3-2 Writing a Methods Section
Meredith Vanstone and Lawrence Grierson
When writing papers, one of the first sections that many authors seek to tackle is the methods section. Since these are often quite similar to your study protocol and grant proposal, they can be a great place to start for authors who find writing daunting.
Key Points of the Chapter
By the end of this chapter the learner should be able to:
- Articulate the key components of a good methods section for quantitative research paper
- Articulate the key components of a good methods section for qualitative research paper
- Access relevant reporting guidelines for various forms of research papers
Anuja is a nursing student who has been working hard on a project about observing students engaged in an interprofessional activity. The team involves several more senior educators and professionals. As Anuja’s supervisor you know that she has done a really good job at pulling the team together and helping with a number of data collection tasks. However, to meet ICMJE criteria for authorship, you are mindful that Anuja should be engaged in the drafting of the manuscript if possible. You decide that Anuja should be able to work through the methods section of the paper. You are able to find the study protocol document for this project and forward that to her. In your email you write:
From: My Email <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Thu, Dec 12, 2021 at 1:20 PM
Subject: Study Protocol
To: Singh, Anuja <email@example.com>
Here is the study protocol I was talking about at our last meeting. I am hoping you can be in charge of writing up the methods section of our paper. Do you mind taking a look at the study protocol and then translating over to the methods section in the manuscript Google Doc? Thank you!
From: Singh, Anuja <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Thu, Dec 12, 2021 at 1:20 PM
Subject: RE: Study Protocol
To: My Email <email@example.com>
Thank you for the template – that is very helpful. However, I am a bit confused about the methods. Seems we had both quantitative and qualitative methods within our project. Are there any reporting guidelines or resources you can suggest to help me write these sections up? I’ll admit I am not an expert, but it seems the methods don’t contain everything that I’ve seen in other papers I’ve read so far.
You ponder Anuja’s request and wonder… Are there more resources you could use to assist her in this area?
Deeper Dive into this Concept
The methods section is a critically important part of any research paper. While we are often most interested in the results of a study, the details provided in the methods provide us the information we need to appraise the analytic interpretations presented by the researcher and in the case of some forms of research, to replicate the research for the purposes of confirming or refuting the validity of their observations. A high-quality methods section also serves to convince those who fund research that you have a comprehensive and manageable plan for addressing your research objectives.
Every methods section has some key components. We have structured this brief to include some of key headings you may wish to incorporate in your methods section, with an explanation of the type of information that may be found in each section. We also recommend that you consult the research methods reporting guidelines relevant to the type of study you are conducting. These guidelines provide very detailed information about the methodological information which should be reported and can be useful when you design a study, as they will alert you to elements that should be considered. The EQUATOR Network has compiled a searchable database of health research reporting guidelines (1). Journals will often also provide guidance on the type of information they wish to see included in a methods section.
The methods section of either a qualitative or quantitative research project should begin with a description of the study design and research methodology. Note, it is important not confuse the methods, with the methodology. The methods are the behaviours, tools, and techniques that are used to complete the study, while the methodology describes the systematic approach to collecting and appraising research data.
In this regard, it is essential to name a particular methodology alongside a description of the study design. The study design is often expressed in technical terms (e.g., retrospective observational design; a sequential (QUANT > qual) mixed methods design) while also providing more specific details in your initial description (e.g., longitudinal workplace observation with interviews after particular professional milestones). In qualitative research, methodologies include phenomenology, grounded theory, and qualitative description, amongst many others. In quantitative research, methodologies are either descriptive, correlational, causal-comparative, quasi-experimental, or experimental.
Qualitative researchers will also often include a statement about their philosophical assumptions (e.g., constructivist, post-positivist, pragmatic) in this section. Where there is an unconventional match between methodology, study design, and philosophy, a justification and explanation of congruency is essential. This is not something that is typical in presentations of quantitative research but it’s not a bad idea to include statements of philosophical assumptions in this type of work too. Ultimately, this section also provides the researcher an opportunity to express why that design and methodology was chosen. This information serves to demonstrate that well thought out methodological decisions have been made.
