Writing the Discussion Section of Your Manuscript for the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This column presents some considerations and best practices for finding time to produce scholarship in the form of a manuscript or presentation.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

I’ve long joked that graduate study is marked at the beginning by reading only the introduction and discussion sections of scientific articles, and at the end by reading only the methods and results sections. This is obviously not entirely accurate, but it represents the transition from wondering what others think about what they found to forming your own opinion of the implications of others’ work. In researching this post, I found a number of excellent library guides and articles that provide very useful guidance on writing your discussion section, and I would encourage you to read the two I’ve linked to. However, what I found striking was the importance placed on the discussion section by other authors, as I’ve often dismissed the discussion in my own reading. Thinking critically about this, I believe it’s because there are so many bad discussion sections in the published literature: discussions that are onerously long, filled with delusions of grandeur, misrepresentative of the results, or dismissive of the limitations of the study. At the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice (JPHMP), we also run into issues related to the readership of the journal, where discussions are especially esoteric and lacking broader implication or application of the findings. With this in mind, I wanted to provide specific guidance to authors who may be writing for submission to JPHMP for the first time.

Points to consider:
  • It’s been written by others, but good discussions put your results into context, explain them, and highlight strengths and weaknesses of your study. Bad discussions over-interpret the results, speculate beyond the current findings, overstate the importance of the results, or over-editorialize. A good discussion provides thoughts on the next steps in this specific line of inquiry, or highlights gaps in knowledge needing to be filled to move the field forward. A bad discussion leads the reader to believe that it describes the consummate work in the area. Remember, good research usually creates more questions than answers, which is how the field is self-perpetuating.
  • Much of the readership of the JPHMP is what I like to call “end users.” These are practitioners, policy makers, and academics who work with both groups. As such, they are much more interested in findings that they can apply to their work in the real world than they would be novel results from contrived settings. The discussion section is a great place for authors to put their work not only in the context of the scientific literature but also to highlight the practical implications of their results.
  • Finally, please note that the author guidelines describe numerous article types with specific expectations and formatting requirements. All four research and practice report formats require a section called Implications for Policy & Practice. This is an opportunity to succinctly state the relevant implications, but they should be points raised in the discussion in a longer form. Remember, if you can’t articulate implications for policy or practice, your work may not be a good fit for JPHMP.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

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