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How To Write The Methodology Chapter

The what, why & how explained simply (with examples).

By: Jenna Crossley (PhD) | Reviewed By: Dr. Eunice Rautenbach | September 2021 (Updated April 2023)

So, you’ve pinned down your research topic and undertaken a review of the literature – now it’s time to write up the methodology section of your dissertation, thesis or research paper . But what exactly is the methodology chapter all about – and how do you go about writing one? In this post, we’ll unpack the topic, step by step .

Overview: The Methodology Chapter

  • The purpose  of the methodology chapter
  • Why you need to craft this chapter (really) well
  • How to write and structure the chapter
  • Methodology chapter example
  • Essential takeaways

What (exactly) is the methodology chapter?

The methodology chapter is where you outline the philosophical underpinnings of your research and outline the specific methodological choices you’ve made. The point of the methodology chapter is to tell the reader exactly how you designed your study and, just as importantly, why you did it this way.

Importantly, this chapter should comprehensively describe and justify all the methodological choices you made in your study. For example, the approach you took to your research (i.e., qualitative, quantitative or mixed), who  you collected data from (i.e., your sampling strategy), how you collected your data and, of course, how you analysed it. If that sounds a little intimidating, don’t worry – we’ll explain all these methodological choices in this post .

Free Webinar: Research Methodology 101

Why is the methodology chapter important?

The methodology chapter plays two important roles in your dissertation or thesis:

Firstly, it demonstrates your understanding of research theory, which is what earns you marks. A flawed research design or methodology would mean flawed results. So, this chapter is vital as it allows you to show the marker that you know what you’re doing and that your results are credible .

Secondly, the methodology chapter is what helps to make your study replicable. In other words, it allows other researchers to undertake your study using the same methodological approach, and compare their findings to yours. This is very important within academic research, as each study builds on previous studies.

The methodology chapter is also important in that it allows you to identify and discuss any methodological issues or problems you encountered (i.e., research limitations ), and to explain how you mitigated the impacts of these. Every research project has its limitations , so it’s important to acknowledge these openly and highlight your study’s value despite its limitations . Doing so demonstrates your understanding of research design, which will earn you marks. We’ll discuss limitations in a bit more detail later in this post, so stay tuned!

Need a helping hand?

how to write a methodology for a qualitative research paper

How to write up the methodology chapter

First off, it’s worth noting that the exact structure and contents of the methodology chapter will vary depending on the field of research (e.g., humanities, chemistry or engineering) as well as the university . So, be sure to always check the guidelines provided by your institution for clarity and, if possible, review past dissertations from your university. Here we’re going to discuss a generic structure for a methodology chapter typically found in the sciences.

Before you start writing, it’s always a good idea to draw up a rough outline to guide your writing. Don’t just start writing without knowing what you’ll discuss where. If you do, you’ll likely end up with a disjointed, ill-flowing narrative . You’ll then waste a lot of time rewriting in an attempt to try to stitch all the pieces together. Do yourself a favour and start with the end in mind .

Section 1 – Introduction

As with all chapters in your dissertation or thesis, the methodology chapter should have a brief introduction. In this section, you should remind your readers what the focus of your study is, especially the research aims . As we’ve discussed many times on the blog, your methodology needs to align with your research aims, objectives and research questions. Therefore, it’s useful to frontload this component to remind the reader (and yourself!) what you’re trying to achieve.

In this section, you can also briefly mention how you’ll structure the chapter. This will help orient the reader and provide a bit of a roadmap so that they know what to expect. You don’t need a lot of detail here – just a brief outline will do.

The intro provides a roadmap to your methodology chapter

Section 2 – The Methodology

The next section of your chapter is where you’ll present the actual methodology. In this section, you need to detail and justify the key methodological choices you’ve made in a logical, intuitive fashion. Importantly, this is the heart of your methodology chapter, so you need to get specific – don’t hold back on the details here. This is not one of those “less is more” situations.

Let’s take a look at the most common components you’ll likely need to cover. 

Methodological Choice #1 – Research Philosophy

Research philosophy refers to the underlying beliefs (i.e., the worldview) regarding how data about a phenomenon should be gathered , analysed and used . The research philosophy will serve as the core of your study and underpin all of the other research design choices, so it’s critically important that you understand which philosophy you’ll adopt and why you made that choice. If you’re not clear on this, take the time to get clarity before you make any further methodological choices.

While several research philosophies exist, two commonly adopted ones are positivism and interpretivism . These two sit roughly on opposite sides of the research philosophy spectrum.

Positivism states that the researcher can observe reality objectively and that there is only one reality, which exists independently of the observer. As a consequence, it is quite commonly the underlying research philosophy in quantitative studies and is oftentimes the assumed philosophy in the physical sciences.

Contrasted with this, interpretivism , which is often the underlying research philosophy in qualitative studies, assumes that the researcher performs a role in observing the world around them and that reality is unique to each observer . In other words, reality is observed subjectively .

These are just two philosophies (there are many more), but they demonstrate significantly different approaches to research and have a significant impact on all the methodological choices. Therefore, it’s vital that you clearly outline and justify your research philosophy at the beginning of your methodology chapter, as it sets the scene for everything that follows.

The research philosophy is at the core of the methodology chapter

Methodological Choice #2 – Research Type

The next thing you would typically discuss in your methodology section is the research type. The starting point for this is to indicate whether the research you conducted is inductive or deductive .

Inductive research takes a bottom-up approach , where the researcher begins with specific observations or data and then draws general conclusions or theories from those observations. Therefore these studies tend to be exploratory in terms of approach.

Conversely , d eductive research takes a top-down approach , where the researcher starts with a theory or hypothesis and then tests it using specific observations or data. Therefore these studies tend to be confirmatory in approach.

Related to this, you’ll need to indicate whether your study adopts a qualitative, quantitative or mixed  approach. As we’ve mentioned, there’s a strong link between this choice and your research philosophy, so make sure that your choices are tightly aligned . When you write this section up, remember to clearly justify your choices, as they form the foundation of your study.

Methodological Choice #3 – Research Strategy

Next, you’ll need to discuss your research strategy (also referred to as a research design ). This methodological choice refers to the broader strategy in terms of how you’ll conduct your research, based on the aims of your study.

Several research strategies exist, including experimental , case studies , ethnography , grounded theory, action research , and phenomenology . Let’s take a look at two of these, experimental and ethnographic, to see how they contrast.

Experimental research makes use of the scientific method , where one group is the control group (in which no variables are manipulated ) and another is the experimental group (in which a specific variable is manipulated). This type of research is undertaken under strict conditions in a controlled, artificial environment (e.g., a laboratory). By having firm control over the environment, experimental research typically allows the researcher to establish causation between variables. Therefore, it can be a good choice if you have research aims that involve identifying causal relationships.

Ethnographic research , on the other hand, involves observing and capturing the experiences and perceptions of participants in their natural environment (for example, at home or in the office). In other words, in an uncontrolled environment.  Naturally, this means that this research strategy would be far less suitable if your research aims involve identifying causation, but it would be very valuable if you’re looking to explore and examine a group culture, for example.

As you can see, the right research strategy will depend largely on your research aims and research questions – in other words, what you’re trying to figure out. Therefore, as with every other methodological choice, it’s essential to justify why you chose the research strategy you did.

Methodological Choice #4 – Time Horizon

The next thing you’ll need to detail in your methodology chapter is the time horizon. There are two options here: cross-sectional and longitudinal . In other words, whether the data for your study were all collected at one point in time (cross-sectional) or at multiple points in time (longitudinal).

The choice you make here depends again on your research aims, objectives and research questions. If, for example, you aim to assess how a specific group of people’s perspectives regarding a topic change over time , you’d likely adopt a longitudinal time horizon.

Another important factor to consider is simply whether you have the time necessary to adopt a longitudinal approach (which could involve collecting data over multiple months or even years). Oftentimes, the time pressures of your degree program will force your hand into adopting a cross-sectional time horizon, so keep this in mind.

Methodological Choice #5 – Sampling Strategy

Next, you’ll need to discuss your sampling strategy . There are two main categories of sampling, probability and non-probability sampling.

Probability sampling involves a random (and therefore representative) selection of participants from a population, whereas non-probability sampling entails selecting participants in a non-random  (and therefore non-representative) manner. For example, selecting participants based on ease of access (this is called a convenience sample).

The right sampling approach depends largely on what you’re trying to achieve in your study. Specifically, whether you trying to develop findings that are generalisable to a population or not. Practicalities and resource constraints also play a large role here, as it can oftentimes be challenging to gain access to a truly random sample. In the video below, we explore some of the most common sampling strategies.

Methodological Choice #6 – Data Collection Method

Next up, you’ll need to explain how you’ll go about collecting the necessary data for your study. Your data collection method (or methods) will depend on the type of data that you plan to collect – in other words, qualitative or quantitative data.

Typically, quantitative research relies on surveys , data generated by lab equipment, analytics software or existing datasets. Qualitative research, on the other hand, often makes use of collection methods such as interviews , focus groups , participant observations, and ethnography.

So, as you can see, there is a tight link between this section and the design choices you outlined in earlier sections. Strong alignment between these sections, as well as your research aims and questions is therefore very important.

Methodological Choice #7 – Data Analysis Methods/Techniques

The final major methodological choice that you need to address is that of analysis techniques . In other words, how you’ll go about analysing your date once you’ve collected it. Here it’s important to be very specific about your analysis methods and/or techniques – don’t leave any room for interpretation. Also, as with all choices in this chapter, you need to justify each choice you make.

What exactly you discuss here will depend largely on the type of study you’re conducting (i.e., qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods). For qualitative studies, common analysis methods include content analysis , thematic analysis and discourse analysis . In the video below, we explain each of these in plain language.

For quantitative studies, you’ll almost always make use of descriptive statistics , and in many cases, you’ll also use inferential statistical techniques (e.g., correlation and regression analysis). In the video below, we unpack some of the core concepts involved in descriptive and inferential statistics.

In this section of your methodology chapter, it’s also important to discuss how you prepared your data for analysis, and what software you used (if any). For example, quantitative data will often require some initial preparation such as removing duplicates or incomplete responses . Similarly, qualitative data will often require transcription and perhaps even translation. As always, remember to state both what you did and why you did it.

Section 3 – The Methodological Limitations

With the key methodological choices outlined and justified, the next step is to discuss the limitations of your design. No research methodology is perfect – there will always be trade-offs between the “ideal” methodology and what’s practical and viable, given your constraints. Therefore, this section of your methodology chapter is where you’ll discuss the trade-offs you had to make, and why these were justified given the context.

Methodological limitations can vary greatly from study to study, ranging from common issues such as time and budget constraints to issues of sample or selection bias . For example, you may find that you didn’t manage to draw in enough respondents to achieve the desired sample size (and therefore, statistically significant results), or your sample may be skewed heavily towards a certain demographic, thereby negatively impacting representativeness .

In this section, it’s important to be critical of the shortcomings of your study. There’s no use trying to hide them (your marker will be aware of them regardless). By being critical, you’ll demonstrate to your marker that you have a strong understanding of research theory, so don’t be shy here. At the same time, don’t beat your study to death . State the limitations, why these were justified, how you mitigated their impacts to the best degree possible, and how your study still provides value despite these limitations .

Section 4 – Concluding Summary

Finally, it’s time to wrap up the methodology chapter with a brief concluding summary. In this section, you’ll want to concisely summarise what you’ve presented in the chapter. Here, it can be a good idea to use a figure to summarise the key decisions, especially if your university recommends using a specific model (for example, Saunders’ Research Onion ).

Importantly, this section needs to be brief – a paragraph or two maximum (it’s a summary, after all). Also, make sure that when you write up your concluding summary, you include only what you’ve already discussed in your chapter; don’t add any new information.

Keep it simple

Methodology Chapter Example

In the video below, we walk you through an example of a high-quality research methodology chapter from a dissertation. We also unpack our free methodology chapter template so that you can see how best to structure your chapter.

Wrapping Up

And there you have it – the methodology chapter in a nutshell. As we’ve mentioned, the exact contents and structure of this chapter can vary between universities , so be sure to check in with your institution before you start writing. If possible, try to find dissertations or theses from former students of your specific degree program – this will give you a strong indication of the expectations and norms when it comes to the methodology chapter (and all the other chapters!).

Also, remember the golden rule of the methodology chapter – justify every choice ! Make sure that you clearly explain the “why” for every “what”, and reference credible methodology textbooks or academic sources to back up your justifications.

If you need a helping hand with your research methodology (or any other component of your research), be sure to check out our private coaching service , where we hold your hand through every step of the research journey. Until next time, good luck!

how to write a methodology for a qualitative research paper

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This post is part of our dissertation mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project. 

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Here's What You Need to Understand About Research Methodology

Deeptanshu D

Table of Contents

Research methodology involves a systematic and well-structured approach to conducting scholarly or scientific inquiries. Knowing the significance of research methodology and its different components is crucial as it serves as the basis for any study.

Typically, your research topic will start as a broad idea you want to investigate more thoroughly. Once you’ve identified a research problem and created research questions , you must choose the appropriate methodology and frameworks to address those questions effectively.

What is the definition of a research methodology?

Research methodology is the process or the way you intend to execute your study. The methodology section of a research paper outlines how you plan to conduct your study. It covers various steps such as collecting data, statistical analysis, observing participants, and other procedures involved in the research process

The methods section should give a description of the process that will convert your idea into a study. Additionally, the outcomes of your process must provide valid and reliable results resonant with the aims and objectives of your research. This thumb rule holds complete validity, no matter whether your paper has inclinations for qualitative or quantitative usage.

Studying research methods used in related studies can provide helpful insights and direction for your own research. Now easily discover papers related to your topic on SciSpace and utilize our AI research assistant, Copilot , to quickly review the methodologies applied in different papers.

Analyze and understand research methodologies faster with SciSpace Copilot

The need for a good research methodology

While deciding on your approach towards your research, the reason or factors you weighed in choosing a particular problem and formulating a research topic need to be validated and explained. A research methodology helps you do exactly that. Moreover, a good research methodology lets you build your argument to validate your research work performed through various data collection methods, analytical methods, and other essential points.

Just imagine it as a strategy documented to provide an overview of what you intend to do.

While undertaking any research writing or performing the research itself, you may get drifted in not something of much importance. In such a case, a research methodology helps you to get back to your outlined work methodology.

A research methodology helps in keeping you accountable for your work. Additionally, it can help you evaluate whether your work is in sync with your original aims and objectives or not. Besides, a good research methodology enables you to navigate your research process smoothly and swiftly while providing effective planning to achieve your desired results.

What is the basic structure of a research methodology?

Usually, you must ensure to include the following stated aspects while deciding over the basic structure of your research methodology:

1. Your research procedure

Explain what research methods you’re going to use. Whether you intend to proceed with quantitative or qualitative, or a composite of both approaches, you need to state that explicitly. The option among the three depends on your research’s aim, objectives, and scope.

2. Provide the rationality behind your chosen approach

Based on logic and reason, let your readers know why you have chosen said research methodologies. Additionally, you have to build strong arguments supporting why your chosen research method is the best way to achieve the desired outcome.

3. Explain your mechanism

The mechanism encompasses the research methods or instruments you will use to develop your research methodology. It usually refers to your data collection methods. You can use interviews, surveys, physical questionnaires, etc., of the many available mechanisms as research methodology instruments. The data collection method is determined by the type of research and whether the data is quantitative data(includes numerical data) or qualitative data (perception, morale, etc.) Moreover, you need to put logical reasoning behind choosing a particular instrument.

4. Significance of outcomes

The results will be available once you have finished experimenting. However, you should also explain how you plan to use the data to interpret the findings. This section also aids in understanding the problem from within, breaking it down into pieces, and viewing the research problem from various perspectives.

5. Reader’s advice

Anything that you feel must be explained to spread more awareness among readers and focus groups must be included and described in detail. You should not just specify your research methodology on the assumption that a reader is aware of the topic.  

All the relevant information that explains and simplifies your research paper must be included in the methodology section. If you are conducting your research in a non-traditional manner, give a logical justification and list its benefits.

6. Explain your sample space

Include information about the sample and sample space in the methodology section. The term "sample" refers to a smaller set of data that a researcher selects or chooses from a larger group of people or focus groups using a predetermined selection method. Let your readers know how you are going to distinguish between relevant and non-relevant samples. How you figured out those exact numbers to back your research methodology, i.e. the sample spacing of instruments, must be discussed thoroughly.

For example, if you are going to conduct a survey or interview, then by what procedure will you select the interviewees (or sample size in case of surveys), and how exactly will the interview or survey be conducted.

7. Challenges and limitations

This part, which is frequently assumed to be unnecessary, is actually very important. The challenges and limitations that your chosen strategy inherently possesses must be specified while you are conducting different types of research.

The importance of a good research methodology

You must have observed that all research papers, dissertations, or theses carry a chapter entirely dedicated to research methodology. This section helps maintain your credibility as a better interpreter of results rather than a manipulator.

A good research methodology always explains the procedure, data collection methods and techniques, aim, and scope of the research. In a research study, it leads to a well-organized, rationality-based approach, while the paper lacking it is often observed as messy or disorganized.

You should pay special attention to validating your chosen way towards the research methodology. This becomes extremely important in case you select an unconventional or a distinct method of execution.

Curating and developing a strong, effective research methodology can assist you in addressing a variety of situations, such as:

  • When someone tries to duplicate or expand upon your research after few years.
  • If a contradiction or conflict of facts occurs at a later time. This gives you the security you need to deal with these contradictions while still being able to defend your approach.
  • Gaining a tactical approach in getting your research completed in time. Just ensure you are using the right approach while drafting your research methodology, and it can help you achieve your desired outcomes. Additionally, it provides a better explanation and understanding of the research question itself.
  • Documenting the results so that the final outcome of the research stays as you intended it to be while starting.

Instruments you could use while writing a good research methodology

As a researcher, you must choose which tools or data collection methods that fit best in terms of the relevance of your research. This decision has to be wise.

There exists many research equipments or tools that you can use to carry out your research process. These are classified as:

a. Interviews (One-on-One or a Group)

An interview aimed to get your desired research outcomes can be undertaken in many different ways. For example, you can design your interview as structured, semi-structured, or unstructured. What sets them apart is the degree of formality in the questions. On the other hand, in a group interview, your aim should be to collect more opinions and group perceptions from the focus groups on a certain topic rather than looking out for some formal answers.

In surveys, you are in better control if you specifically draft the questions you seek the response for. For example, you may choose to include free-style questions that can be answered descriptively, or you may provide a multiple-choice type response for questions. Besides, you can also opt to choose both ways, deciding what suits your research process and purpose better.

c. Sample Groups

Similar to the group interviews, here, you can select a group of individuals and assign them a topic to discuss or freely express their opinions over that. You can simultaneously note down the answers and later draft them appropriately, deciding on the relevance of every response.

d. Observations

If your research domain is humanities or sociology, observations are the best-proven method to draw your research methodology. Of course, you can always include studying the spontaneous response of the participants towards a situation or conducting the same but in a more structured manner. A structured observation means putting the participants in a situation at a previously decided time and then studying their responses.

Of all the tools described above, it is you who should wisely choose the instruments and decide what’s the best fit for your research. You must not restrict yourself from multiple methods or a combination of a few instruments if appropriate in drafting a good research methodology.

Types of research methodology

A research methodology exists in various forms. Depending upon their approach, whether centered around words, numbers, or both, methodologies are distinguished as qualitative, quantitative, or an amalgamation of both.

1. Qualitative research methodology

When a research methodology primarily focuses on words and textual data, then it is generally referred to as qualitative research methodology. This type is usually preferred among researchers when the aim and scope of the research are mainly theoretical and explanatory.

The instruments used are observations, interviews, and sample groups. You can use this methodology if you are trying to study human behavior or response in some situations. Generally, qualitative research methodology is widely used in sociology, psychology, and other related domains.

2. Quantitative research methodology

If your research is majorly centered on data, figures, and stats, then analyzing these numerical data is often referred to as quantitative research methodology. You can use quantitative research methodology if your research requires you to validate or justify the obtained results.

In quantitative methods, surveys, tests, experiments, and evaluations of current databases can be advantageously used as instruments If your research involves testing some hypothesis, then use this methodology.

3. Amalgam methodology

As the name suggests, the amalgam methodology uses both quantitative and qualitative approaches. This methodology is used when a part of the research requires you to verify the facts and figures, whereas the other part demands you to discover the theoretical and explanatory nature of the research question.

The instruments for the amalgam methodology require you to conduct interviews and surveys, including tests and experiments. The outcome of this methodology can be insightful and valuable as it provides precise test results in line with theoretical explanations and reasoning.

The amalgam method, makes your work both factual and rational at the same time.

Final words: How to decide which is the best research methodology?

If you have kept your sincerity and awareness intact with the aims and scope of research well enough, you must have got an idea of which research methodology suits your work best.

Before deciding which research methodology answers your research question, you must invest significant time in reading and doing your homework for that. Taking references that yield relevant results should be your first approach to establishing a research methodology.

Moreover, you should never refrain from exploring other options. Before setting your work in stone, you must try all the available options as it explains why the choice of research methodology that you finally make is more appropriate than the other available options.

You should always go for a quantitative research methodology if your research requires gathering large amounts of data, figures, and statistics. This research methodology will provide you with results if your research paper involves the validation of some hypothesis.

Whereas, if  you are looking for more explanations, reasons, opinions, and public perceptions around a theory, you must use qualitative research methodology.The choice of an appropriate research methodology ultimately depends on what you want to achieve through your research.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Research Methodology

1. how to write a research methodology.

You can always provide a separate section for research methodology where you should specify details about the methods and instruments used during the research, discussions on result analysis, including insights into the background information, and conveying the research limitations.

2. What are the types of research methodology?

There generally exists four types of research methodology i.e.