For research studies involving human participants, the methods section must describe the participants in the study. It should define the population or populations that the participants represent and provide information about what type of participants were eligible for inclusion.
Sampling and Recruitment
Research that includes humans also needs to explain how the sample of participants was determined and indicate details about how they were recruited for the study. Details about the participants include the number of participants, their assignment to any relevant group, and, when available, a synopsis of relevant personal characteristics such as their self-reported genders, their age expressed in mean and range terms, and any other features of relevance to the research study.
The sampling and recruitment section will include a description of the type of sampling strategies used. Sometimes more than one sampling strategy is used. For example, a qualitative methods section might describe the movement from convenience to theoretical sampling. It is common to provide examples of the purposeful aspects of sampling (e.g. by age, professional designation, gender) and the criteria for inclusion and exclusion, rather than just stating that participants were purposefully sampled. This section will also provide details on how each sampling strategy was operationalized.
Details about determining the size of samples can look very different in qualitative and quantitative studies. Sample size in qualitative research is a function of data sufficiency, so this section will also often include information on how the researchers define data sufficiency (typically with reference to their particular methodology) and how they operationalized data sufficiency within the study. In quantitative research, the appropriate sample size is determined as a function of three factors – the significance level (i.e., the probability of the study rejecting the null hypothesis), the power level (i.e., the probability that the statistical test correctly rejects the null hypothesis), and the estimated effect size (i.e., the magnitude of the experimental effect). The researcher must make decisions about each of these factors. With these determined, researchers can refer to a textbook or an online calculator to determine the sample size. The methods section should offer detail about these factors and the system (e.g., online calculator) used to make the calculation.
The methods section is also where a researcher will make a declaration that the protocol has received approval from a relevant research ethics board and that individuals who chose to participate in the study did so following the necessary informed consent processes. For more information on the research ethics process see Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (2).
If ethical issues were identified in the design or conduct of the research, it is good practice for the researchers to describe those issues and what steps were taken to mitigate the chance that harm may come to participants. However, this is not a standard component of methods sections, it is typically only included when something about the nature of the study may raise ethical concerns. For example, many health professional education research studies take place at a single site, with faculty acting as a researchers and students as research participants. The research ethics section provides an opportunity to describe what actions were taken to identify and mitigate the effects of this power imbalance, including not allowing research team members with a student assessment role access to information which may reveal participant identities, for instance.
Data Collection and Analysis
Perhaps the most obvious or intuitive part of a methods section is that which describes the specific methods used to collect and analyze data. This component is usually the longest part of the methods section, highlighting the specific procedures, techniques, and/or activities that are involved in the study. While word count is often a concern for journals, this section can in and of itself never be too detailed. It should describe the materials or tools that were used and how they were prepared or developed. It should indicate the exact order of events within a research protocol and, depending on the research approach, highlight any experimental controls or procedures undertaken to reduce researcher subjectivity. Where relevant, this portion of the methods may denote the temporal length of each participant’s involvement and/or the whole study. All methods sections must explain how the collected data were analyzed for results and how these results are interpreted in support of the research objectives.
For qualitative research studies it is essential to describe what data collection tools (e.g., interview guide, field notes) were used, by whom, and how they were developed. Often these are included as online appendices to the paper. When participants are involved in different types of research activities (e.g., observation and interviews) the selection of participant for each type of activity should be detailed.
In both data collection and analysis, qualitative researchers can lean on the conventions of the methodology they identified earlier, describing briefly that conventional procedures such as iteration between data collection and analysis, constant comparative analysis, or data condensation were performed. Instead of defining these well-known terms, concentrate on providing information about how these techniques were operationalized in the study.
Descriptions of qualitative analysis should name the techniques used, describe whether they were inductive, deductive, or moved between modes, and name who performed each technique and what the roles of the other researchers were. Often coding is operationalized by a small group of researchers, with the larger team providing feedback and insight in different ways. It is essential to describe the nuances of this analytic involvement.
For quantitative research studies, those involving the collection and manipulation of numerical data, there are some special features that should be attended to in the methods section.
