How to structure your scientific article (Part 3: The method section)

In previous posts, I have described the general structure of scientific articles as well as the content of the first section of an article, namely the introduction. Today, let’s move on to the next step: the method section.

The method section of an article describes what the experimenters did to test their hypotheses and arrive at their results. The methods section is therefore quite straightforward. This is why many scientists begin writing their papers by starting with the method section.

What is the structure of the method section?

There is no definitive answer to this question. The structure of the method section depends on the type of studies you have conducted. In my area of research, psychology, the method section usually includes a subsection describing the sample, another for the procedure, and a third one describing the materials used. If you work in another area of research, your method will be different and so will your method section. 

If you have never written a scientific article before and don’t know how to structure your method section, my advice would be to start by identifying the outlet where you want to publish your article. Then read the journal’s guidelines and download 3 or 4 articles that use a similar methodology to yours. Check out how they describe their experiments, which subsections they include, and use this as a template for your own methods section.

What should you keep in mind while writing the method section?

1. Use the method section to highlight the quality of your research

Conducting a scientific study is a colossal task and you have certainly given it a lot of thought in advance. Do not hesitate to explain the reasons that led you to choose a certain methodology. Underline all the elements that support the idea that you have done a good job.

  • Use the method section to show that you have chosen the best method to test your hypothesis. Show that you have considered the potential drawbacks of this method and alternative interpretations of the results and that you have addressed these issues in the best possible way.  Explain why you chose this material or created this procedure. If you have used traditional methods, i.e. methods that have often been used in previous studies, point out that these methods have been extensively validated and are reliable. If you have created a new method, be sure to explain why you needed to create a new method, what were its advantages compared to traditional methods, how you created it, and what makes it robust and reliable.
  • Use the method section to certify that you have conducted your research ethically. If you work with people or animals, it is usually necessary to obtain the approval of an ethics committee before conducting your research. You are also required to follow certain ethical and safety guidelines. These guidelines range from obtaining consent from participants to ensure that their physical or mental health is not endangered by the experiment. You must indicate in the methods section that you have followed these guidelines.
  • Use the method section to certify that you have conducted your research according to good scientific practice. In some disciplines, there are also explicit research guidelines. For example, in social psychology, my field of expertise, many journals require us to be absolutely transparent and truthful about our initial hypotheses, our methods (e.g., reporting on all measures collected), and our analytical strategy (e.g., indicating the exclusion of outliers). Many journals also encourage the preregistration of a study before its completion. Preregistrating a research means specifying the research plan (research questions and hypotheses, materials and methods, analytical strategy) before collecting or analyzing the data. This research plan is uploaded to an online platform (such as the Open Science Framework) where it receives a timestamp that attests to the date it was uploaded. The goal of preregistration is to increase the transparency of the research and to avoid HARKING (hypothesis formulation after the results are known), as well as p-hacking and other publication biases (if you want to know more about preregistration, see this article).  These practices guarantee research quality but unfortunately are not implemented in all fields. Check in advance how things stand in your research area.
More and more journals offer badges to acknowledge open science practices and motivate researchers to share data, materials, or to preregister (see https://cos.io/our-services/open-science-badges/).

2. Provide enough information so that people understand what you have done and, if possible, can replicate your study.

The method section is a place for detailed information. If you are an expert on a certain topic when you read an article you want to know the details of the study. However, a certain level of detail is inappropriate. For example, you rarely need to indicate what t-shirt the experimenter was wearing when he or she conducted the study. In 99.99% of cases, this is not relevant. Sometimes too much detail is also overwhelming. In most articles, even if you relied on a complex procedure, you cannot spend 40 pages describing your study. The number of words in your article is usually limited, and it is in your best interest to prevent your readers from dying of boredom before reaching the results.

How much is too much?

Again, check the level of details of other articles published in the journal where you want to submit your paper and follow their example. If you want to provide all the details of your study and don’t have enough space in the main article, you can keep the most important information in the main article and move the details to the supplementary material. That’s what the supplementary material is for. People who want to know the details will have access to this information, but at the same time you don’t overload your paper and you can stick to your main story. Another possibility is to upload the detailed procedure, material, statistical batches, and syntaxes into an online repository. Here again, I use the Open Science Framework website.

3. Use a clear structure

To help your readers quickly understand the structure of your methods and easily find the information they are looking for, don’t hesitate to use subheadings. Think about the logical order in which you need to organize your subsections. It is often easier to understand the method if it begins with the procedure (i.e., the steps that the experimenter(s) followed to complete the study) and then describes the details of the material rather than the other way around. 

4. Illustrate complex procedures

Sometimes a picture says more than 1,000 words. If your procedure or apparatus is complex and unusual, a figure can make it easier to understand. 

That’ s it for the method section! I hope you found this post useful. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments or send me an email (kedia@abrilliantmind.blog). I wish you an excellent week!

Cover photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst

Microscope photo by Ousa Chea on Unsplash

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