Chapter 4: Writing the Methods Section

Methods Goal 1: Contextualize the Study’s Methods

The first goal of writing your Methods section is to contextualize (provide context or a “picture” of) the procedures you followed to conduct the research. Doing this requires attention to detail. Some of the possible ways that you can accomplish this goal will be discussed later in the chapter, but first, let’s look at some examples of Methods sections from published research articles in high-impact journals (the parts of the Methods that contain Goal 1 language are bolded):

Examples

  • Volumetric gas concentrations obtained from the gas analyzers were converted into mass concentrations with the ideal gas law by using the mean reactor room temperature and assuming one atmosphere pressure. Gas release is defined in this article as the process of gas transferring through the liquid manure surface into the free air stream of the reactor headspace. Gas emission is defined as the process of gas emanating from the reactor into the outdoor atmosphere. Gas release does not equal gas emission under transient conditions, although it does under steady-state conditions. The rate of gas emission from a reactor was calculated with equation 1: Equation (1) where QGe is gas emission rate (mass min-1), CGex is exhaust gas concentration (mass L-1), CGin is inlet gas concentration (mass L-1), and Qv is reactor airflow rate (L min-1). The gas release rate was approximated with the rates of change in gas mass in the reactor headspace with equation 2: Equation (2) where QGr is gas release rate (mass min-1), CGh is gas concentration in the headspace (mass L-1), and Vh is headspace air volume (L). In this article, we assumed that CGh was equal to CGex. To use the sampled data obtained in this study, equation 2 was discretized to equation 3: Equation (3) where __delta__t is sampling interval (min), and k is sample number (k = 0, 1, 2, … ). Gas release flux was calculated with equation 4: Equation (4) where qGr is gas release flux (mass m-2 in-1), and A is area of reactor manure surface (m2).[1]
  • The participants were employees of a medium-sized firm in the telecommunications industry. The sampling frame was the list of 3,402 potential users of the new ERP system. We received 2,794 usable responses across all points of measurement, resulting in an effective response rate of just over 82 percent. Our sample comprised 898 women (32 percent). The average age of the participants was 34.7, with a standard deviation of 6.9. All levels of the organizational hierarchy were adequately represented in the sample and were in proportion to the sampling frame. While ideally we would have wanted all potential participants to provide responses in all waves of the data collection, this was particularly difficult given that the study duration was 12 months and had multiple points of measurement. Thus, the final sample of 2,794 was determined after excluding those who did not respond despite follow-ups, those who had left the organization, those who provided incomplete responses, or who did not choose to participate for other reasons. Yet, we note that the response rate was quite high for a longitudinal field study; this was, in large part, due to the strong organizational support for the survey and the employees’ desire to provide reactions and feedback to the new system. Although we did not have any data from the non-respondents, we found that the percentage of women, average age, and percentages of employees in various organizational levels in the sample were consistent with those in the sampling frame. Employees were told that they would be surveyed periodically for a year in order to help manage the new ERP system implementation. Employees were told that the data would also be used as part of a research study and were promised confidentiality, which was strictly maintained. [2]

So, as you can see in the excerpts above, the writers are providing lots of detailed information that contextualizes the study. To contextualize methods means that you explain all of the conditions in which the study occurred. It might be helpful for you to think of answering the questions who, what, when, where, how, and why. 

Goal 1, Contextualizing the Study Methods, means that you completely describe the circumstances surrounding the research. There are several strategies you can use to help you successfully achieve this goal in a detailed manner.

Strategies for Methods Communicative Goal 1: Contextualizing the Study Methods

  • Referencing previous works 
  • Providing general information 
  • Identifying the methodological approach
  • Describing the setting 
  • Introducing the subjects/participants 
  • Rationalizing pre-experiment decisions
We’ll now discuss each of these and provide some examples from published research.

Methods Goal 1 Strategy: Referencing Previous Works

Referencing previous works is a strategy used to relate your research to the literature. The strategy involves a direct reference to another author or an explicit mention of a study.

