Criteria for Success

A successful Methods section:

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

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. Are the results and conclusions of your study 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. How can I reproduce and build on your work?

Some readers will be interested in replicating your study to confirm the findings and build on them. The Methods section should provide enough information to replicate your work and to obtain the same or similar results.

Note: In some EECS disciplines, a Methods section is generally omitted in favor of sections on device/system design or analysis. Make sure to choose sections that are appropriate for your target venue.

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 the device physics of a well-characterized semiconductor device. Is your goal to show electrical engineers the value of your computational tool in characterizing and designing electronic systems, or to show computational scientists how they can help study semiconductor device physics? In the former case, assume less computational expertise and explain your methods and motivations in more detail.

Skills

State the reasons for choosing your methodology

A reader looking to assess your methodology will read the 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 take an SEM image, but you might want to describe why SEM imaging is an appropriate approach for the task at hand (and, potentially, why you didn’t use another method).

Specify the purpose of a method “SEM imaging was used to examine the fidelity of the nanoimprinted structures.”
Explain why you used a particular method “To obtain material parameters for device modeling, the films were characterized with spectroscopic ellipsometry coupled with transmission measurements, allowing for accurate determination of thicknesses and optical constants.”
Justify why you didn’t use another method “Photothermal deflection spectroscopy was used to measure sub-bandgap absorption, which was too weak to be detected by standard UV-vis measurements.”

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

For readers to replicate your study, you must provide enough detail to allow them to reach the same conclusions as you do in your paper. That said, try to avoid including extraneous details. Specify any factor that might change the conclusions in your paper.

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.