2.4 Think about what data to include in your paper, and in what format and order

Before you can define, draft and refine your paper’s take-home message, you need to start pulling data together in a way that you think could be suitable for presentation in your paper.

This entails thinking about which data you might include in your paper (and which data you might leave out, if any). Whatever data you end up including in your paper, it should all fit together in a coherent story, rather than being a collection of seemingly unrelated chunks of data.

Pulling together data for your paper also entails thinking about a format in which you might display the data. This could be in display items such as figures and tables (for which you would also need to think about the most appropriate format), or it could simply be mentioning the data in the text of the Results section. Think laterally about what format might make the data as easy as possible for your readers to understand.

Pulling together data for your paper additionally entails thinking about an order in which you might present the various chunks of data. For example, which display item will you present first, which one will you present second, and so forth. The order in which you present different chunks of data in your paper can alter the ease of comprehension of the data by the reader, and can also emphasize some data over other data.

Because there are a large number of variations on all of the above, with some variants being more effective than others, its a good idea to use agile technology to experiment with different ways of selecting and presenting your data. For this reason, I (Amanda) like sketching out my data with pencil and scraps of paper, because that way it’s easy to move the ideas around and toss out ideas that don’t work, and nothing gets ‘set in stone’ (as it tends to do when I take the time to compose a multi-panel figure of Excel charts on a PowerPoint slide).

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

As you sketch out different ideas for the data to include in your paper, as well as its possible format and order, remember to take into account input from the following sources. These are also illustrated in the PDF document below.

  1. The instructions to authors for your target journal: they may set a limit on the number or type of display items you can include in your paper.
  2. Any reporting checklists or guidelines that are relevant to your paper (e.g., PRISMA guidelines for systematic reviews). These often specify some of the display items that need to be included in the paper.
  3. The views of your co-authors. By considering all possible ideas for what data to include in your paper, and how, you can be more confident that you’ve found the best strategy.

Once you’ve got a draft of your paper’s display items that you’re reasonably happy with, it’s time to start defining your take-home message.