How To Write About Research Methods – University Affairs

Make sure to present your methods in a logical order and, if you can, try to paint a verbal picture.


I know I need to write a section on clear methods to have a chance to get published, but I’m having a hard time understanding what this looks like in practice. How to write a good section on methods?

– Anonymous, Genomics

Response from Dr Editor:

‘Bad methods’ and ‘bad method reviews’ are regularly cited by peer reviewers as the main reasons for rejecting a manuscript (eg. Griffiths & Norman 2016, Hesterman et al. 2018). If your study design is unclear, readers will not be able to assess the validity of your work or replicate your procedures. These things are well known.

Yet what is not mentioned as often is that a poorly drafted methods section can subtly influence a peer reviewer’s decision making, exploiting the cognitive bias that makes information difficult to find. read is more likely to be wrong than easy-to-read information. (Alter & Oppenheimer 2009). An imprecise or difficult to read method section can lead a reviewer to believe – consciously or subconsciously – that your methods themselves were flawed.

Beyond the imprecise suggestion to “write clearly”, what steps can you take to ensure that poor quality writing does not obscure high quality design, techniques and study tools? To answer this question, I spoke with Cath Ennis, a science writer and editor with a PhD in Molecular Cell Biology.

1. Create a logical order

Your examiners, notes Dr. Ennis, should be able to “easily follow the logical flow of your methods.” For the most part, that means describing your preparations, measurements, and protocol in chronological order, while also highlighting how your method was used to achieve your goal.

My favorite strategy for making the flow clear and logical: watch the topics of your sentences. The subject of your sentence should be short (less than six words, if possible) and consistent throughout a single paragraph. If the topics of your sentence change regularly within a single paragraph, your writing will seem choppy at best and inconsistent at worst.

Confused about what to put in the subject position in each sentence? As I describe in my analysis of sentence structures in a shark skin article (Li et al. 2014), the subject and verb of each sentence should focus on the information you most want your readers to understand. The point you are trying to make is at the beginning of your sentence. Think of it this way: your methods section tells a little story. What is the story about? If the story is about sharkskin, then sharks, sharkskin and its characteristics belong to the subject’s position in most sentences.

2. Provide structural parallels

When Dr Ennis edits manuscripts for publications, one of the things she looks for is structural parallels between the methods section and the discussion and results that follow.

“Each method you used to generate the data presented in your article should be described or cited, preferably in more or less the same order, or at least with corresponding captions. I need to be able to look at every figure or table in the paper and quickly and easily find the corresponding section in the methods.

What is sometimes loosely described as a “bad report on methods” could be explained, in part, by this lack of internal alignment: when the subheadings in the methods, the results and the discussion are not parallel in the wording and order, the methods sentence may seem unclear or incomplete. As with the topics of your sentences, consistency is better than variety.

3. Paint a verbal picture – or create a video

Finally, use concrete language rather than abstract to help your reader to mentally visualize your methods. Sometimes the use of physical or sensory details helps; other times you’ll want to use verbs that convey clear actions (rather than the hard-to-imagine “is” and “was”).

But creating a verbal image using words isn’t your only option. As Dr. Ennis notes: “If your methods are particularly unusual or capricious, consider making a video to supplement the methods section of your manuscript; many journals now allow short videos as additional material. People who want to reproduce (then quote) your article will thank you.

If your university has a do-it-yourself media space such as One Button Studio at UBC, then enjoy their high-quality camera, microphones, and lighting rather than having your graduate student film you on their phone.

By creating a logical order, providing structural parallels, and painting a verbal picture (or including a video), you will improve the clarity of your methods section and thus increase the likelihood that your article will be accepted – as long as your clarity is The writing reflects the relevance and relevance of the methods you have chosen.

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