This section of a research article is often written first since it is usually the most concrete and specific part of the text, and thus easiest to write. In the hourglass described in our post “Academic Writing in Science: An Overview,” the Methods section is the most “narrow” part.
This section is mainly read by experts, who are interested in the procedures used in that particular field or who read the study to gain new information that they can use themselves. Individual sub-sections on separate topics usually begin with a short introduction to orient the reader to the topic. After they have been introduced, materials and procedures are then described in detail.
In fields such as Biology, Chemistry and Medicine, the Methods section is a standard element of a research article. Some fields, particularly those with few established methods, typically highlight this section. However, other fields—such as many engineering disciplines—focus more on the elaboration of a new “product,” which may take the form of an algorithm, a strategy, a model, or a system.
The Methods section may also be signaled by headings such as Study Design, Experimental Procedures, Experimental Setup, Materials and Procedures, and Materials and Methods. Regardless of the name used, this section, presents the materials, procedures, and methods used in a study.
We can give less general advice about the Methods section than about any other part of a research article. This is because more than any other part of the article, the Methods section varies most in their structure and content. Overall, the method describes the steps that you followed in conducting your study and the materials you used in each step. The elements included in the method section and the order in which they are presented may differ from discipline to discipline. However, the following list provides a rough outline:
- Overview of the Experiment
- Restrictions/Limiting Conditions
- Sampling Technique
- Statistical Treatment
Supplier’s information: The manufacturer or supplier’s information of the materials used is usually mentioned alongside the material/instrument at the first occurrence. This information includes the name of the supplier, state, and country. The model number of the instrument, if any, must also be mentioned.
Example: The precipitate was examined using a 1200EX electron microscope (JOEL, Tokyo, Japan) at an acceleration voltage of 100 kV.
The target journal needs to be checked for specific guidelines on whether it is mandatory to include the information.
Variation in Approach
There are two basic approaches that can be taken to write this section: a “condensed” approach and an “extended” approach.
Condensed approach: In the natural science and engineering and in parts of medical research, standard practices and established methods are much more widely available. In these areas, sometimes methods may be largely taken for granted. Therefore, this approach is more succinct in nature dealing with mostly facts. For example: http://www.biochemj.org/bj/246/0325/2460325.pdf
Extended approach: In many of the social sciences, the methodology is very important and is often described in considerable detail. In some cases, the main point of a paper will be to announce some development in the methodology. For example: http://www.ausienet.com/journal/vol2iss2/hockley.pdf
Table 1: Variation in Methods Sections
|Assumes background knowledge||Sees need to provide background|
|Avoids named subsections||Several named subsections|
|Uses acronyms and citations as shorthand||Uses descriptions|
|Running series of verbs||Usually one finite verb per clause|
|Few “by + verb-ing” “how” statements||A number of “how” statements|
|Few definitions and examples||More definition and examples|
|Few justifications||Several justifications (often initial purpose clauses)|
|Few linking phrases||Wide range of linking phrases|
Source: Academic Writing for Graduate Students, The University of Michigan Press
Tense and Voice
The language used in the methods section is slightly different from the tone of the rest of the paper. As this section consists of descriptive facts, it is primarily written in past tense, and in passive voice.
Example on tense
- Avoid Present Tense: The PMA is dissolved in DMSO at a concentration of 1 mg/ml.
- Use Past Tense: The PMA was dissolved in DMSO at a concentration of 1 mg/ml.
Example on voice
- Avoid Active Voice: Bradford assay determines the protein concentration.
- Use Passive Voice: Protein concentration was determined by Bradford assay.
In addition, the number of citations in this section is very low, or negligible. The overall commentary is also restricted compared to other sections of the paper. The following table compares these features across sections of the paper.
Table 2: Frequencies of selected features
|Present tense||Past tense||Passive voice||Citations||Commentary|
With the above information serving as the background, the best way to start writing a Methods section is to read sample papers from the target journal. This will be the best guide on the style and structure (e.g., number of sections) required. In our next post, we will talk about how to report results and some of the key points to remember.
