There are unlimited possible topics for research papers, and the research and methods used to address the questions of these papers are equally varied. Some possible topics of Engineering research papers might include studying the wear characteristics of building materials; innovations in electronic circuitry or neural networks; improving algorithms for computer graphics functions, improving plans of escape on passenger airlines; evaluating and improving an emergency fire-response system on an oil tanker; improving GPS and other monitoring systems of illegal logging in the Amazon; understanding the signal pathway of certain human cells; designing and improving insulators for heavy-duty electrical power lines. The methods and procedures used for each of these problems require a wide variety of methods that are not easily categorized. Add to this, the variety of types of research done in the Physical Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities, and it becomes difficult to provide precise general rules that apply in all cases to writing the methods sections.
Yet, despite the wide variety of research methods, some general patterns can be seen across in most fields of study. We will review some of these common features below and end the chapter considering some of the differences seen across these areas of study.
The main purpose of the method section is to report on what experiments, simulations, interviews, analysis of proofs, surveys, modeling, or fieldwork was done to answer the main question or hypothesis of the introduction. Depending upon your field of study, this section is sometimes identified as the Materials and Methods, the Experimental Design, Theory, Protocol, or Procedure. In section three, we review the sections of a research paper in their typical chronological order, beginning with the title and abstract in chapter 8, and ending with the discussion, yet, most authors do not write their paper in this same chronological order. In fact, after creating their tables and figures, they begin by writing the materials and method section and then results, and not the abstract and introduction. Since you will be very familiar with the content of this section, being the most concrete section of your paper, and since many of the protocols of this section are well known and have been previously published, and since the methods section does not require you to interpret the meaning of the results but simply report what was done, you may be like most authors who find this section the easiest to write. My own editing experience supports this claim with the material and method section having the fewest number of errors compared to other sections of a paper. Nonetheless, journal editors commonly reject papers due to errors in the method section. So, great care and attention need to be given to accuracy and detail of the method section.
Journal editors and referees may criticize a method section for several reasons. While you cannot anticipate every particular criticism of a referee, you should at least be able to address the following shortcomings: a failure to elaborate on experimental assumptions and design; the experiments are not verifiable or reproducible; the text is confusing; incorrect technical specifications; numbers do not add up; insufficient number of experiment repetitions; too much irrelevant information; too little description of anomalous experiments and results; no discussion of limits of the apparatus and equipment or precautions taken to avoid limitations; statistical analysis that are inadequate, or dubious choices in the study design.
This chapter focuses on some typical features found in a variety of methods sections in a wide range of studies and fields. Knowing some general guidelines, features and patterns of the methods section before you begin writing will make the task easier. In addition, this chapter focuses on several common English trouble spots of the Methods section.
The organization pattern of the materials section typically follows the chronological order of your experiments, analysis of proofs or field work, but there may be some sections within the chronological scheme that use a most-to-least-important structure. For instance, while the overall methods section may be organized chronologically, for a complex topic under a certain sub heading that has more than one paragraph, a most-to-least important structure may used to organize this section. If for example, numerous variables were measured together, then it is common to report the most important results first, followed by less important results. Another possible organizational pattern is general to specific.
Subheadings are commonly used to indicate the organizational order of the methods section. We will consider subheadings later, but for now, note some typical organizational subheadings found in biomedical papers in Table 1
Methods of Measurement
Analysis of Data
Inclusion & Exclusion Criteria
Methods of Measurement
Analysis of Data
The best guide for organizing your materials section will be provided either by the journal to whom you will submit your paper or one of the style guides mentioned below. You can find guidelines for organizing the methods section at the journal’s webpage in a section called guidelines for authors or information for authors. Some journals will specify their expectations in great detail, others will name a few minor guidelines and others will simply refer the authors to a certain text such as the CBE Manual for Authors, The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, the Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, the AMA Handbook of Style or the IEE Editorial Style Manual. If the journal does not specify guidelines for subheadings, consider one these more general style manuals affiliated with your field of study.