I know that I need to write a clear methods section to stand a chance at getting published, but I’m struggling to figure out what this looks like in practice. How do you write a good methods section?
– Anonymous, Genomics
Dr. Editor’s response:
Both “poor methods” and “poor reporting of methods” are regularly cited by peer reviewers as top reasons for rejecting a manuscript (e.g. Griffiths & Norman 2016, Hesterman et al. 2018). If your study design isn’t clear, then readers won’t be able to assess the validity of your work or replicate your procedures. These things are well known.
Yet what isn’t as often mentioned is that a poorly written methods section can subtly influence a peer reviewer’s decision-making, tapping into the cognitive bias that hard-to-read information is more likely to be untrue than easy-to-read information (Alter & Oppenheimer 2009). An imprecise or hard-to-read methods section may lead a reviewer to believe — consciously or unconsciously — that your methods themselves were flawed.
Beyond the imprecise suggestion of “write clearly,” what steps can you take to make sure that poor-quality writing doesn’t obscure high-quality study design, techniques, and tools? To answer this question, I spoke with Cath Ennis, a science writer and editor with a PhD in molecular cell biology.
1. Craft a logical order
Your reviewers, Dr. Ennis notes, need to be able “to easily follow the logical flow of your methods.” For most, this means describing your preparations, measurements, and protocol in chronological order, while emphasizing how your method was used to meet your objective.
My favourite strategy for making flow clear and logical: watch your sentence subjects. The subject of your sentence should be short — fewer than six words, if possible — and consistent throughout a single paragraph. If your sentence subjects regularly shift within a single paragraph, your writing will seem at best choppy and at worst incoherent.
Not sure what to place in the subject position in each sentence? As I describe in my analysis of the sentence structures in a paper on shark skin (Li et al. 2014), the subject and verb of each sentence should focus on the information that you most want your readers to grasp. The point you’re trying to make belongs at the beginning of your sentence. Think of it this way: your methods section is telling a little story. What is the story about? If the story is about shark skin, then sharks, shark skin, and its characteristics belong in the subject position in most sentences.
2. Provide structural parallels
When Dr. Ennis edits manuscripts for publications, one of the things she looks for is structural parallels between the methods section and the discussion and results that follow.
“Every method you used to generate the data presented in your paper needs to be described or cited, preferably in more or less the same order, or at least with matching sub-headings. I need to be able to look at every figure or table in the paper and quickly and easily find the corresponding section in the methods.”
What is sometimes described, vaguely, as “poor reporting of methods” could be explained, in part, by this lack of internal alignment: when the subheadings in methods, results, and discussion aren’t parallel in phrasing and order, the methods sentence can appear unclear or incomplete. As with your sentence subjects, consistency is better than variety.
3. Paint a verbal picture — or create a video
Finally, use concrete rather than abstract language to help your reader to picture your methods in their mind’s eye. Sometimes using physical or sensory details helps; other times, you’ll want to use verbs that convey clear actions (rather than the hard-to-picture “is” and “was”).
But creating a verbal image using words isn’t your only option. As Dr. Ennis notes: “If your methods are particularly unusual or finicky, consider making a video to supplement the methods section of your manuscript; many journals now allow short videos as supplementary materials. The people who want to replicate (and then cite) your paper will thank you.”
If your university has a do-it-yourself media space like UBC’s One Button Studio, then take advantage of their high-quality camera, microphones, and lighting rather than asking your grad student to film you on their phone.
By crafting a logical order, providing structural parallels, and painting a verbal picture (or including a video) you’ll improve the clarity of your methods section and thereby increase the likelihood of your paper being accepted — as long as your clarity of writing reflects the suitability and appropriateness of your chosen methods.