  • Observation
  • Experimental
  • Derivational

3. What is the true meaning of research methodology?

The set of techniques or procedures followed to discover and analyze the information gathered to validate or justify a research outcome is generally called Research Methodology.

4. Where lies the importance of research methodology?

Your research methodology directly reflects the validity of your research outcomes and how well-informed your research work is. Moreover, it can help future researchers cite or refer to your research if they plan to use a similar research methodology.

how to write a methodology for a qualitative research paper

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Home » Research Methodology – Types, Examples and writing Guide

Research Methodology – Types, Examples and writing Guide

Table of Contents

Research Methodology

Research Methodology


Research Methodology refers to the systematic and scientific approach used to conduct research, investigate problems, and gather data and information for a specific purpose. It involves the techniques and procedures used to identify, collect , analyze , and interpret data to answer research questions or solve research problems . Moreover, They are philosophical and theoretical frameworks that guide the research process.

Structure of Research Methodology

Research methodology formats can vary depending on the specific requirements of the research project, but the following is a basic example of a structure for a research methodology section:

I. Introduction

  • Provide an overview of the research problem and the need for a research methodology section
  • Outline the main research questions and objectives

II. Research Design

  • Explain the research design chosen and why it is appropriate for the research question(s) and objectives
  • Discuss any alternative research designs considered and why they were not chosen
  • Describe the research setting and participants (if applicable)

III. Data Collection Methods

  • Describe the methods used to collect data (e.g., surveys, interviews, observations)
  • Explain how the data collection methods were chosen and why they are appropriate for the research question(s) and objectives
  • Detail any procedures or instruments used for data collection

IV. Data Analysis Methods

  • Describe the methods used to analyze the data (e.g., statistical analysis, content analysis )
  • Explain how the data analysis methods were chosen and why they are appropriate for the research question(s) and objectives
  • Detail any procedures or software used for data analysis

V. Ethical Considerations

  • Discuss any ethical issues that may arise from the research and how they were addressed
  • Explain how informed consent was obtained (if applicable)
  • Detail any measures taken to ensure confidentiality and anonymity

VI. Limitations

  • Identify any potential limitations of the research methodology and how they may impact the results and conclusions

VII. Conclusion

  • Summarize the key aspects of the research methodology section
  • Explain how the research methodology addresses the research question(s) and objectives

Research Methodology Types

Types of Research Methodology are as follows:

Quantitative Research Methodology

This is a research methodology that involves the collection and analysis of numerical data using statistical methods. This type of research is often used to study cause-and-effect relationships and to make predictions.

Qualitative Research Methodology

This is a research methodology that involves the collection and analysis of non-numerical data such as words, images, and observations. This type of research is often used to explore complex phenomena, to gain an in-depth understanding of a particular topic, and to generate hypotheses.

Mixed-Methods Research Methodology

This is a research methodology that combines elements of both quantitative and qualitative research. This approach can be particularly useful for studies that aim to explore complex phenomena and to provide a more comprehensive understanding of a particular topic.

Case Study Research Methodology

This is a research methodology that involves in-depth examination of a single case or a small number of cases. Case studies are often used in psychology, sociology, and anthropology to gain a detailed understanding of a particular individual or group.

Action Research Methodology

This is a research methodology that involves a collaborative process between researchers and practitioners to identify and solve real-world problems. Action research is often used in education, healthcare, and social work.

Experimental Research Methodology

This is a research methodology that involves the manipulation of one or more independent variables to observe their effects on a dependent variable. Experimental research is often used to study cause-and-effect relationships and to make predictions.

Survey Research Methodology

This is a research methodology that involves the collection of data from a sample of individuals using questionnaires or interviews. Survey research is often used to study attitudes, opinions, and behaviors.

Grounded Theory Research Methodology

This is a research methodology that involves the development of theories based on the data collected during the research process. Grounded theory is often used in sociology and anthropology to generate theories about social phenomena.

Research Methodology Example

An Example of Research Methodology could be the following:

Research Methodology for Investigating the Effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Reducing Symptoms of Depression in Adults


The aim of this research is to investigate the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in reducing symptoms of depression in adults. To achieve this objective, a randomized controlled trial (RCT) will be conducted using a mixed-methods approach.

Research Design:

The study will follow a pre-test and post-test design with two groups: an experimental group receiving CBT and a control group receiving no intervention. The study will also include a qualitative component, in which semi-structured interviews will be conducted with a subset of participants to explore their experiences of receiving CBT.


Participants will be recruited from community mental health clinics in the local area. The sample will consist of 100 adults aged 18-65 years old who meet the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder. Participants will be randomly assigned to either the experimental group or the control group.

Intervention :

The experimental group will receive 12 weekly sessions of CBT, each lasting 60 minutes. The intervention will be delivered by licensed mental health professionals who have been trained in CBT. The control group will receive no intervention during the study period.

Data Collection:

Quantitative data will be collected through the use of standardized measures such as the Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II) and the Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7 (GAD-7). Data will be collected at baseline, immediately after the intervention, and at a 3-month follow-up. Qualitative data will be collected through semi-structured interviews with a subset of participants from the experimental group. The interviews will be conducted at the end of the intervention period, and will explore participants’ experiences of receiving CBT.

Data Analysis:

Quantitative data will be analyzed using descriptive statistics, t-tests, and mixed-model analyses of variance (ANOVA) to assess the effectiveness of the intervention. Qualitative data will be analyzed using thematic analysis to identify common themes and patterns in participants’ experiences of receiving CBT.

Ethical Considerations:

This study will comply with ethical guidelines for research involving human subjects. Participants will provide informed consent before participating in the study, and their privacy and confidentiality will be protected throughout the study. Any adverse events or reactions will be reported and managed appropriately.

Data Management:

All data collected will be kept confidential and stored securely using password-protected databases. Identifying information will be removed from qualitative data transcripts to ensure participants’ anonymity.


One potential limitation of this study is that it only focuses on one type of psychotherapy, CBT, and may not generalize to other types of therapy or interventions. Another limitation is that the study will only include participants from community mental health clinics, which may not be representative of the general population.


This research aims to investigate the effectiveness of CBT in reducing symptoms of depression in adults. By using a randomized controlled trial and a mixed-methods approach, the study will provide valuable insights into the mechanisms underlying the relationship between CBT and depression. The results of this study will have important implications for the development of effective treatments for depression in clinical settings.

How to Write Research Methodology

Writing a research methodology involves explaining the methods and techniques you used to conduct research, collect data, and analyze results. It’s an essential section of any research paper or thesis, as it helps readers understand the validity and reliability of your findings. Here are the steps to write a research methodology:

  • Start by explaining your research question: Begin the methodology section by restating your research question and explaining why it’s important. This helps readers understand the purpose of your research and the rationale behind your methods.
  • Describe your research design: Explain the overall approach you used to conduct research. This could be a qualitative or quantitative research design, experimental or non-experimental, case study or survey, etc. Discuss the advantages and limitations of the chosen design.
  • Discuss your sample: Describe the participants or subjects you included in your study. Include details such as their demographics, sampling method, sample size, and any exclusion criteria used.
  • Describe your data collection methods : Explain how you collected data from your participants. This could include surveys, interviews, observations, questionnaires, or experiments. Include details on how you obtained informed consent, how you administered the tools, and how you minimized the risk of bias.
  • Explain your data analysis techniques: Describe the methods you used to analyze the data you collected. This could include statistical analysis, content analysis, thematic analysis, or discourse analysis. Explain how you dealt with missing data, outliers, and any other issues that arose during the analysis.
  • Discuss the validity and reliability of your research : Explain how you ensured the validity and reliability of your study. This could include measures such as triangulation, member checking, peer review, or inter-coder reliability.
  • Acknowledge any limitations of your research: Discuss any limitations of your study, including any potential threats to validity or generalizability. This helps readers understand the scope of your findings and how they might apply to other contexts.
  • Provide a summary: End the methodology section by summarizing the methods and techniques you used to conduct your research. This provides a clear overview of your research methodology and helps readers understand the process you followed to arrive at your findings.

When to Write Research Methodology

Research methodology is typically written after the research proposal has been approved and before the actual research is conducted. It should be written prior to data collection and analysis, as it provides a clear roadmap for the research project.

The research methodology is an important section of any research paper or thesis, as it describes the methods and procedures that will be used to conduct the research. It should include details about the research design, data collection methods, data analysis techniques, and any ethical considerations.

The methodology should be written in a clear and concise manner, and it should be based on established research practices and standards. It is important to provide enough detail so that the reader can understand how the research was conducted and evaluate the validity of the results.

Applications of Research Methodology

Here are some of the applications of research methodology:

  • To identify the research problem: Research methodology is used to identify the research problem, which is the first step in conducting any research.
  • To design the research: Research methodology helps in designing the research by selecting the appropriate research method, research design, and sampling technique.
  • To collect data: Research methodology provides a systematic approach to collect data from primary and secondary sources.
  • To analyze data: Research methodology helps in analyzing the collected data using various statistical and non-statistical techniques.
  • To test hypotheses: Research methodology provides a framework for testing hypotheses and drawing conclusions based on the analysis of data.
  • To generalize findings: Research methodology helps in generalizing the findings of the research to the target population.
  • To develop theories : Research methodology is used to develop new theories and modify existing theories based on the findings of the research.
  • To evaluate programs and policies : Research methodology is used to evaluate the effectiveness of programs and policies by collecting data and analyzing it.
  • To improve decision-making: Research methodology helps in making informed decisions by providing reliable and valid data.

Purpose of Research Methodology

Research methodology serves several important purposes, including:

  • To guide the research process: Research methodology provides a systematic framework for conducting research. It helps researchers to plan their research, define their research questions, and select appropriate methods and techniques for collecting and analyzing data.
  • To ensure research quality: Research methodology helps researchers to ensure that their research is rigorous, reliable, and valid. It provides guidelines for minimizing bias and error in data collection and analysis, and for ensuring that research findings are accurate and trustworthy.
  • To replicate research: Research methodology provides a clear and detailed account of the research process, making it possible for other researchers to replicate the study and verify its findings.
  • To advance knowledge: Research methodology enables researchers to generate new knowledge and to contribute to the body of knowledge in their field. It provides a means for testing hypotheses, exploring new ideas, and discovering new insights.
  • To inform decision-making: Research methodology provides evidence-based information that can inform policy and decision-making in a variety of fields, including medicine, public health, education, and business.

Advantages of Research Methodology

Research methodology has several advantages that make it a valuable tool for conducting research in various fields. Here are some of the key advantages of research methodology:

  • Systematic and structured approach : Research methodology provides a systematic and structured approach to conducting research, which ensures that the research is conducted in a rigorous and comprehensive manner.
  • Objectivity : Research methodology aims to ensure objectivity in the research process, which means that the research findings are based on evidence and not influenced by personal bias or subjective opinions.
  • Replicability : Research methodology ensures that research can be replicated by other researchers, which is essential for validating research findings and ensuring their accuracy.
  • Reliability : Research methodology aims to ensure that the research findings are reliable, which means that they are consistent and can be depended upon.
  • Validity : Research methodology ensures that the research findings are valid, which means that they accurately reflect the research question or hypothesis being tested.
  • Efficiency : Research methodology provides a structured and efficient way of conducting research, which helps to save time and resources.
  • Flexibility : Research methodology allows researchers to choose the most appropriate research methods and techniques based on the research question, data availability, and other relevant factors.
  • Scope for innovation: Research methodology provides scope for innovation and creativity in designing research studies and developing new research techniques.

Research Methodology Vs Research Methods

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How to Write Research Methodology

Last Updated: May 21, 2023 Approved

This article was co-authored by Alexander Ruiz, M.Ed. and by wikiHow staff writer, Jennifer Mueller, JD . Alexander Ruiz is an Educational Consultant and the Educational Director of Link Educational Institute, a tutoring business based in Claremont, California that provides customizable educational plans, subject and test prep tutoring, and college application consulting. With over a decade and a half of experience in the education industry, Alexander coaches students to increase their self-awareness and emotional intelligence while achieving skills and the goal of achieving skills and higher education. He holds a BA in Psychology from Florida International University and an MA in Education from Georgia Southern University. wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. In this case, several readers have written to tell us that this article was helpful to them, earning it our reader-approved status. This article has been viewed 514,901 times.

The research methodology section of any academic research paper gives you the opportunity to convince your readers that your research is useful and will contribute to your field of study. An effective research methodology is grounded in your overall approach – whether qualitative or quantitative – and adequately describes the methods you used. Justify why you chose those methods over others, then explain how those methods will provide answers to your research questions. [1] X Research source

Describing Your Methods

Step 1 Restate your research problem.

  • In your restatement, include any underlying assumptions that you're making or conditions that you're taking for granted. These assumptions will also inform the research methods you've chosen.
  • Generally, state the variables you'll test and the other conditions you're controlling or assuming are equal.

Step 2 Establish your overall methodological approach.

  • If you want to research and document measurable social trends, or evaluate the impact of a particular policy on various variables, use a quantitative approach focused on data collection and statistical analysis.
  • If you want to evaluate people's views or understanding of a particular issue, choose a more qualitative approach.
  • You can also combine the two. For example, you might look primarily at a measurable social trend, but also interview people and get their opinions on how that trend is affecting their lives.

Step 3 Define how you collected or generated data.

  • For example, if you conducted a survey, you would describe the questions included in the survey, where and how the survey was conducted (such as in person, online, over the phone), how many surveys were distributed, and how long your respondents had to complete the survey.
  • Include enough detail that your study can be replicated by others in your field, even if they may not get the same results you did. [4] X Research source

Step 4 Provide background for uncommon methods.

  • Qualitative research methods typically require more detailed explanation than quantitative methods.
  • Basic investigative procedures don't need to be explained in detail. Generally, you can assume that your readers have a general understanding of common research methods that social scientists use, such as surveys or focus groups.

Step 5 Cite any sources that contributed to your choice of methodology.

  • For example, suppose you conducted a survey and used a couple of other research papers to help construct the questions on your survey. You would mention those as contributing sources.

Justifying Your Choice of Methods

Step 1 Explain your selection criteria for data collection.

  • Describe study participants specifically, and list any inclusion or exclusion criteria you used when forming your group of participants.
  • Justify the size of your sample, if applicable, and describe how this affects whether your study can be generalized to larger populations. For example, if you conducted a survey of 30 percent of the student population of a university, you could potentially apply those results to the student body as a whole, but maybe not to students at other universities.

Step 2 Distinguish your research from any weaknesses in your methods.

  • Reading other research papers is a good way to identify potential problems that commonly arise with various methods. State whether you actually encountered any of these common problems during your research.

Step 3 Describe how you overcame obstacles.

  • If you encountered any problems as you collected data, explain clearly the steps you took to minimize the effect that problem would have on your results.

Step 4 Evaluate other methods you could have used.

  • In some cases, this may be as simple as stating that while there were numerous studies using one method, there weren't any using your method, which caused a gap in understanding of the issue.
  • For example, there may be multiple papers providing quantitative analysis of a particular social trend. However, none of these papers looked closely at how this trend was affecting the lives of people.

Connecting Your Methods to Your Research Goals

Step 1 Describe how you analyzed your results.

  • Depending on your research questions, you may be mixing quantitative and qualitative analysis – just as you could potentially use both approaches. For example, you might do a statistical analysis, and then interpret those statistics through a particular theoretical lens.

Step 2 Explain how your analysis suits your research goals.

  • For example, suppose you're researching the effect of college education on family farms in rural America. While you could do interviews of college-educated people who grew up on a family farm, that would not give you a picture of the overall effect. A quantitative approach and statistical analysis would give you a bigger picture.

Step 3 Identify how your analysis answers your research questions.

  • If in answering your research questions, your findings have raised other questions that may require further research, state these briefly.
  • You can also include here any limitations to your methods, or questions that weren't answered through your research.

Step 4 Assess whether your findings can be transferred or generalized.

  • Generalization is more typically used in quantitative research. If you have a well-designed sample, you can statistically apply your results to the larger population your sample belongs to.

Template to Write Research Methodology

how to write a methodology for a qualitative research paper

Community Q&A


  • Organize your methodology section chronologically, starting with how you prepared to conduct your research methods, how you gathered data, and how you analyzed that data. [13] X Research source Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0
  • Write your research methodology section in past tense, unless you're submitting the methodology section before the research described has been carried out. [14] X Research source Thanks Helpful 2 Not Helpful 0
  • Discuss your plans in detail with your advisor or supervisor before committing to a particular methodology. They can help identify possible flaws in your study. [15] X Research source Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0

how to write a methodology for a qualitative research paper

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About This Article

Alexander Ruiz, M.Ed.

To write a research methodology, start with a section that outlines the problems or questions you'll be studying, including your hypotheses or whatever it is you're setting out to prove. Then, briefly explain why you chose to use either a qualitative or quantitative approach for your study. Next, go over when and where you conducted your research and what parameters you used to ensure you were objective. Finally, cite any sources you used to decide on the methodology for your research. To learn how to justify your choice of methods in your research methodology, scroll down! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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The word qualitative implies an emphasis on the qualities of entities and on processes and meanings that are not experimentally examined or measured [if measured at all] in terms of quantity, amount, intensity, or frequency. Qualitative researchers stress the socially constructed nature of reality, the intimate relationship between the researcher and what is studied, and the situational constraints that shape inquiry. Such researchers emphasize the value-laden nature of inquiry. They seek answers to questions that stress how social experience is created and given meaning. In contrast, quantitative studies emphasize the measurement and analysis of causal relationships between variables, not processes. Qualitative forms of inquiry are considered by many social and behavioral scientists to be as much a perspective on how to approach investigating a research problem as it is a method.

Denzin, Norman. K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln. “Introduction: The Discipline and Practice of Qualitative Research.” In The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research . Norman. K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds. 3 rd edition. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005), p. 10.

Characteristics of Qualitative Research

Below are the three key elements that define a qualitative research study and the applied forms each take in the investigation of a research problem.

  • Naturalistic -- refers to studying real-world situations as they unfold naturally; non-manipulative and non-controlling; the researcher is open to whatever emerges [i.e., there is a lack of predetermined constraints on findings].
  • Emergent -- acceptance of adapting inquiry as understanding deepens and/or situations change; the researcher avoids rigid designs that eliminate responding to opportunities to pursue new paths of discovery as they emerge.
  • Purposeful -- cases for study [e.g., people, organizations, communities, cultures, events, critical incidences] are selected because they are “information rich” and illuminative. That is, they offer useful manifestations of the phenomenon of interest; sampling is aimed at insight about the phenomenon, not empirical generalization derived from a sample and applied to a population.

The Collection of Data

  • Data -- observations yield a detailed, "thick description" [in-depth understanding]; interviews capture direct quotations about people’s personal perspectives and lived experiences; often derived from carefully conducted case studies and review of material culture.
  • Personal experience and engagement -- researcher has direct contact with and gets close to the people, situation, and phenomenon under investigation; the researcher’s personal experiences and insights are an important part of the inquiry and critical to understanding the phenomenon.
  • Empathic neutrality -- an empathic stance in working with study respondents seeks vicarious understanding without judgment [neutrality] by showing openness, sensitivity, respect, awareness, and responsiveness; in observation, it means being fully present [mindfulness].
  • Dynamic systems -- there is attention to process; assumes change is ongoing, whether the focus is on an individual, an organization, a community, or an entire culture, therefore, the researcher is mindful of and attentive to system and situational dynamics.

The Analysis

  • Unique case orientation -- assumes that each case is special and unique; the first level of analysis is being true to, respecting, and capturing the details of the individual cases being studied; cross-case analysis follows from and depends upon the quality of individual case studies.
  • Inductive analysis -- immersion in the details and specifics of the data to discover important patterns, themes, and inter-relationships; begins by exploring, then confirming findings, guided by analytical principles rather than rules.
  • Holistic perspective -- the whole phenomenon under study is understood as a complex system that is more than the sum of its parts; the focus is on complex interdependencies and system dynamics that cannot be reduced in any meaningful way to linear, cause and effect relationships and/or a few discrete variables.
  • Context sensitive -- places findings in a social, historical, and temporal context; researcher is careful about [even dubious of] the possibility or meaningfulness of generalizations across time and space; emphasizes careful comparative case study analysis and extrapolating patterns for possible transferability and adaptation in new settings.
  • Voice, perspective, and reflexivity -- the qualitative methodologist owns and is reflective about her or his own voice and perspective; a credible voice conveys authenticity and trustworthiness; complete objectivity being impossible and pure subjectivity undermining credibility, the researcher's focus reflects a balance between understanding and depicting the world authentically in all its complexity and of being self-analytical, politically aware, and reflexive in consciousness.

