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The Method Section: A Recipe for Research

  • Nizhny Novrogod, Russia
  • comments


Every empirical research paper must have a section titled “Method” (or “Methodology,” or “Study Design”). In this section, you describe what was done to obtain the data presented in the following “Results” section. You explain the recipe, which may be replicated later by another researcher, leading to the same (or very similar) results. You tell the reader what ingredients you used, how you mixed them, and—most importantly—why.

Underground (1995) by Emir Kusturica
Underground (1995) by Emir Kusturica

You start the section with a paragraph where you state the main objective of the research, then break it down into a few research questions (RQs), which are question-mark-ending sentences.

Then, you explain the procedures of the method (strictly one procedure per paragraph). In each step, you either collected, combined, or generated data. First, you explain what you did. Second, you highlight how your procedure contributed to one of the research questions. Third, you justify your actions by providing strong enough reasons for why you performed these specific manipulations with the data.

Use past tense only.

Here is a toy sample of the Method section:


The goal of this study is to understand whether 
cats love fruits. This leads to the following 
research questions:   
\item[RQ1] What is a correlation between the color 
of a cat's fur and its passion for fruits? 
\item[RQ2] Which fruits are preferred by cats: 
bananas, apples, or marakujas?

First, we found 15 cats: 2 white, 3 black, 
and 10 of mixed color. It is important for RQ1 
that they are of different colors. We believe 
that 15 is enough because this is a toy research.

Second, we excluded 5 cats: those who were 
younger than one year old or older than 8 years 
old. This was motivated by RQ2; we decided that
young and old cats may have difficulty cracking 
the hard cover of a marakuja.

Third, we gave our cats all three fruits mentioned 
in RQ2, left them for an hour, and observed their 
behavior. One hour was enough for a hungry
cat to make a decision.

All cat owners agreed to have their cats 
participate in the study. 

At the end of the section, we mentioned that all participants in the experiment provided informed consent—this is important if humans (or cats) are involved, so don’t forget about it.

In the “Results” section, which follows the Method, you present the data that were collected, combined, or generated (without giving any opinion or subjective interpretation of it!). Some of this data may have already been mentioned in the Method section, but not the most important details. For example, we’ve already said that we found 15 cats, but we didn’t provide their names, ages, or breeds—this information goes into the Results, in the form of a nicely formatted table. How much “results” to show in the Method and how much in the Results is, I believe, a matter of taste.

In the “Discussion” section, which follows the Results, you engage in a dialogue with yourself, questioning the procedures of the Method. This is where you are allowed to have an opinion about the data collected, combined, and generated. For example, we may discuss whether the results of our research are trustworthy enough, taking into account that we only analyzed the behavior of just 15 cats, while in the Method, we were absolutely sure that we were doing the right thing. In the Discussion, you play the opposite role by doubting every single step of the Method, highlighting its weaknesses and limitations.

You may find inspiration in these papers (use Google Scholar to download their PDFs):

  • Melina Vidoni, Evaluating Unit Testing Practices in R Packages, ICSE 2021
  • Reem S. Alsuhaibani et al., On the Naming of Methods: A Survey of Professional Developers, ICSE 2021
  • Anastasia Ruvimova et al., An Exploratory Study of Productivity in Software Teams, ICSE 2022

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