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How to write the Limitations of your research

No experiment is perfect – there is always room for improvement. An important part of writing up your research into a paper or dissertation involves being open and honest about what you think you could have done better, or what you would do differently if you were to repeat the experiment. Being clear about these aspects helps other researchers to improve experiments in the future, and guides them towards avenues of future research. This article offers some advice for deciding which limitations to include and how to frame them in your writing. 

Look at the overall research, not the small details

In other words, focus on the bigger picture. Early career researchers (ECRs) can often get preoccupied with minor methodological details, like not having exactly equal groups in your sample. Small issues like this are unlikely to have had a major influence on the quality of your results, so steer clear of focusing on them. 

Instead, consider which principal elements of your research design you would change if you were to conduct this study again. For instance, consider…

Would you have used different measures?

Should you have built in attention checks?

Would the experiment have been more effective if it was split up into smaller chunks?

Should you have used more targeted efforts to recruit more participants from different groups?

Do you now feel that your methodology wasn’t the most appropriate one to use?

What else would have been more suitable, and why? In other words, you want to consider the factors that you believe have had the biggest and most significant effect on your results

Consider how much your findings differ from your research questions

You should also consider whether – and how – your results may differ significantly from what you hypothesised (or your research question), or whether they diverge greatly from other research in the area. If so, then explore and explain the reasons why this might be the case, and include recommendations for how such issues might be addressed or resolved by other researchers.

Offer suggestions for future research

It is also useful, in the limitations, to lay out avenues for future research.

What are the key questions that you think your research raises?

What areas were you not able to investigate further within the scope of this research project?

How might others start answering those areas? 

In conclusion

A good limitations section (or part, if it’s not a separate section) acknowledges any weaknesses or problems in the research study, while also outlining any lessons that you have learnt from the process. It should also give the reader an idea of any outstanding issues, questions or gaps that need to be addressed and priorities for future research arising from your results. 


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