Berg, Bruce Lawrence. Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences . 8th edition. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2012; Denzin, Norman. K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln. Handbook of Qualitative Research . 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000; Marshall, Catherine and Gretchen B. Rossman. Designing Qualitative Research . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995; Merriam, Sharan B. Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Basic Research Design for Qualitative Studies

Unlike positivist or experimental research that utilizes a linear and one-directional sequence of design steps, there is considerable variation in how a qualitative research study is organized. In general, qualitative researchers attempt to describe and interpret human behavior based primarily on the words of selected individuals [a.k.a., “informants” or “respondents”] and/or through the interpretation of their material culture or occupied space. There is a reflexive process underpinning every stage of a qualitative study to ensure that researcher biases, presuppositions, and interpretations are clearly evident, thus ensuring that the reader is better able to interpret the overall validity of the research. According to Maxwell (2009), there are five, not necessarily ordered or sequential, components in qualitative research designs. How they are presented depends upon the research philosophy and theoretical framework of the study, the methods chosen, and the general assumptions underpinning the study. Goals Describe the central research problem being addressed but avoid describing any anticipated outcomes. Questions to ask yourself are: Why is your study worth doing? What issues do you want to clarify, and what practices and policies do you want it to influence? Why do you want to conduct this study, and why should the reader care about the results? Conceptual Framework Questions to ask yourself are: What do you think is going on with the issues, settings, or people you plan to study? What theories, beliefs, and prior research findings will guide or inform your research, and what literature, preliminary studies, and personal experiences will you draw upon for understanding the people or issues you are studying? Note to not only report the results of other studies in your review of the literature, but note the methods used as well. If appropriate, describe why earlier studies using quantitative methods were inadequate in addressing the research problem. Research Questions Usually there is a research problem that frames your qualitative study and that influences your decision about what methods to use, but qualitative designs generally lack an accompanying hypothesis or set of assumptions because the findings are emergent and unpredictable. In this context, more specific research questions are generally the result of an interactive design process rather than the starting point for that process. Questions to ask yourself are: What do you specifically want to learn or understand by conducting this study? What do you not know about the things you are studying that you want to learn? What questions will your research attempt to answer, and how are these questions related to one another? Methods Structured approaches to applying a method or methods to your study help to ensure that there is comparability of data across sources and researchers and, thus, they can be useful in answering questions that deal with differences between phenomena and the explanation for these differences [variance questions]. An unstructured approach allows the researcher to focus on the particular phenomena studied. This facilitates an understanding of the processes that led to specific outcomes, trading generalizability and comparability for internal validity and contextual and evaluative understanding. Questions to ask yourself are: What will you actually do in conducting this study? What approaches and techniques will you use to collect and analyze your data, and how do these constitute an integrated strategy? Validity In contrast to quantitative studies where the goal is to design, in advance, “controls” such as formal comparisons, sampling strategies, or statistical manipulations to address anticipated and unanticipated threats to validity, qualitative researchers must attempt to rule out most threats to validity after the research has begun by relying on evidence collected during the research process itself in order to effectively argue that any alternative explanations for a phenomenon are implausible. Questions to ask yourself are: How might your results and conclusions be wrong? What are the plausible alternative interpretations and validity threats to these, and how will you deal with these? How can the data that you have, or that you could potentially collect, support or challenge your ideas about what’s going on? Why should we believe your results? Conclusion Although Maxwell does not mention a conclusion as one of the components of a qualitative research design, you should formally conclude your study. Briefly reiterate the goals of your study and the ways in which your research addressed them. Discuss the benefits of your study and how stakeholders can use your results. Also, note the limitations of your study and, if appropriate, place them in the context of areas in need of further research.

Chenail, Ronald J. Introduction to Qualitative Research Design. Nova Southeastern University; Heath, A. W. The Proposal in Qualitative Research. The Qualitative Report 3 (March 1997); Marshall, Catherine and Gretchen B. Rossman. Designing Qualitative Research . 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999; Maxwell, Joseph A. "Designing a Qualitative Study." In The SAGE Handbook of Applied Social Research Methods . Leonard Bickman and Debra J. Rog, eds. 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009), p. 214-253; Qualitative Research Methods. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Yin, Robert K. Qualitative Research from Start to Finish . 2nd edition. New York: Guilford, 2015.

Strengths of Using Qualitative Methods

The advantage of using qualitative methods is that they generate rich, detailed data that leave the participants' perspectives intact and provide multiple contexts for understanding the phenomenon under study. In this way, qualitative research can be used to vividly demonstrate phenomena or to conduct cross-case comparisons and analysis of individuals or groups.

Among the specific strengths of using qualitative methods to study social science research problems is the ability to:

  • Obtain a more realistic view of the lived world that cannot be understood or experienced in numerical data and statistical analysis;
  • Provide the researcher with the perspective of the participants of the study through immersion in a culture or situation and as a result of direct interaction with them;
  • Allow the researcher to describe existing phenomena and current situations;
  • Develop flexible ways to perform data collection, subsequent analysis, and interpretation of collected information;
  • Yield results that can be helpful in pioneering new ways of understanding;
  • Respond to changes that occur while conducting the study ]e.g., extended fieldwork or observation] and offer the flexibility to shift the focus of the research as a result;
  • Provide a holistic view of the phenomena under investigation;
  • Respond to local situations, conditions, and needs of participants;
  • Interact with the research subjects in their own language and on their own terms; and,
  • Create a descriptive capability based on primary and unstructured data.

Anderson, Claire. “Presenting and Evaluating Qualitative Research.” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 74 (2010): 1-7; Denzin, Norman. K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln. Handbook of Qualitative Research . 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000; Merriam, Sharan B. Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Limitations of Using Qualitative Methods

It is very much true that most of the limitations you find in using qualitative research techniques also reflect their inherent strengths . For example, small sample sizes help you investigate research problems in a comprehensive and in-depth manner. However, small sample sizes undermine opportunities to draw useful generalizations from, or to make broad policy recommendations based upon, the findings. Additionally, as the primary instrument of investigation, qualitative researchers are often embedded in the cultures and experiences of others. However, cultural embeddedness increases the opportunity for bias generated from conscious or unconscious assumptions about the study setting to enter into how data is gathered, interpreted, and reported.

Some specific limitations associated with using qualitative methods to study research problems in the social sciences include the following:

  • Drifting away from the original objectives of the study in response to the changing nature of the context under which the research is conducted;
  • Arriving at different conclusions based on the same information depending on the personal characteristics of the researcher;
  • Replication of a study is very difficult;
  • Research using human subjects increases the chance of ethical dilemmas that undermine the overall validity of the study;
  • An inability to investigate causality between different research phenomena;
  • Difficulty in explaining differences in the quality and quantity of information obtained from different respondents and arriving at different, non-consistent conclusions;
  • Data gathering and analysis is often time consuming and/or expensive;
  • Requires a high level of experience from the researcher to obtain the targeted information from the respondent;
  • May lack consistency and reliability because the researcher can employ different probing techniques and the respondent can choose to tell some particular stories and ignore others; and,
  • Generation of a significant amount of data that cannot be randomized into manageable parts for analysis.

Research Tip

Human Subject Research and Institutional Review Board Approval

Almost every socio-behavioral study requires you to submit your proposed research plan to an Institutional Review Board. The role of the Board is to evaluate your research proposal and determine whether it will be conducted ethically and under the regulations, institutional polices, and Code of Ethics set forth by the university. The purpose of the review is to protect the rights and welfare of individuals participating in your study. The review is intended to ensure equitable selection of respondents, that you have met the requirements for obtaining informed consent , that there is clear assessment and minimization of risks to participants and to the university [read: no lawsuits!], and that privacy and confidentiality are maintained throughout the research process and beyond. Go to the USC IRB website for detailed information and templates of forms you need to submit before you can proceed. If you are  unsure whether your study is subject to IRB review, consult with your professor or academic advisor.

Chenail, Ronald J. Introduction to Qualitative Research Design. Nova Southeastern University; Labaree, Robert V. "Working Successfully with Your Institutional Review Board: Practical Advice for Academic Librarians." College and Research Libraries News 71 (April 2010): 190-193.

Another Research Tip

Finding Examples of How to Apply Different Types of Research Methods

SAGE publications is a major publisher of studies about how to design and conduct research in the social and behavioral sciences. Their SAGE Research Methods Online and Cases database includes contents from books, articles, encyclopedias, handbooks, and videos covering social science research design and methods including the complete Little Green Book Series of Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences and the Little Blue Book Series of Qualitative Research techniques. The database also includes case studies outlining the research methods used in real research projects. This is an excellent source for finding definitions of key terms and descriptions of research design and practice, techniques of data gathering, analysis, and reporting, and information about theories of research [e.g., grounded theory]. The database covers both qualitative and quantitative research methods as well as mixed methods approaches to conducting research.

SAGE Research Methods Online and Cases

NOTE :  For a list of online communities, research centers, indispensable learning resources, and personal websites of leading qualitative researchers, GO HERE .

For a list of scholarly journals devoted to the study and application of qualitative research methods, GO HERE .

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  • How to Write Your Methods

how to write a methodology for a qualitative research paper

Ensure understanding, reproducibility and replicability

What should you include in your methods section, and how much detail is appropriate?

Why Methods Matter

The methods section was once the most likely part of a paper to be unfairly abbreviated, overly summarized, or even relegated to hard-to-find sections of a publisher’s website. While some journals may responsibly include more detailed elements of methods in supplementary sections, the movement for increased reproducibility and rigor in science has reinstated the importance of the methods section. Methods are now viewed as a key element in establishing the credibility of the research being reported, alongside the open availability of data and results.

A clear methods section impacts editorial evaluation and readers’ understanding, and is also the backbone of transparency and replicability.

For example, the Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology project set out in 2013 to replicate experiments from 50 high profile cancer papers, but revised their target to 18 papers once they understood how much methodological detail was not contained in the original papers.

how to write a methodology for a qualitative research paper

What to include in your methods section

What you include in your methods sections depends on what field you are in and what experiments you are performing. However, the general principle in place at the majority of journals is summarized well by the guidelines at PLOS ONE : “The Materials and Methods section should provide enough detail to allow suitably skilled investigators to fully replicate your study. ” The emphases here are deliberate: the methods should enable readers to understand your paper, and replicate your study. However, there is no need to go into the level of detail that a lay-person would require—the focus is on the reader who is also trained in your field, with the suitable skills and knowledge to attempt a replication.

A constant principle of rigorous science

A methods section that enables other researchers to understand and replicate your results is a constant principle of rigorous, transparent, and Open Science. Aim to be thorough, even if a particular journal doesn’t require the same level of detail . Reproducibility is all of our responsibility. You cannot create any problems by exceeding a minimum standard of information. If a journal still has word-limits—either for the overall article or specific sections—and requires some methodological details to be in a supplemental section, that is OK as long as the extra details are searchable and findable .

Imagine replicating your own work, years in the future

As part of PLOS’ presentation on Reproducibility and Open Publishing (part of UCSF’s Reproducibility Series ) we recommend planning the level of detail in your methods section by imagining you are writing for your future self, replicating your own work. When you consider that you might be at a different institution, with different account logins, applications, resources, and access levels—you can help yourself imagine the level of specificity that you yourself would require to redo the exact experiment. Consider:

  • Which details would you need to be reminded of? 
  • Which cell line, or antibody, or software, or reagent did you use, and does it have a Research Resource ID (RRID) that you can cite?
  • Which version of a questionnaire did you use in your survey? 
  • Exactly which visual stimulus did you show participants, and is it publicly available? 
  • What participants did you decide to exclude? 
  • What process did you adjust, during your work? 

Tip: Be sure to capture any changes to your protocols

You yourself would want to know about any adjustments, if you ever replicate the work, so you can surmise that anyone else would want to as well. Even if a necessary adjustment you made was not ideal, transparency is the key to ensuring this is not regarded as an issue in the future. It is far better to transparently convey any non-optimal methods, or methodological constraints, than to conceal them, which could result in reproducibility or ethical issues downstream.

Visual aids for methods help when reading the whole paper

Consider whether a visual representation of your methods could be appropriate or aid understanding your process. A visual reference readers can easily return to, like a flow-diagram, decision-tree, or checklist, can help readers to better understand the complete article, not just the methods section.

Ethical Considerations

In addition to describing what you did, it is just as important to assure readers that you also followed all relevant ethical guidelines when conducting your research. While ethical standards and reporting guidelines are often presented in a separate section of a paper, ensure that your methods and protocols actually follow these guidelines. Read more about ethics .

Existing standards, checklists, guidelines, partners

While the level of detail contained in a methods section should be guided by the universal principles of rigorous science outlined above, various disciplines, fields, and projects have worked hard to design and develop consistent standards, guidelines, and tools to help with reporting all types of experiment. Below, you’ll find some of the key initiatives. Ensure you read the submission guidelines for the specific journal you are submitting to, in order to discover any further journal- or field-specific policies to follow, or initiatives/tools to utilize.

Tip: Keep your paper moving forward by providing the proper paperwork up front

Be sure to check the journal guidelines and provide the necessary documents with your manuscript submission. Collecting the necessary documentation can greatly slow the first round of peer review, or cause delays when you submit your revision.

Randomized Controlled Trials – CONSORT The Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) project covers various initiatives intended to prevent the problems of  inadequate reporting of randomized controlled trials. The primary initiative is an evidence-based minimum set of recommendations for reporting randomized trials known as the CONSORT Statement . 

Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses – PRISMA The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses ( PRISMA ) is an evidence-based minimum set of items focusing  on the reporting of  reviews evaluating randomized trials and other types of research.

Research using Animals – ARRIVE The Animal Research: Reporting of In Vivo Experiments ( ARRIVE ) guidelines encourage maximizing the information reported in research using animals thereby minimizing unnecessary studies. (Original study and proposal , and updated guidelines , in PLOS Biology .) 

Laboratory Protocols has developed a platform specifically for the sharing and updating of laboratory protocols , which are assigned their own DOI and can be linked from methods sections of papers to enhance reproducibility. Contextualize your protocol and improve discovery with an accompanying Lab Protocol article in PLOS ONE .

Consistent reporting of Materials, Design, and Analysis – the MDAR checklist A cross-publisher group of editors and experts have developed, tested, and rolled out a checklist to help establish and harmonize reporting standards in the Life Sciences . The checklist , which is available for use by authors to compile their methods, and editors/reviewers to check methods, establishes a minimum set of requirements in transparent reporting and is adaptable to any discipline within the Life Sciences, by covering a breadth of potentially relevant methodological items and considerations. If you are in the Life Sciences and writing up your methods section, try working through the MDAR checklist and see whether it helps you include all relevant details into your methods, and whether it reminded you of anything you might have missed otherwise.

Summary Writing tips

The main challenge you may find when writing your methods is keeping it readable AND covering all the details needed for reproducibility and replicability. While this is difficult, do not compromise on rigorous standards for credibility!

how to write a methodology for a qualitative research paper

  • Keep in mind future replicability, alongside understanding and readability.
  • Follow checklists, and field- and journal-specific guidelines.
  • Consider a commitment to rigorous and transparent science a personal responsibility, and not just adhering to journal guidelines.
  • Establish whether there are persistent identifiers for any research resources you use that can be specifically cited in your methods section.
  • Deposit your laboratory protocols in, establishing a permanent link to them. You can update your protocols later if you improve on them, as can future scientists who follow your protocols.
  • Consider visual aids like flow-diagrams, lists, to help with reading other sections of the paper.
  • Be specific about all decisions made during the experiments that someone reproducing your work would need to know.

how to write a methodology for a qualitative research paper


  • Summarize or abbreviate methods without giving full details in a discoverable supplemental section.
  • Presume you will always be able to remember how you performed the experiments, or have access to private or institutional notebooks and resources.
  • Attempt to hide constraints or non-optimal decisions you had to make–transparency is the key to ensuring the credibility of your research.
  • How to Write a Great Title
  • How to Write an Abstract
  • How to Report Statistics
  • How to Write Discussions and Conclusions
  • How to Edit Your Work

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The contents of the Writing Center are also available as a live, interactive training session, complete with slides, talking points, and activities. …

There’s a lot to consider when deciding where to submit your work. Learn how to choose a journal that will help your study reach its audience, while reflecting your values as a researcher…

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  • What Is a Research Methodology? | Steps & Tips

What Is a Research Methodology? | Steps & Tips

Published on 25 February 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on 10 October 2022.

Your research methodology discusses and explains the data collection and analysis methods you used in your research. A key part of your thesis, dissertation, or research paper, the methodology chapter explains what you did and how you did it, allowing readers to evaluate the reliability and validity of your research.

It should include:

  • The type of research you conducted
  • How you collected and analysed your data
  • Any tools or materials you used in the research
  • Why you chose these methods
  • Your methodology section should generally be written in the past tense .
  • Academic style guides in your field may provide detailed guidelines on what to include for different types of studies.
  • Your citation style might provide guidelines for your methodology section (e.g., an APA Style methods section ).

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Table of contents

How to write a research methodology, why is a methods section important, step 1: explain your methodological approach, step 2: describe your data collection methods, step 3: describe your analysis method, step 4: evaluate and justify the methodological choices you made, tips for writing a strong methodology chapter, frequently asked questions about methodology.

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Your methods section is your opportunity to share how you conducted your research and why you chose the methods you chose. It’s also the place to show that your research was rigorously conducted and can be replicated .

It gives your research legitimacy and situates it within your field, and also gives your readers a place to refer to if they have any questions or critiques in other sections.

You can start by introducing your overall approach to your research. You have two options here.

Option 1: Start with your “what”

What research problem or question did you investigate?

  • Aim to describe the characteristics of something?
  • Explore an under-researched topic?
  • Establish a causal relationship?

And what type of data did you need to achieve this aim?

  • Quantitative data , qualitative data , or a mix of both?
  • Primary data collected yourself, or secondary data collected by someone else?
  • Experimental data gathered by controlling and manipulating variables, or descriptive data gathered via observations?

Option 2: Start with your “why”

Depending on your discipline, you can also start with a discussion of the rationale and assumptions underpinning your methodology. In other words, why did you choose these methods for your study?

  • Why is this the best way to answer your research question?
  • Is this a standard methodology in your field, or does it require justification?
  • Were there any ethical considerations involved in your choices?
  • What are the criteria for validity and reliability in this type of research ?

Once you have introduced your reader to your methodological approach, you should share full details about your data collection methods .

Quantitative methods

In order to be considered generalisable, you should describe quantitative research methods in enough detail for another researcher to replicate your study.

Here, explain how you operationalised your concepts and measured your variables. Discuss your sampling method or inclusion/exclusion criteria, as well as any tools, procedures, and materials you used to gather your data.

Surveys Describe where, when, and how the survey was conducted.

  • How did you design the questionnaire?
  • What form did your questions take (e.g., multiple choice, Likert scale )?
  • Were your surveys conducted in-person or virtually?
  • What sampling method did you use to select participants?
  • What was your sample size and response rate?

Experiments Share full details of the tools, techniques, and procedures you used to conduct your experiment.

  • How did you design the experiment ?
  • How did you recruit participants?
  • How did you manipulate and measure the variables ?
  • What tools did you use?

Existing data Explain how you gathered and selected the material (such as datasets or archival data) that you used in your analysis.

  • Where did you source the material?
  • How was the data originally produced?
  • What criteria did you use to select material (e.g., date range)?

The survey consisted of 5 multiple-choice questions and 10 questions measured on a 7-point Likert scale.

The goal was to collect survey responses from 350 customers visiting the fitness apparel company’s brick-and-mortar location in Boston on 4–8 July 2022, between 11:00 and 15:00.

Here, a customer was defined as a person who had purchased a product from the company on the day they took the survey. Participants were given 5 minutes to fill in the survey anonymously. In total, 408 customers responded, but not all surveys were fully completed. Due to this, 371 survey results were included in the analysis.

Qualitative methods

In qualitative research , methods are often more flexible and subjective. For this reason, it’s crucial to robustly explain the methodology choices you made.

Be sure to discuss the criteria you used to select your data, the context in which your research was conducted, and the role you played in collecting your data (e.g., were you an active participant, or a passive observer?)

Interviews or focus groups Describe where, when, and how the interviews were conducted.

  • How did you find and select participants?
  • How many participants took part?
  • What form did the interviews take ( structured , semi-structured , or unstructured )?
  • How long were the interviews?
  • How were they recorded?

Participant observation Describe where, when, and how you conducted the observation or ethnography .

  • What group or community did you observe? How long did you spend there?
  • How did you gain access to this group? What role did you play in the community?
  • How long did you spend conducting the research? Where was it located?
  • How did you record your data (e.g., audiovisual recordings, note-taking)?

Existing data Explain how you selected case study materials for your analysis.

  • What type of materials did you analyse?
  • How did you select them?

In order to gain better insight into possibilities for future improvement of the fitness shop’s product range, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 8 returning customers.

Here, a returning customer was defined as someone who usually bought products at least twice a week from the store.

Surveys were used to select participants. Interviews were conducted in a small office next to the cash register and lasted approximately 20 minutes each. Answers were recorded by note-taking, and seven interviews were also filmed with consent. One interviewee preferred not to be filmed.

Mixed methods

Mixed methods research combines quantitative and qualitative approaches. If a standalone quantitative or qualitative study is insufficient to answer your research question, mixed methods may be a good fit for you.

Mixed methods are less common than standalone analyses, largely because they require a great deal of effort to pull off successfully. If you choose to pursue mixed methods, it’s especially important to robustly justify your methods here.

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Next, you should indicate how you processed and analysed your data. Avoid going into too much detail: you should not start introducing or discussing any of your results at this stage.

In quantitative research , your analysis will be based on numbers. In your methods section, you can include:

  • How you prepared the data before analysing it (e.g., checking for missing data , removing outliers , transforming variables)
  • Which software you used (e.g., SPSS, Stata or R)
  • Which statistical tests you used (e.g., two-tailed t test , simple linear regression )

In qualitative research, your analysis will be based on language, images, and observations (often involving some form of textual analysis ).

Specific methods might include:

  • Content analysis : Categorising and discussing the meaning of words, phrases and sentences
  • Thematic analysis : Coding and closely examining the data to identify broad themes and patterns
  • Discourse analysis : Studying communication and meaning in relation to their social context

Mixed methods combine the above two research methods, integrating both qualitative and quantitative approaches into one coherent analytical process.

Above all, your methodology section should clearly make the case for why you chose the methods you did. This is especially true if you did not take the most standard approach to your topic. In this case, discuss why other methods were not suitable for your objectives, and show how this approach contributes new knowledge or understanding.

In any case, it should be overwhelmingly clear to your reader that you set yourself up for success in terms of your methodology’s design. Show how your methods should lead to results that are valid and reliable, while leaving the analysis of the meaning, importance, and relevance of your results for your discussion section .

  • Quantitative: Lab-based experiments cannot always accurately simulate real-life situations and behaviours, but they are effective for testing causal relationships between variables .
  • Qualitative: Unstructured interviews usually produce results that cannot be generalised beyond the sample group , but they provide a more in-depth understanding of participants’ perceptions, motivations, and emotions.
  • Mixed methods: Despite issues systematically comparing differing types of data, a solely quantitative study would not sufficiently incorporate the lived experience of each participant, while a solely qualitative study would be insufficiently generalisable.

