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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Design Flaws to Avoid

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.

Design Flaws to Avoid

The research design establishes the decision-making processes, conceptual structure of investigation, and methods of analysis used to address the central research problem of your study. Taking the time to develop a thorough research design helps to organize your thoughts, set the boundaries of your study, maximize the reliability of your findings, and avoid misleading or incomplete conclusions. Therefore, if any aspect of your research design is flawed or under-developed, the quality and reliability of your final results, as well as the overall value of your study, will be diminished.

In no particular order, here are some common problems to avoid when designing a research study.

  • Lack of Specificity -- do not describe the investigative aspects of your study in overly-broad generalities. Avoid using vague qualifiers, such as, extremely, very, entirely, completely, etc. It's important that you design a study that describes the process of investigation in clear and concise terms. Otherwise, the reader cannot be certain what you intend to do.
  • Poorly Defined Research Problem -- the starting point of most new research in the social sciences is to formulate a problem statement and begin the process of developing questions to address that problem. Your paper should outline and explicitly delimit the problem and state what you intend to investigate since it will determine what research design you will use [identifying the research problem always precedes choice of design].
  • Lack of Theoretical Framework -- the theoretical framework represents the conceptual foundation of your study. Therefore, your research design should include an explicit set of logically derived hypotheses, basic postulates, or assumptions that can be tested in relation to the research problem.
  • Significance -- the research design must include a clear answer to the "So What?" question. Be sure you clearly articulate why your study is important and how it contributes to the larger body of literature about the topic being investigated.
  • Relationship between Past Research and Your Study -- do not simply offer a summary description of prior research. Your literature review should include an explicit statement linking the results of prior research to the research you are about to undertake. This can be done, for example, by identifying basic weaknesses in previous research studies and how your study helps to fill this gap in knowledge.
  • Contribution to the Field -- in placing your study within the context of prior research, don't just note that a gap exists; be clear in describing how your study contributes to, or possibly challenges, existing assumptions or findings.
  • Provincialism -- this refers to designing a narrowly applied scope, geographical area, sampling, or method of analysis that unduly restricts your ability to create meaningful outcomes and, by extension, obtaining results that are relevant and possibly transferable to understanding phenomena in other settings.
  • Objectives, Hypotheses, or Questions -- your research design should include one or more questions or hypotheses that you are attempting to answer about the research problem underpinning your study. They should be clearly articulated and closely tied to the overall aims of your paper. Although there is no rule regarding the number of questions or hypotheses associated with a research problem, most studies in the social sciences address between one and five.
  • Poor Method -- the design must include a well-developed and transparent plan for how you intend to collect or generate data and how it will be analyzed.
  • Proximity Sampling -- this refers to using a sample which is based not upon the purposes of your study, but rather, is based upon the proximity of a particular group of subjects. The units of analysis, whether they be persons, places, or things, must not be based solely on ease of access and convenience.
  • Techniques or Instruments -- be clear in describing the techniques [e.g., semi-structured interviews] or instruments [e.g., questionnaire] used to gather data. Your research design should note how the technique or instrument will provide reasonably reliable data to answer the questions associated with the central research problem.
  • Statistical Treatment -- in quantitative studies, you must give a complete description of how you will organize the raw data for analysis. In most cases, this involves describing the data through the measures of central tendencies like mean, median, and mode that help the researcher explain how the data are concentrated and, thus, leading to meaningful interpretations of key trends or patterns found within the data.
  • Vocabulary -- research often contains jargon and specialized language that the reader is presumably familiar with. However, avoid overuse of technical or pseudo-technical terminology. Problems with vocabulary also can refer to the use of popular terms, cliche's, or culture-specific language that is inappropriate for academic writing.
  • Ethical Dilemmas -- in the methods section of qualitative research studies, your design must document how you intend to minimize risk for participants [a.k.a., "respondents"] during stages of data gathering while, at the same time, still being able to adequately address the research problem. Failure to do so can lead the reader to question the validity and objectivity of your entire study.
  • Limitations of Study -- all studies have limitations. Your research design should anticipate and explain the reasons why these limitations exist and clearly describe the extent of missing data. It is important to include a statement concerning what impact these limitations may have on the validity of your results.

Butin, Dan W. The Education Dissertation A Guide for Practitioner Scholars. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2010; Carter, Susan. Structuring Your Research Thesis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; Gorard, Stephen. Research Design: Creating Robust Approaches for the Social Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013; Lunenburg, Frederick C. Writing a Successful Thesis or Dissertation: Tips and Strategies for Students in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008. Lunsford, Andrea and Robert Connors. The St. Martin’s Handbook. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.