How to Write Limitations of the Study (with examples)

This blog emphasizes the importance of recognizing and effectively writing about limitations in research. It discusses the types of limitations, their significance, and provides guidelines for writing about them, highlighting their role in advancing scholarly research.

Updated on August 24, 2023

a group of researchers writing their limitation of their study

No matter how well thought out, every research endeavor encounters challenges. There is simply no way to predict all possible variances throughout the process.

These uncharted boundaries and abrupt constraints are known as limitations in research . Identifying and acknowledging limitations is crucial for conducting rigorous studies. Limitations provide context and shed light on gaps in the prevailing inquiry and literature.

This article explores the importance of recognizing limitations and discusses how to write them effectively. By interpreting limitations in research and considering prevalent examples, we aim to reframe the perception from shameful mistakes to respectable revelations.

What are limitations in research?

In the clearest terms, research limitations are the practical or theoretical shortcomings of a study that are often outside of the researcher’s control . While these weaknesses limit the generalizability of a study’s conclusions, they also present a foundation for future research.

Sometimes limitations arise from tangible circumstances like time and funding constraints, or equipment and participant availability. Other times the rationale is more obscure and buried within the research design. Common types of limitations and their ramifications include:

  • Theoretical: limits the scope, depth, or applicability of a study.
  • Methodological: limits the quality, quantity, or diversity of the data.
  • Empirical: limits the representativeness, validity, or reliability of the data.
  • Analytical: limits the accuracy, completeness, or significance of the findings.
  • Ethical: limits the access, consent, or confidentiality of the data.

Regardless of how, when, or why they arise, limitations are a natural part of the research process and should never be ignored . Like all other aspects, they are vital in their own purpose.

Why is identifying limitations important?

Whether to seek acceptance or avoid struggle, humans often instinctively hide flaws and mistakes. Merging this thought process into research by attempting to hide limitations, however, is a bad idea. It has the potential to negate the validity of outcomes and damage the reputation of scholars.

By identifying and addressing limitations throughout a project, researchers strengthen their arguments and curtail the chance of peer censure based on overlooked mistakes. Pointing out these flaws shows an understanding of variable limits and a scrupulous research process.

Showing awareness of and taking responsibility for a project’s boundaries and challenges validates the integrity and transparency of a researcher. It further demonstrates the researchers understand the applicable literature and have thoroughly evaluated their chosen research methods.

Presenting limitations also benefits the readers by providing context for research findings. It guides them to interpret the project’s conclusions only within the scope of very specific conditions. By allowing for an appropriate generalization of the findings that is accurately confined by research boundaries and is not too broad, limitations boost a study’s credibility .

Limitations are true assets to the research process. They highlight opportunities for future research. When researchers identify the limitations of their particular approach to a study question, they enable precise transferability and improve chances for reproducibility. 

Simply stating a project’s limitations is not adequate for spurring further research, though. To spark the interest of other researchers, these acknowledgements must come with thorough explanations regarding how the limitations affected the current study and how they can potentially be overcome with amended methods.

How to write limitations

Typically, the information about a study’s limitations is situated either at the beginning of the discussion section to provide context for readers or at the conclusion of the discussion section to acknowledge the need for further research. However, it varies depending upon the target journal or publication guidelines. 

Don’t hide your limitations

It is also important to not bury a limitation in the body of the paper unless it has a unique connection to a topic in that section. If so, it needs to be reiterated with the other limitations or at the conclusion of the discussion section. Wherever it is included in the manuscript, ensure that the limitations section is prominently positioned and clearly introduced.

While maintaining transparency by disclosing limitations means taking a comprehensive approach, it is not necessary to discuss everything that could have potentially gone wrong during the research study. If there is no commitment to investigation in the introduction, it is unnecessary to consider the issue a limitation to the research. Wholly consider the term ‘limitations’ and ask, “Did it significantly change or limit the possible outcomes?” Then, qualify the occurrence as either a limitation to include in the current manuscript or as an idea to note for other projects. 

Writing limitations

Once the limitations are concretely identified and it is decided where they will be included in the paper, researchers are ready for the writing task. Including only what is pertinent, keeping explanations detailed but concise, and employing the following guidelines is key for crafting valuable limitations:

1) Identify and describe the limitations : Clearly introduce the limitation by classifying its form and specifying its origin. For example:

  • An unintentional bias encountered during data collection
  • An intentional use of unplanned post-hoc data analysis

2) Explain the implications : Describe how the limitation potentially influences the study’s findings and how the validity and generalizability are subsequently impacted. Provide examples and evidence to support claims of the limitations’ effects without making excuses or exaggerating their impact. Overall, be transparent and objective in presenting the limitations, without undermining the significance of the research. 

3) Provide alternative approaches for future studies : Offer specific suggestions for potential improvements or avenues for further investigation. Demonstrate a proactive approach by encouraging future research that addresses the identified gaps and, therefore, expands the knowledge base.

Whether presenting limitations as an individual section within the manuscript or as a subtopic in the discussion area, authors should use clear headings and straightforward language to facilitate readability. There is no need to complicate limitations with jargon, computations, or complex datasets.

Examples of common limitations

Limitations are generally grouped into two categories , methodology and research process .

Methodology limitations

Methodology may include limitations due to:

  • Sample size
  • Lack of available or reliable data
  • Lack of prior research studies on the topic
  • Measure used to collect the data
  • Self-reported data

methodology limitation example

The researcher is addressing how the large sample size requires a reassessment of the measures used to collect and analyze the data.

Research process limitations

Limitations during the research process may arise from:

  • Access to information
  • Longitudinal effects
  • Cultural and other biases
  • Language fluency
  • Time constraints

research process limitations example

The author is pointing out that the model’s estimates are based on potentially biased observational studies.

Final thoughts

Successfully proving theories and touting great achievements are only two very narrow goals of scholarly research. The true passion and greatest efforts of researchers comes more in the form of confronting assumptions and exploring the obscure.

