Information about the limitations of your study are generally placed either at the beginning of the discussion section of your paper so the reader knows and understands the limitations before reading the rest of your analysis of the findings, or, the limitations are outlined at the conclusion of the discussion section as an acknowledgement of the need for further study. Statements about a study's limitations should not be buried in the body [middle] of the discussion section unless a limitation is specific to something covered in that part of the paper. If this is the case, though, the limitation should be reiterated at the conclusion of the section.
If you determine that your study is seriously flawed due to important limitations, such as, an inability to acquire critical data, consider reframing it as an exploratory study intended to lay the groundwork for a more complete research study in the future. Be sure, though, to specifically explain the ways that these flaws can be successfully overcome in a new study.
But, do not use this as an excuse for not developing a thorough research paper! Review the tab in this guide for developing a research topic. If serious limitations exist, it generally indicates a likelihood that your research problem is too narrowly defined or that the issue or event under study is too recent and, thus, very little research has been written about it. If serious limitations do emerge, consult with your professor about possible ways to overcome them or how to revise your study.
When discussing the limitations of your research, be sure to:
- Describe each limitation in detailed but concise terms;
- Explain why each limitation exists;
- Provide the reasons why each limitation could not be overcome using the method(s) chosen to acquire or gather the data [cite to other studies that had similar problems when possible];
- Assess the impact of each limitation in relation to the overall findings and conclusions of your study; and,
- If appropriate, describe how these limitations could point to the need for further research.
Remember that the method you chose may be the source of a significant limitation that has emerged during your interpretation of the results [for example, you didn't interview a group of people that you later wish you had]. If this is the case, don't panic. Acknowledge it, and explain how applying a different or more robust methodology might address the research problem more effectively in a future study. A underlying goal of scholarly research is not only to show what works, but to demonstrate what doesn't work or what needs further clarification.
Aguinis, Hermam and Jeffrey R. Edwards. “Methodological Wishes for the Next Decade and How to Make Wishes Come True.” Journal of Management Studies 51 (January 2014): 143-174; Brutus, Stéphane et al. "Self-Reported Limitations and Future Directions in Scholarly Reports: Analysis and Recommendations." Journal of Management 39 (January 2013): 48-75; Ioannidis, John P.A. "Limitations are not Properly Acknowledged in the Scientific Literature." Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 60 (2007): 324-329; Pasek, Josh. Writing the Empirical Social Science Research Paper: A Guide for the Perplexed. January 24, 2012. Academia.edu; Structure: How to Structure the Research Limitations Section of Your Dissertation. Dissertations and Theses: An Online Textbook. Laerd.com; What Is an Academic Paper? Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Writing the Experimental Report: Methods, Results, and Discussion. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University.
When writing manuscripts for publication, there are many important details that need to be included to present a well balanced, comprehensive description of your work. One of the most important but often underrated of these details is the limitations section of your manuscript. Many authors often experience difficulty writing about the limitations of their work or are reluctant to include them at all. However, to ensure that you provide accurate context for your work and give readers sufficient information to properly evaluate the relevance and impact of your results, they must be included. So what’s the best way to go about describing limitations without invalidating your findings? Let’s approach our strategy in a methodical way by first looking at the types of limitations you might encounter.
Types of Limitations
Before you even start your study, you may be aware that there are certain limitations to what you want to test or what possible results may come of your efforts. The procedures you have available or specific constraints on the study population may ultimately affect what outcomes you can obtain. These we can refer to as study design limitations.
Another type of limitation to consider is what we might call an impact limitation. Even if your study has strong design and excellent statistics, it can suffer from limited impact from factors such as a strong regional focus, being too population-specific, or the field being only conducive to incremental findings.
A final type of limitation is that of statistical or data limitations. Sometimes you may not be able to collect as much or as good data as you intended, or perhaps enrollment was more difficult than expected, underpowering your results. Statistical limitations can also stem from study design, producing more serious limitations in terms of interpreting the findings.
Although these three types of limitations are often connected, to help identify specific limitations that should be mentioned in your manuscript it helps to consider these three categories separately to ensure you don’t miss anything.
How to Describe Your Limitations
Now that you know how to identify possible limitations in your study, the question turns to how to go about describing them in your article. In our experience, we’ve found that many authors are reluctant to write about their limitations because they feel it weakens their study and is pointing out flaws others may not have noticed. While this can make a person feel vulnerable, everyone knows that limitations are a part of science, and are looking for them anyways, so it’s better to be upfront about them. You can counter the reader’s presumed negative interpretation by providing them with an explanation for each limitation, showing why the results are still important.
For example: Your study looked at the efficacy of a new diabetes treatment in Japanese patients. The results were very positive; however, because you only looked at Japanese patients, these findings may not translate to patients of other ethnicities. A statement to this effect could be declared in the limitations section of your manuscript, followed up by a comment about how the results might still be widely applicable as they will help with patient-specific treatment in all parts of the world.
If you have results that are particularly novel or you’re publishing in a little-researched field, another approach to supporting your findings in spite of limitations is to reinforce the novelty of your results. When breaking new ground, it is likely that there are still a lot of gaps in the knowledge base that need to be filled. Therefore, a good follow-up statement for this type of limitation is to describe what, based on these results, the next steps would be to build a stronger overall evidence base.
Now, it is possible that your study will have a fairly critical flaw (usually in the study design) that decreases confidence in your findings. In this case, it will probably also be apparent to others, so it’s best to explain why this error or flaw occurred. You can still explain why the study is worth repeating or how you plan to re-test the phenomenon, but it is also likely that your publication goals may need to be lowered if you still plan to publish your work.
Limit Your Expectations
No one expects science to be perfect the first time and while your peers can be highly critical, no one’s work is beyond limitations. Our knowledge base is built on uncovering each piece of the puzzle, one at a time, and limitations show us where new efforts need to be made. So much like peer review, don’t think of limitations as being inherently bad, but more an opportunity for a new challenge. In the end, your limitation may be someone else’s inspiration.
By Amanda Hindle, Senior Editor
We recommend you to have the technical content of your manuscript reviewed by an independant expert in your field BEFORE submitting to your target journal. This will allow you to improve the content based on advice and recommendations from an experienced expert and will minimize the need for revisions after submission.