As a researcher, you know you need to provide a background for your study and a clear rationale and to formulate the statement of the problem in a way that leaves no doubt that your work is relevant and important. You also need to guide the reader carefully through your story from beginning to end without leaving any methodological questions unanswered.
But many authors, when arriving at the end of their paper, run out of steam or lose the thread a bit and struggle with finding an ending for their work. Something can then appear missing, even if the discussion section summarizes the findings clearly, relates them back to the questions raised in the introduction section, and discusses them in the context of earlier works. A tired author who just made it to the end can often not see these missing elements and may finish off their paper with a conclusion section that is more or less a repetition of what has already been stated. After all, what more is there to be said?
But as sure as the sun will rise again the day after you finally submitted, you will get your paper back from your supervisor or the reviewers with a comment that says, “implications are missing.” For a reader who is not as invested in every little detail of your design and analyses, the main questions that a paper has to answer are “why was this study necessary?” and “why are the findings of this study significant, and for whom, and what are we supposed to do with them now?” The latter are the implications of your work.
Didn’t I explain the implications in my introduction section?
You will hopefully have already explained why and for whom your study is important. But you now also need to clearly state how you think your actual findings (which might differ from what you expected to find at the beginning) may be relevant and/or can be used in practical or theoretical ways, for future research, or by policymakers. These implications need to be based on your study’s parameters and results, and potential limitations of your methodology or sample should be taken into account to avoid overgeneralization.
If you make the reader guess what the significance of your work might be or let them assume you don’t think that your work will be important for anyone except yourself and your colleagues who share your enthusiasm because they are working on the same topic, then an editor or reviewer might easily see that as a reason for a desk-reject. To avoid this, in the following, we will give you an overview of the different types of implications that research findings can have, provide some examples for your inspiration, and clarify where your implications should go in your paper.
Table of Contents:
- Types of Implications in Research
- Recommendations Versus Implications
- Research Implications Examples
- Where Do the Implications Go in Your paper?
Types of Implications in Research
Depending on the type of research you are doing (clinical, philosophical, political…) the implications of your findings can likewise be clinical, philosophical, political, social, ethical—you name it. The most important distinction, however, is the one between practical implications and theoretical implications, and what many reviewers immediately notice and flag as an issue is when there is no mention of any kind of practical contribution of the work described in a paper.
Of course, if you study a mathematical theory, then your findings might simply lead to the debunking of another theory as false, and you might need to do some mental gymnastics if you really wanted to apply that to a real-world problem. But chances are, in that case, your reviewers and readers won’t ask for a real-world implication. In most other cases, however, if you really want to convince your audience that your work deserves attention, publication, prizes, and whatnot, then you need to link whatever you did in the lab or found in the library to real life and highlight how your findings might have a lasting effect on your field (for example, methodologically), common practices (e.g., patient treatment or teaching standards), society at large (maybe the way we communicate), or ethical standards (e.g., in animal research).
The question is not whether your findings will change the world, but whether they could if they were publicized and implemented—according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the essential meaning of implication is a “possible future effect or result”. This possible result is what you have to identify and describe. And while being creative is certainly allowed, make sure your assumptions stay within realistic expectations, and don’t forget to take the limitations of your methodology or your sample into account.
If you studied the genetic basis of a disease in some animal model, then make sure you have good reason to draw conclusions about the treatment of the same disease in humans if you don’t want to put off the editor who decides whether to even send your manuscript out for review. Likewise, if you explored the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on higher education institutions in your country, then make sure the conclusions you draw hold in the context of other countries’ pandemic situations and restrictions and differences across education systems before you claim that they are relevant in a global context.
Recommendations Versus Implications
Implications, as we already explored, state the importance of your study and how your findings may be relevant for the fine-tuning of certain practices, theoretical models, policymaking, or future research studies. As stated earlier, that does not necessarily mean that you believe your findings will change the world tomorrow, but that you have reason to believe they could have an impact in a specific way. Recommendations, on the other hand, are specific suggestions regarding the best course of action in a certain situation based on your findings. If, for example, you used three different established methods in your field to tackle the same problem, compared the outcomes, and concluded that one of these methods is, in fact, insufficient and should not be used anymore, then that is a recommendation for future research.
Or if you analyzed how a monetary “Corona support program” in your country affected the local economy and found that most of the money the government provided went to Amazon and not to local businesses, then you can recommend that your government come up with a better plan next time. Such specific recommendations should usually follow the implications, not the other way around, because you always need to identify the implications of your work, but not every study allows the author to make practical suggestions or real-world recommendations.
Research Implications Examples
1. Clinical implications
Let’s say you discovered a new antibiotic that could eliminate a specific pathogen effectively without generating resistance (the main problem with antibiotics). The clinical implications of your findings would then be that infections with this pathogen could be more rapidly treated than before (without you predicting or suggesting any specific action to happen as a result of your findings). A recommendation would be that doctors should start using this new antibiotic, that it should be included in the official treatment guidelines, that it should be covered by the national health insurance of your country, etc.—but depending on how conclusive your findings are or how much more research or development might be needed to get from your findings to the actual medication, such recommendations might be a big stretch. The implications, however, since they state the potential of your findings, are valid in any case and should not be missing from your discussion section, even if your findings are just one small step along the way.
2. Social implications
The social implications of research are defined as the ability or potential of research to impact society in visible ways. One of the obvious fields of research that strives for a social impact through the implementation of evidence that increases the overall quality of people’s lives is psychology. Whether your research explores the new work-life-balance movement and its effect on mental well-being, psychological interventions at schools to compensate for the stress many children are experiencing since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, or how work from home is changing family dynamics, you can most likely draw conclusions that go beyond just your study sample and describe potential (theoretical or practical) effects of your findings in the real world. Be careful, however, that you don’t overgeneralize from your sample or your data to the general population without having solid reasons to do so (and explain those reasons).
3. Implications for future research
Even if your findings are not going to lead to societal changes, new educational policies, or an overhaul of the national pension system, they might have important implications for future research studies. Maybe you used a new technique that is more precise or more efficient or way cheaper than existing methods and this could enable more labs around the world to study a specific problem. Or maybe you found that a gene that is known to be involved in one disease might also be involved in another disease, which opens up new avenues for research and treatment options. As stated earlier, make sure you don’t confuse recommendations (which you might not be able to make, based on your findings, and don’t necessarily have to) with implications, which are the potential effect that your findings could have—independently of whether you have any influence on that.
Where Do the Implications Go in Your Paper?
The implications are part of your discussion section, where you summarize your findings and then put them into context—this context being earlier research but also the potential effect your findings could have in the real world, in whatever scenario you think might be relevant. There is no “implication section” and no rule as to where in the discussion section you need to include these details because the order of information depends on how you structured your methods and your results section and how your findings turned out to prove or disprove your hypotheses. You simply need to work the potential effects of your findings into your discussion section in a logical way.
But the order of information is relevant when it comes to your conclusion at the very end of your discussion section: Here, you start with a very short summary of your study and results, then provide the (theoretical, practical, ethical, social, technological…) implications of your work, and end with a specific recommendation if (and only if) your findings call for that. If you have not paid attention to the importance of your implications while writing your discussion section, then this is your chance to fix that before you finalize and submit your paper and let an editor and reviewers judge the relevance of your work.
Make sure you do not suddenly come up with practical ideas that look like they were plucked out of the air because someone reminded you to “add some implications” at the last minute. If you don’t know where to start, then go back to your introduction section, look at your rationale and research questions, look at how your findings answered those questions, and ask yourself who else could benefit from knowing what you know now.
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