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Getting the Methodology Right

Getting the Methodology Right

Mar 14, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
It might seem like the Methodology should be the easiest section of a research paper to write. You don't have to give any analysis or try to explain the underlying focus of your research like you do in the Introduction and Discussion, and you don't have to struggle with choosing how to present data like you do for the Results. Instead, all you have to do is tell the reader how your performed your experiment-couldn't be more straightforward, right? But just because it feels easy doesn't mean that it is. Like the other sections of a research paper, the Methodology section requires careful planning and writing in order to get it right.

What is the Methodology?

Also sometimes called Materials and Methods, Patients and Methods, or Study Design, the Methodology section is the part of the a research paper where you describe your experimental design in detail. Basically, you want to give the reader the information they'll need to evaluate whether your research is sound and provide enough detail so that the experiment could be repeated. This means describing things like experimental design, supplies, sources of chemicals and biological components, and methods of data collection and analysis.

The Five Questions You Need to Answer

The purpose of providing your materials and methods to readers is so that they can better understand and analyze your work. If a reader doesn't know who a specific study was performed, they can't come to their own conclusions about what the data means. In order to make sure that a Methodology section includes everything the reader needs, it should address these five questions:
  • Who? Who performed the duties described in the methodology? Who was involved in approval of the experimental design? Who funded the study?
  • What? What supplies were used? What method were used to perform the study and collect data?
  • Where? Where did the study take place?
  • When? When did the experiment start and end? When did the analysis of the data take place?
  • Why? Why was this particular experimental design chosen? Why were specific materials used?
  • How? How were the steps described in the methodology performed? How was the data analyzed? How were terms defined?

Getting the Details Right

Finding the right level of detail to include in the Methodology section is probably the hardest part about writing this section. Including too much detail can waste valuable page space and bore the reader. For example, if you're using a well-known testing protocol that others in your field will be familiar with, it's usually not necessary to describe all the steps in your Methodology. Instead, you should give the name and cite the original publication that established the procedure. (The only time it's appropriate to include a more detailed look is if you have altered the accepted practice substantially.)
On the other hand, leaving out crucial details can also negatively affect your work and will often do so more severely than including extraneous information. If details are missing, that might be interpreted as intentionally misleading on your part. Of course, usually when things are left out it's just because you've forgotten them or it's something that you take as being so obvious that it doesn't need to be included, but your readers have no way of knowing that.
The best way to find the balance between too much and too little detail is to start by writing your Methodology section with as much information as possible. Imagine you're telling the reader everything they'd need to know in order to recreate the experiment identically step-by-step, right down to the brand name of your supplies and the location of laboratory materials. Then, start culling out the information that had no impact on the outcome of the experiment. Basically, if somebody couldn't carry out the work without that piece of information, then it should stay. If it's a detail that won't affect the research outcome, then out it goes.

Go In Order

As much as is possible, the Methodology section should be written in chronological order. When organizing sections and paragraphs, start with the preparation and supplies necessary for your experiment, then move through the experimental set up and data collection. This rule also applies to the wording within sentences. To help the reader move quickly and easily through the section, make sure that everything is listed in the order is which it happened. For example, the sentence "Samples were collected from the plants after they had been exposed to the treatment for 10 minutes" should be rewritten to describe events in the order they happen: "Plants were exposed to the treatment for 10 minutes and then samples were collected."
The main exceptions to this rule are any changes that were made to the experimental design during the course of your research. It's not unusual to adjust the plans for your work as your research progresses, but in general those new steps will be included in the Results section instead of the Methodology. A good rule of thumb to follow is that if it was part of the plan before the research started, then it goes in the Methodology section, but if it was incorporated later, then it goes in the Results section.

Tables and Figures

Tables and figures can be included in the Methodology section if their inclusion will cut a significant amount of text or save a lot of space. Information like dosing and complex protocols can be put into tables, flowcharts, or other types of graphics to avoid dense rows of numbers in the text or confusing wording that would make procedures hard to follow. Keep in mind, though, that most research papers won't require these types of graphics in the Methodology section.

The Bottom Line

A good Methodology section will provide the reader with all the information they need to make an informed decision about the results of your study. An unreliable experimental design will produce unreliable results, and readers have the right to know whether they can trust the conclusions you reach in your work. When done right, the Methodology section will back-up your conclusions and strengthen the overall quality of your work.
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