The most important part of your research article or thesis

The most important part of your research article or thesis

Academic writing is an art form that is sometimes difficult to tackle and certainly challenging to master. Most students need to learn how to write academically at some point. More than the writing aspect, learning how to think academically often poses the most challenging part. Crafting convincing arguments and making compelling points is crucial when writing your thesis or publication. However, this post is not about any of these things. #plot-twist It is about a simple question with a surprisingly deep meaning.

I recently had a student come to see me to talk about the possibility of doing a PhD and she wondered: “Daniel, what is the most important part of a thesis?”

It is a question I have been asked multiple times in the past, and my response has almost always been the same: Your research methods. This might come as a surprise, but here is why this is my very personal conclusion to this question.

Why are the results not the most important part?

Commonly, people follow up my answer with a question about research results because we are conducting studies to primarily produce results, insights, generate knowledge and solve problems, no? It is tough to argue against this point. However, what is this knowledge worth if it was developed based on poor research methods? Even worse, using the wrong tools might result in false and misleading results. In quantitative research, we would call this a classic ‘Type II Error’, where we accept something that is actually wrong, i.e. ‘a false negative’. In qualitative research, it appears even more important to have advanced research methods skills, especially when conducting interviews, observations or any type of data collection which involves interactive engagement with your participants. Mistakes cannot only be made when analysing the data, but also when collecting it. For example, bad interview techniques cannot be alleviated by excellent thematic analysis. The quality of data depends on your research skills.

During my time as an editor for an international journal, the first step of screening any manuscript was to look at the methods section. If the methods used to generate the results cannot be trusted, how could we trust the study’s findings? For example, would you ask a shoemaker to bake a professional cake for you, or vice versa, hire a baker to produce a pair of shoes? Different skills are required for each, as well as different tools.

This is not to say that your research findings are not important. They certainly are. In many respects, they reflect the purpose of the study. However, the quality of your results is dependent on your methods. It appears as if methods are, technically speaking, more important as they precede your results. Likewise, your results depend on them. In light of how we commonly define ‘research’, i.e. a ’ systematic investigation’ (see also here), research methods are what makes our ‘searching’ systematic. Would that not make sense?

Your academic development: A question of craftsmanship rather than discipline?

An excellent researcher always strikes a good balance between being knowledgeable about the field and skilful in applying research methods. However, it seems much more difficult to become truly knowledgeable in research methods in some respects because reading about them is not enough. You need to apply this knowledge and practice. Have you ever tried to learn how to do a backflip by watching YouTube videos only? If so, were you successful on your first try?

I often have the impression that research methods are sometimes perceived by students as ‘the thing to get my actual research done’, while in reality, your academic credibility is likely being judged on how you conduct your research. In my many years as a reviewer, author and supervisor, research was most frequently challenged by its research methods and not by its outcomes. Also, at conferences, I often notice that people mostly ask questions about research methods, especially if the results seemed to not concur with the audience’s opinion. Good research requires good research methods as an essential ingredient. Without it, the largest dataset, the most intriguing research question or the most elaborate conclusions are useless. Therefore, it seems logical that it should be quite important for you to expand, hone and nurture those research methods skills.

This is why I think that your research methods section is probably the most important part of your thesis, but probably not the most remembered aspect of it. Your results will hopefully be even more impressive, not only because of what your participants gave you but also of how your data was collected and analysed.

What do you think is the most important part of your research and when was the last time you actually invested time to nurture your craftsmanship as an academic? Let me know on Twitter.

Until next time, remember to read, research, write and repeat.