In many ways, recognizing and sharing the limitations of a research study both allows for and encourages this type of discovery that continuously pushes research forward. By using limitations to provide a transparent account of the project's boundaries and to contextualize the findings, researchers pave the way for even more robust and impactful research in the future.

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The limitations of the study are those characteristics of design or methodology that impacted or influenced the interpretation of the findings from your research. Study limitations are the constraints placed on the ability to generalize from the results, to further describe applications to practice, and/or related to the utility of findings that are the result of the ways in which you initially chose to design the study or the method used to establish internal and external validity or the result of unanticipated challenges that emerged during the study.

Price, James H. and Judy Murnan. “Research Limitations and the Necessity of Reporting Them.” American Journal of Health Education 35 (2004): 66-67; Theofanidis, Dimitrios and Antigoni Fountouki. "Limitations and Delimitations in the Research Process." Perioperative Nursing 7 (September-December 2018): 155-163. .

Importance of...

Always acknowledge a study's limitations. It is far better that you identify and acknowledge your study’s limitations than to have them pointed out by your professor and have your grade lowered because you appeared to have ignored them or didn't realize they existed.

Keep in mind that acknowledgment of a study's limitations is an opportunity to make suggestions for further research. If you do connect your study's limitations to suggestions for further research, be sure to explain the ways in which these unanswered questions may become more focused because of your study.

Acknowledgment of a study's limitations also provides you with opportunities to demonstrate that you have thought critically about the research problem, understood the relevant literature published about it, and correctly assessed the methods chosen for studying the problem. A key objective of the research process is not only discovering new knowledge but also to confront assumptions and explore what we don't know.

Claiming limitations is a subjective process because you must evaluate the impact of those limitations . Don't just list key weaknesses and the magnitude of a study's limitations. To do so diminishes the validity of your research because it leaves the reader wondering whether, or in what ways, limitation(s) in your study may have impacted the results and conclusions. Limitations require a critical, overall appraisal and interpretation of their impact. You should answer the question: do these problems with errors, methods, validity, etc. eventually matter and, if so, to what extent?

Price, James H. and Judy Murnan. “Research Limitations and the Necessity of Reporting Them.” American Journal of Health Education 35 (2004): 66-67; Structure: How to Structure the Research Limitations Section of Your Dissertation. Dissertations and Theses: An Online Textbook. Laerd.com.

Descriptions of Possible Limitations

All studies have limitations . However, it is important that you restrict your discussion to limitations related to the research problem under investigation. For example, if a meta-analysis of existing literature is not a stated purpose of your research, it should not be discussed as a limitation. Do not apologize for not addressing issues that you did not promise to investigate in the introduction of your paper.

Here are examples of limitations related to methodology and the research process you may need to describe and discuss how they possibly impacted your results. Note that descriptions of limitations should be stated in the past tense because they were discovered after you completed your research.

Possible Methodological Limitations

  • Sample size -- the number of the units of analysis you use in your study is dictated by the type of research problem you are investigating. Note that, if your sample size is too small, it will be difficult to find significant relationships from the data, as statistical tests normally require a larger sample size to ensure a representative distribution of the population and to be considered representative of groups of people to whom results will be generalized or transferred. Note that sample size is generally less relevant in qualitative research if explained in the context of the research problem.
  • Lack of available and/or reliable data -- a lack of data or of reliable data will likely require you to limit the scope of your analysis, the size of your sample, or it can be a significant obstacle in finding a trend and a meaningful relationship. You need to not only describe these limitations but provide cogent reasons why you believe data is missing or is unreliable. However, don’t just throw up your hands in frustration; use this as an opportunity to describe a need for future research based on designing a different method for gathering data.
  • Lack of prior research studies on the topic -- citing prior research studies forms the basis of your literature review and helps lay a foundation for understanding the research problem you are investigating. Depending on the currency or scope of your research topic, there may be little, if any, prior research on your topic. Before assuming this to be true, though, consult with a librarian! In cases when a librarian has confirmed that there is little or no prior research, you may be required to develop an entirely new research typology [for example, using an exploratory rather than an explanatory research design ]. Note again that discovering a limitation can serve as an important opportunity to identify new gaps in the literature and to describe the need for further research.
  • Measure used to collect the data -- sometimes it is the case that, after completing your interpretation of the findings, you discover that the way in which you gathered data inhibited your ability to conduct a thorough analysis of the results. For example, you regret not including a specific question in a survey that, in retrospect, could have helped address a particular issue that emerged later in the study. Acknowledge the deficiency by stating a need for future researchers to revise the specific method for gathering data.
  • Self-reported data -- whether you are relying on pre-existing data or you are conducting a qualitative research study and gathering the data yourself, self-reported data is limited by the fact that it rarely can be independently verified. In other words, you have to the accuracy of what people say, whether in interviews, focus groups, or on questionnaires, at face value. However, self-reported data can contain several potential sources of bias that you should be alert to and note as limitations. These biases become apparent if they are incongruent with data from other sources. These are: (1) selective memory [remembering or not remembering experiences or events that occurred at some point in the past]; (2) telescoping [recalling events that occurred at one time as if they occurred at another time]; (3) attribution [the act of attributing positive events and outcomes to one's own agency, but attributing negative events and outcomes to external forces]; and, (4) exaggeration [the act of representing outcomes or embellishing events as more significant than is actually suggested from other data].

