Common mistakes with the research methodology chapter
- Providing unnecessary information on different and/or generic approaches to research methodologies rather than clearly stating the actual research framework and methods used in the project. For example, you do not need to overview all the different social science methods, such as discourse analysis, grounded theory, etc., if you did not actually employ these in your research.
- Being very superficial (a very common mistake), e.g. “I read texts I found in the library and online” or “Interviews were conducted with relevant government officials” or “Data was analysed in Excel”.
- Not providing sufficient detail of sources of secondary data used in your research.
- Saying something will be evaluated in some way, e.g. “evaluate the effectiveness of environmental management procedures…” and then not providing a clear method by which you “measured” effectiveness, i.e. how specific criteria were applied.
- Failing to provide detailed methods for:
- Collection of material from interviews, questionnaires, etc.
- Analysis of material – e.g. not including methods for carrying out case study analysis, or use of spreadsheets and/or graphs to analyse quantitative data, or statistical analysis, etc.
- Failing to support your methods with citations – you should reference research methods textbooks, research methodology papers, technical reports, and relevant subject related articles that may evaluate the data collection and analytical methods you use. This is the only way to give a credible rationale for your approach.
- Writing in the future tense – the methods chapter in your thesis must be written in the past tense, i.e. ‘…20 people were interviewed’, as the work has already been undertaken by the time you submit your thesis.
- Writing in the first person, i.e. writing ‘I researched information on…’, instead of writing in the more academically appropriate third person, i.e. ‘Information on… was researched’.
To avoid making these types of mistakes you must be rigorous and detailed in the way you present your project design and methodology. You must be specific about the type of literature, data sets and/or user groups you have engaged with, and how you selected and/or obtained this information.
When outlining a sampling framework for data collection this should indicate exactly how many samples were collected (whether questionnaires or samples from the natural environment), and from which groups/strata they were collected. A rationale underpinning why you chose your sampling approach must also be provided (why questionnaires and not interviews, why only 10 biomass samples and not 50, why adopt TPH for analysis of oiled areas and not another method? etc.). It is often useful here if you can draw on other studies that have adopted similar strategies to help support your approach. This makes it more robust and less likely to be criticised for being unrealistic. However, the references you draw upon must be appropriate and specific to what you have done. There is little point in citing a text that is only of limited relevance just for the sake of it, as this will be picked up by the assessor.
Likewise, a clear outline of how you analysed your data is imperative. Simply stating that you used SPSS or Excel is inadequate. Rather, you should outline how your data is presented, the types of descriptive statistics you applied and any inferential statistical tests (t-tests, chi-squared, ANOVA, etc.) you made use of. It is not necessary to apply inferential statistics to all data sets but where these are relevant, the appropriate tests should be used and a rationale for this provided in your methods. For assistance in analysing your data (and in drawing up your initial sampling frame), it may be worth booking an appointment with one of the statisticians from the Sigma Maths Support Centre (on the ground floor of the University Library).
It is important to emphasise that dissertations must also provide a description of the methodological approach and evaluation criteria adopted for secondary data. Although this chapter may be shorter than that associated with a project collecting primary data, it should be much more than just a list of the types of secondary information you draw upon. There are recognised ways of answering research questions through a rigorous analysis of secondary data, for example through the use of case studies and approaches such as content analysis and discourse analysis. However, it is important that these are applied appropriately and that an adequate rationale is provided for this. There are many references that can be drawn upon to support the underpinning and application of these approaches and these should be used as appropriate.
The methodology used in your project should be in line with that stated in your approved ethics application. Some minor differences between your approved ethics application and your thesis are permitted, including: a minor change to the title, use of a different case study (but only in a low risk project), or a minor change to a laboratory method (which does not require a new risk assessment).