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Meticulous Methods, Minus the Madness

The old saying “there’s a method to my madness” means that however strange I may be acting, I have a plan. Well, we have a few suggestions to make a plan and avoid madness when you are writing the methods section for your manuscript.

  • Be thorough! Write in as much detail as you can, including the equipment (model and manufacturer), algorithms (including version and default settings), conditions (times, temperatures, light intensity and spectrum), and reagents (concentration, supplier, catalog number, and batch number if possible). Why?
    1. To enable the reader who might try to replicate your work. This is the typically stated reason and you should write your methods as if you are informing someone who needs to replicate your work. Have you ever tried to replicate an experiment from minimalist methods and been frustrated? Don’t be that person.
    2. To impress the reviewers and journal editors. Trust us––reviewers and editors read your methods. And they are experts in the field, so if your methods are lacking, you are going to hear about it.
    3. For yourself! Yes, do it for YOU. This manuscript is the official record of your work. Carefully documenting the exact conditions (software parameters, treatments, primers, genotypes, etc.) now can save you (or your advisor) a lot of digging through notebooks later. 
    4. To drive citations. Now, all papers can’t be Clough and Bent (1998), but our (unscientific) impression from various editorial board meeting discussions is that papers with good methods get cited. Think about it––if you are looking for a reference for your methods, are you likely to cite the paper with meticulous methods or the ones with rudimentary methods?

I can hear you now–– “But the word limits!”. If you don’t have room in the main manuscript, put details in the supplemental. Or consider writing a separate paper for a methods-focused journal such as Nature Methods, Plant Methods, or BioRxiv––bang, two papers for the price of one!

  • Write your methods as you conduct your experiments. Of course, being thorough means that you documented everything you did when you did it, right? Because trust us, having that information down, and all the resulting data (including image files, etc.) at your fingertips is going to make your life a lot easier down the road. When better to write that down than while you’re doing the experiments––a good use of time during those 5-minute incubations.

That said, don’t write your methods like a protocol, unless you are writing for a protocol journal! Read the methods in well-written papers in your target journal and follow their style.

  • It’s okay to use passive voice. That is, you can write “Plant height was measured at 30 days after planting” (passive voice) or you can write “We measured plant height at 30 days after planting.” Now, writing guides all say that using active voice makes your writing more succinct, lively, and easier to read. Moreover, we love using active voice in the Results and Discussion, and some of our favorite editors insist on using active voice in the methods. However, we find that the passive voice generally works well in the Methods– and here’s why.
    1. It puts the focus on the procedure, rather than on the authors. For example, “We measured ascorbic acid levels in 5-day-old seedlings.” vs “Ascorbic acid levels were measured in 5-day-old seedlings”. In the latter sentence, ascorbic acid is front and center. 
    2. Some people who conducted experiments might not be authors. If you (the authors) didn’t actually do the experiment, the wording might get complicated–– can you imagine writing this:  “Our team of diligent undergraduates measured plant height at 30 days after planting”?
    3. Using passive voice avoids the tendency to have every sentence begin with “We…”. We’ve had reviewers comment on the continual drumbeat of We… we… we… Shake it up a little and use passive voice in your methods.
    4. Using passive voice makes sure that you don’t accidentally incorporate yourself into the protocol. For example, we recently edited this*: “After incubating at 4°C for 6 hours, we measured….” Dang, I hope the authors were wearing warm clothes for that 6-hour stint in the cold room!

*Lightly paraphrased for anonymity.

We hope that these suggestions will help you avoid madness and improve your paper’s chances at getting accepted! Do you have more suggestions for masterful methods? Got a paper with exemplary methods? Recommendations for journals that publish methods papers? Tweet us @PlantEditors or email us––we want to hear from you!