Scientific research is an imperfect process. The core aspect of research, to investigate research questions, on topics both known and unknown, inherently includes an element of risk. These include human error, barriers to data gathering, limited resources, and bias. Researchers are encouraged to discuss the limitations of their work to enhance the process of research, as well as to allow readers to gain an understanding of the study’s framework and value.
The limitations of a study are defined as any characteristics, traits, actions, or influences that could impact the research process, and therefore its findings. Types of limitations can differ significantly, ranging from internal aspects, such as flaws in design and methodology, to external influences that a researcher was unable to control. A study may have several limitations that impact how its findings withstand validity tests, the generalizability of conclusions, or the appropriateness of the study design in a specific context.
Importance of Discussing Limitations
Many new researchers fear openly and clearly stating the limitations of their studies as they worry it will undermine the validity and relevance of their work for readers and other professionals in the field. That is not the case, as a statement of study limitations allows the reader to better understand the conditions of the study and challenges that the researcher has encountered. Not including this section, or leaving out vital aspects, which can address anything from sampling to the specific research methodology, can be detrimental to the general research field as it establishes an incomplete and potentially fallacious depiction of the research. Within academia, it is expected that all studies have limitations to some extent. Including this section demonstrates a comprehensive and holistic understanding of the research process and topic by the author.
A discussion of limitations should be a subjective learning process that assesses the magnitude, and critically evaluates the extenuating impact of the said limitations. This leads to the importance of stating limitations as it creates opportunities for both the original author and other researchers to improve the quality and validity of any future studies. Including limitations is based on the core principle of transparency in scientific research, with the purpose to maintain mutual integrity and promote further progress in similar studies.
Descriptions of Various Limitations
- Sample size or profile – sampling is one of the most common limitations mentioned by researchers. This is often due to the difficulty of finding a perfect sample that both fits the size parameters and necessary characteristics of the study to ensure generalizability of results. Various sampling techniques are also open to error and bias, which may potentially influence outcomes. Sometimes researchers are faced with limitations in selecting samples and resort to selective picking of participants or, the opposite, including irrelevant people in the general pool to reach the necessary total.
- Availability of information or previous research – generally, studies are based on previous knowledge or theoretical concepts on a specific topic. This provides a strong foundation for developing both the design and research problem for the investigation. However, there are instances where research is done on relatively specific topics, or is very progressive. Therefore, a lack of knowledge or other previous studies may limit the scope of the analysis, lead to inaccuracies in the author’s arguments, and present an increased margin for error in many aspects of the research and methodology.
- Methodology errors – the complexity of modern research leads to potential limitations in methodology. Most often, it is regarding data collection and analysis, as these aspects can strongly influence outcomes. Data collection techniques differ and, although fitting for the study design, present strong limitations in terms of privacy, distractions, or inappropriate levels of detail.
- Bias – a potential limitation that can affect all researchers. This is a limitation that researchers attempt to avoid by ensuring there are no conflicts of interest, lack of any emotional or prejudiced attitudes towards the topic, and establishing a level of oversight by referring to an ethics committee and peer-review procedures. As humans, it is inherent that bias will be present to some extent. However, it is the responsibility of the researcher to remain objective and attempt to control any potential bias or inaccuracies throughout every stage of the research process.
Structuring and Writing Limitations in Research Paper
The limitation section should be written in such a way that it demonstrates that the author understands the core concepts of bias, confounding, and analytical self-criticism. It is not necessary to highlight every single limitation, but rather the ones that have a direct impact on the study results or the research problem. The thought process of the researcher should be presented, explaining the pros and cons of any decisions made and the circumstances which have led to the limitation. Structuring the limitations should be done in a fourfold approach:
- Identify and describe the limitation. This should be done through the use of professional terminology and accompanying definitions when necessary. The explanation of the limitation should be brief and precise to ensure that readers have a clear grasp of the issue, as well as being able to follow the author’s pattern of thought.
- Outline the potential influence or impact that the limitation may have on the study. This consists of elements such as the likelihood of occurrence, the magnitude of impact, and the general direction that a specific limitation has driven the study findings. It is generally accepted that some limitations will have a more profound influence than others. Therefore, it is vital to highlight the impact of the limitation so that readers can decide which issues to consider when examining the topic as limitations with a null value bias are less dangerous.
- Discuss alternative approaches to the specific limitations, or the research question in general. A justification should be provided by the author to support the particular approach and methodology selected in the specific study and why it was warranted within the context of any limitations. If possible, persuasive evidence should be provided and alternative decisions discussed to some extent. This demonstrates transparency of thought and reassures readers that despite potential limitations, the selected approach was the best alternative for the current research on the topic within the field of study.
- Describe techniques to minimize any risks resulting from the limitations. This may include reference to previous research and suggestions on the improvement of design and analysis.
Limitations are an inherent part of any research study. Therefore, it is generally accepted in academia to acknowledge various limitations as part of the research process. Issues may vary, ranging from sampling and literature review, to methodology and bias. However, there is a structure for identifying these elements, discussing them, and offering insight or alternatives on how limitations can be mitigated. This not only enhances the process of the research but also helps readers gain a comprehensive understanding of a study’s conditions.