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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

Offers detailed guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper in the social and behavioral 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 study's research problem. Taking the time to develop a thorough research design helps to organize your thoughts, sets the boundaries of your study, maximizes the reliability of your findings, and avoids 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. Some are general issues you should think about as your organize your thoughts [e.g., developing a good research problem] while other issues must be explicitly addressed in your paper [e.g., describe study limitations].

  • 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 about what you intend to do.
  • Poorly Defined Research Problem -- the starting point of most new research in the social and behavioral sciences is to formulate a problem problem and begin the process of developing questions that address the problem. Your paper should outline and explicitly delimit the problem and state what you intend to investigate because this 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. More information about developing a theoretical framework can be found here.
  • Significance -- this refers to describing what value your study has in contributing to understanding the research problem. In the social and behavioral sciences, arguing why a study is significant is framed in the context of clearly answering the "So What?" question [e.g., "This study compares key areas of economic relations among three Central American countries." So what?]. In describing the research design, state why your study is important and how it contributes to the larger body of studies about the topic being investigated.
  • Relationship between Past Research and Your Paper -- 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 studies, filling specific gaps in knowledge, or describing how your study contributes a unique or different perspective or approach to the problem.
  • Provincialism -- this refers to designing a narrowly applied scope, geographical area, sampling, or method of analysis that restricts your ability to create meaningful outcomes and, by extension, obtaining results that are relevant and possibly transferable to understanding phenomena in other settings. The scope of your research should be clearly defined, but not to the point of where you cannot extrapolate findings in a meaningful way applied to better understanding the research problem.
  • 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. These 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 and behavioral sciences address between two and five key questions.
  • Poor Methodological Approach -- 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. Ensure that the method used to gather information for analysis is aligned with the topic of inquiry and the underlying research questions to be addressed.
  • Proximity Sampling -- this refers to using a sample that is based not on the purpose of your study, but rather, is based on the proximity of a particular group of subjects. The units of analysis, whether they be persons, places, events, or things, should not be based solely on ease of access and convenience. Note that this does not mean you should not use units of analysis that are easy to access. The point is that this closeness to data or information cannot be the sole factor that determines the purpose of your study.
  • Techniques or Instruments -- be clear in describing the techniques [e.g., semi-structured interviews; Linear Regression Analysis] or instruments [e.g., questionnaire; online survey] 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 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, lead to meaningful interpretations of key trends or patterns found within that 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 as part of describing your research design. Problems with vocabulary also can refer to the use of popular terms, cliche's, or culture-specific language that is inappropriate for academic writing. More information about academic writing can be found here.
  • 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", "human subjects"] 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 and how you helped to ameliorate the significance of these limitations. For more details about study limitations, go here.

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; Creswell, John W. and J. David Creswell. Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. 5th edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2018;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.