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A short note about article conclusions by Linda McPhee

In keeping with the writing theme, Linda McPhee of Linda McPhee Consulting, who contributed to the Guardian Higher Education chat on academic writing with me in July 2012, has written us a post about article conclusions. There are some interesting insights here that may be of use to those writing their own article conclusions.

A few of my classes in the past year have been looking at the strategies writers use in the conclusions of published articles. The published papers we took as a sample sometimes had separate concluding sections, and sometimes incorporated these into the previous section, although it was not really possible to see any difference between the two in content or strategy beyond presence or absence of a section heading.

One conclusion started by listing the authors’ assumptions and describing the problem that had been addressed. Another used a time structure: summarising the past, how this is now changing, and how the findings show the important factors in that change. The overwhelming majority began with a very brief summary of the most important findings – not a complete rehash of the findings, but a quick trip through the high points. Most were very brief and selective, though a couple provided more extensive summaries and examples from the paper.

The next part of the conclusion was more variable. Several explained how the paper fit into a larger, ongoing process (either a research process or in the actual case being researched). A few summarised the limitations of the work (all of which had been mentioned earlier in the papers at the relevant spots). One discussed why addressing the limitations could not supply enough data to change the findings, and ended with the implications of the findings. Several mentioned implications, either practical or for ongoing research. One that ended with long-term implications first discussed short-term implications. Similarly, one pointed out that although they had not found what they were looking for, the result was real and would change their research in particular ways.

The final part almost always included a sales pitch for the research. This could be its uniqueness, why it was special, its implications, or its practical value. For a few papers, the ending described what the authors saw as the logical next step to be researched. Our small sample (about 30 published papers) seemed to group around three broad scenarios, each with several variations.

Could any one of the three serve as a basic model for the conclusion of the paper you are now writing?


Restatement of the problem & its importancePast to present of problem

Brief summary of most important findings

More extensive summaries of implications of each result, including its history, examples and assumptions

Summary: research question and processHow this fits into a larger, ongoing process

Summary of limitations (all  mentioned earlier)

Why limitations did not change researcher’s mind

Overall implications of results

Immediate implications

Sales pitch for the research, its uniquenessImplications

Practical value

Next step