in the data. Did you find what you set out to find? This rigorous process of finding patterns in the data can involve throwing out large chunks of information that simply are not helpful or important. It may take days—even months—of analyzing and organizing the data for you to determine major trends and how best to express them.
Because illustrations are expensive to produce, the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words is still true in academic writing. If you can succinctly present results in a statistical table or graph you should consider doing so. Because illustrations cost more to produce, however, use them sparingly and only to report significant results. Academic publishers cannot waste space and money just to pepper your text with impressive looking tables. Also, remember that it is not necessary to explain your results in prose if you have captured them in a table or graph, yet you should mention their presence in the text. Consider the following additional questions when evaluating your tables and figures:
1. Have you labelled the axes of tables and graphs? Will your readers understand the abbreviations used?
2. Is an illustration truly necessary? Are the results already apparent in the text?
At last, it’s showtime. Now you can interpret the theoretical and pedagogical implications of your results, clarifying how the study adds to and contradicts the work of previous scholars. Here you can tackle the tricky questions and unresolved issues highlighted by your results. You can proudly point your finger into the scholarly territory that needs exploration.
After the tedium of earlier sections of your report and the pressure to produce significant results, you may feel impelled to wax philosophical on the implications of your study. Indeed, many scholars rightly fear that insignificant results will warrant rejection of a manuscript. Unless the matter is highly controversial, a study that merely confirms earlier research lacks the winning punch of a study that breaks new ground. While these are realistic concerns, you need to balance the urge to reveal etemal truths with the need to analyze your data critically. Few editors or readers will accept a giant leap from your results to profound conclusions. In the long run, claiming that you have discovered cold fusion may bring more despair than accolades.
PROVIDE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS, NOTES, AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
In the concluding section of your report, you can acknowledge your indebtedness to friends and colleagues who helped you complete the report. If accepted by the journal you are submitting your work to, footnotes that elaborate on tangential issues may be included. Finally, you should acknowledge indebtedness to all of the scholars you have quoted or paraphrased in the report. (See Chapter 15 for a more complete discussion of documenting sources.)