- Provide enough information in your methods sections so that other researchers can go away and repeat your experiments.
- When including vital information, remember to use the correct conventions stipulated by the relevant organisations.
- The methods section can be made up of three parts: site characterisation, experimental design and statistical analyses.
- Remember that proofreading and editing your methods section can make the difference between success and failure.
For your work to be considered scientific, it must be subject to a falsification test. Can your work be disproven? You, as the author, must provide enough information to the scientific community so they can scrutinise your work. If they can reproduce your results with high confidence then your work has survived the falsification test! This is where the methods section comes in.
What is a methods section?
The methods section of your work is arguably the simplest part of writing your research up and is preceded by the introduction section. I highly recommend reading my blog ‘Writing an introduction: telling a story’, for tips on writing a quality introduction to your research. Back to the methods section. You shouldn’t provide arguments, results or discussions in the methods section. You basically have to describe to your readers how you went about solving a problem. I’ve always looked at it like a cake recipe. You state the ingredients and their quantity and then instruct the reader so that they can bake a cake at home. Similarly, you want to provide enough information to the readers of your research so they can go away and replicate your methods to ideally yield the same results as you did.
If you’re putting forth a method that is well-known and established then it’s not necessary to give extensive details. However, if you’re presenting a totally new method you must provide a lot of information to the readers and researchers interested in performing a falsification test. Either way, always include useful references so that readers can obtain more information if they so wish. You may also want to include details of control experiments. Additionally, you will need to include make and model of specialist equipment used in your research. This won’t be necessary when results can be replicated with equipment regardless of specific make and model.
During my research, I used a profilometer to take accurate measurements of a thin metal film. So, in the methods section of my research article, I refer to this piece of equipment by providing its make and model. For example, Ambios XP-200 Stylus surface profilometer.
Including the right information
When submitting your work for grading or peer-review you can come under fire for not including adequate and/or accurate information in your methods section. So, your work could be failed or rejected if it is viewed as unreproducible due to lack of information. Use widely known and accepted conventions for number and nomenclature:
- Use the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry when including chemicals.
- Use the International System of Units for units of measurements.
- Use the World Register of Marine Species for various species.
It also makes sense to mention everything you have done in the methods section in a similar order as you do in the results section. I highly recommend writing your methods section as you do your experiments so that you are less likely to forget important details. Organising your methods section into subsections will make it so much easier for the reader to follow what you did. To make things even easier for the reader to follow you can also reuse the same headings from the methods section in subsequent sections.
Things to cover in your methods section can include:
- Site characterisation: details of materials or organisms used in the study and description of the site where experiments happened.
- Experimental design: step-by-step instruction, sample preparations, equipment used, experimental conditions, experimental controls, quantities and measurements taken.
- Statistical analysis tool: linear regression, analysis of variance and any relevant software packages.
A quick example
Let’s take a look at the opening paragraph to my methods section. You can view the whole article here. I begin by describing the composition of a metal foil sample that I used in my experiments giving details of supplier and thickness. I then go on to mention how I prepared the foil samples by cutting them into shape and cleaning them using a well-known chemical: acetone. I also mention that I use an ultrasonic bath but I don’t include the make and model. Most cake recipes won’t include make and models of ovens for the same reason. In my field, an ultrasonic bath is a common piece of equipment. I then give information about the foil I use in control experiments.
“Cold rolled Pd60Cu40 wt% foil was supplied by Johnson Matthey Noble Metals (Royston, UK) with an approximate thickness of 31.3±0.8 µm. Seven 21 mm diameter circular disc membranes and three square (~5×5 mm) foil offcuts were cut from the same as-received Pd–Cu foil batch and cleaned in acetone for 5 min using an ultrasonic bath. In addition, a 67.8±1.8 µm thick Pd (99.95%) cold rolled foil, supplied by Goodfellow, was used during this work acting as a standard.”
When in doubt about what to put in the methods section, refer to the methods section from other reputable articles, consult your supervisor or Guide for Authors of your target journal. Like with anything you write, always remember to proofread and edit your work. This can make the difference between success and failure.