Remember that your aim is not just to describe your methods, but to show how and why you applied them. Again, it’s critical to demonstrate that your research was rigorously conducted and can be replicated.

1. Focus on your objectives and research questions

The methodology section should clearly show why your methods suit your objectives  and convince the reader that you chose the best possible approach to answering your problem statement and research questions .

2. Cite relevant sources

Your methodology can be strengthened by referencing existing research in your field. This can help you to:

  • Show that you followed established practice for your type of research
  • Discuss how you decided on your approach by evaluating existing research
  • Present a novel methodological approach to address a gap in the literature

3. Write for your audience

Consider how much information you need to give, and avoid getting too lengthy. If you are using methods that are standard for your discipline, you probably don’t need to give a lot of background or justification.

Regardless, your methodology should be a clear, well-structured text that makes an argument for your approach, not just a list of technical details and procedures.

Methodology refers to the overarching strategy and rationale of your research. Developing your methodology involves studying the research methods used in your field and the theories or principles that underpin them, in order to choose the approach that best matches your objectives.

Methods are the specific tools and procedures you use to collect and analyse data (e.g. interviews, experiments , surveys , statistical tests ).

In a dissertation or scientific paper, the methodology chapter or methods section comes after the introduction and before the results , discussion and conclusion .

Depending on the length and type of document, you might also include a literature review or theoretical framework before the methodology.

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to test a hypothesis by systematically collecting and analysing data, while qualitative methods allow you to explore ideas and experiences in depth.

A sample is a subset of individuals from a larger population. Sampling means selecting the group that you will actually collect data from in your research.

For example, if you are researching the opinions of students in your university, you could survey a sample of 100 students.

Statistical sampling allows you to test a hypothesis about the characteristics of a population. There are various sampling methods you can use to ensure that your sample is representative of the population as a whole.

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How to use and assess qualitative research methods

Loraine busetto.

1 Department of Neurology, Heidelberg University Hospital, Im Neuenheimer Feld 400, 69120 Heidelberg, Germany

Wolfgang Wick

2 Clinical Cooperation Unit Neuro-Oncology, German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany

Christoph Gumbinger

Associated data.

Not applicable.

This paper aims to provide an overview of the use and assessment of qualitative research methods in the health sciences. Qualitative research can be defined as the study of the nature of phenomena and is especially appropriate for answering questions of why something is (not) observed, assessing complex multi-component interventions, and focussing on intervention improvement. The most common methods of data collection are document study, (non-) participant observations, semi-structured interviews and focus groups. For data analysis, field-notes and audio-recordings are transcribed into protocols and transcripts, and coded using qualitative data management software. Criteria such as checklists, reflexivity, sampling strategies, piloting, co-coding, member-checking and stakeholder involvement can be used to enhance and assess the quality of the research conducted. Using qualitative in addition to quantitative designs will equip us with better tools to address a greater range of research problems, and to fill in blind spots in current neurological research and practice.

The aim of this paper is to provide an overview of qualitative research methods, including hands-on information on how they can be used, reported and assessed. This article is intended for beginning qualitative researchers in the health sciences as well as experienced quantitative researchers who wish to broaden their understanding of qualitative research.

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is defined as “the study of the nature of phenomena”, including “their quality, different manifestations, the context in which they appear or the perspectives from which they can be perceived” , but excluding “their range, frequency and place in an objectively determined chain of cause and effect” [ 1 ]. This formal definition can be complemented with a more pragmatic rule of thumb: qualitative research generally includes data in form of words rather than numbers [ 2 ].

Why conduct qualitative research?

Because some research questions cannot be answered using (only) quantitative methods. For example, one Australian study addressed the issue of why patients from Aboriginal communities often present late or not at all to specialist services offered by tertiary care hospitals. Using qualitative interviews with patients and staff, it found one of the most significant access barriers to be transportation problems, including some towns and communities simply not having a bus service to the hospital [ 3 ]. A quantitative study could have measured the number of patients over time or even looked at possible explanatory factors – but only those previously known or suspected to be of relevance. To discover reasons for observed patterns, especially the invisible or surprising ones, qualitative designs are needed.

While qualitative research is common in other fields, it is still relatively underrepresented in health services research. The latter field is more traditionally rooted in the evidence-based-medicine paradigm, as seen in " research that involves testing the effectiveness of various strategies to achieve changes in clinical practice, preferably applying randomised controlled trial study designs (...) " [ 4 ]. This focus on quantitative research and specifically randomised controlled trials (RCT) is visible in the idea of a hierarchy of research evidence which assumes that some research designs are objectively better than others, and that choosing a "lesser" design is only acceptable when the better ones are not practically or ethically feasible [ 5 , 6 ]. Others, however, argue that an objective hierarchy does not exist, and that, instead, the research design and methods should be chosen to fit the specific research question at hand – "questions before methods" [ 2 , 7 – 9 ]. This means that even when an RCT is possible, some research problems require a different design that is better suited to addressing them. Arguing in JAMA, Berwick uses the example of rapid response teams in hospitals, which he describes as " a complex, multicomponent intervention – essentially a process of social change" susceptible to a range of different context factors including leadership or organisation history. According to him, "[in] such complex terrain, the RCT is an impoverished way to learn. Critics who use it as a truth standard in this context are incorrect" [ 8 ] . Instead of limiting oneself to RCTs, Berwick recommends embracing a wider range of methods , including qualitative ones, which for "these specific applications, (...) are not compromises in learning how to improve; they are superior" [ 8 ].

Research problems that can be approached particularly well using qualitative methods include assessing complex multi-component interventions or systems (of change), addressing questions beyond “what works”, towards “what works for whom when, how and why”, and focussing on intervention improvement rather than accreditation [ 7 , 9 – 12 ]. Using qualitative methods can also help shed light on the “softer” side of medical treatment. For example, while quantitative trials can measure the costs and benefits of neuro-oncological treatment in terms of survival rates or adverse effects, qualitative research can help provide a better understanding of patient or caregiver stress, visibility of illness or out-of-pocket expenses.

How to conduct qualitative research?

Given that qualitative research is characterised by flexibility, openness and responsivity to context, the steps of data collection and analysis are not as separate and consecutive as they tend to be in quantitative research [ 13 , 14 ]. As Fossey puts it : “sampling, data collection, analysis and interpretation are related to each other in a cyclical (iterative) manner, rather than following one after another in a stepwise approach” [ 15 ]. The researcher can make educated decisions with regard to the choice of method, how they are implemented, and to which and how many units they are applied [ 13 ]. As shown in Fig.  1 , this can involve several back-and-forth steps between data collection and analysis where new insights and experiences can lead to adaption and expansion of the original plan. Some insights may also necessitate a revision of the research question and/or the research design as a whole. The process ends when saturation is achieved, i.e. when no relevant new information can be found (see also below: sampling and saturation). For reasons of transparency, it is essential for all decisions as well as the underlying reasoning to be well-documented.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is 42466_2020_59_Fig1_HTML.jpg

Iterative research process

While it is not always explicitly addressed, qualitative methods reflect a different underlying research paradigm than quantitative research (e.g. constructivism or interpretivism as opposed to positivism). The choice of methods can be based on the respective underlying substantive theory or theoretical framework used by the researcher [ 2 ].

Data collection

The methods of qualitative data collection most commonly used in health research are document study, observations, semi-structured interviews and focus groups [ 1 , 14 , 16 , 17 ].

Document study

Document study (also called document analysis) refers to the review by the researcher of written materials [ 14 ]. These can include personal and non-personal documents such as archives, annual reports, guidelines, policy documents, diaries or letters.


Observations are particularly useful to gain insights into a certain setting and actual behaviour – as opposed to reported behaviour or opinions [ 13 ]. Qualitative observations can be either participant or non-participant in nature. In participant observations, the observer is part of the observed setting, for example a nurse working in an intensive care unit [ 18 ]. In non-participant observations, the observer is “on the outside looking in”, i.e. present in but not part of the situation, trying not to influence the setting by their presence. Observations can be planned (e.g. for 3 h during the day or night shift) or ad hoc (e.g. as soon as a stroke patient arrives at the emergency room). During the observation, the observer takes notes on everything or certain pre-determined parts of what is happening around them, for example focusing on physician-patient interactions or communication between different professional groups. Written notes can be taken during or after the observations, depending on feasibility (which is usually lower during participant observations) and acceptability (e.g. when the observer is perceived to be judging the observed). Afterwards, these field notes are transcribed into observation protocols. If more than one observer was involved, field notes are taken independently, but notes can be consolidated into one protocol after discussions. Advantages of conducting observations include minimising the distance between the researcher and the researched, the potential discovery of topics that the researcher did not realise were relevant and gaining deeper insights into the real-world dimensions of the research problem at hand [ 18 ].

Semi-structured interviews

Hijmans & Kuyper describe qualitative interviews as “an exchange with an informal character, a conversation with a goal” [ 19 ]. Interviews are used to gain insights into a person’s subjective experiences, opinions and motivations – as opposed to facts or behaviours [ 13 ]. Interviews can be distinguished by the degree to which they are structured (i.e. a questionnaire), open (e.g. free conversation or autobiographical interviews) or semi-structured [ 2 , 13 ]. Semi-structured interviews are characterized by open-ended questions and the use of an interview guide (or topic guide/list) in which the broad areas of interest, sometimes including sub-questions, are defined [ 19 ]. The pre-defined topics in the interview guide can be derived from the literature, previous research or a preliminary method of data collection, e.g. document study or observations. The topic list is usually adapted and improved at the start of the data collection process as the interviewer learns more about the field [ 20 ]. Across interviews the focus on the different (blocks of) questions may differ and some questions may be skipped altogether (e.g. if the interviewee is not able or willing to answer the questions or for concerns about the total length of the interview) [ 20 ]. Qualitative interviews are usually not conducted in written format as it impedes on the interactive component of the method [ 20 ]. In comparison to written surveys, qualitative interviews have the advantage of being interactive and allowing for unexpected topics to emerge and to be taken up by the researcher. This can also help overcome a provider or researcher-centred bias often found in written surveys, which by nature, can only measure what is already known or expected to be of relevance to the researcher. Interviews can be audio- or video-taped; but sometimes it is only feasible or acceptable for the interviewer to take written notes [ 14 , 16 , 20 ].

Focus groups

Focus groups are group interviews to explore participants’ expertise and experiences, including explorations of how and why people behave in certain ways [ 1 ]. Focus groups usually consist of 6–8 people and are led by an experienced moderator following a topic guide or “script” [ 21 ]. They can involve an observer who takes note of the non-verbal aspects of the situation, possibly using an observation guide [ 21 ]. Depending on researchers’ and participants’ preferences, the discussions can be audio- or video-taped and transcribed afterwards [ 21 ]. Focus groups are useful for bringing together homogeneous (to a lesser extent heterogeneous) groups of participants with relevant expertise and experience on a given topic on which they can share detailed information [ 21 ]. Focus groups are a relatively easy, fast and inexpensive method to gain access to information on interactions in a given group, i.e. “the sharing and comparing” among participants [ 21 ]. Disadvantages include less control over the process and a lesser extent to which each individual may participate. Moreover, focus group moderators need experience, as do those tasked with the analysis of the resulting data. Focus groups can be less appropriate for discussing sensitive topics that participants might be reluctant to disclose in a group setting [ 13 ]. Moreover, attention must be paid to the emergence of “groupthink” as well as possible power dynamics within the group, e.g. when patients are awed or intimidated by health professionals.

Choosing the “right” method

As explained above, the school of thought underlying qualitative research assumes no objective hierarchy of evidence and methods. This means that each choice of single or combined methods has to be based on the research question that needs to be answered and a critical assessment with regard to whether or to what extent the chosen method can accomplish this – i.e. the “fit” between question and method [ 14 ]. It is necessary for these decisions to be documented when they are being made, and to be critically discussed when reporting methods and results.

Let us assume that our research aim is to examine the (clinical) processes around acute endovascular treatment (EVT), from the patient’s arrival at the emergency room to recanalization, with the aim to identify possible causes for delay and/or other causes for sub-optimal treatment outcome. As a first step, we could conduct a document study of the relevant standard operating procedures (SOPs) for this phase of care – are they up-to-date and in line with current guidelines? Do they contain any mistakes, irregularities or uncertainties that could cause delays or other problems? Regardless of the answers to these questions, the results have to be interpreted based on what they are: a written outline of what care processes in this hospital should look like. If we want to know what they actually look like in practice, we can conduct observations of the processes described in the SOPs. These results can (and should) be analysed in themselves, but also in comparison to the results of the document analysis, especially as regards relevant discrepancies. Do the SOPs outline specific tests for which no equipment can be observed or tasks to be performed by specialized nurses who are not present during the observation? It might also be possible that the written SOP is outdated, but the actual care provided is in line with current best practice. In order to find out why these discrepancies exist, it can be useful to conduct interviews. Are the physicians simply not aware of the SOPs (because their existence is limited to the hospital’s intranet) or do they actively disagree with them or does the infrastructure make it impossible to provide the care as described? Another rationale for adding interviews is that some situations (or all of their possible variations for different patient groups or the day, night or weekend shift) cannot practically or ethically be observed. In this case, it is possible to ask those involved to report on their actions – being aware that this is not the same as the actual observation. A senior physician’s or hospital manager’s description of certain situations might differ from a nurse’s or junior physician’s one, maybe because they intentionally misrepresent facts or maybe because different aspects of the process are visible or important to them. In some cases, it can also be relevant to consider to whom the interviewee is disclosing this information – someone they trust, someone they are otherwise not connected to, or someone they suspect or are aware of being in a potentially “dangerous” power relationship to them. Lastly, a focus group could be conducted with representatives of the relevant professional groups to explore how and why exactly they provide care around EVT. The discussion might reveal discrepancies (between SOPs and actual care or between different physicians) and motivations to the researchers as well as to the focus group members that they might not have been aware of themselves. For the focus group to deliver relevant information, attention has to be paid to its composition and conduct, for example, to make sure that all participants feel safe to disclose sensitive or potentially problematic information or that the discussion is not dominated by (senior) physicians only. The resulting combination of data collection methods is shown in Fig.  2 .

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Possible combination of data collection methods

Attributions for icons: “Book” by Serhii Smirnov, “Interview” by Adrien Coquet, FR, “Magnifying Glass” by anggun, ID, “Business communication” by Vectors Market; all from the Noun Project

The combination of multiple data source as described for this example can be referred to as “triangulation”, in which multiple measurements are carried out from different angles to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon under study [ 22 , 23 ].

Data analysis

To analyse the data collected through observations, interviews and focus groups these need to be transcribed into protocols and transcripts (see Fig.  3 ). Interviews and focus groups can be transcribed verbatim , with or without annotations for behaviour (e.g. laughing, crying, pausing) and with or without phonetic transcription of dialects and filler words, depending on what is expected or known to be relevant for the analysis. In the next step, the protocols and transcripts are coded , that is, marked (or tagged, labelled) with one or more short descriptors of the content of a sentence or paragraph [ 2 , 15 , 23 ]. Jansen describes coding as “connecting the raw data with “theoretical” terms” [ 20 ]. In a more practical sense, coding makes raw data sortable. This makes it possible to extract and examine all segments describing, say, a tele-neurology consultation from multiple data sources (e.g. SOPs, emergency room observations, staff and patient interview). In a process of synthesis and abstraction, the codes are then grouped, summarised and/or categorised [ 15 , 20 ]. The end product of the coding or analysis process is a descriptive theory of the behavioural pattern under investigation [ 20 ]. The coding process is performed using qualitative data management software, the most common ones being InVivo, MaxQDA and Atlas.ti. It should be noted that these are data management tools which support the analysis performed by the researcher(s) [ 14 ].

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From data collection to data analysis

Attributions for icons: see Fig. ​ Fig.2, 2 , also “Speech to text” by Trevor Dsouza, “Field Notes” by Mike O’Brien, US, “Voice Record” by ProSymbols, US, “Inspection” by Made, AU, and “Cloud” by Graphic Tigers; all from the Noun Project

How to report qualitative research?

Protocols of qualitative research can be published separately and in advance of the study results. However, the aim is not the same as in RCT protocols, i.e. to pre-define and set in stone the research questions and primary or secondary endpoints. Rather, it is a way to describe the research methods in detail, which might not be possible in the results paper given journals’ word limits. Qualitative research papers are usually longer than their quantitative counterparts to allow for deep understanding and so-called “thick description”. In the methods section, the focus is on transparency of the methods used, including why, how and by whom they were implemented in the specific study setting, so as to enable a discussion of whether and how this may have influenced data collection, analysis and interpretation. The results section usually starts with a paragraph outlining the main findings, followed by more detailed descriptions of, for example, the commonalities, discrepancies or exceptions per category [ 20 ]. Here it is important to support main findings by relevant quotations, which may add information, context, emphasis or real-life examples [ 20 , 23 ]. It is subject to debate in the field whether it is relevant to state the exact number or percentage of respondents supporting a certain statement (e.g. “Five interviewees expressed negative feelings towards XYZ”) [ 21 ].

How to combine qualitative with quantitative research?

Qualitative methods can be combined with other methods in multi- or mixed methods designs, which “[employ] two or more different methods [ …] within the same study or research program rather than confining the research to one single method” [ 24 ]. Reasons for combining methods can be diverse, including triangulation for corroboration of findings, complementarity for illustration and clarification of results, expansion to extend the breadth and range of the study, explanation of (unexpected) results generated with one method with the help of another, or offsetting the weakness of one method with the strength of another [ 1 , 17 , 24 – 26 ]. The resulting designs can be classified according to when, why and how the different quantitative and/or qualitative data strands are combined. The three most common types of mixed method designs are the convergent parallel design , the explanatory sequential design and the exploratory sequential design. The designs with examples are shown in Fig.  4 .

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Three common mixed methods designs

In the convergent parallel design, a qualitative study is conducted in parallel to and independently of a quantitative study, and the results of both studies are compared and combined at the stage of interpretation of results. Using the above example of EVT provision, this could entail setting up a quantitative EVT registry to measure process times and patient outcomes in parallel to conducting the qualitative research outlined above, and then comparing results. Amongst other things, this would make it possible to assess whether interview respondents’ subjective impressions of patients receiving good care match modified Rankin Scores at follow-up, or whether observed delays in care provision are exceptions or the rule when compared to door-to-needle times as documented in the registry. In the explanatory sequential design, a quantitative study is carried out first, followed by a qualitative study to help explain the results from the quantitative study. This would be an appropriate design if the registry alone had revealed relevant delays in door-to-needle times and the qualitative study would be used to understand where and why these occurred, and how they could be improved. In the exploratory design, the qualitative study is carried out first and its results help informing and building the quantitative study in the next step [ 26 ]. If the qualitative study around EVT provision had shown a high level of dissatisfaction among the staff members involved, a quantitative questionnaire investigating staff satisfaction could be set up in the next step, informed by the qualitative study on which topics dissatisfaction had been expressed. Amongst other things, the questionnaire design would make it possible to widen the reach of the research to more respondents from different (types of) hospitals, regions, countries or settings, and to conduct sub-group analyses for different professional groups.

How to assess qualitative research?

A variety of assessment criteria and lists have been developed for qualitative research, ranging in their focus and comprehensiveness [ 14 , 17 , 27 ]. However, none of these has been elevated to the “gold standard” in the field. In the following, we therefore focus on a set of commonly used assessment criteria that, from a practical standpoint, a researcher can look for when assessing a qualitative research report or paper.

Assessors should check the authors’ use of and adherence to the relevant reporting checklists (e.g. Standards for Reporting Qualitative Research (SRQR)) to make sure all items that are relevant for this type of research are addressed [ 23 , 28 ]. Discussions of quantitative measures in addition to or instead of these qualitative measures can be a sign of lower quality of the research (paper). Providing and adhering to a checklist for qualitative research contributes to an important quality criterion for qualitative research, namely transparency [ 15 , 17 , 23 ].


While methodological transparency and complete reporting is relevant for all types of research, some additional criteria must be taken into account for qualitative research. This includes what is called reflexivity, i.e. sensitivity to the relationship between the researcher and the researched, including how contact was established and maintained, or the background and experience of the researcher(s) involved in data collection and analysis. Depending on the research question and population to be researched this can be limited to professional experience, but it may also include gender, age or ethnicity [ 17 , 27 ]. These details are relevant because in qualitative research, as opposed to quantitative research, the researcher as a person cannot be isolated from the research process [ 23 ]. It may influence the conversation when an interviewed patient speaks to an interviewer who is a physician, or when an interviewee is asked to discuss a gynaecological procedure with a male interviewer, and therefore the reader must be made aware of these details [ 19 ].

Sampling and saturation

The aim of qualitative sampling is for all variants of the objects of observation that are deemed relevant for the study to be present in the sample “ to see the issue and its meanings from as many angles as possible” [ 1 , 16 , 19 , 20 , 27 ] , and to ensure “information-richness [ 15 ]. An iterative sampling approach is advised, in which data collection (e.g. five interviews) is followed by data analysis, followed by more data collection to find variants that are lacking in the current sample. This process continues until no new (relevant) information can be found and further sampling becomes redundant – which is called saturation [ 1 , 15 ] . In other words: qualitative data collection finds its end point not a priori , but when the research team determines that saturation has been reached [ 29 , 30 ].

This is also the reason why most qualitative studies use deliberate instead of random sampling strategies. This is generally referred to as “ purposive sampling” , in which researchers pre-define which types of participants or cases they need to include so as to cover all variations that are expected to be of relevance, based on the literature, previous experience or theory (i.e. theoretical sampling) [ 14 , 20 ]. Other types of purposive sampling include (but are not limited to) maximum variation sampling, critical case sampling or extreme or deviant case sampling [ 2 ]. In the above EVT example, a purposive sample could include all relevant professional groups and/or all relevant stakeholders (patients, relatives) and/or all relevant times of observation (day, night and weekend shift).