Here are two examples taken from published research articles:

Examples

  • The entire experiment consisted of six situations, and each situation was tested employing one advertisement. The balanced Latin-square method proposed by Edwards (1951) was used to arrange the six experimental situations. To simplify the respondents’ choices with regard to order and sequence, all of the print advertisements tested were appropriately arranged in the experimental design. [3]
  • The Eulerian-granular model in ANSYS 12.0 was used to model the interactions between three phases: one gaseous phase and two granular particle phases within a fluidized bed taken from the literature [32] . This model was chosen over the Eulerian-Lagrangian models as it is computationally more efficient with regards to time and memory.[4]

 

Some common vocabulary that is associated with this strategy includes the following, as noted in the Academic Phrasebank website:
  • Many researchers have utilised X to measure …
  • One of the most well-known tools for assessing …
  • Traditionally, X has been assessed by measuring …
  • A number of techniques have been developed to …
  • Different methods have been proposed to classify …
  • X is the main non-invasive method used to determine …
  • Different authors have measured X in a variety of ways.
  • Several methods currently exist for the measurement of X.
  • Previous studies have based their criteria for selection on …
  • X is one of the most common procedures for determining …
  • There are three main types of study design used to identify …
  • The use of life story data has a relatively long tradition within X.
  • Recent advances in X methods have facilitated investigation of …
  • There are a number of instruments available for measuring the …
  • X and Y are currently the most popular methods for investigating …
  • Recently, simpler and more rapid tests of X have been developed.
  • In most recent studies, X has been measured in four different ways.
  • The use of qualitative case studies is a well-established approach in …
  • Xs have been used in the past to investigate the mechanical properties of …

 

Referencing previous works can occur almost anywhere in the Methods section because it can be used to validate or justify decisions about any of the data collected, procedures used, and analyses carried out.

Methods Goal 1 Strategy: Providing General Information

Providing general information allows a writer to give the background that is specific to the methods. This can be theoretical, empirical, informational, or experiential background to the methodology of the study. You can use this strategy to build a bridge for the reader. The bridge should connect your study to other studies that have utilized the same or similar methodology. This strategy also encompasses any preliminary hypotheses or interpretations that you may want to make.

Here are two examples taken from published research articles:

Examples

  • The animals used during this study were slaughtered in accredited slaughterhouses according to the rules on animal protection defined by French law (Code Rural, articles R214-64 to R214-71, http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr). The Qualvigene program, described in detail elsewhere (Allais et al., 2010), was a collaborative research program involving AI companies, INRA (the French National Institute for Agricultural Research) and the Institut de l’Elevage (Breeding Institute) in France. The program was initiated to study the genetic determinism of beef and meat quality traits (Malafosse et al., 2007).[5]
  • This study focused on stemwood when examining alternative woody biomass management regimes for loblolly pine. PTAEDA3.1, developed with data from a wide range of loblolly pine plantations in the southern United States, was used to simulate growth as well as competition and mortality effects and predict yields of various management scenarios (Bullock and Burkhart 2003, Burkhart et al. 2004).[6]

 

Providing general information is a strategy that helps to provide context for an author’s explanation of methodological steps. By including more information, you are adding to the specificity and level of detail, which is one of the most important aspects of the Methods section.

Methods Goal 1 Strategy: Identifying the Methodological Approach

Identifying the methodological approach allows a writer to pinpoint the exact method that was adopted to accomplish the study’s goals. This is a strategy you would use if there was a specific set of procedures for your approach or, in some cases, even a predetermined framework for how to carry out the study. The main purpose of this step is to introduce the methodological approach or experimental design used for the current study to inform the reader of the selected approach, announce credible research practices known in the field, and possibly transition to describing the experimental procedures.

Consider the following examples:

Examples

  • In both seasons, the experiments were arranged in a complete randomized block design with four replications, using a plot size of 3.45m x 15m each containing 114 plants. Three levels of organic supplementation [0 kgm-2 (S0), 0.35 kgm-2 (S0.35) and 0.70 kgm-2 (S0.70)] were incorporated into the soil 2 days before solarization.[7]
  • To address these hypotheses rigorously, we conducted a randomized controlled trial with children clustered within schools. All three interventions were delivered by the same teaching assistant in each school.[8]

 

The Academic Phrasebank website provides a list of sentence starters that would indicate the use of this strategy. Here are a few examples:
  • The solution was then assayed for X using the Y method.
  • X was prepared according to the procedure used by Jones et al. (1957).
  • The synthesis of X was done according to the procedure of Smith (1973).
  • X was synthesised using the same method that was detailed for Y, using …
  • Samples were analysed for X as previously reported by Smith et al. (2012).
  • Analysis was based on the conceptual framework proposed by Smith et al. (2002).
  • This compound was prepared by adapting the procedure used by Jones et al. (1990)…
Identifying the methodological approach is a strategy that supplies a frame for a description of experimental steps and methodological decisions. By describing the new methods you developed or explaining how you employed an established methodology, you are helping the reader to understand exactly what you did and when, why, where, and how you did it.