Possible Limitations of the Researcher

  • Access -- if your study depends on having access to people, organizations, data, or documents and, for whatever reason, access is denied or limited in some way, the reasons for this needs to be described. Also, include an explanation why being denied or limited access did not prevent you from following through on your study.
  • Longitudinal effects -- unlike your professor, who can literally devote years [even a lifetime] to studying a single topic, the time available to investigate a research problem and to measure change or stability over time is constrained by the due date of your assignment. Be sure to choose a research problem that does not require an excessive amount of time to complete the literature review, apply the methodology, and gather and interpret the results. If you're unsure whether you can complete your research within the confines of the assignment's due date, talk to your professor.
  • Cultural and other type of bias -- we all have biases, whether we are conscience of them or not. Bias is when a person, place, event, or thing is viewed or shown in a consistently inaccurate way. Bias is usually negative, though one can have a positive bias as well, especially if that bias reflects your reliance on research that only support your hypothesis. When proof-reading your paper, be especially critical in reviewing how you have stated a problem, selected the data to be studied, what may have been omitted, the manner in which you have ordered events, people, or places, how you have chosen to represent a person, place, or thing, to name a phenomenon, or to use possible words with a positive or negative connotation. NOTE :   If you detect bias in prior research, it must be acknowledged and you should explain what measures were taken to avoid perpetuating that bias. For example, if a previous study only used boys to examine how music education supports effective math skills, describe how your research expands the study to include girls.
  • Fluency in a language -- if your research focuses , for example, on measuring the perceived value of after-school tutoring among Mexican-American ESL [English as a Second Language] students and you are not fluent in Spanish, you are limited in being able to read and interpret Spanish language research studies on the topic or to speak with these students in their primary language. This deficiency should be acknowledged.

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; Senunyeme, Emmanuel K. Business Research Methods. Powerpoint Presentation. Regent University of Science and Technology; ter Riet, Gerben et al. “All That Glitters Isn't Gold: A Survey on Acknowledgment of Limitations in Biomedical Studies.” PLOS One 8 (November 2013): 1-6.

Structure and Writing Style

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.

Writing Tip

Don't Inflate the Importance of Your Findings!

After all the hard work and long hours devoted to writing your research paper, it is easy to get carried away with attributing unwarranted importance to what you’ve done. We all want our academic work to be viewed as excellent and worthy of a good grade, but it is important that you understand and openly acknowledge the limitations of your study. Inflating the importance of your study's findings could be perceived by your readers as an attempt hide its flaws or encourage a biased interpretation of the results. A small measure of humility goes a long way!

Another Writing Tip

Negative Results are Not a Limitation!

Negative evidence refers to findings that unexpectedly challenge rather than support your hypothesis. If you didn't get the results you anticipated, it may mean your hypothesis was incorrect and needs to be reformulated. Or, perhaps you have stumbled onto something unexpected that warrants further study. Moreover, the absence of an effect may be very telling in many situations, particularly in experimental research designs. In any case, your results may very well be of importance to others even though they did not support your hypothesis. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that results contrary to what you expected is a limitation to your study. If you carried out the research well, they are simply your results and only require additional interpretation.

Lewis, George H. and Jonathan F. Lewis. “The Dog in the Night-Time: Negative Evidence in Social Research.” The British Journal of Sociology 31 (December 1980): 544-558.

Yet Another Writing Tip

Sample Size Limitations in Qualitative Research

Sample sizes are typically smaller in qualitative research because, as the study goes on, acquiring more data does not necessarily lead to more information. This is because one occurrence of a piece of data, or a code, is all that is necessary to ensure that it becomes part of the analysis framework. However, it remains true that sample sizes that are too small cannot adequately support claims of having achieved valid conclusions and sample sizes that are too large do not permit the deep, naturalistic, and inductive analysis that defines qualitative inquiry. Determining adequate sample size in qualitative research is ultimately a matter of judgment and experience in evaluating the quality of the information collected against the uses to which it will be applied and the particular research method and purposeful sampling strategy employed. If the sample size is found to be a limitation, it may reflect your judgment about the methodological technique chosen [e.g., single life history study versus focus group interviews] rather than the number of respondents used.

Boddy, Clive Roland. "Sample Size for Qualitative Research." Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal 19 (2016): 426-432; Huberman, A. Michael and Matthew B. Miles. "Data Management and Analysis Methods." In Handbook of Qualitative Research . Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994), pp. 428-444; Blaikie, Norman. "Confounding Issues Related to Determining Sample Size in Qualitative Research." International Journal of Social Research Methodology 21 (2018): 635-641; Oppong, Steward Harrison. "The Problem of Sampling in qualitative Research." Asian Journal of Management Sciences and Education 2 (2013): 202-210.

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Home » Limitations in Research – Types, Examples and Writing Guide

Limitations in Research – Types, Examples and Writing Guide

Table of Contents

Limitations in Research

Limitations in Research

Limitations in research refer to the factors that may affect the results, conclusions , and generalizability of a study. These limitations can arise from various sources, such as the design of the study, the sampling methods used, the measurement tools employed, and the limitations of the data analysis techniques.

Types of Limitations in Research

Types of Limitations in Research are as follows:

Sample Size Limitations

This refers to the size of the group of people or subjects that are being studied. If the sample size is too small, then the results may not be representative of the population being studied. This can lead to a lack of generalizability of the results.

Time Limitations

Time limitations can be a constraint on the research process . This could mean that the study is unable to be conducted for a long enough period of time to observe the long-term effects of an intervention, or to collect enough data to draw accurate conclusions.

Selection Bias

This refers to a type of bias that can occur when the selection of participants in a study is not random. This can lead to a biased sample that is not representative of the population being studied.

Confounding Variables

Confounding variables are factors that can influence the outcome of a study, but are not being measured or controlled for. These can lead to inaccurate conclusions or a lack of clarity in the results.

Measurement Error

This refers to inaccuracies in the measurement of variables, such as using a faulty instrument or scale. This can lead to inaccurate results or a lack of validity in the study.

Ethical Limitations

Ethical limitations refer to the ethical constraints placed on research studies. For example, certain studies may not be allowed to be conducted due to ethical concerns, such as studies that involve harm to participants.

Examples of Limitations in Research

Some Examples of Limitations in Research are as follows:

Research Title: “The Effectiveness of Machine Learning Algorithms in Predicting Customer Behavior”

Limitations:

  • The study only considered a limited number of machine learning algorithms and did not explore the effectiveness of other algorithms.
  • The study used a specific dataset, which may not be representative of all customer behaviors or demographics.
  • The study did not consider the potential ethical implications of using machine learning algorithms in predicting customer behavior.