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Examples of method sections
An excerpt from the method section of a biology report
|Growth rates were determined by estimating the number of bacteria in a culture at zero time and after 1 hour of growth at 37°C. In order to make this estimation, a dilution series was performed by diluting aliquots of the bacterial culture, at each incubation time, by a factor of 10, 100, and 10 000 with nutrient broth, and then plating out 0.01ml of each of these dilutions onto quadrants of a sterile agar plate. Following one week’s incubation at 25°C, the colonies of the plate were counted manually.|
In this excerpt no amounts or descriptions of equipment have been included nor would they have been necessary, as someone wishing to repeat the experiment could change these and still get the same effect.
An example of a poorly written method section from a biology report
|We did a serial dilution by pipetting 0.9 ml broth into labelled tubes, then adding 2 drops (0.1ml) of the original culture to tube 1, 2 drops of tube 1 to tube 2, 2 drops of tube 2 to 3 and 2 drops of tube 3 to tube 4.Mix the tubes and spread a loopful (0.01 ml) of each tube onto a different quadrant of a labelled agar plate.||The personal pronoun we could have been avoided by using the passive voice (a serial dilution was carried out).|
Keep explanations as simple as possible.
Avoid unnecessary repetition.In the present tense, this reads like an instruction, not a description of what you did. The past tense should be used (The tubes were mixed…)
An excerpt from the method section of a psychology report
Twenty-two first year industrial trade students enrolled in a training course at a Sydney company participated in the experiment. The students were from a varied educational background but all had completed at least Year 10 of High School and all understood electrical principles at a basic level ….. Students who had completed further studies were excluded from the study. …..
The instructional materials used in the experiment consisted of information on three electrical safety tests that are performed on 240 volt electrical appliances using a volt meter…..
Subjective ratings were used in the experiment to measure cognitive load as they “provide a powerful …(measure of) the subjective experience of workload” (Gopher & Braune, 1984: 529; see also Paas & van Merrienboer, 1993; 1994) since students have little difficulty assigning a numerical value to the imposed mental workload…..A copy of the subjective mental load rating scale used in the experiment has been included in Appendix 4.
The test material consisted of test items and equipment for both written and practical tests. Each test item was designed to be objective and was marked as either correct or incorrect. The written test consisted of twenty three items. …..
All the students were randomly assigned to either the isolated-interacting elements instruction or the interacting elements only group with 11 students in each group. They were tested individually, in a quiet room. ….. At the completion of the study phase, the students were provided with a subjective mental load rating scale, the format of which was explained to both groups. They were asked to rate the mental effort involved in understanding all of the electrical tests described in their training booklet on the scale …..
The test section of the experiment followed. The students were asked to complete the written test, described in the materials section, …...
Participants section describes WHO was involved in the experiment
Materials section describes WHAT was used in the experiment.
Procedure section describes HOW the experiment was done and how the data was collected.
An excerpt from the method section of a scientific report from Education that used qualitative research methodology.
| The study originated from a need to explain the differences in participation rates between boys and girls in physical activity. In the present study, systemic functional linguistics and semiotic theory and methodology have provided the means to go beyond the earlier approach of identifying and quantifying the number and duration of different types of teachers and pupil behaviour (Good and Brophy, 1973; Cinclair and Coulthard, 1975). An approach combining systemic functional linguistics and semiotic theory and methodology meant the present research could take into account the complexity of meanings generated in lessons, including meanings, that operate at the unconscious as well as the conscious level of awareness. ….|
Systemic functional linguistics requires a detailed and systematic analysis of text….
Three schools were finally settled upon as the most appropriate sources for the variety of lesson situations required. This selection took into account the combinations of teachers and students most likely to be found in New South Wales secondary schools. One school situated in a semi-rural area had universal mixed physical education ... From these schools, six male teachers and three female teachers consented to have their lessons recorded on video and audio tape (through lapel microphones). These teachers, together with at least one other member of staff from each school, were also interviewed at length ...
In all, eighteen lessons were recorded, some lasting for one ‘period’ of 40 minutes duration and others for a ‘double period’ of 80 minutes. As some lessons yielded 40 pages of transcript, the usual detailed analysis of every clause was obviously impracticable for this amount of a data. A taxonomy was developed to provide the initial framework (grid) by which the lessons could be analysed in terms of the research questions described below. As a starting point, two lessons were selected for analysis …..
|Outline of and justification for the theoretical perspectives informing the research and the methodological approach |
The following two paragraphs provide the details of how the researcher gathered data for that part of the research that looked at classroom interactions.
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