Methods Goal 1 Strategy: Describing the Setting

Describing the setting of the study is simply telling the reader about where or under what conditions the study happened. The setting is all about the placeconditions, and surroundings. In other words, this strategy details the characteristics of the environment in which the research was conducted, which often answers the “where” and “when” questions. Information may include details about the place and temperature; it may also include some temporal (or time-related) descriptors such as the time of the year. It should be noted that this step may overlap with some steps in Goal 2 (which describes the tools used or the experimental procedures conducted), but it remains distinct from them in that describing the setting specifically references the inherent characteristics of the context or environment in which the study took place, and not the characteristics of the materials used to accomplish the experiment or to affect some change in the subject that is being examined. You’ll read more about this in the next chapter.

Here are two examples taken from published research articles:

Examples

  • The mares were admitted at day 310 of pregnancy, housed in wide straw bedding boxes and fed with hay and concentrates twice a day.[9]
  • All three studies were performed in the eastern half of the SRS in the RCW management area (US Department of Energy 2005).[10]

 

So, describing the setting helps the reader to picture the situation and the conditions in which the experiment was completed.

Methods Goal 1 Strategy: Introducing the Subjects/Participants

Introducing the subjects or participants in your study helps you to describe the characteristics of your sample. Whether you have human, animal, or inanimate participants or subjects, you will still need to provide the reader with a careful description of them. For a study involving humans, this answers the “who” question. For studies without humans, this often answers the “what” question. It should be noted, however, that not all disciplines have subjects/participants, but when subjects/participants can be identified, this step helps to describe subjects/participants and their original/pre-experimental characteristics, properties, origin, number, composition/construction, etc. The step also details the process by which subjects/participants were recruited/selected.

Below are a couple of examples excerpted from published reports of research with the relevant language in bold to illustrate how the words/phrases work to implement the strategy, which then works to accomplish the goal:

Examples

  • Participants in this study included 10 TAs enrolled in this French doctoral program.[11]
  • The Mexican populations, Chetumal and Tulum (Mex-1 and Mex-2, respectively), have large resin-producing glands, while the Venezuelan populations, Tovar and Caracas (Ven-1 and Ven-2, respectively), have smaller glands.[12]

The Academic Phrasebank website provides a list of sentence starters that would indicate the use of this strategy. Here are a few examples:

  • The cohort was divided into two groups according to …
  • A random sample of patients with … was recruited from …
  • Articles were searched from January 1965 until April 2014.
  • The sample was representative with respect to gender and …
  • Forty-seven students studying X were recruited for this study.
  • A systematic literature review was conducted of studies that …
  • Just over half the sample (53%) was female, of whom 69% were …
  • Of the initial cohort of 123 students, 66 were female and 57 male.
  • Eligible women who matched the selection criteria were identified by …
  • Only children aged between 10 and 15 years were included in the study.
  • The participants were divided into two groups based on their performance on …
  • Two groups of subjects were interviewed, namely X and Y. The first group was…
  • The project used a convenience sample of 32 first-year modern languages students.
  • All of the participants were aged between 18 and 19 at the beginning of the study…
  • All studies described as using some sort of X procedure were included in the analysis.
  • Participants were recruited from 15 clinics across …, covering urban and rural areas …
  • The initial sample consisted of 200 students, 75 of whom belonged to minority groups.
  • Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 17 male offenders with a mean age of 38 years.
Introducing your subjects/participants is key because of the important role that a sample plays in the design of the study. Think of this strategy as a way to make an argument for the value of your sample.

Methods Goal 1 Strategy: Rationalizing Pre-Experiment Conditions

Rationalizing pre-experiment conditions is a way to show the reader how you attained your specific sample or how you decided about the methods you chose prior to actually carrying out the experimental procedures of the study.

