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The Academic Paper

Academic Paper: Methodology

8 min readβ€’september 26, 2020

Dylan Black


Introduction

Now that we've finished our introduction and lit review and you are officially an expertℒ️ in your topic of inquiry, we can finally get started on planning out what exactly it is you're planning on doing! While this may seem like a simple task, many AP Research students consider the Methodology section of the paper to be the most laborious and at times the most difficult part of the paper.
Furthermore, your method is completely unique to your paper. This is because, for completely different topics, the methods used within those disciplines will differ entirely. In some of the harder sciences (ie. chemistry, physics, biology) you are more likely to use a formal experiment whereas, in the humanities, qualitative methods like interviews and content analyses are much more common.
However, in figuring out the best research method for your research, not only will you have to think "what is the best way of solving this problem/answering this question?" but you will ALSO have to remember to look back at your sources from your literature review and see how those sources designed their methods. This will come in handy a bit later when we discuss justifying your methodology.
Note: Things are going to stay pretty broad in this guide, especially regarding descriptions of different research methods. This is because, at this point in your research journey, there are so many paths you can go down, and there's no way we can describe them all! Using resources like college libraries and research methods textbooks to research different methods is an important tip! (PS. In college, they teach a whole class called "Research Methods", so try looking for some resources related to those classes!)
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Types of Research Methods

In Research, you will be presented with so so so many different types of research methods ranging from observatory studies to content analyses to experiments. In this guide, because of the sheer magnitude of how many methodologies there are, we'll be talking about two major subsets of research and describe a few methods that you may want to look into. Again, do what is best for your project and what applies most to your discipline.

Quantitative Methods

According to the University of South Carolina, "Quantitative methods emphasize objective measurements and the statistical, mathematical, or numerical analysis of data" (USC). In essence, quantitative methods are methods that rely more on numbers and less on "soft" evidence, so to speak. This means substantiating claims, not just through the method results, but by performing analysis on data to prove formally, usually through the use of statistical tools, your assertions.
Descriptions of quantitative methods usually involve three main parts:
  • The study population and sampling
    • Which people, places, things are you studying and what is the sample size?
  • The data collected/the tools for data collection
    • What specifically are you collecting and how will you be collecting it?
  • Data analysis
    • How did you take the raw data (the pure numbers) and analyze it in such a way that it proves your hypothesis?
Discipline wise, quantitative methods lend themselves to the sciences and social sciences, with experiments as the typical quantitative method. However, another popular quantitative method involves surveys, specifically surveys with fixed results like multiple choice questions, not open-ended responses, though you can have a combination, this just means your method is more mixed.

Qualitative Methods

While quantitative methods fixate mostly on numbers, qualitative methods fixate on non-numerical, and less "hard", data. According to USC, qualitative methods differentiate from quantitative methods in that they "are not experimentally examined or measured [if measured at all] in terms of quantity, amount, intensity, or frequency". This means that a qualitative study will not focus as heavily on numbers and will rather focus on more abstract, but still concrete, analysis of things like content.
Note that just because a study is qualitative does not mean that its results are A) easier to write or B) are less rigorous. The results from a qualitative study, while less statistically concrete, are still required to be incredibly backed, supported, and thought out. Many people consider non-numerical studies to be less rigorous because "numbers never lie" so to speak, but in fact, quantitative studies can have many issues with credibility, some that can't be applied to qualitative studies.
Qualitative methods typically revolve around some form of content. Whether this content involves collected responses, from things like interviews and/or surveys, or a formal content analysis where a researcher uses coding, a way of breaking down content, to do an in-depth analysis. (disconnected from programming πŸ–₯️)
Qualitative research lends itself to the humanities and social sciences, such as in literature, film analysis, historical research, and other very document and content-heavy fields. Furthermore, if you are collecting any sort of "wordy" responses, such as long responses in a survey and interview responses, your method is more than likely going to incorporate some form of qualitative analysis.

