Criteria for Success

A successful Methods section:

  • provides the reasons for choosing your methodology
  • allows readers to confirm your findings through replication

Structure

Compare Authentic Annotated Examples for Methods and Results: note the correspondence of subheadings between the two sections.

Identify Your Purpose

The purpose of a Methods section is to describe how the questions/knowledge gap posed in the Introduction was answered in the Results section. Not all readers will be interested in this information. For those who are, the Methods section has two purposes:

1. Allow readers to judge whether the results and conclusions of the study are valid.

The interpretation of your results depends on the methods you used to obtain them. A reader who is skeptical of your results will read your Methods section to see if they can be trusted. They’ll want to know that you chose the most appropriate methods and performed the necessary controls. Without this content, skeptical readers might think your data and any conclusions drawn from them are unreliable.

2. Allow readers to repeat the study.

For readers interested in replicating your study, the Methods section should provide enough information for them to obtain the same or similar results.

Analyze your audience

Typically, only readers in your field will want to replicate your study or have the knowledge to assess your methodology. More general audiences will read the Introduction and then proceed straight to the Results. You can therefore assume that people reading your Methods understand methodologies that are frequently used in your field. To gauge the level of detail necessary for a given method, you can look at articles previously published in your target journal.

If your paper is designed to appeal to experts in more than one field, you still need to write your Methods for a single set of experts. For example, say you applied a novel computational approach to gain new insight into a well-characterized biological system. Is your goal to get to show biologists the value of your computational tool or to show computational scientists how they can help study biology? In the former case, assume less computational expertise: provide more extensive explanations for how methods work and why they were chosen.

Skills

State the reasons for choosing your methodology

A reader looking to assess your methodology will read your Methods section to judge your experimental design. When describing your approach, place more emphasis on how you applied a method rather than on how you performed the method. For example, you don’t need to explain how to perform a western blot, but you might want to describe why a western blot is an appropriate approach for the task at hand (and, potentially, why you didn’t use another method).

Specify the purpose of the assay “To verify that the protein product was present, a western blot was performed.”
Explain why you used a particular method “To maximize the number of gene candidates, statistical method X was used, which prioritizes reducing false negative errors over reducing false positives.”
Justify why you didn’t use another method “A small, informative section of the organism’s genome was sequenced. Sequencing the entire genome would have provided more information but was prohibitively expensive.”

Use subheadings to organize content

As recommended for your Results section, use subheadings within your Methods to group related experiments and establish a logical flow. Write your Results section first, and then follow the order of Results subheadings when writing your Methods. The parallel structure will make it easy for readers to locate corresponding information in the two sections.

Subheadings for Methods and Results may not exactly correspond. Sometimes you may need multiple Methods subheadings to explain one Results subheading. Other times one Method subheading is enough to explain multiple Result subheadings.

Provide minimal essential detail

Provide only those details necessary for  a reader to replicate the experiments presented in your study; anything more is extraneous. Remember that readers use Methods to help them assess the validity of your conclusions – do specify any methodological details that might cause someone to reach a different conclusion.

You can cite papers for standard methods, but any modifications or alterations should be clearly stated. When citing methods, cite the original paper in which a method was described instead of a paper that used the method. This helps avoid chains of citations that your reader must follow to find information about the method.

Avoid “we did…” or “the authors did…”

The Methods section should focus on the experiments, not the authors. Avoid phrasing your experiments as “We/The authors did ___”, even if it requires you to write in the passive voice.

“Samples were processed with standard DNA extraction protocols.”

not

“We processed the samples with standard DNA extraction protocols.”