How To Write the Methods Section of a Research Paper
Whether you are writing a research article for publication in a scholarly journal or a research paper for credit in a university course, you will need to describe and explain the methods you used in your research. For a short research paper of the kind submitted for an undergraduate course, methods might be described very briefly, using no more than a paragraph or two immediately after the introductory or background information. In a publishable journal article, on the other hand, or a postgraduate research paper, an entire section is often dedicated to describing the methods the author used to conduct his or her research. In all cases, however, the basic principles remain essentially the same, with the idea being to inform readers about the research design and specifically about what was done during the research, exactly how it was done, the ways in which results were analysed and why those procedures were chosen as the most appropriate to achieve the objectives of the research.
Precisely how the methods section of a research paper should be written varies among disciplines and instructors, fields of study and areas of specialisation, journals and publishers, and even individual authors and projects. The guidelines or instructions relevant to the research paper you are writing should therefore always be consulted and any details about the presentation of methods noted and followed with precision. The heading for the methods section, for instance, may need to be simple, such as ‘Methods,’ ‘Materials and Methods,’ ‘Subjects & Methods,’ ‘Methodology’ or ‘Research Approach,’ but you may be able to add some specific or individualising details after the required terminology or choose your own heading altogether. The methods of a relatively straightforward research project might be described without the use of subheadings, but if there are many procedures to describe, subheadings can clarify the material for readers by dividing it into separate categories such as ‘Participants,’ ‘Instruments,’ ‘Procedures, ‘Design’ and ‘Data-Analysis.’ A chronological presentation for the methods section that reflects the order in which procedures were performed during the research is usually preferred, but within focussed subsections information can be arranged on the basis of importance, starting with the most important details and working down to the least. Generally speaking, the methods section of an academic or scientific research paper follows the introduction and background sections and precedes the results and discussion sections.
The writing style used in the methods section of a research paper should be clear and direct. Errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation must be strictly avoided, as must ambiguous, inaccurate and imprecise information that might confuse readers. The past tense should be used to report what was done, and the active voice can be particularly concise when describing materials and methods, but do check the instructions – some scientific disciplines, journals and instructors still prefer or require the passive voice. One of the most challenging aspects of writing a successful methods section for a research paper is achieving the perfect balance between the brevity that tends to be desirable and the thorough descriptions of research subjects, equipment, procedures and analysis required for fellow researchers to evaluate, validate and replicate the work. Knowing your field and audience will be immensely helpful for eliminating unnecessary details and information. Standard instruments and measures in the field, for instance, may only need to be identified rather than described, but how you used them should be noted, and any modifications to well-known equipment or innovations on established procedures should be described in detail. The right balance for a wide audience can be elusive, which is why some scientific journals now ask authors to i
nclude only basic information on methodology in the paper itself and to present detailed methods for the use of peer reviewers and researchers as supplementary materials.
Since the purpose of a methods section is to describe what was done, the exact content will vary widely depending on the nature and complexity of the research. If you are conducting quantitative or empirical-analytical research, you will probably need to tell your readers about your subjects or participants (and any necessary ethical approval or consent), the criteria you used to select them, sample and group sizes, variables (independent as well as dependent and confounding), procedures for collecting and generating evidence, means of measuring and analysing data, controls and problems (as well as how you minimised or overcame them), and perhaps limitations, though the last sometimes has its own section. Providing explanations for why you used the subjects, instruments and techniques you did is also necessary, especially when you move beyond conventional or established practices in your field. The goal is to offer readers the information they require to decide whether your methods are internally valid for generating reliable results and conclusions suitable for your research objectives, and externally valid for generalising those results and conclusions to larger populations or broader applications. Although you should not write to tell others how to do what you did, experts in your area should nonetheless be able to use your methods section to reproduce your research or apply your techniques effectively in their own research. If, on the other hand, your research is quantitative or interpretative in nature, describing your methods may not be so straightforward, but the purpose of your methods section will still be telling readers exactly what you did and why so that they can make their own judgements about your work. Published papers reporting research similar to your own are likely to provide the most useful models for writing a successful methods section.
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