Ethics of Experimentation and the IRB

Many AP Research students perform studies that involve human subjects. This means that you must abide by the rules of ethical experimentation. Note that, even if you aren't doing an experiment, if you have human subjects, ethics will 100% play a role in your methodological design. In this section, we'll go over some of the key points of ethics and describe what an IRB (Institutional Review Board) is.

Do No Harm

The first, and most obvious, ethical principle to abide by is "do no harm". Basically, don't design an experiment that could cause direct harm, both physical and/or psychological, to your participants. While accidents do happen, and are often not fully under the researcher's control, making explicit note not to deliberately cause harm is important.
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Voluntary Participation + Being Open and Honest

Furthermore, your participants must voluntarily participate in your study. This doesn't just mean having your participants visually and verbally agree, you must get written permission for participants to take part in a study. When you receive written permission from a participant, however, they still retain the right to stop participating at any time during your experiment or study.
Therefore, if you are observing a human subject and they express a desire to leave or to stop whatever you are performing, you are obligated to let them leave. It's important to note at this point that written permission carries over to minors. However, because signatures by a minor are not legally binding, you also need permission from a parental figure to conduct your research.
There have been studies in the past where voluntary participation has not been taken into account, and this has led to ethically disastrous studies. For example, in the Stanford prison experiment, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted a study involving participants labeled as guards and prisoners. In this experiment, the guards were given almost absolute power over prisoners, leading to many prisoners being physically harmed. However, despite ethical principles involving voluntary participation, the experiment was continued, even after participants expressed their desire to withdraw.
It's also important to be open and honest with your participants. This means making sure that your participants are aware of what it is you are studying, the results you expect, and other details about the experiment that otherwise they would not know. However, you may also deceive your participants if their knowledge of the experiment would skew your results.
For example, let's suppose you were doing an experiment on anger and frustration in board games, and your experiment involved an unsolvable puzzle. It is necessary that your participants do not know the details of what you are studying and how you are studying it, otherwise, their reactions will not be accurate.

Confidentiality

Finally, the confidentiality of your participants is an ethical point to make. Despite collecting information from individuals, you may not reveal whose responses are whose and display identifying information in your results section. Identifying information includes names, email addresses, physical addresses, and anything else that can be used to tie a response to an individual person.

IRB Approval

When you perform a study based on human participants, it is necessary that your methodology is approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). An IRB is a panel, of usually five people, who read a request for a methodology and give it one of three "ratings" (they will not use these terms specifically, but they will align to them):
  • A green light- you are A-OK to get started on your research
  • A yellow-light- you need to make a few adjustments
  • A red-light- you either need to start from scratch or make major changes to your experiment for it to be ethical.
Making an IRB proposal typically involves a written application and, sometimes, a short presentation, though this will depend on how your school handles IRBs.
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Writing a πŸ”₯ Method Section

Be Explicit and Specific

When writing your method section, being explicit in what you will be doing is, quite honestly, the most important part. The main goal of your method section is to get across exactly what you will be doing to answer your research question. Therefore, you must be incredibly specific when writing because your reader should be able to understand precisely how you performed your research.
Another important role of the method section is to make your research replicable. This means that if a researcher were to read your paper and wanted to re-create your study for whatever reason, they know exactly what steps you took and why you took them.

Justify Your Method With Research

Another important note for your method section is that everything you plan to do must be justified in some way shape or form by already existing research. This means using the little-r research you employed in your literature review to explain:
  • Why your proposed method aligns with methods used by previous researchers
  • Why it will accurately solve your problem or answer your question
This point is often glossed over by Research students because to them, their method is obvious and will work, but to readers, this simply is not true. Because of this, it is key to the effectiveness of your method section that you justify and logically support your method.

Closing Thoughts

Congratulations! You now know everything you need to know about designing a methodology and writing a methods section in your research paper. Once you write this section, you're officially over the hump and are over halfway done with your paper! It's also at this point that you transition formally from little-r research to big-R research, which is super super exciting! Good luck, and now that you have a method...
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