Students and scientific writing – part IV

So where are we now? In my previous blogs I gave suggestions on how to structure the introduction, background and study area chapters. The next step would be to write the methods chapter.
A methods chapter is not a laboratory manual and it is not a protocol, but the description of the steps that had been taken to analyse the material.

Problem #7 – methods
Sometimes I find methods chapters boring, sometimes I find them irritating and sometimes I find them really informative. Boring because some authors go into great detail, irritating because some authors don’t present much detail at all, and informative because the careful description allows me to understand exactly how the author/s treated and analysed their samples. This for example means that I understand how the fieldwork was performed; how the section was logged and sampled and how many samples were taken and where; how coring was done (type of corer, diameter and length of the cores), and if the cores were split/sampled in the field or if they were transported to the laboratory. It also means that I understand how the samples/sediment cores were treated in the laboratory and how sub-sampling was done; how many samples were analysed and which analytical methods were chosen and why; were samples for different analyses taken at the same level in the sequence or not? Which analytical instruments were used and what was their laboratory error? In principle, the methods chapter should be written so that someone else who would use the same samples and the same analytical approach should arrive at the same analytical results. A careful crafted methods chapter also makes it possible that people who read the article in maybe 10 or 20 years will still be able to understand the how and what.
And of course, you should follow a certain structure in the methods chapter. Describe one method at a time, and order your description according to the steps you have taken. Which was the first method you chose, what came next, etc. Also group methods together, i.e. geochemical methods would be explained under the same heading, biological methods under the next, and so on.
Another important issue to consider is that you need to write the methods chapter in the past tense and that you don’t discuss your results here.

I mostly have geology students in mind when I write these blogs. But, since students from other disciplines might happen to find my blog, I thought I should take a slightly broader view on scientific writing in general, and check out what other people suggest as the basic principles for a methods section.

Neal Lerner and Marilee Ogren-Balkama of MIT list the following in their .pdf file A Guide to Scientific Writing:
– Present the experimental design and provide enough detail to allow readers to interpret your results
– Give enough detail for readers to replicate your work
– Include the right amount of detail – too much will make it sound like a laboratory manual; too little, and no one can repeat what was done.
– Don’t reiterate published methods, only refer/cite them
– Provide a context for the methods “In order to …, we …”

Marc E Tischler from the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics at the University of Arizona describes the way of how to structure a methods chapter in his Scientific Writing Booklet in great detail. In short he suggests the following answers to some major questions: Q#1 – How did you study the problem? A#1 – Briefly explain the general type of scientific procedure you used. Q#2 – What did you use? A#2 – Describe what materials, subjects, and equipment (chemicals, experimental animals, apparatus, etc) you used. Q#3 – How did you proceed? A#3 – Explain the steps you took in your experiment.

As mentioned earlier, there are quite many guidelines for scientific writing available on the Internet and these can easily be downloaded as pdf files. In case you cannot download the files, here are two pdf files which I downloaded some time ago:

Lerner, N. & Ogren-Balkama, M.: A Guide to Scientific Writing

Tischler, ME: Scientific Writing Booklet

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