It should highlight the processes of data collection. The researcher should explain the nature of the collected data, how the measurements were made, and whether it was subjected to any transformations prior to analysis. This may include highlighting whether the data are continuous, ordinal, nominal, or categorical; describing the tools that were used or the databases that were searched to extract the data; and whether or not you are expressing the data in mean, total, percentage, or raw forms in support of the comparisons you wish to make.
It also must describe the statistical tests that were performed to analyze the data. The description of statistical tests is often organized with direct relevance to the researchers’ various hypotheses and ensures that post hoc analyses and mathematical corrections are described alongside all primary analyses. Essentially, any analysis that is done in support of the interpretations needs to appear in a dedicated section for data analysis.
In qualitative research projects it is customary to include a statement about the perspectives of the research team as relevant to the research project. These types of statements will vary depending on the topic of the research and the relationship between the researchers and the topic or participants. There is no set guidance for what to include or not to include in a reflexivity statement. Often it includes a description of professional roles, social identities, personal or academic experiences of the research team as relevant to the project. For example, in Dr. Vanstone’s research about pregnancy and parenthood, she often described that she is a mother, but this is not (typically) relevant to her medical education research so would not be included in the reflexivity section of those studies. Sometimes reflexive identities are ascribed to individual researchers, sometimes the composition of the team is described in aggregate, such as in the following example from a study about the admissions experiences of aspiring physicians from low-income backgrounds:
“Our team represents a range of identities relevant to the inquiry. While we all identify as women, we represent several groups who are under-represented in medicine, including low-income backgrounds. Several, but not all of us, have aspired to medicine, with different results. Our team included a current undergraduate student (RB), a current medical student (RK) and a physician-educator (MM). Two of us have been involved in making and enacting MD Admissions policy (MV, MM).” (Quote from De Freitas et al, 2021 in Medical Education) (3).
Sometimes these statements also include descriptions of how the research team worked towards the goal of being reflexive researchers such as how they recorded and shared their reflexive insights and worked to be transparent about how their positioning affected their analytic work.
Other Important Considerations
It is becoming increasingly common for research studies to provide information about the deposit and accessibility of datasets that were used to create research outcomes. The process of stating where and how another researcher may access your data serves to support replications and transparency in research reporting. Notably, not all quantitative data should be accessible. Researchers should be mindful about the deposit of sensitive data that could be linked to or that could impede the autonomy of the participants who contributed it.
More and more frequently, patients are engaged in health research. If your project included a patient or caregiver team member, your engagement practices should be described in the methods section. The GRIPP2 reporting guidelines provide guidance on how to describe this type of engagement (4).
- The methods section should contain all the information that would be needed to replicate your research. This means making sure that your methods section is comprehensive and full of detail. This also means making sure that your scientific writing is clear and cogent.
- The methods section is not the place in your paper for rhetorical flourish; it is where you lay out a precise description of what was done and the rationale for why it was done that way.
- You may wish to use reporting guidelines to scaffold your writing. Every methods section has some key components and these reporting guidelines can help you to find out what they are. Check out the searchable database found at the EQUATOR network website (https://www.equator-network.org/) to find a relevant guideline.
After discovering the HPER primer chapter on “Writing a Methods Section” you send this resource to Anuja and then suggest that you meet again next week. By that time, you imagine that she might have a good first draft of the methods that you could edit.
- The EQUATOR network. Last accessed January 16, 2022. Available at: https://www.equator-network.org/
- Tri-Council Policy Statement. Last accessed on January 16, 2022. Available at: http://tcps2core.ca/welcome
- De Freitas C, Buckley R, Klimo R, Daniel JM, Mountjoy M, Vanstone M. Admissions experiences of aspiring physicians from low‐income backgrounds. Medical Education. 2021; 55(7);840-849. doi: https://doi-org./10.1111/medu.14462
- Staniszewska S, Brett J, Simera I, Seers K, Mockford C, Goodlad S, Altman DG, Moher D, Barber R, Denegri S, Entwistle A. GRIPP2 reporting checklists: tools to improve reporting of patient and public involvement in research. BMJ. 2017 Aug 2;358. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/358/bmj.j3453