Research Title: “The Impact of Online Learning on Student Performance in Computer Science Courses”

  • The study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have affected the results due to the unique circumstances of remote learning.
  • The study only included students from a single university, which may limit the generalizability of the findings to other institutions.
  • The study did not consider the impact of individual differences, such as prior knowledge or motivation, on student performance in online learning environments.

Research Title: “The Effect of Gamification on User Engagement in Mobile Health Applications”

  • The study only tested a specific gamification strategy and did not explore the effectiveness of other gamification techniques.
  • The study relied on self-reported measures of user engagement, which may be subject to social desirability bias or measurement errors.
  • The study only included a specific demographic group (e.g., young adults) and may not be generalizable to other populations with different preferences or needs.

How to Write Limitations in Research

When writing about the limitations of a research study, it is important to be honest and clear about the potential weaknesses of your work. Here are some tips for writing about limitations in research:

  • Identify the limitations: Start by identifying the potential limitations of your research. These may include sample size, selection bias, measurement error, or other issues that could affect the validity and reliability of your findings.
  • Be honest and objective: When describing the limitations of your research, be honest and objective. Do not try to minimize or downplay the limitations, but also do not exaggerate them. Be clear and concise in your description of the limitations.
  • Provide context: It is important to provide context for the limitations of your research. For example, if your sample size was small, explain why this was the case and how it may have affected your results. Providing context can help readers understand the limitations in a broader context.
  • Discuss implications : Discuss the implications of the limitations for your research findings. For example, if there was a selection bias in your sample, explain how this may have affected the generalizability of your findings. This can help readers understand the limitations in terms of their impact on the overall validity of your research.
  • Provide suggestions for future research : Finally, provide suggestions for future research that can address the limitations of your study. This can help readers understand how your research fits into the broader field and can provide a roadmap for future studies.

Purpose of Limitations in Research

There are several purposes of limitations in research. Here are some of the most important ones:

  • To acknowledge the boundaries of the study : Limitations help to define the scope of the research project and set realistic expectations for the findings. They can help to clarify what the study is not intended to address.
  • To identify potential sources of bias: Limitations can help researchers identify potential sources of bias in their research design, data collection, or analysis. This can help to improve the validity and reliability of the findings.
  • To provide opportunities for future research: Limitations can highlight areas for future research and suggest avenues for further exploration. This can help to advance knowledge in a particular field.
  • To demonstrate transparency and accountability: By acknowledging the limitations of their research, researchers can demonstrate transparency and accountability to their readers, peers, and funders. This can help to build trust and credibility in the research community.
  • To encourage critical thinking: Limitations can encourage readers to critically evaluate the study’s findings and consider alternative explanations or interpretations. This can help to promote a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the topic under investigation.

When to Write Limitations in Research

Limitations should be included in research when they help to provide a more complete understanding of the study’s results and implications. A limitation is any factor that could potentially impact the accuracy, reliability, or generalizability of the study’s findings.

It is important to identify and discuss limitations in research because doing so helps to ensure that the results are interpreted appropriately and that any conclusions drawn are supported by the available evidence. Limitations can also suggest areas for future research, highlight potential biases or confounding factors that may have affected the results, and provide context for the study’s findings.

Generally, limitations should be discussed in the conclusion section of a research paper or thesis, although they may also be mentioned in other sections, such as the introduction or methods. The specific limitations that are discussed will depend on the nature of the study, the research question being investigated, and the data that was collected.

Examples of limitations that might be discussed in research include sample size limitations, data collection methods, the validity and reliability of measures used, and potential biases or confounding factors that could have affected the results. It is important to note that limitations should not be used as a justification for poor research design or methodology, but rather as a way to enhance the understanding and interpretation of the study’s findings.

Importance of Limitations in Research

Here are some reasons why limitations are important in research:

  • Enhances the credibility of research: Limitations highlight the potential weaknesses and threats to validity, which helps readers to understand the scope and boundaries of the study. This improves the credibility of research by acknowledging its limitations and providing a clear picture of what can and cannot be concluded from the study.
  • Facilitates replication: By highlighting the limitations, researchers can provide detailed information about the study’s methodology, data collection, and analysis. This information helps other researchers to replicate the study and test the validity of the findings, which enhances the reliability of research.
  • Guides future research : Limitations provide insights into areas for future research by identifying gaps or areas that require further investigation. This can help researchers to design more comprehensive and effective studies that build on existing knowledge.
  • Provides a balanced view: Limitations help to provide a balanced view of the research by highlighting both strengths and weaknesses. This ensures that readers have a clear understanding of the study’s limitations and can make informed decisions about the generalizability and applicability of the findings.

Advantages of Limitations in Research

Here are some potential advantages of limitations in research:

  • Focus : Limitations can help researchers focus their study on a specific area or population, which can make the research more relevant and useful.
  • Realism : Limitations can make a study more realistic by reflecting the practical constraints and challenges of conducting research in the real world.
  • Innovation : Limitations can spur researchers to be more innovative and creative in their research design and methodology, as they search for ways to work around the limitations.
  • Rigor : Limitations can actually increase the rigor and credibility of a study, as researchers are forced to carefully consider the potential sources of bias and error, and address them to the best of their abilities.
  • Generalizability : Limitations can actually improve the generalizability of a study by ensuring that it is not overly focused on a specific sample or situation, and that the results can be applied more broadly.

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21 Research Limitations Examples

21 Research Limitations Examples

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research limitations examples and definition, explained below

Research limitations refer to the potential weaknesses inherent in a study. All studies have limitations of some sort, meaning declaring limitations doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing, so long as your declaration of limitations is well thought-out and explained.

Rarely is a study perfect. Researchers have to make trade-offs when developing their studies, which are often based upon practical considerations such as time and monetary constraints, weighing the breadth of participants against the depth of insight, and choosing one methodology or another.

