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Yesterday I read a research application that contained no research methods at all.
Well, that’s not exactly true.
In an eight-page project description, there were exactly three sentences that described the methods. Let’s say it went something like this:
- There was to be some fieldwork (to unspecified locations),
- Which would be analysed in workshops (for unspecified people), and
- There would be analysis with a machine (for unspecified reasons).
In essence, that was the methods section.
As you might imagine, this led to a difficult (but very productive) discussion with the project leader about what they really planned to do. They knew what they wanted to do, and that conversation teased this out. I thought that I might replicate some of that discussion here, as it might be useful for other people, too.
I’ve noticed that most researchers find it easy to write about the background to their project, but it’s much more difficult to have them describe their methods in any detail.
In part, this is a product of how we write journal articles. Journal articles describe, in some detail, what happened in the past. They look backwards. Research applications, in contrast, look forwards. They describe what we plan to do. It is much harder to think about the future, in detail, than it is to remember what happened in the carefully documented past.
As a result, I often write on draft applications ‘less background, more methods’. Underlying that statement is an assumption that everybody knows how to write a good methods section. Given that people often fail, that is clearly a false assumption.
So, here is a relatively simple way to work out what should go into your methods section.