Assessors of qualitative research should check whether the considerations underlying the sampling strategy were sound and whether or how researchers tried to adapt and improve their strategies in stepwise or cyclical approaches between data collection and analysis to achieve saturation [ 14 ].

Good qualitative research is iterative in nature, i.e. it goes back and forth between data collection and analysis, revising and improving the approach where necessary. One example of this are pilot interviews, where different aspects of the interview (especially the interview guide, but also, for example, the site of the interview or whether the interview can be audio-recorded) are tested with a small number of respondents, evaluated and revised [ 19 ]. In doing so, the interviewer learns which wording or types of questions work best, or which is the best length of an interview with patients who have trouble concentrating for an extended time. Of course, the same reasoning applies to observations or focus groups which can also be piloted.

Ideally, coding should be performed by at least two researchers, especially at the beginning of the coding process when a common approach must be defined, including the establishment of a useful coding list (or tree), and when a common meaning of individual codes must be established [ 23 ]. An initial sub-set or all transcripts can be coded independently by the coders and then compared and consolidated after regular discussions in the research team. This is to make sure that codes are applied consistently to the research data.

Member checking

Member checking, also called respondent validation , refers to the practice of checking back with study respondents to see if the research is in line with their views [ 14 , 27 ]. This can happen after data collection or analysis or when first results are available [ 23 ]. For example, interviewees can be provided with (summaries of) their transcripts and asked whether they believe this to be a complete representation of their views or whether they would like to clarify or elaborate on their responses [ 17 ]. Respondents’ feedback on these issues then becomes part of the data collection and analysis [ 27 ].

Stakeholder involvement

In those niches where qualitative approaches have been able to evolve and grow, a new trend has seen the inclusion of patients and their representatives not only as study participants (i.e. “members”, see above) but as consultants to and active participants in the broader research process [ 31 – 33 ]. The underlying assumption is that patients and other stakeholders hold unique perspectives and experiences that add value beyond their own single story, making the research more relevant and beneficial to researchers, study participants and (future) patients alike [ 34 , 35 ]. Using the example of patients on or nearing dialysis, a recent scoping review found that 80% of clinical research did not address the top 10 research priorities identified by patients and caregivers [ 32 , 36 ]. In this sense, the involvement of the relevant stakeholders, especially patients and relatives, is increasingly being seen as a quality indicator in and of itself.

How not to assess qualitative research

The above overview does not include certain items that are routine in assessments of quantitative research. What follows is a non-exhaustive, non-representative, experience-based list of the quantitative criteria often applied to the assessment of qualitative research, as well as an explanation of the limited usefulness of these endeavours.

Protocol adherence

Given the openness and flexibility of qualitative research, it should not be assessed by how well it adheres to pre-determined and fixed strategies – in other words: its rigidity. Instead, the assessor should look for signs of adaptation and refinement based on lessons learned from earlier steps in the research process.

Sample size

For the reasons explained above, qualitative research does not require specific sample sizes, nor does it require that the sample size be determined a priori [ 1 , 14 , 27 , 37 – 39 ]. Sample size can only be a useful quality indicator when related to the research purpose, the chosen methodology and the composition of the sample, i.e. who was included and why.


While some authors argue that randomisation can be used in qualitative research, this is not commonly the case, as neither its feasibility nor its necessity or usefulness has been convincingly established for qualitative research [ 13 , 27 ]. Relevant disadvantages include the negative impact of a too large sample size as well as the possibility (or probability) of selecting “ quiet, uncooperative or inarticulate individuals ” [ 17 ]. Qualitative studies do not use control groups, either.

Interrater reliability, variability and other “objectivity checks”

The concept of “interrater reliability” is sometimes used in qualitative research to assess to which extent the coding approach overlaps between the two co-coders. However, it is not clear what this measure tells us about the quality of the analysis [ 23 ]. This means that these scores can be included in qualitative research reports, preferably with some additional information on what the score means for the analysis, but it is not a requirement. Relatedly, it is not relevant for the quality or “objectivity” of qualitative research to separate those who recruited the study participants and collected and analysed the data. Experiences even show that it might be better to have the same person or team perform all of these tasks [ 20 ]. First, when researchers introduce themselves during recruitment this can enhance trust when the interview takes place days or weeks later with the same researcher. Second, when the audio-recording is transcribed for analysis, the researcher conducting the interviews will usually remember the interviewee and the specific interview situation during data analysis. This might be helpful in providing additional context information for interpretation of data, e.g. on whether something might have been meant as a joke [ 18 ].

Not being quantitative research

Being qualitative research instead of quantitative research should not be used as an assessment criterion if it is used irrespectively of the research problem at hand. Similarly, qualitative research should not be required to be combined with quantitative research per se – unless mixed methods research is judged as inherently better than single-method research. In this case, the same criterion should be applied for quantitative studies without a qualitative component.

The main take-away points of this paper are summarised in Table ​ Table1. 1 . We aimed to show that, if conducted well, qualitative research can answer specific research questions that cannot to be adequately answered using (only) quantitative designs. Seeing qualitative and quantitative methods as equal will help us become more aware and critical of the “fit” between the research problem and our chosen methods: I can conduct an RCT to determine the reasons for transportation delays of acute stroke patients – but should I? It also provides us with a greater range of tools to tackle a greater range of research problems more appropriately and successfully, filling in the blind spots on one half of the methodological spectrum to better address the whole complexity of neurological research and practice.



Abbreviations, authors’ contributions.

LB drafted the manuscript; WW and CG revised the manuscript; all authors approved the final versions.

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  • Research Process

Choosing the Right Research Methodology: A Guide for Researchers

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Table of Contents

Choosing an optimal research methodology is crucial for the success of any research project. The methodology you select will determine the type of data you collect, how you collect it, and how you analyse it. Understanding the different types of research methods available along with their strengths and weaknesses, is thus imperative to make an informed decision.

Understanding different research methods:

There are several research methods available depending on the type of study you are conducting, i.e., whether it is laboratory-based, clinical, epidemiological, or survey based . Some common methodologies include qualitative research, quantitative research, experimental research, survey-based research, and action research. Each method can be opted for and modified, depending on the type of research hypotheses and objectives.

Qualitative vs quantitative research:

When deciding on a research methodology, one of the key factors to consider is whether your research will be qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative research is used to understand people’s experiences, concepts, thoughts, or behaviours . Quantitative research, on the contrary, deals with numbers, graphs, and charts, and is used to test or confirm hypotheses, assumptions, and theories. 

Qualitative research methodology:

Qualitative research is often used to examine issues that are not well understood, and to gather additional insights on these topics. Qualitative research methods include open-ended survey questions, observations of behaviours described through words, and reviews of literature that has explored similar theories and ideas. These methods are used to understand how language is used in real-world situations, identify common themes or overarching ideas, and describe and interpret various texts. Data analysis for qualitative research typically includes discourse analysis, thematic analysis, and textual analysis. 

Quantitative research methodology:

The goal of quantitative research is to test hypotheses, confirm assumptions and theories, and determine cause-and-effect relationships. Quantitative research methods include experiments, close-ended survey questions, and countable and numbered observations. Data analysis for quantitative research relies heavily on statistical methods.

Analysing qualitative vs quantitative data:

The methods used for data analysis also differ for qualitative and quantitative research. As mentioned earlier, quantitative data is generally analysed using statistical methods and does not leave much room for speculation. It is more structured and follows a predetermined plan. In quantitative research, the researcher starts with a hypothesis and uses statistical methods to test it. Contrarily, methods used for qualitative data analysis can identify patterns and themes within the data, rather than provide statistical measures of the data. It is an iterative process, where the researcher goes back and forth trying to gauge the larger implications of the data through different perspectives and revising the analysis if required.

When to use qualitative vs quantitative research:

The choice between qualitative and quantitative research will depend on the gap that the research project aims to address, and specific objectives of the study. If the goal is to establish facts about a subject or topic, quantitative research is an appropriate choice. However, if the goal is to understand people’s experiences or perspectives, qualitative research may be more suitable. 


In conclusion, an understanding of the different research methods available, their applicability, advantages, and disadvantages is essential for making an informed decision on the best methodology for your project. If you need any additional guidance on which research methodology to opt for, you can head over to Elsevier Author Services (EAS). EAS experts will guide you throughout the process and help you choose the perfect methodology for your research goals.

Why is data validation important in research

Why is data validation important in research?


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Scholarly Sources What are They and Where can You Find Them

Scholarly Sources: What are They and Where can You Find Them?

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Methodology sources.

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Harvard Library abounds with resources to inform your research methodology, no matter the field of study. The following list includes some of the most popular publications across a range of disciplines. To find others, try searching  HOLLIS  for your topic and the subject term  research methodology.

  • Analytical Techniques in Biosciences: From Basics to Applications Edited by Chukwuebuka Egbuna, this text presents comprehensive and up-to-date information on the various analytical techniques obtainable in bioscience research laboratories across the world.  
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Qualitative Research: After the Interview Covering all the steps in the process of analyzing, interpreting, and presenting findings in qualitative research, authors Charles Vanover, Paul Mihas, and Johnny Saldaña utilize a consistent chapter structure that provides novice and seasoned researchers with pragmatic, "how-to" strategies. Each chapter introduces the method; uses one of the authors' own research projects as a case study of the method described; shows how the specific analytic method can be used in other types of studies; and concludes with questions and activities to prompt class discussion or personal study.
  • Library Support for Qualitative Research A guide built by Harvard Librarians for qualitative researchers. It recommends helpful resources and provides opportunities to seek out assistance and support from members of the library's Qualitative Research Support Group.
  • Qualitative Dissertation Methodology: A Guide for Research Design and Methods This book by Nathan Durdella breaks down producing the dissertation methods chapter into smaller pieces and goes through each portion of the methodology process step by step. With a warm and supportive tone, he walks students through the process from the very start, from choosing chairs and developing qualitative support networks to outlining the qualitative chapter and delving into the writing.
  • Research Methods for the Biosciences Debbie Holmes demystifies the process of research and describes all the factors that enable effective investigation. These include planning your experiment; data collection, analysis, interpretation, and reporting; and legal, ethical, and health & safety considerations
  • SAGE researchmethods SAGE Research Methods is a tool created to help researchers, faculty and students with their research projects. Users can explore methods concepts to help them design research projects, understand particular methods or identify a new method, conduct their research, and write up their findings. Since SAGE Research Methods focuses on methodology rather than disciplines, it can be used across the social sciences, health sciences, and other areas of research.  PRO TIP:  Mine this tool thoroughly whenever you're uncertain about the best methodological approach. A "methods map" facilitates finding content.
  • Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework This one-volume introduction to social science methodology by John Gerring is relevant to the disciplines of anthropology, economics, history, political science, psychology and sociology. It includes a thorough treatment of essential elements such as conceptualization, measurement, causality and research design. Written for students, long-time practitioners and methodologists,  it covers both qualitative and quantitative methods.
  • A Tale of Two Cultures : Qualitative and Quantitative Research in the Social Sciences Some in the social sciences argue that the same logic applies to both qualitative and quantitative methods. In this text, Gary Goertz and James Mahoney demonstrate that these two paradigms constitute different cultures, each internally coherent yet marked by contrasting norms, practices, and toolkits. They identify and discuss major differences between these two traditions that touch nearly every aspect of social science research, including design, goals, causal effects and models, concepts and measurement, data analysis, and case selection.
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How to Write a Capstone Paper

March 21, 2024

Embarking on the journey to write a capstone paper can be a pinnacle achievement for students nearing the end of their academic programs. This comprehensive project showcases your cumulative knowledge and skills and prepares you for future scholarly or professional pursuits. In this guide, we will navigate the essential steps and strategies to craft a compelling capstone paper, from selecting a topic to formatting and citations. We aim to equip you with the knowledge to produce a well-researched and thoughtfully written paper that meets the highest standards of academic excellence.

What is a Capstone Paper?

A capstone paper is a multifaceted assignment that serves as a culminating academic and intellectual experience for students. Unlike a standard research paper, a capstone paper involves identifying a unique problem, issue, or question in your field and conducting thorough research to address it. This process includes synthesizing theory and practice, applying critical thinking, and engaging in extensive analysis to contribute meaningful insights to the subject area. Understanding the purpose and scope of a capstone paper is crucial as you embark on this academic endeavor.

A capstone paper demands high dedication and intellectual rigor, as it requires you to explore a specific topic comprehensively and reflect on its broader implications within your field. The structure and content of a capstone paper vary significantly by discipline. Still, its core aim remains constant: to push you to think critically, conduct independent research, and articulate your findings coherently and persuasively. This comprehensive project encourages you to identify and tackle complex problems, propose innovative solutions, and contribute new perspectives or findings to your study area. Through this process, a capstone paper facilitates the transition from student to scholar, providing a platform to refine and demonstrate your research, analytical, and writing skills in preparation for future academic or professional pursuits.

Choosing a Topic and Formulating a Research Question

Selecting an engaging and viable topic is the first step in writing a capstone paper. Your topic should spark your interest and have sufficient depth and complexity to warrant extensive research. Begin by exploring current trends, issues, and gaps in your field. Once you’ve identified a potential area, narrow your focus to a specific research question. This question should be clear, concise, and answerable within the scope of your capstone project.

After determining your broad area of interest, delve deeper into the literature to refine your topic further. Engage with recent studies, expert opinions, and theoretical frameworks to understand the nuances of your chosen field. This preliminary research will help you identify a gap or a unique perspective that your capstone paper could explore. Consider discussing your ideas with faculty members, mentors, or peers to get feedback and additional insights.

Your research question should reflect a gap in the existing literature and align with your academic and professional interests, motivating you to write a capstone paper and pursue the research diligently. It’s also essential to consider the feasibility of your research question – can it be researched within the time and resources available to you? Once you have a solid research question, it becomes the foundation upon which your entire capstone paper is built, guiding your research, analysis, and conclusions.

Conducting Initial Research and Gathering Resources

Initial research is pivotal for grounding your capstone paper in a strong knowledge base. Start by gathering scholarly articles, books, and credible online resources related to your topic. This phase is about building a foundation, understanding the current discourse, and identifying where your research can contribute new insights. Organize your findings systematically to facilitate easy access and reference throughout the writing process.

Utilize academic databases such as Google Scholar to locate peer-reviewed articles that provide depth and authority to your research. Online and physical libraries are invaluable for accessing books and journals that may not be freely available online. Additionally, consider exploring specialized databases related to your field for more targeted resources. Keeping detailed notes on your sources, including authors, titles, publication dates, and key findings, will help you cite these sources accurately and synthesize the existing literature with your original research. To manage this wealth of information, software tools can be incredibly useful for organizing your references and creating a personal library of research materials. This initial phase of research is crucial for framing your project, ensuring that you’re not duplicating existing work, and setting a direction for your capstone paper that is both innovative and grounded in academic rigor.

Creating an Outline

An outline is your roadmap, providing a structured framework for your capstone paper. It should include:

  • Introduction: Introduce your study’s topic, research question, and significance.
  • Background Information: Offer context and key concepts related to your research.
  • Methodology: Describe your research design and approach to data collection and analysis.
  • Findings: Present the data or insights gathered through your research.
  • Analysis and Discussion: Interpret your findings, discussing their implications and how they contribute to the field.
  • Conclusions and Recommendations: Summarize your research and suggest practical or theoretical implications.

Your outline serves as a blueprint, ensuring your capstone paper is coherent, logically organized, and comprehensive. Start with a broad overview in the introduction, setting the stage for your research by highlighting its importance and the gap it seeks to fill. The background section should delve deeper into the literature, providing a solid academic foundation and justifying your research question.

To write a capstone paper, in the methodology section, detail your data collection and analysis strategies, offering transparency and allowing readers to gauge the reliability of your findings. This section should be precise, explaining the choices you made and how they align with your research objectives.

Plan to present your results clearly and systematically when outlining the findings section. Depending on your research, this may include quantitative data, qualitative insights, or a combination of both. Charts, graphs, and tables can effectively illustrate your points.

In the analysis and discussion segment, you interpret your data, drawing connections between your findings and existing knowledge. Discuss the significance of your results and how they impact the understanding of your research question.

Finally, your conclusions and recommendations should wrap up your research and propose directions for future study or practical applications of your findings. This section reinforces the value of your work and its contribution to the field.

By carefully structuring your outline, you ensure each section flows into the next, creating a cohesive and persuasive capstone paper that addresses your research question thoroughly and convincingly.

Writing the Introduction and Background Information

Begin your introduction with a compelling statement or question that captures the reader’s attention, drawing them into the importance of your research topic. Clearly state your research question and briefly outline the objectives of your study, making it clear why this research is both necessary and timely. Highlight any unique aspects of your study and its potential contributions to the field.

The background information should build on the groundwork laid by your introduction, delving deeper into the existing literature and theoretical frameworks relevant to your topic. This section is where you map out the academic terrain, showing how your research fits within and responds to ongoing debates or gaps in the field. It should provide a comprehensive overview of the key studies and theories that have shaped your research area, offering insights into the evolution of thought and identifying where your work will make its mark.

The introduction and background sections should inform and intrigue, creating a narrative that makes your capstone paper a compelling addition to the scholarly conversation. This is your opportunity to argue the value of your research and to persuade your readers that what follows is worth their attention.

Developing a Clear and Concise Methodology

The methodology section should detail the procedures and techniques for gathering and analyzing data. Be precise and transparent in your description to write a capstone paper, allowing readers to understand how you arrived at your findings.

In developing your methodology, start by outlining the research design, whether it be experimental, correlational, qualitative, quantitative, or a mixed-methods approach. Clarify your rationale for choosing this design, linking it to the research question and objectives. Describe the setting and context of your study, the population and sample selection, and the criteria for inclusion or exclusion. It’s essential to detail the data collection methods, such as surveys, interviews, observations, or archival research, and justify these choices based on their suitability for addressing your research questions.

Moreover, explain the procedures for data collection in a step-by-step manner, ensuring that your study can be replicated. This includes discussing instruments or tools employed, such as questionnaires or software, and their validity and reliability.

Analyzing and Interpreting Your Findings

In analyzing and interpreting your findings, it’s crucial to approach your data with a critical eye, evaluating its implications within the context of your research question and the wider body of academic literature. Begin by summarizing the key results, then examine what these results mean in relation to your study’s objectives. Use your analytical framework to dissect the data, identifying how it supports, contradicts, or expands upon existing theories and research.

Quantitative studies may involve statistical analysis, highlighting significant correlations or differences and discussing their relevance. For qualitative research, thematic analysis or narrative interpretations will be key, focusing on how the themes you’ve identified contribute to understanding the research problem.

Drawing Conclusions and Making Recommendations

Drawing conclusions and making recommendations are critical aspects of any research project, and they play a pivotal role in the final stages of your capstone paper. To effectively conclude your paper, it is essential to summarize your findings and discuss their broader implications concisely. By doing so, you can offer your readers a clear understanding of the significance of your research and how it contributes to the existing body of knowledge in your field.

In addition to summarizing your findings, reflecting on the methodologies and approaches used in your study is crucial. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of your research design and data analysis methods. Address any unexpected challenges or limitations encountered during the research process, as this transparency can help guide future researchers in similar endeavors.

Formatting and Citations

Formatting and citations are essential to academic writing, demonstrating your commitment to scholarly integrity and precision. Choosing the correct academic style guide, whether it’s APA, MLA, Chicago, or any other specified by your program, is crucial to write a capstone paper and maintaining consistency and uniformity throughout your paper. By following the prescribed guidelines, you ensure that your document is visually cohesive and provides proper credit to your consulted sources.

Accurate and complete citations are paramount in academia. Each citation should include all necessary information for readers to locate the source you referenced. This typically includes the author(s)’ names, publication date, title, and publication information. Double-check your citations against the guidelines of your chosen style, and pay close attention to the punctuation, formatting, and capitalization rules to ensure correctness.

Writing a capstone paper is a significant academic endeavor that requires dedication, thorough research, and critical analysis. By following this guide, you’ll be well-equipped to produce a paper that fulfills academic requirements and contributes valuable insights to your field. Remember, a successful capstone paper is the result of strategic planning, meticulous research, and thoughtful writing. Embrace this opportunity to showcase your academic prowess and make a meaningful contribution to your discipline.

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  • Open access
  • Published: 19 March 2024

TacticAI: an AI assistant for football tactics

  • Zhe Wang   ORCID: 1   na1 ,
  • Petar Veličković   ORCID: 1   na1 ,
  • Daniel Hennes   ORCID: 1   na1 ,
  • Nenad Tomašev   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Laurel Prince 1 ,
  • Michael Kaisers 1 ,
  • Yoram Bachrach 1 ,
  • Romuald Elie 1 ,
  • Li Kevin Wenliang 1 ,
  • Federico Piccinini 1 ,
  • William Spearman 2 ,
  • Ian Graham 3 ,
  • Jerome Connor 1 ,
  • Yi Yang 1 ,
  • Adrià Recasens 1 ,
  • Mina Khan 1 ,
  • Nathalie Beauguerlange 1 ,
  • Pablo Sprechmann 1 ,
  • Pol Moreno 1 ,
  • Nicolas Heess   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Michael Bowling   ORCID: 4 ,
  • Demis Hassabis 1 &
  • Karl Tuyls   ORCID: 5  

Nature Communications volume  15 , Article number:  1906 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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  • Computational science
  • Information technology

Identifying key patterns of tactics implemented by rival teams, and developing effective responses, lies at the heart of modern football. However, doing so algorithmically remains an open research challenge. To address this unmet need, we propose TacticAI, an AI football tactics assistant developed and evaluated in close collaboration with domain experts from Liverpool FC. We focus on analysing corner kicks, as they offer coaches the most direct opportunities for interventions and improvements. TacticAI incorporates both a predictive and a generative component, allowing the coaches to effectively sample and explore alternative player setups for each corner kick routine and to select those with the highest predicted likelihood of success. We validate TacticAI on a number of relevant benchmark tasks: predicting receivers and shot attempts and recommending player position adjustments. The utility of TacticAI is validated by a qualitative study conducted with football domain experts at Liverpool FC. We show that TacticAI’s model suggestions are not only indistinguishable from real tactics, but also favoured over existing tactics 90% of the time, and that TacticAI offers an effective corner kick retrieval system. TacticAI achieves these results despite the limited availability of gold-standard data, achieving data efficiency through geometric deep learning.