In research, studies can have limitations such as limited scope, researcher subjectivity, and lack of available research tools.

Acknowledging the limitations of your study should be seen as a strength. It demonstrates your willingness for transparency, humility, and submission to the scientific method and can bolster the integrity of the study. It can also inform future research direction.

Typically, scholars will explore the limitations of their study in either their methodology section, their conclusion section, or both.

Research Limitations Examples

Qualitative and quantitative research offer different perspectives and methods in exploring phenomena, each with its own strengths and limitations. So, I’ve split the limitations examples sections into qualitative and quantitative below.

Qualitative Research Limitations

Qualitative research seeks to understand phenomena in-depth and in context. It focuses on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.

It’s often used to explore new or complex issues, and it provides rich, detailed insights into participants’ experiences, behaviors, and attitudes. However, these strengths also create certain limitations, as explained below.

1. Subjectivity

Qualitative research often requires the researcher to interpret subjective data. One researcher may examine a text and identify different themes or concepts as more dominant than others.

Close qualitative readings of texts are necessarily subjective – and while this may be a limitation, qualitative researchers argue this is the best way to deeply understand everything in context.

Suggested Solution and Response: To minimize subjectivity bias, you could consider cross-checking your own readings of themes and data against other scholars’ readings and interpretations. This may involve giving the raw data to a supervisor or colleague and asking them to code the data separately, then coming together to compare and contrast results.

2. Researcher Bias

The concept of researcher bias is related to, but slightly different from, subjectivity.

Researcher bias refers to the perspectives and opinions you bring with you when doing your research.

For example, a researcher who is explicitly of a certain philosophical or political persuasion may bring that persuasion to bear when interpreting data.

In many scholarly traditions, we will attempt to minimize researcher bias through the utilization of clear procedures that are set out in advance or through the use of statistical analysis tools.

However, in other traditions, such as in postmodern feminist research , declaration of bias is expected, and acknowledgment of bias is seen as a positive because, in those traditions, it is believed that bias cannot be eliminated from research, so instead, it is a matter of integrity to present it upfront.

Suggested Solution and Response: Acknowledge the potential for researcher bias and, depending on your theoretical framework , accept this, or identify procedures you have taken to seek a closer approximation to objectivity in your coding and analysis.

3. Generalizability

If you’re struggling to find a limitation to discuss in your own qualitative research study, then this one is for you: all qualitative research, of all persuasions and perspectives, cannot be generalized.

This is a core feature that sets qualitative data and quantitative data apart.

The point of qualitative data is to select case studies and similarly small corpora and dig deep through in-depth analysis and thick description of data.

Often, this will also mean that you have a non-randomized sample size.

While this is a positive – you’re going to get some really deep, contextualized, interesting insights – it also means that the findings may not be generalizable to a larger population that may not be representative of the small group of people in your study.

Suggested Solution and Response: Suggest future studies that take a quantitative approach to the question.

4. The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne effect refers to the phenomenon where research participants change their ‘observed behavior’ when they’re aware that they are being observed.

This effect was first identified by Elton Mayo who conducted studies of the effects of various factors ton workers’ productivity. He noticed that no matter what he did – turning up the lights, turning down the lights, etc. – there was an increase in worker outputs compared to prior to the study taking place.

Mayo realized that the mere act of observing the workers made them work harder – his observation was what was changing behavior.

So, if you’re looking for a potential limitation to name for your observational research study , highlight the possible impact of the Hawthorne effect (and how you could reduce your footprint or visibility in order to decrease its likelihood).

Suggested Solution and Response: Highlight ways you have attempted to reduce your footprint while in the field, and guarantee anonymity to your research participants.

5. Replicability

Quantitative research has a great benefit in that the studies are replicable – a researcher can get a similar sample size, duplicate the variables, and re-test a study. But you can’t do that in qualitative research.

Qualitative research relies heavily on context – a specific case study or specific variables that make a certain instance worthy of analysis. As a result, it’s often difficult to re-enter the same setting with the same variables and repeat the study.

Furthermore, the individual researcher’s interpretation is more influential in qualitative research, meaning even if a new researcher enters an environment and makes observations, their observations may be different because subjectivity comes into play much more. This doesn’t make the research bad necessarily (great insights can be made in qualitative research), but it certainly does demonstrate a weakness of qualitative research.

6. Limited Scope

“Limited scope” is perhaps one of the most common limitations listed by researchers – and while this is often a catch-all way of saying, “well, I’m not studying that in this study”, it’s also a valid point.

No study can explore everything related to a topic. At some point, we have to make decisions about what’s included in the study and what is excluded from the study.

So, you could say that a limitation of your study is that it doesn’t look at an extra variable or concept that’s certainly worthy of study but will have to be explored in your next project because this project has a clearly and narrowly defined goal.

Suggested Solution and Response: Be clear about what’s in and out of the study when writing your research question.

7. Time Constraints

This is also a catch-all claim you can make about your research project: that you would have included more people in the study, looked at more variables, and so on. But you’ve got to submit this thing by the end of next semester! You’ve got time constraints.

And time constraints are a recognized reality in all research.

But this means you’ll need to explain how time has limited your decisions. As with “limited scope”, this may mean that you had to study a smaller group of subjects, limit the amount of time you spent in the field, and so forth.

Suggested Solution and Response: Suggest future studies that will build on your current work, possibly as a PhD project.

8. Resource Intensiveness

Qualitative research can be expensive due to the cost of transcription, the involvement of trained researchers, and potential travel for interviews or observations.

So, resource intensiveness is similar to the time constraints concept. If you don’t have the funds, you have to make decisions about which tools to use, which statistical software to employ, and how many research assistants you can dedicate to the study.

Suggested Solution and Response: Suggest future studies that will gain more funding on the back of this ‘ exploratory study ‘.

9. Coding Difficulties

Data analysis in qualitative research often involves coding, which can be subjective and complex, especially when dealing with ambiguous or contradicting data.

