How to write the ‘limitations or shortcomings of the study’ in a research paper?

By Avishek Majumder & Priya Chetty on April 2, 2019
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‘Limitations or shortcomings of the study’ is the last stage of a thesis. After the study is completed, as a researcher, you may have identified shortcomings. Enlisting those areas in the thesis serves many purposes.

Identifying limitations or shortcomings in a study means that you have carefully considered their potential impact on your findings. So, when readers frame an opinion about your study, they know the conditions under which your findings are valid. Secondly, it establishes the credibility of your research. No study is complete without its set of limitations. Therefore identifying these limitations formally acknowledges that your research was carried out ethically. Finally, it establishes the validity of the research.

Researcher versus methodology

Researcher’s limitation occurs due to the researcher’s shortcomings. This may include sampling errors such as using a cluster random sampling instead of simple random sampling. Another type of it is the inability of the researcher to cover a wide range of respondents from a large geographical location. Another researcher based shortcoming is while conducting research that has poor literature support. The research may lack direction of the study, which leads to poor methodology implementation. On the other hand methodology, related limitations include poor methods of data collection.

For example, including fewer questions or irrelevant questions in the survey or interview questionnaire to collect data. In addition, methodological limitations also involve using wrong or irrelevant data analysis methods to present the findings or address the aim of the study. In this case, the limitation is an inadequate questionnaire for data collection to address the aim of the study.

Impact and data related shortcomings

Impact related shortcomings are those where the research suffers from poor impact by the causal factors that do not show a variation of the findings. This mainly occurs when you use manipulated data or have poorly planned the methodology. As a result, the findings may seem to be a too obvious or small positive or negative change in a variable quantity or function. On the other hand, data limitations are almost the same as methodological limitations mentioned in the previous type. Poor data collection methods and lack of large sample size for survey make for poor data.

Pre-research and post-research shortcomings

Pre-research shortcomings are the ones that you are aware of or expect during the conduction of the study. Usually, pre-research shortcomings are presented in the proposal or synopsis of the main research. However, there are no solutions to these problems. On the other hand, post-research limitations are the ones that are identified after the study was conducted. For instance, biased findings or contradictory findings comes under post-research limitations. This may also occur while conducting triangulation, and the findings of quantitative and qualitative do not match the secondary literature findings.

Steps to follow

There are many ways to write this section, but the three-step formula is popular.

Step 1: Announcement

In this step clearly mention the shortcomings that were faced in the study. List out all the shortcomings faced starting from methods to the statistical findings, such as bias in sampling, lack of respondent participation, etc. This section of the limitation should be only 10% of the total content.

Step 2: Reflection

In this step, justify and elaborate on the limitations. Justify why the limitations occurred. This should have the maximum content, of about 60%.

For instance, the biases of the responses may have occurred from poor knowledge of the participants or the participants were not aware of the importance of the study. Another possibility of biases of the responses is that they did not want to display the negative aspects and responded positively for the sake of the study. In addition, research limitation may also be possible as the study chose only one case for the collection of data.

Step 3: Look forward

This mainly comprises of the future scope of the study. Suggest what should be done in the future by researchers looking to conduct similar studies. This section should comprise the remaining 30% of the total content.

For instance, since, the study found the limitation of response biases; it is suggested that future researchers must choose more than one organization for distribution and collection of the survey or interview. In addition, a pilot study can be conducted well before the collection of final data.

Steps to write 'limitations or shortcomings of the study'
Figure 1: Steps to write ‘limitations or shortcomings of the study’
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What not to write?

  • Do not apologize for writing the limitations of the study or never apologize for the occurrence of the limitations. Without it, the research is never complete, and the study will never move in the right direction.
  • Avoid referring to personal limitations such as poor data collection due to lack of time. Do not mention points that will show negative impression your due diligence in the research. Avoid statements that will lead to the lack of your credibility. This may include statements such as ‘since the study was on secondary data gathered, many missing variables were discovered. Since the variables are important and cannot be ignored; there was a manipulation of the missing data’.
  • Never mention shortcomings that have already been mentioned in the previous studies. Research is initiated by identifying the limitations of past research published in the same field. Do not use sentences like, ‘we found similar limitations as were mentioned by ABD, (2018) in the study ‘how to write limitations’? Or ‘the current study tried to avoid the limitations as mentioned in ABD, (2018), but the same still occurred.’
  • Do not over-write or paraphrase just for the sake of filling up words. Never repeat the same points over and over again. For instance, once spoken of the sample size limitations, do not write that, ‘the study also saw the limitation of less number of people turning up for the survey questionnaire fill-ins.’

Sample of ‘limitations of the study’

The following is a classic example of how to write the limitations in a thesis.

The main aim of the study was to assess the factors that lead to poor limitations writing in a research paper by research scholars. Although the study conducted a thorough survey, there were certain limitations while exploring the aim of the study. It is expected that these points will help future researchers to avoid facing the same shortcomings.

  • While conducting the pilot study it was expected that the number of participants will be a minimum of 200. However, after the final data collection and compilation of data, there were only 129 participants for the study. This might be from the fact that the participants were not interested in participating or did not have the time to completely fill in the questionnaire. Since the sample populations were mainly research scholars from a tertiary institute, maybe they did not have enough time to fill in the questionnaires. Therefore, in future studies that use research scholars as a sample population but consider providing questionnaires or collect data from a much larger group or choose more than one institutions for the collection of data.
  • It was found from the study that, the current findings contradict the findings of previous studies on factors that lead to poor limitations writing in a research paper by research scholars. This may be from the fact that the studies conducted previously were based on European countries and America. Therefore, the perspective of the research scholars may have varied. Again, the methods of research differ from one place to another and the challenges faced by researchers also differ. This may have led to the limitation of contradictory findings. Therefore, it is suggested that the researchers must consider the factors found from different regions and assess them or make a comparative study to find the factors and how they differ.
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Concluding note

Limitations of the study is a very important part of the research. It helps future studies and researches to focus on more innovative ways to conduct research and ignore the issues faced. Be honest, pragmatic and structured while writing this section. Go through ample examples from different authors before writing your own. I suggest you using pointers to specifically write or inform the limitations as indicated in the limitation example. Be specific about the limitations and try not to make up to the limitations.

Priya is the co-founder and Managing Partner of Project Guru, a research and analytics firm based in Gurgaon. She is responsible for the human resource planning and operations functions. Her expertise in analytics has been used in a number of service-based industries like education and financial services.

Her foundational educational is from St. Xaviers High School (Mumbai). She also holds MBA degree in Marketing and Finance from the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, Delhi (2008).

Some of the notable projects she has worked on include:

  • Using systems thinking to improve sustainability in operations: A study carried out in Malaysia in partnership with Universiti Kuala Lumpur.
  • Assessing customer satisfaction with in-house doctors of Jiva Ayurveda (a project executed for the company)
  • Predicting the potential impact of green hydrogen microgirds (A project executed for the Government of South Africa)

She is a key contributor to the in-house research platform Knowledge Tank.

She currently holds over 300 citations from her contributions to the platform.

She has also been a guest speaker at various institutes such as JIMS (Delhi), BPIT (Delhi), and SVU (Tirupati).



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