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V. Write Your Methods Section and Subsections

May 24, 2016 by Kathryn Betts Adams

Most social and health science articles have a fairly standard Methods Section that covers several topics or short subsections within this larger section of the manuscript. The topics will include the study’s target sample, how the sample was recruited or obtained, and data collection procedures. If your study reports on outcomes of an experiment or intervention, an additional subsection with a summary of the procedures followed will be necessary. The methods section also contains a list and description of the measures (or measurement instruments/scales) used in the study, as well as a brief description of your study’s data analysis plans and procedures. Each of these subsections is described in greater detail below.

The Sample and Study Procedures

The first Methods subsection usually describes the sample and how it was planned (sampling procedures) and recruited or found. The Sample is a section that is used in any study involving human beings or larger units of analysis, such as hospitals or schools. In either a survey or qualitative study, you will describe the sample along with a few key inclusion criteria, how they were recruited or obtained, or the dataset you have used (with a citation to the original authors or owners of the data). For instance, here you will state whether your study included males or females, and what age range was a criterion for inclusion:   “We recruited both boys and girls, ages 12 to 17.”  Then you describe where they were recruited from and by what means:  “Convenience sampling was used to find study participants through advertisements placed in five public and five private high school cafeterias (with permission of school administration).”  Further, here you will report the data collection procedures—did you mail surveys, did you use the phone?  For secondary datasets, report this part very briefly and cite the original publication of a study describing these procedures in greater detail.

Next, if you are writing up an experimental or intervention study, you must include a section to offer the reader information about what you did. This material should fit into a couple of paragraphs, at most, within the text of your manuscript. However, you have several options to provide interested readers with more detailed information. Some journals offer to place an Appendix for your study procedures online and provide the link. Or you may have a manual for the intervention approach that you are willing to share with others if they contact you. If this is proprietary material (i.e., involves a cost), you will have to make that clear in a footnote somewhere.

Measures 

The next part of the Methods section tells the reader how you have operationalized (defined) the variables of interest in your study. You will describe any individual items and any scaled measures or instruments (i.e., tests given to the sample). In a study with different types of procedures rather than scaled measures, you might include everything you need under Study Procedures, but most studies include some written measures that must be described. For secondary datasets, you must still describe the items and measures you are using from that dataset. For existing published measures, such as the Geriatric Depression Scale, offer a brief description and give the most important norms (i.e., the scale’s validity and reliability in its original use), citing the original publication of the instrument as well as any relevant updates.

Data Analytic Plan

The next major area to cover in the Methods Section is a description of how you handled the data after it was collected and any necessary particulars about the statistical or other analyses. This is more necessary for complex studies, but it bears doing for any manuscript, though it should be brief. Here, novice scholars may be tempted to be very detailed, as one needs to be in a dissertation, but a succinct summary is usually better in a journal manuscript. For instance, it is not necessary to say, “Descriptive analyses were conducted on each variable using frequencies to identify ranges, means, and standard deviations.”  While that sentence is true, the reader can assume that and you do not need to report that you did it. It is appropriate to summarize the statistical program used, that you ran necessary tests for your analyses to see that they met necessary criteria, and what tests you conducted and why. Link your analyses to the research questions or hypotheses you laid out earlier at the end of your literature review. For instance, you might report something like the following made-up description:  “After cleaning and checking the data, we ran Pearsons R equations to determine bivariate relationships among study variables and the dependent variables of interest, depression and anxiety scores. Multivariate analyses to address the two research questions listed above consisted of two separate multiple regression analyses using the predictor variables and the identified covariates regressed on the two dependent variables, depression and anxiety scores, to determine the importance of these predictors to each of these outcomes.”  Note that you are not giving too much detail, but your reader sees where you are going and you have clearly related your analysis to the research question.

You do not report any results in the Methods section. Those will be next up in the Findings or Results section and displayed on any tables you include. For more examples of what is needed in the Methods section and what to leave out, it is helpful to examine several articles reporting studies similar to yours, particularly in the journal you are targeting for your submission. One important tip is that even though much of this material is quite standard, you should never copy full sentences from another article or paper, even your own, whether in this section or others. It may seem unimportant to change the wording of something very similar to what you wish to say, but with the proliferation of online searching and specific plagiarism software, it is important to word everything in your manuscript in original, slightly varied language.

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