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Writing in Research Series: Limitations

By: Derek Higgs, PhD
July 15, 2020


Observation, analysis, and sharing- these are three pillars of accurate scientific research. The research process allows us to observe the universe, analyze its various components in a structured format, and then accurately share our findings with the world in the form of written reports. As researchers, it is our duty to highlight each of these pillars in our project report. By compiling, describing, and explaining the limitations associated with our project, we are able to highlight each of these pillars in a specific way.

Within the context of scientific research, a limitation is generally defined as a characteristic of the research project (it can be associated with a specific category, like data or methodology) that alters the researcher’s ability to accurately observe a component of the project. The observation portion of the project is influenced by limitations because it limits what the researcher is observing, and therefore, analyzing.

For example, it is common among the researchers at the UDRC to shape their projects and research around a specific window of time because of the limited availability of longitudinal data. If we lived in a perfect world, a researcher could observe a complete library of every statistic that has ever happened from the beginning of time until the present. This would allow for a perfect observation and analysis because the more data that can be observed and analyzed, the more accurate the observation and analysis becomes. However, a researcher has to do all they can with what they have available.

Recently, I was in a meeting to discuss the progress of my current project, which is to measure the marginal effect of high school course subjects on various outcomes. One individual suggested that we look into the effects of middle school performance on high school performance. This would have been a great addition to the project, except the timeframe of data we have available does not allow for us to track a single student from middle school to college. It was, however, possible to track a student from the ninth grade until freshman year of college. Because of this limitation, the project had to be designed around it.

Regarding the third and final pillar of sharing, it is common for the researcher to list and explain the limitations of the research project at the beginning of the written report, usually in the introduction. This highlights the sharing pillar because explaining the limitations of the project at the beginning of the report enhances the reader’s comprehension of why the researcher designed the project in the manner they did. Knowing the limitations of the project from early on helps define the context, structure, and parameters within which the researcher works. A limitation also promotes generalizability by allowing the project to be more accurately replicated by another researcher, in another time, and in another place.

To conclude, it is vital for the researcher to take advantage of listing and explaining the limitations of their project in the report because the limitations allow the researcher to structure the scope and parameter of their project. It allows for a more accurate observation and analysis of the data. And it also makes sharing the project with others more comprehensible by giving the reader proper context.

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