Here are two examples taken from published research articles:

Examples

  • The literature review presented above leads us to formulate our research questions more precisely. First, we ask whether there is a difference in well-being between the unemployed and those currently employed.[13]
  • We defined two sub-samples of LAEs split at R = 25.5. The continuum-bright (UV-bright hereafter) sub-sample of 118 LAEs enables a direct comparison with the SED parameters of R less than 25.5 “BX,” star-forming galaxies in the same range of redshift (Steidel et al. 2004). The remaining 98 LAEs are classified as UV-faint.[14]

 

On the Academic Phrasebank website, sentence starters are provided for indicating the inclusion or exclusion criteria you may have used in your study.
  • Criteria for selecting the subjects were as follows:
  • Publications were only included in the analysis if…
  • The participants in this study were recruited from …
  • To identify X, the following parameters were used: …
  • The area of study was chosen for its relatively small …
  • Primary inclusion criteria for the X participants were …
  • Eligibility criteria required individuals to have received …
  • Five individuals were excluded from the study on the basis of …
  • A small sample was chosen because of the expected difficulty in obtaining …
  • The subjects were selected on the basis of the degree of homogeneity of their …
  • A comparison group of 12 male subjects without any history of X was drawn from a pool of …

Keep in mind that the Methods section is very important. Even if readers are skimming a published article, they typically read the methods with careful attention to the details provided. Because Methods sections are often rote narratives of procedures, there are several frequently adopted words or phrases that are standard. The Academic Phrasebank website provides a list of these, which are summarized in the table below:

Type of Language Example
Infinitive of purpose (to + base form verb) To measure X, we …

To establish X, the participants were …

Expressing purpose with “for” For the questions in the interview, we adapted …

For the purpose of analysis, X was …

Sequence words (related to timing) Prior to

After

Passive voice verbs (be + past participle) All participants were sent …

The data were normalized using …

Adverbs of manner A sample was then carefully injected into …

The mixture was then gradually heated …

“Using” + instruments Data were collected using Xs

The subjects were recruited using email

Overall, there is a lot of example language that you may use to incorporate as you write the Methods section. Using the goals and strategies as a guide, you can choose the words and phrases suggested to ensure that your methods are appropriately detailed and clear.

Key Takeaways

Goal #1 of writing the Methods section is related to Contextualizing the Study’s Methods. There are six possible strategies that you can use to accomplish this goal:

  • Referencing previous works and/or
  • Providing general information and/or
  • Identifying the methodological approach and/or
  • Describing the setting and/or
  • Introducing the subjects/participants and/or
  • Rationalizing pre-experiment decisions

Remember: You do not need to include all of these strategies — they are simply possibilities for reaching the goal of Contextualizing the Study’s Methods.


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  2. Morris, M. G., & Venkatesh, V. (2010). Job characteristics and job satisfaction: Understanding the role of enterprise resource planning system implementation. Mis Quarterly, 143-161.
  3. Lin, P. C., & Yang, C. M. (2010). Impact of product pictures and brand names on memory of Chinese metaphorical advertisements. International Journal of Design, 4(1).
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  7. Mauromicale, G., Longo, A. M. G., & Monaco, A. L. (2011). The effect of organic supplementation of solarized soil on the quality of tomato fruit. Scientia Horticulturae, 129(2), 189-196.
  8. Clarke, P. J., Snowling, M. J., Truelove, E., & Hulme, C. (2010). Ameliorating children’s reading-comprehension difficulties: A randomized controlled trial. Psychological Science, 21(8), 1106-1116.
  9. Castagnetti, C., Mariella, J., Serrazanetti, G. P., Grandis, A., Merlo, B., Fabbri, M., & Mari, G. (2007). Evaluation of lung maturity by amniotic fluid analysis in equine neonate. Theriogenology, 67(9), 1455-1462.
  10. Goodrick, S. L., Shea, D., & Blake, J. (2010). Estimating fuel consumption for the upper coastal plain of South Carolina. Southern Journal of Applied Forestry, 34(1), 5-12.
  11. Mills, N. (2011). Teaching assistants’ self‐efficacy in teaching literature: Sources, personal assessments, and consequences. The Modern Language Journal, 95(1), 61-80.
  12. Pélabon, C., Carlson, M. L., Hansen, T. F., Yoccoz, N. G., & Armbruster, W. S. (2004). Consequences of inter‐population crosses on developmental stability and canalization of floral traits in Dalechampia scandens (Euphorbiaceae). Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 17(1), 19-32.
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Preparing to Publish by Sarah Huffman; Elena Cotos; and Kimberly Becker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.