Writing a Strong Methods Section
The methods section is very straightforward to write, but it does require a lot of technical detail, so writing this section can be time-intensive. In this section, you describe how you conducted your study, and making sure that this section is clear and complete is of utmost importance to readers and reviewers. Journal reviewers will weigh this section heavily during the peer-review process, as will journal editors. Readers will also need assurance about how you conducted your study in order to have confidence in what you found. In other words, the information you provide in your methods section is what other researchers will use to determine the validity of your results and conclusions.
Elements of a Methods Section
You should describe the research design you chose. Connect this choice to the aims of the research project and describe why you chose this design and how it will facilitate meeting the objectives of your study. For example, Crawford and Loprinzi (2019) describe their design in an article published in Psych.
A counterbalanced, randomized controlled, within-subject design was employed. The three counterbalanced visits included a control visit, moderate-intensity exercise (50% of HRR; heart rate reserve) and vigorous-intensity exercise (80% of HRR). (p. 292)
Describe who the participants were for your study. You should include information about any demographics that are relevant for your study. For example, if age is a factor in your study, provide information about the distribution of participants across different age groups. Tables can be very useful for displaying demographic information. Did you utilize random sampling, a selected sample, or a sample of convenience? State why the sampling technique you used is appropriate for the study and how it is aligned with your research questions. For example, Holm et al. (2020) use a table to display important demographic information about participants in their study ‘Big-fish-little-pond effect on achievement emotions in relation to mathematics performance and gender’.
(Holms et al. (2020), p.4)
Intervention study designs are ones that investigate the outcomes of a specific Intervention. Examples of interventions are those that involve a new drug, therapy, or educational approach. You should describe the intervention in enough detail, so readers understand it.
Data Collection Methods and Procedures.
Describe the methods you used for collecting data. Also describe any measures used. You should include reliability and validity information on all your research instruments. Describe any materials that were used in the study. Finally, describe the procedure used in the order in which they occurred. You should always include details about any steps taken to minimize bias and reduce threats to the validity of the study.
Describe how you analyzed the data. Include statistical tests you used, and a description of any power analysis conducted. In the same paper referenced above, Crawford and Loprinzi (2019) describe their statistical analyses.
All analyses were completed in SPSS (v. 23, IBM, SPSS, Armonk, NY, USA) or JASP (v. 0.9.1; Netherlands). Both frequentist and Bayesian analyses were computed. For the frequentist analyses, repeated measures analysis of variance (RM-ANOVA) was computed to examine the differences among memory outcomes between the control, moderate, and vigorous conditions. These frequentist analyses were supplemented with Bayesian RM-ANOVA analyses because Bayesian analyses do not assume large samples and typically smaller sample sizes can be analyzed without losing power while retaining precision [66,67]. For the Bayesian RM-ANOVA, Bayes Factors (BF) are reported, with a BF greater than 3.0 indicating substantial support for the alternative hypothesis . For the frequentist analyses, statistical significance was set at an a priori alpha level of 0.05. (p.295)
Quick Tips for Writing a Methods Section
1. A good tip for writing the methods section is to outline it, and add information to it, as you are conducting your research project. This way, you will have a strong start when you come to writing your academic paper. If your paper is the result of research for which you submitted a proposal, you can pull pieces for this section from the proposal and edit and update them as necessary.
2. The format of this section is very important. You want to make it easy to follow for reviewers and ultimately for readers. Read and understand all the formatting guidelines of the journal to which you are submitting. Use appropriate subheadings to divide the different sections. It can be helpful to look at the headings and subheadings used in other articles from your target journal.
3. Describe the methods in enough detail that the reader can follow the path you took to conduct your study. When writing an academic paper, you must find a balance between providing sufficient detail and being succinct. Ask colleagues to read this section of your draft paper and provide feedback on whether they feel there is enough detail and if they believe the section, as is it written, is rigorous.
4. Break up the text with appropriate visuals that help the reader to grasp the content. If your study included an intervention, you might include a graphic that illustrates what the intervention was or how the intervention took place. A table can also be used to explain activities that took place during the study, when they took place, and who the participants were. Academics often use a table to illustrate the alignment between research questions, data collected, and data analyses.
5. Seek feedback from those with expertise in the methods you are using. Technical expertise is invaluable, and colleagues can help ensure that your explanation of the methods is clear and accurate. They can also provide feedback on any central details they feel are missing from your paper. Reaching out to colleagues who have served as peer-reviewers for scientific journals is also a great way to get actionable feedback that can help you strengthen your paper.
6. Read, read, and read some more. You cannot read too many research articles. These can provide you with a wealth of ideas and inspiration. Seeing how academics, who have successfully published, approach the methods section of their papers will make your writing process so much smoother.
What to Avoid
If you are using methods that are well known in your field, you do not have to explain those in detail. However, do include citations for research articles where these methods have been used before. Not including reliability and validity information about measures used in the study is a common mistake and makes it difficult for readers to judge the validity of your results. Do not write the methods section in the present tense, it should always be written in the past tense. If you are copying and pasting a methods section from a grant proposal to an academic paper, don’t forget to change the future tense to the past tense. Additionally, remember to check whether there are any revisions you need to make based on changes that occurred as you conducted the study. Finally, check the revised excerpt you make sure it meets the formatting requirements of the journal.
In conclusion, the methods section of your paper will weigh heavily in the peer-review process. Dedicate the time needed to make this section as strong as it can be. Seek input from those who have expertise in your chosen methodology. Ask for feedback about the amount of technical information included in this section, as well as feedback on the coherence and flow of the section. And do not submit without proofreading your paper. As academics, we often run into a time crunch. However, submitting a paper with typos and errors is never a good idea. Seek out a professional service to help you with editing and proofreading your paper before you submit.
Finally, if at first you don’t succeed read carefully through any reviewer comments and start again.
Crawford L, Loprinzi P. Effects of Intensity-Specific Acute Exercise on Paired-Associative Memory and Memory Interference. Psych. 2019; 1(1):290-305. https://doi.org/10.3390/psych1010020. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Holm, M. E., Korhonen, J. Piia, A., Björn, M., Sakari Hannula, M. (2020). Big-fish-little-pond effect on achievement emotions in relation to mathematics performance and gender, International Journal of Educational Research, Volume 104, ISSN 0883-0355, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2020.101692. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
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