After naming this as a limitation in your research, it’s important to explain how you’ve attempted to address this. Some ways to ‘limit the limitation’ include:

  • Triangulation: Have 2 other researchers code the data as well and cross-check your results with theirs to identify outliers that may need to be re-examined, debated with the other researchers, or removed altogether.
  • Procedure: Use a clear coding procedure to demonstrate reliability in your coding process. I personally use the thematic network analysis method outlined in this academic article by Attride-Stirling (2001).

Suggested Solution and Response: Triangulate your coding findings with colleagues, and follow a thematic network analysis procedure.

10. Risk of Non-Responsiveness

There is always a risk in research that research participants will be unwilling or uncomfortable sharing their genuine thoughts and feelings in the study.

This is particularly true when you’re conducting research on sensitive topics, politicized topics, or topics where the participant is expressing vulnerability .

This is similar to the Hawthorne effect (aka participant bias), where participants change their behaviors in your presence; but it goes a step further, where participants actively hide their true thoughts and feelings from you.

Suggested Solution and Response: One way to manage this is to try to include a wider group of people with the expectation that there will be non-responsiveness from some participants.

11. Risk of Attrition

Attrition refers to the process of losing research participants throughout the study.

This occurs most commonly in longitudinal studies , where a researcher must return to conduct their analysis over spaced periods of time, often over a period of years.

Things happen to people over time – they move overseas, their life experiences change, they get sick, change their minds, and even die. The more time that passes, the greater the risk of attrition.

Suggested Solution and Response: One way to manage this is to try to include a wider group of people with the expectation that there will be attrition over time.

12. Difficulty in Maintaining Confidentiality and Anonymity

Given the detailed nature of qualitative data , ensuring participant anonymity can be challenging.

If you have a sensitive topic in a specific case study, even anonymizing research participants sometimes isn’t enough. People might be able to induce who you’re talking about.

Sometimes, this will mean you have to exclude some interesting data that you collected from your final report. Confidentiality and anonymity come before your findings in research ethics – and this is a necessary limiting factor.

Suggested Solution and Response: Highlight the efforts you have taken to anonymize data, and accept that confidentiality and accountability place extremely important constraints on academic research.

13. Difficulty in Finding Research Participants

A study that looks at a very specific phenomenon or even a specific set of cases within a phenomenon means that the pool of potential research participants can be very low.

Compile on top of this the fact that many people you approach may choose not to participate, and you could end up with a very small corpus of subjects to explore. This may limit your ability to make complete findings, even in a quantitative sense.

You may need to therefore limit your research question and objectives to something more realistic.

Suggested Solution and Response: Highlight that this is going to limit the study’s generalizability significantly.

14. Ethical Limitations

Ethical limitations refer to the things you cannot do based on ethical concerns identified either by yourself or your institution’s ethics review board.

This might include threats to the physical or psychological well-being of your research subjects, the potential of releasing data that could harm a person’s reputation, and so on.

Furthermore, even if your study follows all expected standards of ethics, you still, as an ethical researcher, need to allow a research participant to pull out at any point in time, after which you cannot use their data, which demonstrates an overlap between ethical constraints and participant attrition.

Suggested Solution and Response: Highlight that these ethical limitations are inevitable but important to sustain the integrity of the research.

For more on Qualitative Research, Explore my Qualitative Research Guide

Quantitative Research Limitations

Quantitative research focuses on quantifiable data and statistical, mathematical, or computational techniques. It’s often used to test hypotheses, assess relationships and causality, and generalize findings across larger populations.

Quantitative research is widely respected for its ability to provide reliable, measurable, and generalizable data (if done well!). Its structured methodology has strengths over qualitative research, such as the fact it allows for replication of the study, which underpins the validity of the research.

However, this approach is not without it limitations, explained below.

1. Over-Simplification

Quantitative research is powerful because it allows you to measure and analyze data in a systematic and standardized way. However, one of its limitations is that it can sometimes simplify complex phenomena or situations.

In other words, it might miss the subtleties or nuances of the research subject.

For example, if you’re studying why people choose a particular diet, a quantitative study might identify factors like age, income, or health status. But it might miss other aspects, such as cultural influences or personal beliefs, that can also significantly impact dietary choices.

When writing about this limitation, you can say that your quantitative approach, while providing precise measurements and comparisons, may not capture the full complexity of your subjects of study.

Suggested Solution and Response: Suggest a follow-up case study using the same research participants in order to gain additional context and depth.

2. Lack of Context

Another potential issue with quantitative research is that it often focuses on numbers and statistics at the expense of context or qualitative information.

Let’s say you’re studying the effect of classroom size on student performance. You might find that students in smaller classes generally perform better. However, this doesn’t take into account other variables, like teaching style , student motivation, or family support.

When describing this limitation, you might say, “Although our research provides important insights into the relationship between class size and student performance, it does not incorporate the impact of other potentially influential variables. Future research could benefit from a mixed-methods approach that combines quantitative analysis with qualitative insights.”

3. Applicability to Real-World Settings

Oftentimes, experimental research takes place in controlled environments to limit the influence of outside factors.

This control is great for isolation and understanding the specific phenomenon but can limit the applicability or “external validity” of the research to real-world settings.

For example, if you conduct a lab experiment to see how sleep deprivation impacts cognitive performance, the sterile, controlled lab environment might not reflect real-world conditions where people are dealing with multiple stressors.

Therefore, when explaining the limitations of your quantitative study in your methodology section, you could state:

“While our findings provide valuable information about [topic], the controlled conditions of the experiment may not accurately represent real-world scenarios where extraneous variables will exist. As such, the direct applicability of our results to broader contexts may be limited.”

Suggested Solution and Response: Suggest future studies that will engage in real-world observational research, such as ethnographic research.

4. Limited Flexibility

Once a quantitative study is underway, it can be challenging to make changes to it. This is because, unlike in grounded research, you’re putting in place your study in advance, and you can’t make changes part-way through.

