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.

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 developed a new algorithm for calculating the viability of nuclear reactors in different types of electricity markets. Is your goal to show economists how they can be involved with the nuclear industry, or to show nuclear engineers how to use your algorithm to assess reactor design? In each case, assume the appropriate level of expertise in the two fields and provide more in depth explanations of the areas where your target audience will be weakest.

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 MCNP works, but you may need to explain why it is the appropriate analysis code for the data you are trying to create (and possibly why you didn’t choose another method).

Specify the purpose of the method “MCNP was used to find the flux profile of neutrons reaching the containment vessel.”
Explain why you used a particular method “This method gives results in the same format as existing thermal conductivity data, allowing comparison of the test cases against verified results.”
Justify why you didn’t use another method “Using FIB images allows for visual analysis of damage, but does not quantify the presence of impurities.”

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. It might be useful to write your Results section first, and then follow the order of Results subheadings when writing your Methods (though this formatting won’t work for all articles). 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. Include only those details; anything more is extraneous. Specify any factor that might change the conclusions in your paper.

Papers for standard methods can be cited, 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.

Consider use of active and passive voice

While the use of passive voice (such as, “The model was developed to represent…”) has been dominant for many years in scientific writing, active voice (such as, “We developed the model to represent…”) is becoming much more common. Be aware of the style of the journal to which you are submitting your article, and of the preferences of your advisor or group.

It is also important to be consistent throughout the document. Be careful to avoid switching between active and passive voice, which can lead to confusion and the appearance of sloppiness.

Use appropriate style

Keep in mind that the sections described here may not be appropriate for the data/results you are planning to present. Make sure that you choose the divisions in your paper to match what you are writing, and don’t confine yourself to Introduction/Methods/Results/Conclusions if it doesn’t make sense for your paper.