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Association football, or simply football or soccer, is a widely popular and highly professionalised sport, in which two teams compete to score goals against each other. As each football team comprises up to 11 active players at all times and takes place on a very large pitch (also known as a soccer field), scoring goals tends to require a significant degree of strategic team-play. Under the rules codified in the Laws of the Game 1 , this competition has nurtured an evolution of nuanced strategies and tactics, culminating in modern professional football leagues. In today’s play, data-driven insights are a key driver in determining the optimal player setups for each game and developing counter-tactics to maximise the chances of success 2 .

When competing at the highest level the margins are incredibly tight, and it is increasingly important to be able to capitalise on any opportunity for creating an advantage on the pitch. To that end, top-tier clubs employ diverse teams of coaches, analysts and experts, tasked with studying and devising (counter-)tactics before each game. Several recent methods attempt to improve tactical coaching and player decision-making through artificial intelligence (AI) tools, using a wide variety of data types from videos to tracking sensors and applying diverse algorithms ranging from simple logistic regression to elaborate neural network architectures. Such methods have been employed to help predict shot events from videos 3 , forecast off-screen movement from spatio-temporal data 4 , determine whether a match is in-play or interrupted 5 , or identify player actions 6 .

The execution of agreed-upon plans by players on the pitch is highly dynamic and imperfect, depending on numerous factors including player fitness and fatigue, variations in player movement and positioning, weather, the state of the pitch, and the reaction of the opposing team. In contrast, set pieces provide an opportunity to exert more control on the outcome, as the brief interruption in play allows the players to reposition according to one of the practiced and pre-agreed patterns, and make a deliberate attempt towards the goal. Examples of such set pieces include free kicks, corner kicks, goal kicks, throw-ins, and penalties 2 .

Among set pieces, corner kicks are of particular importance, as an improvement in corner kick execution may substantially modify game outcomes, and they lend themselves to principled, tactical and detailed analysis. This is because corner kicks tend to occur frequently in football matches (with ~10 corners on average taking place in each match 7 ), they are taken from a fixed, rigid position, and they offer an immediate opportunity for scoring a goal—no other set piece simultaneously satisfies all of the above. In practice, corner kick routines are determined well ahead of each match, taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team and their typical tactical deployment. It is for this reason that we focus on corner kick analysis in particular, and propose TacticAI, an AI football assistant for supporting the human expert with set piece analysis, and the development and improvement of corner kick routines.

TacticAI is rooted in learning efficient representations of corner kick tactics from raw, spatio-temporal player tracking data. It makes efficient use of this data by representing each corner kick situation as a graph—a natural representation for modelling relationships between players (Fig.  1 A, Table  2 ), and these player relationships may be of higher importance than the absolute distances between them on the pitch 8 . Such a graph input is a natural candidate for graph machine learning models 9 , which we employ within TacticAI to obtain high-dimensional latent player representations. In the Supplementary Discussion section, we carefully contrast TacticAI against prior art in the area.

figure 1

A How corner kick situations are converted to a graph representation. Each player is treated as a node in a graph, with node, edge and graph features extracted as detailed in the main text. Then, a graph neural network operates over this graph by performing message passing; each node’s representation is updated using the messages sent to it from its neighbouring nodes. B How TacticAI processes a given corner kick. To ensure that TacticAI’s answers are robust in the face of horizontal or vertical reflections, all possible combinations of reflections are applied to the input corner, and these four views are then fed to the core TacticAI model, where they are able to interact with each other to compute the final player representations—each internal blue arrow corresponds to a single message passing layer from ( A ). Once player representations are computed, they can be used to predict the corner’s receiver, whether a shot has been taken, as well as assistive adjustments to player positions and velocities, which increase or decrease the probability of a shot being taken.

Uniquely, TacticAI takes advantage of geometric deep learning 10 to explicitly produce player representations that respect several symmetries of the football pitch (Fig.  1 B). As an illustrative example, we can usually safely assume that under a horizontal or vertical reflection of the pitch state, the game situation is equivalent. Geometric deep learning ensures that TacticAI’s player representations will be identically computed under such reflections, such that this symmetry does not have to be learnt from data. This proves to be a valuable addition, as high-quality tracking data is often limited—with only a few hundred matches played each year in every league. We provide an in-depth overview of how we employ geometric deep learning in TacticAI in the “Methods” section.

From these representations, TacticAI is then able to answer various predictive questions about the outcomes of a corner—for example, which player is most likely to make first contact with the ball, or whether a shot will take place. TacticAI can also be used as a retrieval system—for mining similar corner kick situations based on the similarity of player representations—and a generative recommendation system, suggesting adjustments to player positions and velocities to maximise or minimise the estimated shot probability. Through several experiments within a case study with domain expert coaches and analysts from Liverpool FC, the results of which we present in the next section, we obtain clear statistical evidence that TacticAI readily provides useful, realistic and accurate tactical suggestions.

To demonstrate the diverse qualities of our approach, we design TacticAI with three distinct predictive and generative components: receiver prediction, shot prediction, and tactic recommendation through guided generation, which also correspond to the benchmark tasks for quantitatively evaluating TacticAI. In addition to providing accurate quantitative insights for corner kick analysis with its predictive components, the interplay between TacticAI’s predictive and generative components allows coaches to sample alternative player setups for each routine of interest, and directly evaluate the possible outcomes of such alternatives.

We will first describe our quantitative analysis, which demonstrates that TacticAI’s predictive components are accurate at predicting corner kick receivers and shot situations on held-out test corners and that the proposed player adjustments do not strongly deviate from ground-truth situations. However, such an analysis only gives an indirect insight into how useful TacticAI would be once deployed. We tackle this question of utility head-on and conduct a comprehensive case study in collaboration with our partners at Liverpool FC—where we directly ask human expert raters to judge the utility of TacticAI’s predictions and player adjustments. The following sections expand on the specific results and analysis we have performed.

In what follows, we will describe TacticAI’s components at a minimal level necessary to understand our evaluation. We defer detailed descriptions of TacticAI’s components to the “Methods” section. Note that, all our error bars reported in this research are standard deviations.

Benchmarking TacticAI

We evaluate the three components of TacticAI on a relevant benchmark dataset of corner kicks. Our dataset consists of 7176 corner kicks from the 2020 to 2021 Premier League seasons, which we randomly shuffle and split into a training (80%) and a test set (20%). As previously mentioned, TacticAI operates on graphs. Accordingly, we represent each corner kick situation as a graph, where each node corresponds to a player. The features associated with each node encode the movements (velocities and positions) and simple profiles (heights and weights) of on-pitch players at the timestamp when the corresponding corner kick was being taken by the attacking kicker (see the “Methods” section), and no information of ball movement was encoded. The graphs are fully connected; that is, for every pair of players, we will include the edge connecting them in the graph. Each of these edges encodes a binary feature, indicating whether the two players are on opposing teams or not. For each task, we generated the relevant dataset of node/edge/graph features and corresponding labels (Tables  1 and 2 , see the “Methods” section). The components were then trained separately with their corresponding corner kick graphs. In particular, we only employ a minimal set of features to construct the corner kick graphs, without encoding the movements of the ball nor explicitly encoding the distances between players into the graphs. We used a consistent training-test split for all benchmark tasks, as this made it possible to benchmark not only the individual components but also their interactions.

Accurate receiver and shot prediction through geometric deep learning

One of TacticAI’s key predictive models forecasts the receiver out of the 22 on-pitch players. The receiver is defined as the first player touching the ball after the corner is taken. In our evaluation, all methods used the same set of features (see the “Receiver prediction” entry in Table  1 and the “Methods” section). We leveraged the receiver prediction task to benchmark several different TacticAI base models. Our best-performing model—achieving 0.782 ± 0.039 in top-3 test accuracy after 50,000 training steps—was a deep graph attention network 11 , 12 , leveraging geometric deep learning 10 through the use of D 2 group convolutions 13 . We supplement this result with a detailed ablation study, verifying that both our choice of base architecture and group convolution yielded significant improvements in the receiver prediction task (Supplementary Table  2 , see the subsection “Ablation study” in the “Methods” section). Considering that corner kick receiver prediction is a highly challenging task with many factors that are unseen by our model—including fatigue and fitness levels, and actual ball trajectory—we consider TacticAI’s top-3 accuracy to reflect a high level of predictive power, and keep the base TacticAI architecture fixed for subsequent studies. In addition to this quantitative evaluation with the evaluation dataset, we also evaluate the performance of TacticAI’s receiver prediction component in a case study with human raters. Please see the “Case study with expert raters” section for more details.

For shot prediction, we observe that reusing the base TacticAI architecture to directly predict shot events—i.e., directly modelling the probability \({\mathbb{P}}(\,{{\mbox{shot}}}| {{\mbox{corner}}}\,)\) —proved challenging, only yielding a test F 1 score of 0.52 ± 0.03, for a GATv2 base model. Note that here we use the F 1 score—the harmonic mean of precision and recall—as it is commonly used in binary classification problems over imbalanced datasets, such as shot prediction. However, given that we already have a potent receiver predictor, we decided to use its output to give us additional insight into whether or not a shot had been taken. Hence, we opted to decompose the probability of taking a shot as

where \({\mathbb{P}}(\,{{\mbox{receiver}}}| {{\mbox{corner}}}\,)\) are the probabilities computed by TacticAI’s receiver prediction system, and \({\mathbb{P}}(\,{{\mbox{shot}}}| {{\mbox{receiver}}},{{\mbox{corner}}}\,)\) models the conditional shot probability after a specific player makes first contact with the ball. This was implemented through providing an additional global feature to indicate the receiver in the corresponding corner kick (Table  1 ) while the architecture otherwise remained the same as that of receiver prediction (Supplementary Fig.  2 , see the “Methods” section). At training time, we feed the ground-truth receiver as input to the model—at inference time, we attempt every possible receiver, weighing their contributions using the probabilities given by TacticAI’s receiver predictor, as per Eq. ( 1 ). This two-phased approach yielded a final test F 1 score of 0.68 ± 0.04 for shot prediction, which encodes significantly more signal than the unconditional shot predictor, especially considering the many unobservables associated with predicting shot events. Just as for receiver prediction, this performance can be further improved using geometric deep learning; a conditional GATv2 shot predictor with D 2 group convolutions achieves an F 1 score of 0.71 ± 0.01.

Moreover, we also observe that, even just through predicting the receivers, without explicitly classifying any other salient features of corners, TacticAI learned generalisable representations of the data. Specifically, team setups with similar tactical patterns tend to cluster together in TacticAI’s latent space (Fig.  2 ). However, no clear clusters are observed in the raw input space (Supplementary Fig.  1 ). This indicates that TacticAI can be leveraged as a useful corner kick retrieval system, and we will present our evaluation of this hypothesis in the “Case study with expert raters” section.

figure 2

We visualise the latent representations of attacking and defending teams in 1024 corner kicks using t -SNE. A latent team embedding in one corner kick sample is the mean of the latent player representations on the same attacking ( A – C ) or defending ( D ) team. Given the reference corner kick sample ( A ), we retrieve another corner kick sample ( B ) with respect to the closest distance of their representations in the latent space. We observe that ( A ) and ( B ) are both out-swing corner kicks and share similar patterns of their attacking tactics, which are highlighted with rectangles having the same colours, although they bear differences with respect to the absolute positions and velocities of the players. All the while, the latent representation of an in-swing attack ( C ) is distant from both ( A ) and ( B ) in the latent space. The red arrows are only used to demonstrate the difference between in- and out-swing corner kicks, not the actual ball trajectories.

Lastly, it is worth emphasising that the utility of the shot predictor likely does not come from forecasting whether a shot event will occur—a challenging problem with many imponderables—but from analysing the difference in predicted shot probability across multiple corners. Indeed, in the following section, we will show how TacticAI’s generative tactic refinements can directly influence the predicted shot probabilities, which will then corresponds to highly favourable evaluation by our expert raters in the “Case study with expert raters” section.

Controlled tactic refinement using class-conditional generative models

Equipped with components that are able to potently relate corner kicks with their various outcomes (e.g. receivers and shot events), we can explore the use of TacticAI to suggest adjustments of tactics, in order to amplify or reduce the likelihood of certain outcomes.

Specifically, we aim to produce adjustments to the movements of players on one of the two teams, including their positions and velocities, which would maximise or minimise the probability of a shot event, conditioned on the initial corner setup, consisting of the movements of players on both teams and their heights and weights. In particular, although in real-world scenarios both teams may react simultaneously to the movements of each other, in our study, we focus on moderate adjustments to player movements, which help to detect players that are not responding to a tactic properly. Due to this reason, we simplify the process of tactic refinement through generating the adjustments for only one team while keeping the other fixed. The way we train a model for this task is through an auto-encoding objective: we feed the ground-truth shot outcome (a binary indicator) as an additional graph-level feature to TacticAI’s model (Table  1 ), and then have it learn to reconstruct a probability distribution of the input player coordinates (Fig.  1 B, also see the “Methods” section). As a consequence, our tactic adjustment system does not depend on the previously discussed shot predictor—although we can use the shot predictor to evaluate whether the adjustments make a measurable difference in shot probability.

This autoencoder-based generative model is an individual component that separates from TacticAI’s predictive systems. All three systems share the encoder architecture (without sharing parameters), but use different decoders (see the “Methods” section). At inference time, we can instead feed in a desired shot outcome for the given corner setup, and then sample new positions and velocities for players on one team using this probability distribution. This setup, in principle, allows for flexible downstream use, as human coaches can optimise corner kick setups through generating adjustments conditioned on the specific outcomes of their interest—e.g., increasing shot probability for the attacking team, decreasing it for the defending team (Fig.  3 ) or amplifying the chance that a particular striker receives the ball.

figure 3

TacticAI makes it possible for human coaches to redesign corner kick tactics in ways that help maximise the probability of a positive outcome for either the attacking or the defending team by identifying key players, as well as by providing temporally coordinated tactic recommendations that take all players into consideration. As demonstrated in the present example ( A ), for a corner kick in which there was a shot attempt in reality ( B ), TacticAI can generate a tactically-adjusted setting in which the shot probability has been reduced, by adjusting the positioning of the defenders ( D ). The suggested defender positions result in reduced receiver probability for attacking players 2–5 (see bottom row), while the receiver probability of Attacker 1, who is distant from the goalpost, has been increased ( C ). The model is capable of generating multiple such scenarios. Coaches can inspect the different options visually and additionally consult TacticAI’s quantitative analysis of the presented tactics.

We first evaluate the generated adjustments quantitatively, by verifying that they are indistinguishable from the original corner kick distribution using a classifier. To do this, we synthesised a dataset consisting of 200 corner kick samples and their corresponding conditionally generated adjustments. Specifically, for corners without a shot event, we generated adjustments for the attacking team by setting the shot event feature to 1, and vice-versa for the defending team when a shot event did happen. We found that the real and generated samples were not distinguishable by an MLP classifier, with an F 1 score of 0.53 ± 0.05, indicating random chance level accuracy. This result indicates that the adjustments produced by TacticAI are likely similar enough to real corner kicks that the MLP is unable to tell them apart. Note that, in spite of this similarity, TacticAI recommends player-level adjustments that are not negligible—in the following section we will illustrate several salient examples of this. To more realistically validate the practical indistinguishability of TacticAI’s adjustments from realistic corners, we also evaluated the realism of the adjustments in a case study with human experts, which we will present in the following section.

In addition, we leveraged our TacticAI shot predictor to estimate whether the proposed adjustments were effective. We did this by analysing 100 corner kick samples in which threatening shots occurred, and then, for each sample, generated one defensive refinement through setting the shot event feature to 0. We observed that the average shot probability significantly decreased, from 0.75 ± 0.14 for ground-truth corners to 0.69 ± 0.16 for adjustments ( z  = 2.62,  p  < 0.001). This observation was consistent when testing for attacking team refinements (shot probability increased from 0.18 ± 0.16 to 0.31 ± 0.26 ( z  = −4.46,  p  < 0.001)). Moving beyond this result, we also asked human raters to assess the utility of TacticAI’s proposed adjustments within our case study, which we detail next.

Case study with expert raters

Although quantitative evaluation with well-defined benchmark datasets was critical for the technical development of TacticAI, the ultimate test of TacticAI as a football tactic assistant is its practical downstream utility being recognised by professionals in the industry. To this end, we evaluated TacticAI through a case study with our partners at Liverpool FC (LFC). Specifically, we invited a group of five football experts: three data scientists, one video analyst, and one coaching assistant. Each of them completed four tasks in the case study, which evaluated the utility of TacticAI’s components from several perspectives; these include (1) the realism of TacticAI’s generated adjustments, (2) the plausibility of TacticAI’s receiver predictions, (3) effectiveness of TacticAI’s embeddings for retrieving similar corners, and (4) usefulness of TacticAI’s recommended adjustments. We provide an overview of our study’s results here and refer the interested reader to Supplementary Figs.  3 – 5 and the  Supplementary Methods for additional details.

We first simultaneously evaluated the realism of the adjusted corner kicks generated by TacticAI, and the plausibility of its receiver predictions. Going through a collection of 50 corner kick samples, we first asked the raters to classify whether a given sample was real or generated by TacticAI, and then they were asked to identify the most likely receivers in the corner kick sample (Supplementary Fig.  3 ).

On the task of classifying real and generated samples, first, we found that the raters’ average F 1 score of classifying the real vs. generated samples was only 0.60 ± 0.04, with individual F 1 scores ( \({F}_{1}^{A}=0.54,{F}_{1}^{B}=0.64,{F}_{1}^{C}=0.65,{F}_{1}^{D}=0.62,{F}_{1}^{E}=0.56\) ), indicating that the raters were, in many situations, unable to distinguish TacticAI’s adjustments from real corners.

The previous evaluation focused on analysing realism detection performance across raters. We also conduct a study that analyses realism detection across samples. Specifically, we assigned ratings for each sample—assigning +1 to a sample if it was identified as real by a human rater, and 0 otherwise—and computed the average rating for each sample across the five raters. Importantly, by studying the distribution of ratings, we found that there was no significant difference between the average ratings assigned to real and generated corners ( z  = −0.34,  p  > 0.05) (Fig.  4 A). Hence, the real and generated samples were assigned statistically indistinguishable average ratings by human raters.

figure 4

In task 1, we tested the statistical difference between the real corner kick samples and the synthetic ones generated by TacticAI from two aspects: ( A.1 ) the distributions of their assigned ratings, and ( A.2 ) the corresponding histograms of the rating values. Analogously, in task 2 (receiver prediction), ( B.1 ) we track the distributions of the top-3 accuracy of receiver prediction using those samples, and ( B.2 ) the corresponding histogram of the mean rating per sample. No statistical difference in the mean was observed in either cases (( A.1 ) ( z  = −0.34,  p  > 0.05), and ( B.1 ) ( z  = 0.97,  p  > 0.05)). Additionally, we observed a statistically significant difference between the ratings of different raters on receiver prediction, with three clear clusters emerging ( C ). Specifically, Raters A and E had similar ratings ( z  = 0.66,  p  > 0.05), and Raters B and D also rated in similar ways ( z  = −1.84,  p  > 0.05), while Rater C responded differently from all other raters. This suggests a good level of variety of the human raters with respect to their perceptions of corner kicks. In task 3—identifying similar corners retrieved in terms of salient strategic setups—there were no significant differences among the distributions of the ratings by different raters ( D ), suggesting a high level of agreement on the usefulness of TacticAI’s capability of retrieving similar corners ( F 1,4  = 1.01,  p  > 0.1). Finally, in task 4, we compared the ratings of TacticAI’s strategic refinements across the human raters ( E ) and found that the raters also agreed on the general effectiveness of the refinements recommended by TacticAI ( F 1,4  = 0.45,  p  > 0.05). Note that the violin plots used in B.1 and C – E model a continuous probability distribution and hence assign nonzero probabilities to values outside of the allowed ranges. We only label y -axis ticks for the possible set of ratings.

For the task of identifying receivers, we rated TacticAI’s predictions with respect to a rater as +1 if at least one of the receivers identified by the rater appeared in TacticAI’s top-3 predictions, and 0 otherwise. The average top-3 accuracy among the human raters was 0.79 ± 0.18; specifically, 0.81 ± 0.17 for the real samples, and 0.77 ± 0.21 for the generated ones. These scores closely line up with the accuracy of TacticAI in predicting receivers for held-out test corners, validating our quantitative study. Further, after averaging the ratings for receiver prediction sample-wise, we found no statistically significant difference between the average ratings of predicting receivers over the real and generated samples ( z  = 0.97,  p  > 0.05) (Fig.  4 B). This indicates that TacticAI was equally performant in predicting the receivers of real corners and TacticAI-generated adjustments, and hence may be leveraged for this purpose even in simulated scenarios.

There is a notably high variance in the average receiver prediction rating of TacticAI. We hypothesise that this is due to the fact that different raters may choose to focus on different salient features when evaluating the likely receivers (or even the amount of likely receivers). We set out to validate this hypothesis by testing the pair-wise similarity of the predictions by the human raters through running a one-away analysis of variance (ANOVA), followed by a Tukey test. We found that the distributions of the five raters’ predictions were significantly different ( F 1,4  = 14.46,  p  < 0.001) forming three clusters (Fig.  4 C). This result indicates that different human raters—as suggested by their various titles at LFC—may often use very different leads when suggesting plausible receivers. The fact that TacticAI manages to retain a high top-3 accuracy in such a setting suggests that it was able to capture the salient patterns of corner kick strategies, which broadly align with human raters’ preferences. We will further test this hypothesis in the third task—identifying similar corners.

