- 1 Writing the Methods
- 2 Three Key Components of the Methods Section – An Example
- 3 Writing Tips
- 4 Review Exercise
- 5 Conclusion
Writing the Methods
The Methods section of a research article answers, “What did you do, and how did you do it?”
The three main components of the Methods section are your materials, your procedures, and your statistical analysis. Addressing these three components helps the reader understand your experimental approach and how you arrived at the answer to your research question. Many writers will use subheadings to highlight these components and other key information.
Addressing these three components helps the reader understand your experimental approach and how you arrived at the answer to your research question. Many writers will use subheadings to highlight these components.
Describe a) your equipment and b) your participants or samples.
Equipment refers to any material that you used to set up or carry out your study, such as an apparatus, a drug, a culture media, or even a field site. Participants or samples can refer to human patients, animal subjects, plants, or microorganisms.
Describe what you did in your study. Let the reader know what type of overall study design you’re using. Some examples would be a randomized control study, a cross-sectional study, a longitudinal study, or a meta-analysis.
Then, describe exactly what you did in your study so that other researchers can replicate your process. Typically, the procedures subsection is organized chronologically by descriptions of processes in the order that you carried them out. Provide every relevant detail about obtaining, storing, setting up, or preparing your equipment or samples. Indicate how you collected your data, whether it be by experimenting in the lab; conducting interviews, surveys, and focus groups; measuring and observing in the field; or carrying out clinical trials.
Describe any statistical analysis that you applied to your data. However, do not indicate the results of this analysis until you reach your Results section. Often, the description of statistical analysis in the Methods section can be brief.
Three Key Components of the Methods Section – An Example
This video illustrates the three key components of the Methods section in scientific research by examining excerpts from a fictional research article about varroa mites in honeybee colonies.
NOTE: For educational purposes, we’ve created fictional excerpts that resemble passages from scientific research articles. The fictional examples are intended to illustrate writing techniques and are not designed to teach scientific content. Please note that the scientific content and data in this video is fictional.
[Background sounds of bees buzzing and birds chirping]
MATERIALS, PROCEDURES, and ANALYSES: These are the 3 key components in the methods section in a scientific research article.
Let’s examine these components by looking at excerpts from a fictional scientific research article about varroa mites in honeybee colonies.
In the methods section, the writer starts by describing their MATERIALS – both the equipment that they used and the bee colonies that they examined. [A laptop displays the following voiceover text on screen.] They write, “In this study, we tracked the efficacy of natural chemical treatments across 20 bee colonies in Guelph, Ontario.” Our treatment types included essential oil (thyme), sucrocide spray, oxalic acid trickling, and formic acid strips.”
The writer would then provide specific information about the field sites, the colonies, and the equipment used across the four different treatment types.
Next, the writer would describe the treatment types that they carried out in this study. They divide their PROCEDURES into four sections – one for each of the four treatment types.
[A laptop displays the following voiceover text on screen.] When explaining their fourth treatment method, their application of formic acid strips, we might read the following sentence: “We applied Mite Away Quick Strips (46.7% formic acid) to the brood chamber of 2 of the colonies and removed the strips after 7 days.”
Finally, this writer then describes the statistical ANALYSIS that they performed. [A laptop displays the following voiceover text on screen.] They tell the reader, “We used R to calculate the mean reduction of mites for all treatments and compared results from treated colonies to our control colonies.”
When writing or revising your methods section, it can be helpful to write up your methods using the SUB-HEADINGS “materials,” “procedures,” and “analyses” to guide your writing process and to make sure you include all essential information for each of these three key components.
Below are five writing tips for writing your Methods section:
Tip 1 – Be Specific
Be specific when you describe your materials, your procedures, and your statistical analysis. Imagine a scientist who’s not familiar with your experiment and write for this scientist. One strategy for imagining your document from the perspective of the reader is to take a break between writing and revising so that you can approach your document with fresh eyes.
Another strategy is to read your document our loud or have your computer read your document out loud for you so that you notice different things. However, imagination can never replace the perspective of a real reader. Consider showing your draft to someone who’s not familiar with your experiment and asking them to identify places where they need more context or information to understand what you did.
Tip 2 – Consider Your Audience
Think about what other scientists need to know about your materials and your procedures. You don’t need to include information that any scientist can safely assume that you would use. For example, chemists don’t typically provide descriptions of basic equipment like pipettes or flasks. However, if you’re using something more specialized, like a chromatograph, you can provide a detailed description of the make, manufacturer, and production location to give your reader as much information as possible.
Tip 3 – Avoid Repetition
Although providing comprehensive descriptions is important, sometimes you can shorten your methods section and avoid repetition by referring to researchers in the field. For example, you can preface a description in your methods section with a phrase like ‘using the method of Singh et al.’ to refer to an established method in the field developed or implemented by other researchers. In this way, you can then avoid describing the entire method and instead focus on what adjustments you made for your specific study.
Tip 4 – Make Use of Photos
One of the ways that you can make writing your methods easier for yourself is by taking photos when you’re in the lab or when you’re in the field. You can then use these photos of your experimental setup or your field site as references during the writing stage. These photos can help jog your memory and help ensure that your descriptions are precise. In some cases, you may want to include figures in the methods section that show your experimental setup or your field site. However, be sure to save any figures that include results for your results section.
Tip 5 – Write in the Past Tense
Although you want other people to be able to follow your procedures, you don’t want your procedures to read like a recipe book where you’re giving instructions to the reader like “Apply Mite Away Quick Strips to the brood chambers of 2 of the colonies. If this language sounds familiar, that’s because you may have encountered it in a lab manual, which is designed to be instructional.
If you’re new to writing research articles, keep in mind that the lab manual that provides instructions for an experiment is different from the research article that documents the experiment. Lab manuals are written for students to be able to follow an experiment whereas research articles are written for other researchers in the field. So, in a research article, you would write “we applied Mite Away Quick Strips to the brood chambers of 2 of the colonies” or “Mite Away Quick Strips were applied to the brood chambers of 2 of the colonies.”
Read the following passages from a fictional Methods section. Consider whether the level of detail provided in these passages is inadequate, sufficient, or excessive.
Statistical methods were used to calculate the mean reduction of mites for all treatments.
We were interested in evaluating the effectiveness of the oxalic acid trickling method of mite treatment, as this method has been used by many beekeepers in Guelph, Ontario. To test the oxalic acid trickling method, we used a syringe to apply 10 mL of oxalic acid to the brood chamber of 2 of the colonies.
Passage One contains inadequate detail. The writer should elaborate on the specific statistical method that was used to calculate the mean reduction.
Passage Two contains excessive detail. Because the first sentence of this passage includes background information, it would be helpful to include in the Introduction section instead of the Methods section. As Angelica Hofmann notes in Scientific Writing and Communication: Papers, Proposals, and Presentations (2017), the Methods section of a research article should focus on the procedures that were carried as opposed to the rationale for the experiment (p. 259).
Now that you’ve identified three key components of the Methods and filled out the Methods page of your research article map, you’re ready to start writing your Methods. Proceed to the next section on writing your Results.
The content of this page was created by Dr. Jodie Salter and Dr. Sarah Gibbons.