Your study design, data collection methods, and analysis techniques need to be decided upon before you start collecting data.

For example, if you are conducting a survey on the impact of social media on teenage mental health, and halfway through, you realize that you should have included a question about their screen time, it’s generally too late to add it.

When discussing this limitation, you could write something like, “The structured nature of our quantitative approach allows for consistent data collection and analysis but also limits our flexibility to adapt and modify the research process in response to emerging insights and ideas.”

Suggested Solution and Response: Suggest future studies that will use mixed-methods or qualitative research methods to gain additional depth of insight.

5. Risk of Survey Error

Surveys are a common tool in quantitative research, but they carry risks of error.

There can be measurement errors (if a question is misunderstood), coverage errors (if some groups aren’t adequately represented), non-response errors (if certain people don’t respond), and sampling errors (if your sample isn’t representative of the population).

For instance, if you’re surveying college students about their study habits , but only daytime students respond because you conduct the survey during the day, your results will be skewed.

In discussing this limitation, you might say, “Despite our best efforts to develop a comprehensive survey, there remains a risk of survey error, including measurement, coverage, non-response, and sampling errors. These could potentially impact the reliability and generalizability of our findings.”

Suggested Solution and Response: Suggest future studies that will use other survey tools to compare and contrast results.

6. Limited Ability to Probe Answers

With quantitative research, you typically can’t ask follow-up questions or delve deeper into participants’ responses like you could in a qualitative interview.

For instance, imagine you are surveying 500 students about study habits in a questionnaire. A respondent might indicate that they study for two hours each night. You might want to follow up by asking them to elaborate on what those study sessions involve or how effective they feel their habits are.

However, quantitative research generally disallows this in the way a qualitative semi-structured interview could.

When discussing this limitation, you might write, “Given the structured nature of our survey, our ability to probe deeper into individual responses is limited. This means we may not fully understand the context or reasoning behind the responses, potentially limiting the depth of our findings.”

Suggested Solution and Response: Suggest future studies that engage in mixed-method or qualitative methodologies to address the issue from another angle.

7. Reliance on Instruments for Data Collection

In quantitative research, the collection of data heavily relies on instruments like questionnaires, surveys, or machines.

The limitation here is that the data you get is only as good as the instrument you’re using. If the instrument isn’t designed or calibrated well, your data can be flawed.

For instance, if you’re using a questionnaire to study customer satisfaction and the questions are vague, confusing, or biased, the responses may not accurately reflect the customers’ true feelings.

When discussing this limitation, you could say, “Our study depends on the use of questionnaires for data collection. Although we have put significant effort into designing and testing the instrument, it’s possible that inaccuracies or misunderstandings could potentially affect the validity of the data collected.”

Suggested Solution and Response: Suggest future studies that will use different instruments but examine the same variables to triangulate results.

8. Time and Resource Constraints (Specific to Quantitative Research)

Quantitative research can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, especially when dealing with large samples.

It often involves systematic sampling, rigorous design, and sometimes complex statistical analysis.

If resources and time are limited, it can restrict the scale of your research, the techniques you can employ, or the extent of your data analysis.

For example, you may want to conduct a nationwide survey on public opinion about a certain policy. However, due to limited resources, you might only be able to survey people in one city.

When writing about this limitation, you could say, “Given the scope of our research and the resources available, we are limited to conducting our survey within one city, which may not fully represent the nationwide public opinion. Hence, the generalizability of the results may be limited.”

Suggested Solution and Response: Suggest future studies that will have more funding or longer timeframes.

How to Discuss Your Research Limitations

1. in your research proposal and methodology section.

In the research proposal, which will become the methodology section of your dissertation, I would recommend taking the four following steps, in order:

  • Be Explicit about your Scope – If you limit the scope of your study in your research question, aims, and objectives, then you can set yourself up well later in the methodology to say that certain questions are “outside the scope of the study.” For example, you may identify the fact that the study doesn’t address a certain variable, but you can follow up by stating that the research question is specifically focused on the variable that you are examining, so this limitation would need to be looked at in future studies.
  • Acknowledge the Limitation – Acknowledging the limitations of your study demonstrates reflexivity and humility and can make your research more reliable and valid. It also pre-empts questions the people grading your paper may have, so instead of them down-grading you for your limitations; they will congratulate you on explaining the limitations and how you have addressed them!
  • Explain your Decisions – You may have chosen your approach (despite its limitations) for a very specific reason. This might be because your approach remains, on balance, the best one to answer your research question. Or, it might be because of time and monetary constraints that are outside of your control.
  • Highlight the Strengths of your Approach – Conclude your limitations section by strongly demonstrating that, despite limitations, you’ve worked hard to minimize the effects of the limitations and that you have chosen your specific approach and methodology because it’s also got some terrific strengths. Name the strengths.

Overall, you’ll want to acknowledge your own limitations but also explain that the limitations don’t detract from the value of your study as it stands.

2. In the Conclusion Section or Chapter

In the conclusion of your study, it is generally expected that you return to a discussion of the study’s limitations. Here, I recommend the following steps:

  • Acknowledge issues faced – After completing your study, you will be increasingly aware of issues you may have faced that, if you re-did the study, you may have addressed earlier in order to avoid those issues. Acknowledge these issues as limitations, and frame them as recommendations for subsequent studies.
  • Suggest further research – Scholarly research aims to fill gaps in the current literature and knowledge. Having established your expertise through your study, suggest lines of inquiry for future researchers. You could state that your study had certain limitations, and “future studies” can address those limitations.
  • Suggest a mixed methods approach – Qualitative and quantitative research each have pros and cons. So, note those ‘cons’ of your approach, then say the next study should approach the topic using the opposite methodology or could approach it using a mixed-methods approach that could achieve the benefits of quantitative studies with the nuanced insights of associated qualitative insights as part of an in-study case-study.

Overall, be clear about both your limitations and how those limitations can inform future studies.