For the third task, we asked the human raters to judge 50 pairs of corners for their similarity. Each pair consisted of a reference corner and a retrieved corner, where the retrieved corner was chosen either as the nearest-neighbour of the reference in terms of their TacticAI latent space representations, or—as a feature-level heuristic—the cosine similarities of their raw features (Supplementary Fig.  4 ) in our corner kick dataset. We score the raters’ judgement of a pair as +1 if they considered the corners presented in the case to be usefully similar, otherwise, the pair is scored with 0. We first computed, for each rater, the recall with which they have judged a baseline- or TacticAI-retrieved pair as usefully similar—see description of Task 3 in the  Supplementary Methods . For TacticAI retrievals, the average recall across all raters was 0.59 ± 0.09, and for the baseline system, the recall was 0.36 ± 0.10. Secondly, we assess the statistical difference between the results of the two methods by averaging the ratings for each reference–retrieval pair, finding that the average rating of TacticAI retrievals is significantly higher than the average rating of baseline method retrievals ( z  = 2.34,  p  < 0.05). These two results suggest that TacticAI significantly outperforms the feature-space baseline as a method for mining similar corners. This indicates that TacticAI is able to extract salient features from corners that are not trivial to extract from the input data alone, reinforcing it as a potent tool for discovering opposing team tactics from available data. Finally, we observed that this task exhibited a high level of inter-rater agreement for TacticAI-retrieved pairs ( F 1,4  = 1.01,  p  > 0.1) (Fig.  4 D), suggesting that human raters were largely in agreement with respect to their assessment of TacticAI’s performance.

Finally, we evaluated TacticAI’s player adjustment recommendations for their practical utility. Specifically, each rater was given 50 tactical refinements together with the corresponding real corner kick setups—see Supplementary Fig.  5 , and the “Case study design” section in the  Supplementary Methods . The raters were then asked to rate each refinement as saliently improving the tactics (+1), saliently making them worse (−1), or offering no salient differences (0). We calculated the average rating assigned by each of the raters (giving us a value in the range [− 1, 1] for each rater). The average of these values across all five raters was 0.7 ± 0.1. Further, for 45 of the 50 situations (90%), the human raters found TacticAI’s suggestion to be favourable on average (by majority voting). Both of these results indicate that TacticAI’s recommendations are salient and useful to a downstream football club practitioner, and we set out to validate this with statistical tests.

We performed statistical significance testing of the observed positive ratings. First, for each of the 50 situations, we averaged its ratings across all five raters and then ran a t -test to assess whether the mean rating was significantly larger than zero. Indeed, the statistical test indicated that the tactical adjustments recommended by TacticAI were constructive overall ( \({t}_{49}^{{{{{{{{\rm{avg}}}}}}}}}=9.20,\, p \, < \, 0.001\) ). Secondly, we verified that each of the five raters individually found TacticAI’s recommendations to be constructive, running a t -test on each of their ratings individually. For all of the five raters, their average ratings were found to be above zero with statistical significance ( \({t}_{49}^{A}=5.84,\, {p}^{A} \, < \, 0.001;{t}_{49}^{B}=7.88,\; {p}^{B} \, < \, 0.001;{t}_{49}^{C}=7.00,\; {p}^{C} \, < \, 0.001;{t}_{49}^{D}=6.04,\; {p}^{D} \, < \, 0.001;{t}_{49}^{E}=7.30,\, {p}^{E} \, < \, 0.001\) ). In addition, their ratings also shared a high level of inter-agreement ( F 1,4  = 0.45,  p  > 0.05) (Fig.  4 E), suggesting a level of practical usefulness that is generally recognised by human experts, even though they represent different backgrounds.

Taking all of these results together, we find TacticAI to possess strong components for prediction, retrieval, and tactical adjustments on corner kicks. To illustrate the kinds of salient recommendations by TacticAI, in Fig.  5 we present four examples with a high degree of inter-rater agreement.

figure 5

These examples are selected from our case study with human experts, to illustrate the breadth of tactical adjustments that TacticAI suggests to teams defending a corner. The density of the yellow circles coincides with the number of times that the corresponding change is recognised as constructive by human experts. Instead of optimising the movement of one specific player, TacticAI can recommend improvements for multiple players in one generation step through suggesting better positions to block the opposing players, or better orientations to track them more efficiently. Some specific comments from expert raters follow. In A , according to raters, TacticAI suggests more favourable positions for several defenders, and improved tracking runs for several others—further, the goalkeeper is positioned more deeply, which is also beneficial. In B , TacticAI suggests that the defenders furthest away from the corner make improved covering runs, which was unanimously deemed useful, with several other defenders also positioned more favourably. In C , TacticAI recommends improved covering runs for a central group of defenders in the penalty box, which was unanimously considered salient by our raters. And in D , TacticAI suggests substantially better tracking runs for two central defenders, along with a better positioning for two other defenders in the goal area.

We have demonstrated an AI assistant for football tactics and provided statistical evidence of its efficacy through a comprehensive case study with expert human raters from Liverpool FC. First, TacticAI is able to accurately predict the first receiver after a corner kick is taken as well as the probability of a shot as the direct result of the corner. Second, TacticAI has been shown to produce plausible tactical variations that improve outcomes in a salient way, while being indistinguishable from real scenarios by domain experts. And finally, the system’s latent player representations are a powerful means to retrieve similar set-piece tactics, allowing coaches to analyse relevant tactics and counter-tactics that have been successful in the past.

The broader scope of strategy modelling in football has previously been addressed from various individual angles, such as pass prediction 14 , 15 , 16 , shot prediction 3 or corner kick tactical classification 7 . However, to the best of our knowledge, our work stands out by combining and evaluating predictive and generative modelling of corner kicks for tactic development. It also stands out in its method of applying geometric deep learning, allowing for efficiently incorporating various symmetries of the football pitch for improved data efficiency. Our method incorporates minimal domain knowledge and does not rely on intricate feature engineering—though its factorised design naturally allows for more intricate feature engineering approaches when such features are available.

Our methodology requires the position and velocity estimates of all players at the time of execution of the corner and subsequent events. Here, we derive these from high-quality tracking and event data, with data availability from tracking providers limited to top leagues. Player tracking based on broadcast video would increase the reach and training data substantially, but would also likely result in noisier model inputs. While the attention mechanism of GATs would allow us to perform introspection of the most salient factors contributing to the model outcome, our method does not explicitly model exogenous (aleatoric) uncertainty, which would be valuable context for the football analyst.

While the empirical study of our method’s efficacy has been focused on corner kicks in association football, it readily generalises to other set pieces (such as throw-ins, which similarly benefit from similarity retrieval, pass and/or shot prediction) and other team sports with suspended play situations. The learned representations and overall framing of TacticAI also lay the ground for future research to integrate a natural language interface that enables domain-grounded conversations with the assistant, with the aim to retrieve particular situations of interest, make predictions for a given tactical variant, compare and contrast, and guide through an interactive process to derive tactical suggestions. It is thus our belief that TacticAI lays the groundwork for the next-generation AI assistant for football.

We devised TacticAI as a geometric deep learning pipeline, further expanded in this section. We process labelled spatio-temporal football data into graph representations, and train and evaluate on benchmarking tasks cast as classification or regression. These steps are presented in sequence, followed by details on the employed computational architecture.

Raw corner kick data

The raw dataset consisted of 9693 corner kicks collected from the 2020–21, 2021–22, and 2022–23 (up to January 2023) Premier League seasons. The dataset was provided by Liverpool FC and comprises four separate data sources, described below.

Our primary data source is spatio-temporal trajectory frames (tracking data), which tracked all on-pitch players and the ball, for each match, at 25 frames per second. In addition to player positions, their velocities are derived from position data through filtering. For each corner kick, we only used the frame in which the kick is being taken as input information.

Secondly, we also leverage event stream data, which annotated the events or actions (e.g., passes, shots and goals) that have occurred in the corresponding tracking frames.

Thirdly, the line-up data for the corresponding games, which recorded the players’ profiles, including their heights, weights and roles, is also used.

Lastly, we have access to miscellaneous game data, which contains the game days, stadium information, and pitch length and width in meters.

Graph representation and construction

We assumed that we were provided with an input graph \({{{{{{{\mathcal{G}}}}}}}}=({{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}},\,{{{{{{{\mathcal{E}}}}}}}})\) with a set of nodes \({{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}\) and edges \({{{{{{{\mathcal{E}}}}}}}}\subseteq {{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}\times {{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}\) . Within the context of football games, we took \({{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}\) to be the set of 22 players currently on the pitch for both teams, and we set \({{{{{{{\mathcal{E}}}}}}}}={{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}\times {{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}\) ; that is, we assumed all pairs of players have the potential to interact. Further analyses, leveraging more specific choices of \({{{{{{{\mathcal{E}}}}}}}}\) , would be an interesting avenue for future work.

Additionally, we assume that the graph is appropriately featurised. Specifically, we provide a node feature matrix, \({{{{{{{\bf{X}}}}}}}}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{| {{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}| \times k}\) , an edge feature tensor, \({{{{{{{\bf{E}}}}}}}}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{| {{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}| \times | {{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}| \times l}\) , and a graph feature vector, \({{{{{{{\bf{g}}}}}}}}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{m}\) . The appropriate entries of these objects provide us with the input features for each node, edge, and graph. For example, \({{{{{{{{\bf{x}}}}}}}}}_{u}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{k}\) would provide attributes of an individual player \(u\in {{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}\) , such as position, height and weight, and \({{{{{{{{\bf{e}}}}}}}}}_{uv}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{l}\) would provide the attributes of a particular pair of players \((u,\, v)\in {{{{{{{\mathcal{E}}}}}}}}\) , such as their distance, and whether they belong to the same team. The graph feature vector, g , can be used to store global attributes of interest to the corner kick, such as the game time, current score, or ball position. For a simplified visualisation of how a graph neural network would process such an input, refer to Fig.  1 A.

To construct the input graphs, we first aligned the four data sources with respect to their game IDs and timestamps and filtered out 2517 invalid corner kicks, for which the alignment failed due to missing data, e.g., missing tracking frames or event labels. This filtering yielded 7176 valid corner kicks for training and evaluation. We summarised the exact information that was used to construct the input graphs in Table  2 . In particular, other than player heights (measured in centimeters (cm)) and weights (measured in kilograms (kg)), the players were anonymous in the model. For the cases in which the player profiles were missing, we set their heights and weights to 180 cm and 75 kg, respectively, as defaults. In total, we had 385 such occurrences out of a total of 213,246( = 22 × 9693) during data preprocessing. We downscaled the heights and weights by a factor of 100. Moreover, for each corner kick, we zero-centred the positions of on-pitch players and normalised them onto a 10 m × 10 m pitch, and their velocities were re-scaled accordingly. For the cases in which the pitch dimensions were missing, we used a standard pitch dimension of 110 m × 63 m as default.

We summarised the grouping of the features in Table  1 . The actual features used in different benchmark tasks may differ, and we will describe this in more detail in the next section. To focus on modelling the high-level tactics played by the attacking and defending teams, other than a binary indicator for ball possession—which is 1 for the corner kick taker and 0 for all other players—no information of ball movement, neither positions nor velocities, was used to construct the input graphs. Additionally, we do not have access to the player’s vertical movement, therefore only information on the two-dimensional movements of each player is provided in the data. We do however acknowledge that such information, when available, would be interesting to consider in a corner kick outcome predictor, considering the prevalence of aerial battles in corners.

Benchmark tasks construction

TacticAI consists of three predictive and generative models, which also correspond to three benchmark tasks implemented in this study. Specifically, (1) Receiver prediction, (2) Threatening shot prediction, and (3) Guided generation of team positions and velocities (Table  1 ). The graphs of all the benchmark tasks used the same feature space of nodes and edges, differing only in the global features.

For all three tasks, our models first transform the node features to a latent node feature matrix, \({{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}={f}_{{{{{{{{\mathcal{G}}}}}}}}}({{{{{{{\bf{X}}}}}}}},\, {{{{{{{\bf{E}}}}}}}},\, {{{{{{{\bf{g}}}}}}}})\) , from which we could answer queries: either about individual players—in which case we learned a relevant classifier or regressor over the h u vectors (the rows of H )—or about the occurrence of a global event (e.g. shot taken)—in which case we classified or regressed over the aggregated player vectors, ∑ u h u . In both cases, the classifiers were trained using stochastic gradient descent over an appropriately chosen loss function, such as categorical cross-entropy for classifiers, and mean squared error for regressors.

For different tasks, we extracted the corresponding ground-truth labels from either the event stream data or the tracking data. Specifically, (1) We modelled receiver prediction as a node classification task and labelled the first player to touch the ball after the corner was taken as the target node. This player could be either an attacking or defensive player. (2) Shot prediction was modelled as graph classification. In particular, we considered a next-ball-touch action by the attacking team as a shot if it was a direct corner, a goal, an aerial, hit on the goalposts, a shot attempt saved by the goalkeeper, or missing target. This yielded 1736 corners labelled as a shot being taken, and 5440 corners labelled as a shot not being taken. (3) For guided generation of player position and velocities, no additional label was needed, as this model relied on a self-supervised reconstruction objective.

The entire dataset was split into training and evaluation sets with an 80:20 ratio through random sampling, and the same splits were used for all tasks.

Graph neural networks

The central model of TacticAI is the graph neural network (GNN) 9 , which computes latent representations on a graph by repeatedly combining them within each node’s neighbourhood. Here we define a node’s neighbourhood, \({{{{{{{{\mathcal{N}}}}}}}}}_{u}\) , as the set of all first-order neighbours of node u , that is, \({{{{{{{{\mathcal{N}}}}}}}}}_{u}=\{v\,| \,(v,\, u)\in {{{{{{{\mathcal{E}}}}}}}}\}\) . A single GNN layer then transforms the node features by passing messages between neighbouring nodes 17 , following the notation of related work 10 , and the implementation of the CLRS-30 benchmark baselines 18 :

where \(\psi :{{\mathbb{R}}}^{k}\times {{\mathbb{R}}}^{k}\times {{\mathbb{R}}}^{l}\times {{\mathbb{R}}}^{m}\to {{\mathbb{R}}}^{{k}^{{\prime} }}\) and \(\phi :{{\mathbb{R}}}^{k}\times {{\mathbb{R}}}^{{k}^{{\prime} }}\to {{\mathbb{R}}}^{{k}^{{\prime} }}\) are two learnable functions (e.g. multilayer perceptrons), \({{{{{{{{\bf{h}}}}}}}}}_{u}^{(t)}\) are the features of node u after t GNN layers, and ⨁ is any permutation-invariant aggregator, such as sum, max, or average. By definition, we set \({{{{{{{{\bf{h}}}}}}}}}_{u}^{(0)}={{{{{{{{\bf{x}}}}}}}}}_{u}\) , and iterate Eq. ( 2 ) for T steps, where T is a hyperparameter. Then, we let \({{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}={f}_{{{{{{{{\mathcal{G}}}}}}}}}({{{{{{{\bf{X}}}}}}}},\, {{{{{{{\bf{E}}}}}}}},\, {{{{{{{\bf{g}}}}}}}})={{{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}}^{(T)}\) be the final node embeddings coming out of the GNN.

It is well known that Eq. ( 2 ) is remarkably general; it can be used to express popular models such as Transformers 19 as a special case, and it has been argued that all discrete deep learning models can be expressed in this form 20 , 21 . This makes GNNs a perfect framework for benchmarking various approaches to modelling player–player interactions in the context of football.

Different choices of ψ , ϕ and ⨁ yield different architectures. In our case, we utilise a message function that factorises into an attentional mechanism, \(a:{{\mathbb{R}}}^{k}\times {{\mathbb{R}}}^{k}\times {{\mathbb{R}}}^{l}\times {{\mathbb{R}}}^{m}\to {\mathbb{R}}\) :

yielding the graph attention network (GAT) architecture 12 . In our work, specifically, we use a two-layer multilayer perceptron for the attentional mechanism, as proposed by GATv2 11 :

where \({{{{{{{{\bf{W}}}}}}}}}_{1},\, {{{{{{{{\bf{W}}}}}}}}}_{2}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{k\times h}\) , \({{{{{{{{\bf{W}}}}}}}}}_{e}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{l\times h}\) , \({{{{{{{{\bf{W}}}}}}}}}_{g}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{m\times h}\) and \({{{{{{{\bf{a}}}}}}}}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{h}\) are the learnable parameters of the attentional mechanism, and LeakyReLU is the leaky rectified linear activation function. This mechanism computes coefficients of interaction (a single scalar value) for each pair of connected nodes ( u ,  v ), which are then normalised across all neighbours of u using the \({{{{{{{\rm{softmax}}}}}}}}\) function.

Through early-stage experimentation, we have ascertained that GATs are capable of matching the performance of more generic choices of ψ (such as the MPNN 17 ) while being more scalable. Hence, we focus our study on the GAT model in this work. More details can be found in the subsection “Ablation study” section.

Geometric deep learning

In spite of the power of Eq. ( 2 ), using it in its full generality is often prone to overfitting, given the large number of parameters contained in ψ and ϕ . This problem is exacerbated in the football analytics domain, where gold-standard data is generally very scarce—for example, in the English Premier League, only a few hundred games are played every season.

In order to tackle this issue, we can exploit the immense regularity of data arising from football games. Strategically equivalent game states are also called transpositions, and symmetries such as arriving at the same chess position through different move sequences have been exploited computationally since the 1960s 22 . Similarly, game rotations and reflections may yield equivalent strategic situations 23 . Using the blueprint of geometric deep learning (GDL) 10 , we can design specialised GNN architectures that exploit this regularity.

That is, geometric deep learning is a generic methodology for deriving mathematical constraints on neural networks, such that they will behave predictably when inputs are transformed in certain ways. In several important cases, these constraints can be directly resolved, directly informing neural network architecture design. For a comprehensive example of point clouds under 3D rotational symmetry, see Fuchs et al. 24 .

To elucidate several aspects of the GDL framework on a high level, let us assume that there exists a group of input data transformations (symmetries), \({\mathfrak{G}}\) under which the ground-truth label remains unchanged. Specifically, if we let y ( X ,  E ,  g ) be the label given to the graph featurised with X ,  E ,  g , then for every transformation \({\mathfrak{g}}\in {\mathfrak{G}}\) , the following property holds:

This condition is also referred to as \({\mathfrak{G}}\) -invariance. Here, by \({\mathfrak{g}}({{{{{{{\bf{X}}}}}}}})\) we denote the result of transforming X by \({\mathfrak{g}}\) —a concept also known as a group action. More generally, it is a function of the form \({\mathfrak{G}}\times {{{{{{{\mathcal{S}}}}}}}}\to {{{{{{{\mathcal{S}}}}}}}}\) for some state set \({{{{{{{\mathcal{S}}}}}}}}\) . Note that a single group element, \({\mathfrak{g}}\in {\mathfrak{G}}\) can easily produce different actions on different \({{{{{{{\mathcal{S}}}}}}}}\) —in this case, \({{{{{{{\mathcal{S}}}}}}}}\) could be \({{\mathbb{R}}}^{| {{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}| \times k}\) ( X ), \({{\mathbb{R}}}^{| {{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}| \times | {{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}| \times l}\) ( E ) and \({{\mathbb{R}}}^{m}\) ( g ).

It is worth noting that GNNs may also be derived using a GDL perspective if we set the symmetry group \({\mathfrak{G}}\) to \({S}_{| {{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}}|\) , the permutation group of \(| {{{{{{{\mathcal{V}}}}}}}}|\) objects. Owing to the design of Eq. ( 2 ), its outputs will not be dependent on the exact permutation of nodes in the input graph.

Frame averaging

A simple mechanism to enforce \({\mathfrak{G}}\) -invariance, given any predictor \({f}_{{{{{{{{\mathcal{G}}}}}}}}}({{{{{{{\bf{X}}}}}}}},\, {{{{{{{\bf{E}}}}}}}},\, {{{{{{{\bf{g}}}}}}}})\) , performs frame averaging across all \({\mathfrak{G}}\) -transformed inputs:

This ensures that all \({\mathfrak{G}}\) -transformed versions of a particular input (also known as that input’s orbit) will have exactly the same output, satisfying Eq. ( 5 ). A variant of this approach has also been applied in the AlphaGo architecture 25 to encode symmetries of a Go board.

In our specific implementation, we set \({\mathfrak{G}}={D}_{2}=\{{{{{{{{\rm{id}}}}}}}},\leftrightarrow,\updownarrow,\leftrightarrow \updownarrow \}\) , the dihedral group. Exploiting D 2 -invariance allows us to encode quadrant symmetries. Each element of the D 2 group encodes the presence of vertical or horizontal reflections of the input football pitch. Under these transformations, the pitch is assumed completely symmetric, and hence many predictions, such as which player receives the corner kick, or takes a shot from it, can be safely assumed unchanged. As an example of how to compute transformed features in Eq. ( 6 ), ↔( X ) horizontally reflects all positional features of players in X (e.g. the coordinates of the player), and negates the x -axis component of their velocity.

