Methods sections and (avoidance of) self-plagiarism – some thoughts and a practical solution – Guest post by Dr. Matt Dye

The following is written by Dr. Matt Dye of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester NY. It’s a follow up on my related post. You can find more information on him and his research here:

Ah, the Methods section! Perhaps the driest, yet most important, section in a research article. That section undergraduates always decide to skip, and of which reviewers always ask for more clarification.

I’d start by dialing back the sarcasm, and reiterating that this is perhaps the most important section in the article. Along with the Results section, it allows the educated reader to discern the quality of the science being reported. So, let’s not skimp. However, we have all felt the pain of trying to say the exact same thing using different words. Here we have the undergraduate refrain, “But the authors said it so eloquently, I couldn’t find a way to paraphrase it without making it worse!” However, we are, for the most part, not undergraduates submitting our work to academic journals for peer review. So, we cannot get out of it that way.

I like to think that after me doing my best technical writing, and one (or two) rounds of responding to peer review, my Methods section is as tight as it can get. Scientific protocol rendered into perfect prose. But if I am honest with myself, then of course there is room for improvement. Herein follows a suggestion that could (a) improve the Methods section, (b) result in a rewritten Methods that hopefully avoids charges of text recycling, and (c) provide a valuable educational experience for our postdocs and students:

1.  Ask a trainee in your lab to replicate the setup of your study. From scratch. Using only your Methods section as a guide. Here lies a critical test of how well that section is written.
2.  Assess how well the trainee was able to do so. Could she accurately reproduce the same procedure, or did she have to request information not in the manuscript? Were there any differences between her setup and the one you expected?
3.  If there were errors, or required information was missing, ask the trainee to rewrite the Methods section to provide the necessary information. Assign authorship credit and acknowledge contribution to the new manuscript.
4.  If there were no errors, ask the trainee where she was uncertain or where she had to struggle to figure out what to do. Ask the trainee to rewrite the Methods section to make clearer the necessary information. Assign authorship credit and acknowledge contribution to the new manuscript.
5.  Repeat process for each manuscript using the same (or very similar) methods. As soon as you have reached the point of perfection (or massively diminished returns on time invested):
*   Cite the latest iteration in new submissions;
*   Make a preprint of the article with that version publically available on your     website (and make sure that it can be downloaded anonymously);
*   In your cover letter, let the Editor know this process (or a better version – which I’m sure is possible.)

We end up with better trained students and postdocs (who also get appropriate author credit for their CVs), improved replicability of methods, and less chance of desk rejection from hard-working and under-appreciated editors.

Matt Dye PhD FPsyS

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