Detailed methods for conducting research experiments play a very fundamental role for all scientists. The term, methodology, includes all the numerous different procedures, protocols, and techniques for acquiring and analyzing research data. This introductory presentation is for general readers! It describes how research methods originate, develop, and mature, explains how methodology differs from instrumentation, and, points out the reasons why methodology has so much importance for modern science.
Basics about methodology for scientific research.
Methods aim to produce research results that are accurate, repeatable, and valid. Detailed protocols are the heart of methodology; these provide step-by-step instructions for how to collect good data (e.g., measure conversion of A into B, record amount of carbon dioxide as a function of ambient temperature, count the number of non-carbon atoms on graphene sheets, etc.). To ensure reproducibility of experiments, methods must be explicitly detailed, utilize a sequential progression of operations, and provide for completion of the data collection; once results start being generated, the scientist or technician then must always follow the protocol exactly, or else unrecognized variables can distort the data. Analysis of research results constitutes a distinct aspect of any methodology, and often is focused on different statistical parameters.
Some scientists have been honored by Nobel Prizes for inventing very significant new research methods (see: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/ ). Why are methods important for science? Methodology is vital because it: (1) permits experiments and data collection to be repeated, (2) details the conditions used to produce results, and (3) explains the reasoning for certain operational choices made for a given experiment or measurement. Without adequate methodology, research results become disorganized, irreproducible, and unreliable.
How does methodology differ from instrumentation?
Methodology and instrumentation (see: “Introduction to instrumentation for scientific research” ) are interrelated, but also differ. Methods tell exactly how to conduct a measurement or record experimental data, while instruments are designed to permit research operations to be carried out. Accordingly, methods always emphasize “how to do it“, and instruments furnish the “tools to get it done“. By analogy, methodology is a road map telling the driver how to travel to a certain destination, but instrumentation is the automobile for doing that travel. Thus, having the latest instrumentation alone is not enough; one also needs good methods to successfully produce valid research results. Most research instruments come with a detailed users manual, but methodology goes beyond that by specifying the exact conditions for usage of the instrument during specific experiments. Modern instrumentation often features highly automatic operations such that everything is done without much intervention by the operator; this uses a standardized methodology that is literally built into the instrument.
Where is methodology found?
Methodology is found all over scientific research! Most research operations have preferred protocols that give good results. These protocols are derived from previous usage by numerous scientists, postdocs, graduate students, and technicians. Some books give a detailed critical examination of research methods (e.g., the long series of volumes, “Methods in Enzymology“). Certain modern professional journals feature only new methods and protocols for some area of experimental science; other more typical journals usually include a few articles about new methods. Almost all research reports published in science journals include a section giving a detailed description of the “Materials and Methods” utilized for producing the experimental findings; this section necessarily is very important since experiments need to give the same results when conducted by other scientists in some other lab or country. Even theoretical research studies need to have some description of the methods utilized.
How do preferred methods develop?
New research instruments often cause new research methods to develop, and those lead to a burst of new results. With enough time and sufficient users, certain methods become established as being accurate, efficient, reliable, and not overly expensive. These are termed standard or preferred methods. For new research projects, the experiments usually start with an established standard protocol, but then some small changes are tried; this process of ongoing development of methodology is practical science, because sometimes the changes give better results, and at other times they do not work. Revised methods arise from established protocols whenever many scientists are using some variant condition that gives better results for their investigations; this revision of methodology goes on during actual research studies.
Detailed methods for conducting research and collecting experimental data are standard components of modern science, and are always undergoing further development. Methods permit experimental measurements to be made in a reproducible manner that gives useful and reliable results. Although often hidden from view, good methodology is necessary for research progress to be made in science.
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