Group convolutions

While the frame averaging approach of Eq. ( 6 ) is a powerful way to restrict GNNs to respect input symmetries, it arguably misses an opportunity for the different \({\mathfrak{G}}\) -transformed views to interact while their computations are being performed. For small groups such as D 2 , a more fine-grained approach can be assumed, operating over a single GNN layer in Eq. ( 2 ), which we will write shortly as \({{{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}}^{(t)}={g}_{{{{{{{{\mathcal{G}}}}}}}}}({{{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}}^{(t-1)},\, {{{{{{{\bf{E}}}}}}}},\, {{{{{{{\bf{g}}}}}}}})\) . The condition that we need a symmetry-respecting GNN layer to satisfy is as follows, for all transformations \({\mathfrak{g}}\in {\mathfrak{G}}\) :

that is, it does not matter if we apply \({\mathfrak{g}}\) it to the input or the output of the function \({g}_{{{{{{{{\mathcal{G}}}}}}}}}\) —the final answer is the same. This condition is also referred to as \({\mathfrak{G}}\) -equivariance, and it has recently proved to be a potent paradigm for developing powerful GNNs over biochemical data 24 , 26 .

To satisfy D 2 -equivariance, we apply the group convolution approach 13 . Therein, views of the input are allowed to directly interact with their \({\mathfrak{G}}\) -transformed variants, in a manner very similar to grid convolutions (which is, indeed, a special case of group convolutions, setting \({\mathfrak{G}}\) to be the translation group). We use \({{{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}}_{{\mathfrak{g}}}^{(t)}\) to denote the \({\mathfrak{g}}\) -transformed view of the latent node features at layer t . Omitting E and g inputs for brevity, and using our previously designed layer \({g}_{{{{{{{{\mathcal{G}}}}}}}}}\) as a building block, we can perform a group convolution as follows:

Here, ∥ is the concatenation operation, joining the two node feature matrices column-wise; \({{\mathfrak{g}}}^{-1}\) is the inverse transformation to \({\mathfrak{g}}\) (which must exist as \({\mathfrak{G}}\) is a group); and \({{\mathfrak{g}}}^{-1}{\mathfrak{h}}\) is the composition of the two transformations.

Effectively, Eq. ( 8 ) implies our D 2 -equivariant GNN needs to maintain a node feature matrix \({{{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}}_{{\mathfrak{g}}}^{(t)}\) for every \({\mathfrak{G}}\) -transformation of the current input, and these views are recombined by invoking \({g}_{{{{{{{{\mathcal{G}}}}}}}}}\) on all pairs related together by applying a transformation \({\mathfrak{h}}\) . Note that all reflections are self-inverses, hence, in D 2 , \({\mathfrak{g}}={{\mathfrak{g}}}^{-1}\) .

It is worth noting that both the frame averaging in Eq. ( 6 ) and group convolution in Eq. ( 8 ) are similar in spirit to data augmentation. However, whereas standard data augmentation would only show one view at a time to the model, a frame averaging/group convolution architecture exhaustively generates all views and feeds them to the model all at once. Further, group convolutions allow these views to explicitly interact in a way that does not break symmetries. Here lies the key difference between the two approaches: frame averaging and group convolutions rigorously enforce the symmetries in \({\mathfrak{G}}\) , whereas data augmentation only provides implicit hints to the model about satisfying them. As a consequence of the exhaustive generation, Eqs. ( 6 ) and ( 8 ) are only feasible for small groups like D 2 . For larger groups, approaches like Steerable CNNs 27 may be employed.

Network architectures

While the three benchmark tasks we are performing have minor differences in the global features available to the model, the neural network models designed for them all have the same encoder–decoder architecture. The encoder has the same structure in all tasks, while the decoder model is tailored to produce appropriately shaped outputs for each benchmark task.

Given an input graph, TacticAI’s model first generates all relevant D 2 -transformed versions of it, by appropriately reflecting the player coordinates and velocities. We refer to the original input graph as the identity view, and the remaining three D 2 -transformed graphs as reflected views.

Once the views are prepared, we apply four group convolutional layers (Eq. ( 8 )) with a GATv2 base model (Eqs. ( 3 ) and ( 4 )) as the \({g}_{{{{{{{{\mathcal{G}}}}}}}}}\) function. Specifically, this means that, in Eqs. ( 3 ) and ( 4 ), every instance of \({{{{{{{{\bf{h}}}}}}}}}_{u}^{(t-1)}\) is replaced by the concatenation of \({({{{{{{{{\bf{h}}}}}}}}}_{{\mathfrak{h}}}^{(t-1)})}_{u}\parallel {({{{{{{{{\bf{h}}}}}}}}}_{{{\mathfrak{g}}}^{-1}{\mathfrak{h}}}^{(t-1)})}_{u}\) . Each GATv2 layer has eight attention heads and computes four latent features overall per player. Accordingly, once the four group convolutions are performed, we have a representation of \({{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{4\times 22\times 4}\) , where the first dimension corresponds to the four views ( \({{{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}}_{{{{{{{{\rm{id}}}}}}}}},\, {{{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}}_{\leftrightarrow },\, {{{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}}_{\updownarrow },\, {{{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}}_{\leftrightarrow \updownarrow }\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{22\times 4}\) ), the second dimension corresponds to the players (eleven on each team), and the third corresponds to the 4-dimensional latent vector for each player node in this particular view. How this representation is used by the decoder depends on the specific downstream task, as we detail below.

For receiver prediction, which is a fully invariant function (i.e. reflections do not change the receiver), we perform simple frame averaging across all views, arriving at

and then learn a node-wise classifier over the rows of \({{{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}}^{{{{{{{{\rm{node}}}}}}}}}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{22\times 4}\) . We further decode H node into a logit vector \({{{{{{{\bf{O}}}}}}}}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{22}\) with a linear layer before computing the corresponding softmax cross entropy loss.

For shot prediction, which is once again fully invariant (i.e. reflections do not change the probability of a shot), we can further average the frame-averaged features across all players to get a global graph representation:

and then learn a binary classifier over \({{{{{{{{\bf{h}}}}}}}}}^{{{{{{{{\rm{graph}}}}}}}}}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{4}\) . Specifically, we decode the hidden vector into a single logit with a linear layer and compute the sigmoid binary cross-entropy loss with the corresponding label.

For guided generation (position/velocity adjustments), we generate the player positions and velocities with respect to a particular outcome of interest for the human coaches, predicted over the rows of the hidden feature matrix. For example, the model may adjust the defensive setup to decrease the shot probability by the attacking team. The model output is now equivariant rather than invariant—reflecting the pitch appropriately reflects the predicted positions and velocity vectors. As such, we cannot perform frame averaging, and take only the identity view’s features, \({{{{{{{{\bf{H}}}}}}}}}_{{{{{{{{\rm{id}}}}}}}}}\in {{\mathbb{R}}}^{22\times 4}\) . From this latent feature matrix, we can then learn a conditional distribution from each row, which models the positions or velocities of the corresponding player. To do this, we extend the backbone encoder with conditional variational autoencoder (CVAE 28 , 29 ). Specifically, for the u -th row of H id , h u , we first map its latent embedding to the parameters of a two-dimensional Gaussian distribution \({{{{{{{\mathcal{N}}}}}}}}({\mu }_{u}| {\sigma }_{u})\) , and then sample the coordinates and velocities from this distribution. At training time, we can efficiently propagate gradients through this sampling operation using the reparameterisation trick 28 : sample a random value \({\epsilon }_{u} \sim {{{{{{{\mathcal{N}}}}}}}}(0,1)\) for each player from the unit Gaussian distribution, and then treat μ u  +  σ u ϵ u as the sample for this player. In what follows, we omit edge features for brevity. For each corner kick sample X with the corresponding outcome o (e.g. a binary value indicating a shot event), we extend the standard VAE loss 28 , 29 to our case of outcome-conditional guided generation as

where h u is the player embedding corresponding to the u th row of H id , and \({\mathbb{KL}}\) is Kullback–Leibler (KL) divergence. Specifically, the first term is the generation loss between the real player input x u and the reconstructed sample decoded from h u with the decoder p ϕ . Using the KL term, the distribution of the latent embedding h u is regularised towards p ( h u ∣ o ), which is a multivariate Gaussian in our case.

A complete high-level summary of the generic encoder–decoder equivariant architecture employed by TacticAI can be summarised in Supplementary Fig.  2 . In the following section, we will provide empirical evidence for justifying these architectural decisions. This will be done through targeted ablation studies on our predictive benchmarks (receiver prediction and shot prediction).

Ablation study

We leveraged the receiver prediction task as a way to evaluate various base model architectures, and directly quantitatively assess the contributions of geometric deep learning in this context. We already see that the raw corner kick data can be better represented through geometric deep learning, yielding separable clusters in the latent space that could correspond to different attacking or defending tactics (Fig.  2 ). In addition, we hypothesise that these representations can also yield better performance on the task of receiver prediction. Accordingly, we ablate several design choices using deep learning on this task, as illustrated by the following four questions:

Does a factorised graph representation help? To assess this, we compare it against a convolutional neural network (CNN 30 ) baseline, which does not leverage a graph representation.

Does a graph structure help? To assess this, we compare against a Deep Sets 31 baseline, which only models each node in isolation without considering adjacency information—equivalently, setting each neighbourhood \({{{{{{{{\mathcal{N}}}}}}}}}_{u}\) to a singleton set { u }.

Are attentional GNNs a good strategy? To assess this, we compare against a message passing neural network 32 , MPNN baseline, which uses the fully potent GNN layer from Eq. ( 2 ) instead of the GATv2.

Does accounting for symmetries help? To assess this, we compare our geometric GATv2 baseline against one which does not utilise D 2 group convolutions but utilises D 2 frame averaging, and one which does not explicitly utilise any aspect of D 2 symmetries at all.

Each of these models has been trained for a fixed budget of 50,000 training steps. The test top- k receiver prediction accuracies of the trained models are provided in Supplementary Table  2 . As already discussed in the section “Results”, there is a clear advantage to using a full graph structure, as well as directly accounting for reflection symmetry. Further, the usage of the MPNN layer leads to slight overfitting compared to the GATv2, illustrating how attentional GNNs strike a good balance of expressivity and data efficiency for this task. Our analysis highlights the quantitative benefits of both graph representation learning and geometric deep learning for football analytics from tracking data. We also provide a brief ablation study for the shot prediction task in Supplementary Table  3 .

Training details

We train each of TacticAI’s models in isolation, using NVIDIA Tesla P100 GPUs. To minimise overfitting, each model’s learning objective is regularised with an L 2 norm penalty with respect to the network parameters. During training, we use the Adam stochastic gradient descent optimiser 33 over the regularised loss.

All models, including baselines, have been given an equal hyperparameter tuning budget, spanning the number of message passing steps ({1, 2, 4}), initial learning rate ({0.0001, 0.00005}), batch size ({128, 256}) and L 2 regularisation coefficient ({0.01, 0.005, 0.001, 0.0001, 0}). We summarise the chosen hyperparameters of each TacticAI model in Supplementary Table  1 .

Data availability

The data collected in the human experiments in this study have been deposited in the Zenodo database under accession code , and the processed data which is used in the statistical analysis and to generate the relevant figures in the main text are available under the same accession code. The input and output data generated and/or analysed during the current study are protected and are not available due to data privacy laws and licensing restrictions. However, contact details of the input data providers are available from the corresponding authors on reasonable request.

Code availability

All the core models described in this research were built with the Graph Neural Network processors provided by the CLRS Algorithmic Reasoning Benchmark 18 , and their source code is available at . We are unable to release our code for this work as it was developed in a proprietary context; however, the corresponding authors are open to answer specific questions concerning re-implementations on request. For general data analysis, we used the following freely available packages: numpy v1.25.2 , pandas v1.5.3 , matplotlib v3.6.1 , seaborn v0.12.2 and scipy v1.9.3 . Specifically, the code of the statistical analysis conducted in this study is available at .

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We gratefully acknowledge the support of James French, Timothy Waskett, Hans Leitert and Benjamin Hervey for their extensive efforts in analysing TacticAI’s outputs. Further, we are thankful to Kevin McKee, Sherjil Ozair and Beatrice Bevilacqua for useful technical discussions, and Marc Lanctôt and Satinder Singh for reviewing the paper prior to submission.

Author information

These authors contributed equally: Zhe Wang, Petar Veličković, Daniel Hennes.

Authors and Affiliations

Google DeepMind, 6-8 Handyside Street, London, N1C 4UZ, UK

Zhe Wang, Petar Veličković, Daniel Hennes, Nenad Tomašev, Laurel Prince, Michael Kaisers, Yoram Bachrach, Romuald Elie, Li Kevin Wenliang, Federico Piccinini, Jerome Connor, Yi Yang, Adrià Recasens, Mina Khan, Nathalie Beauguerlange, Pablo Sprechmann, Pol Moreno, Nicolas Heess & Demis Hassabis

Liverpool FC, AXA Training Centre, Simonswood Lane, Kirkby, Liverpool, L33 5XB, UK

William Spearman

Liverpool FC, Kirkby, UK

University of Alberta, Amii, Edmonton, AB, T6G 2E8, Canada

Michael Bowling

Google DeepMind, London, UK

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Z.W., D. Hennes, L.P. and K.T. coordinated and organised the research effort leading to this paper. P.V. and Z.W. developed the core TacticAI models. Z.W., W.S. and I.G. prepared the Premier League corner kick dataset used for training and evaluating these models. P.V., Z.W., D. Hennes and N.T. designed the case study with human experts and Z.W. and P.V. performed the qualitative evaluation and statistical analysis of its outcomes. Z.W., P.V., D. Hennes, N.T., L.P., M. Kaisers, Y.B., R.E., L.K.W., F.P., W.S., I.G., N.H., M.B., D. Hassabis and K.T. contributed to writing the paper and providing feedback on the final manuscript. J.C., Y.Y., A.R., M. Khan, N.B., P.S. and P.M. contributed valuable technical and implementation discussions throughout the work’s development.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Zhe Wang , Petar Veličković or Karl Tuyls .

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Competing interests.

The authors declare no competing interests but the following competing interests: TacticAI was developed during the course of the Authors’ employment at Google DeepMind and Liverpool Football Club, as applicable to each Author.

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Wang, Z., Veličković, P., Hennes, D. et al. TacticAI: an AI assistant for football tactics. Nat Commun 15 , 1906 (2024).

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How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
  • Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods?
  • Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).


The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.


If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources


A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.

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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility


  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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    methods, and some requiring qualitative methods. If the question is a qualitative one, then the most appropriate and rigorous way of answering it is to use qualitative methods. For instance, if you want to lobby for better access to health care in an area where user fees have been introduced, you might first undertake a

  2. What Is a Research Methodology?

    Step 1: Explain your methodological approach. Step 2: Describe your data collection methods. Step 3: Describe your analysis method. Step 4: Evaluate and justify the methodological choices you made. Tips for writing a strong methodology chapter. Other interesting articles.

  3. How To Write The Methodology Chapter

    Section 1 - Introduction. As with all chapters in your dissertation or thesis, the methodology chapter should have a brief introduction. In this section, you should remind your readers what the focus of your study is, especially the research aims. As we've discussed many times on the blog, your methodology needs to align with your research ...

  4. PDF Methodology Section for Research Papers

    The methodology section of your paper describes how your research was conducted. This information allows readers to check whether your approach is accurate and dependable. A good methodology can help increase the reader's trust in your findings. First, we will define and differentiate quantitative and qualitative research.

  5. Your Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Good Research Methodology

    Provide the rationality behind your chosen approach. Based on logic and reason, let your readers know why you have chosen said research methodologies. Additionally, you have to build strong arguments supporting why your chosen research method is the best way to achieve the desired outcome. 3. Explain your mechanism.

  6. What Is Qualitative Research?

    Qualitative research methods. Each of the research approaches involve using one or more data collection methods.These are some of the most common qualitative methods: Observations: recording what you have seen, heard, or encountered in detailed field notes. Interviews: personally asking people questions in one-on-one conversations. Focus groups: asking questions and generating discussion among ...

  7. 6. The Methodology

    ANOTHER NOTE: If you are conducting a qualitative analysis of a research problem, the methodology section generally requires a more elaborate description of the methods used as well as an explanation of the processes applied to gathering and analyzing of data than is generally required for studies using quantitative methods. Because you are the ...

  8. Navigating the qualitative manuscript writing process: some tips for

    Qualitative research can yield unique data that can complement the numbers generated in quantitative research, by answering "how" and "why" research questions. As you will notice in this paper, qualitative research is underpinned by specific philosophical assumptions, quality criteria and has a lexicon or a language specific to it.

  9. A Front-to-Back Guide to Writing a Qualitative Research Article

    Purpose - This paper aims to offer junior scholars a front-to-back guide to writing an academic, theoretically positioned, qualitative research article in the social sciences. Design/methodology ...

  10. Five Steps to Writing More Engaging Qualitative Research

    A-85). Successful writing requires a writer to pay quiet diligent attention to the construction of the genre they are working in. Each genre has its own sense of verisimilitude—the bearing of truth. Each places different constraints on the writer and has different goals, forms, and structure.

  11. Research Methodology

    Qualitative Research Methodology. ... Writing a research methodology involves explaining the methods and techniques you used to conduct research, collect data, and analyze results. It's an essential section of any research paper or thesis, as it helps readers understand the validity and reliability of your findings. Here are the steps to ...

  12. How to Write Research Methodology in 2024: Overview, Tips, and

    Methodology in research is defined as the systematic method to resolve a research problem through data gathering using various techniques, providing an interpretation of data gathered and drawing conclusions about the research data. Essentially, a research methodology is the blueprint of a research or study (Murthy & Bhojanna, 2009, p. 32).

  13. How to Write Research Methodology: 13 Steps (with Pictures)

    A quantitative approach and statistical analysis would give you a bigger picture. 3. Identify how your analysis answers your research questions. Relate your methodology back to your original research questions and present a proposed outcome based on your analysis.

  14. Qualitative Methods

    The database covers both qualitative and quantitative research methods as well as mixed methods approaches to conducting research. SAGE Research Methods Online and Cases NOTE : For a list of online communities, research centers, indispensable learning resources, and personal websites of leading qualitative researchers, GO HERE .

  15. How to Write Your Methods

    Your Methods Section contextualizes the results of your study, giving editors, reviewers and readers alike the information they need to understand and interpret your work. Your methods are key to establishing the credibility of your study, along with your data and the results themselves. A complete methods section should provide enough detail ...

  16. What Is a Research Methodology?

    Revised on 10 October 2022. Your research methodology discusses and explains the data collection and analysis methods you used in your research. A key part of your thesis, dissertation, or research paper, the methodology chapter explains what you did and how you did it, allowing readers to evaluate the reliability and validity of your research.

  17. Guidelines for Preparing Qualitative Manuscripts

    Guidelines for Preparing Qualitative Manuscripts. Authors submitting qualitative manuscripts to Psychology of Religion and Spirituality ( PRS) should familiarize themselves with the Journal Article Reporting Standards for Qualitative Primary Research (JARS-Qual) and seek to adhere to them as much as possible. In particular, the following JARS ...

  18. How to Write a Qualitative Research Paper

    Selecting the appropriate methodology is a critical step in writing a qualitative research paper. The methodology chosen should align with the research questions and objectives and provide a suitable approach to collect relevant data. Qualitative research methodologies include ethnography, case study, grounded theory, phenomenology, and content ...

  19. How to Write an APA Methods Section

    Structuring an APA methods section. The main heading of "Methods" should be centered, boldfaced, and capitalized. Subheadings within this section are left-aligned, boldfaced, and in title case. You can also add lower level headings within these subsections, as long as they follow APA heading styles. To structure your methods section, you ...

  20. How to use and assess qualitative research methods

    Abstract. This paper aims to provide an overview of the use and assessment of qualitative research methods in the health sciences. Qualitative research can be defined as the study of the nature of phenomena and is especially appropriate for answering questions of why something is (not) observed, assessing complex multi-component interventions ...

  21. Choosing the Right Research Methodology: A Guide

    Some common methodologies include qualitative research, quantitative research, experimental research, survey-based research, and action research. Each method can be opted for and modified, depending on the type of research hypotheses and objectives. Qualitative vs quantitative research: When deciding on a research methodology, one of the key ...

  22. Research Methodology Guide: Writing Tips, Types, & Examples

    Whether your focus is on qualitative research methodology, quantitative research methodology, or a combination of both, understanding and clearly defining your methodology is key to the success of your research. Once you write the research methodology and complete writing the entire research paper, the next step is to edit your paper.

  23. Research Guides: GSAS Writing Toolkit: Methodology Sources

    SAGE Research Methods is a tool created to help researchers, faculty and students with their research projects. Users can explore methods concepts to help them design research projects, understand particular methods or identify a new method, conduct their research, and write up their findings. Since SAGE Research Methods focuses on methodology ...

  24. What Is a Research Design

    Step 1: Consider your aims and approach. Step 2: Choose a type of research design. Step 3: Identify your population and sampling method. Step 4: Choose your data collection methods. Step 5: Plan your data collection procedures. Step 6: Decide on your data analysis strategies. Other interesting articles.

  25. Questioning 'voice' and silence: Exploring creative and participatory

    Given the resonances between creative and participatory research methods and the philosophy of Reggio Emilia, the study discussed in this paper can be usefully evaluated in relation to the Reggio Emilia principles of subjectivity, creativity, dialogic encounters, listening and pedagogical documentation.

  26. How to Write a Capstone Paper

    To write a capstone paper, in the methodology section, detail your data collection and analysis strategies, offering transparency and allowing readers to gauge the reliability of your findings. ... For qualitative research, thematic analysis or narrative interpretations will be key, focusing on how the themes you've identified contribute to ...

  27. TacticAI: an AI assistant for football tactics

    Identifying key patterns of tactics implemented by rival teams, and developing effective responses, lies at the heart of modern football. However, doing so algorithmically remains an open research ...

  28. How to Write a Literature Review

    When you write a thesis, dissertation, or research paper, you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to: Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context; Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research

  29. Free Research Title Generator: Create a Title for Your Research

    Create Titles for Research Paper at Once for Better Brainstorming. The best part of using EssayGPT is that you can generate multiple titles for your essays and research papers all at once. EssayGPT offers up to five titles in one click. You can change keywords, tone preferences, or audience type to regenerate more titles until the AI program ...