In sum, each type of research method has its own strengths and limitations. Qualitative research excels in exploring depth, context, and complexity, while quantitative research excels in examining breadth, generalizability, and quantifiable measures. Despite their individual limitations, each method contributes unique and valuable insights, and researchers often use them together to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon being studied.

Attride-Stirling, J. (2001). Thematic networks: an analytic tool for qualitative research. Qualitative research , 1 (3), 385-405. ( Source )

Atkinson, P., Delamont, S., Cernat, A., Sakshaug, J., & Williams, R. A. (2021).  SAGE research methods foundations . London: Sage Publications.

Clark, T., Foster, L., Bryman, A., & Sloan, L. (2021).  Bryman’s social research methods . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Köhler, T., Smith, A., & Bhakoo, V. (2022). Templates in qualitative research methods: Origins, limitations, and new directions.  Organizational Research Methods ,  25 (2), 183-210. ( Source )

Lenger, A. (2019). The rejection of qualitative research methods in economics.  Journal of Economic Issues ,  53 (4), 946-965. ( Source )

Taherdoost, H. (2022). What are different research approaches? Comprehensive review of qualitative, quantitative, and mixed method research, their applications, types, and limitations.  Journal of Management Science & Engineering Research ,  5 (1), 53-63. ( Source )

Walliman, N. (2021).  Research methods: The basics . New York: Routledge.

Chris

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What are the limitations in research and how to write them?

Learn about the potential limitations in research and how to appropriately address them in order to deliver honest and ethical research.

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It is fairly uncommon for researchers to stumble into the term research limitations when working on their research paper. Limitations in research can arise owing to constraints on design, methods, materials, and so on, and these aspects, unfortunately, may have an influence on your subject’s findings.

In this Mind The Graph’s article, we’ll discuss some recommendations for writing limitations in research , provide examples of various common types of limitations, and suggest how to properly present this information.

What are the limitations in research?

The limitations in research are the constraints in design, methods or even researchers’ limitations that affect and influence the interpretation of your research’s ultimate findings. These are limitations on the generalization and usability of findings that emerge from the design of the research and/or the method employed to ensure validity both internally and externally. 

Researchers are usually cautious to acknowledge the limitations of their research in their publications for fear of undermining the research’s scientific validity. No research is faultless or covers every possible angle. As a result, addressing the constraints of your research exhibits honesty and integrity .

Why should include limitations of research in my paper?

Though limitations tackle potential flaws in research, commenting on them at the conclusion of your paper, by demonstrating that you are aware of these limitations and explaining how they impact the conclusions that may be taken from the research, improves your research by disclosing any issues before other researchers or reviewers do . 

Additionally, emphasizing research constraints implies that you have thoroughly investigated the ramifications of research shortcomings and have a thorough understanding of your research problem. 

Limits exist in any research; being honest about them and explaining them would impress researchers and reviewers more than disregarding them. 

Remember that acknowledging a research’s shortcomings offers a chance to provide ideas for future research, but be careful to describe how your study may help to concentrate on these outstanding problems.

Possible limitations examples

Here are some limitations connected to methodology and the research procedure that you may need to explain and discuss in connection to your findings.

Methodological limitations

Sample size.

The number of units of analysis used in your study is determined by the sort of research issue being investigated. It is important to note that if your sample is too small, finding significant connections in the data will be challenging, as statistical tests typically require a larger sample size to ensure a fair representation and this can be limiting. 

Lack of available or reliable data

A lack of data or trustworthy data will almost certainly necessitate limiting the scope of your research or the size of your sample, or it can be a substantial impediment to identifying a pattern and a relevant connection.

Lack of prior research on the subject

Citing previous research papers forms the basis of your literature review and aids in comprehending the research subject you are researching. Yet there may be little if any, past research on your issue.

The measure used to collect data

After finishing your analysis of the findings, you realize that the method you used to collect data limited your capacity to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the findings. Recognize the flaw by mentioning that future researchers should change the specific approach for data collection.

Issues with research samples and selection

Sampling inaccuracies arise when a probability sampling method is employed to choose a sample, but that sample does not accurately represent the overall population or the relevant group. As a result, your study suffers from “sampling bias” or “selection bias.”

Limitations of the research

When your research requires polling certain persons or a specific group, you may have encountered the issue of limited access to these interviewees. Because of the limited access, you may need to reorganize or rearrange your research. In this scenario, explain why access is restricted and ensure that your findings are still trustworthy and valid despite the constraint.

Time constraints

Practical difficulties may limit the amount of time available to explore a research issue and monitor changes as they occur. If time restrictions have any detrimental influence on your research, recognize this impact by expressing the necessity for a future investigation.

Due to their cultural origins or opinions on observed events, researchers may carry biased opinions, which can influence the credibility of a research. Furthermore, researchers may exhibit biases toward data and conclusions that only support their hypotheses or arguments.

The structure of the limitations section 

The limitations of your research are usually stated at the beginning of the discussion section of your paper so that the reader is aware of and comprehends the limitations prior to actually reading the rest of your findings, or they are stated at the end of the discussion section as an acknowledgment of the need for further research.

The ideal way is to divide your limitations section into three steps: 

1. Identify the research constraints; 

2. Describe in great detail how they affect your research; 

3. Mention the opportunity for future investigations and give possibilities. 

By following this method while addressing the constraints of your research, you will be able to effectively highlight your research’s shortcomings without jeopardizing the quality and integrity of your research.

Present your research or paper in an innovative way

If you want your readers to be engaged and participate in your research, try Mind The Graph tool to add visual assets to your content. Infographics may improve comprehension and are easy to read, just as the Mind The Graph tool is simple to use and offers a variety of templates from which you can select the one that best suits your information.

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About Jessica Abbadia

Jessica Abbadia is a lawyer that has been working in Digital Marketing since 2020, improving organic performance for apps and websites in various regions through ASO and SEO. Currently developing scientific and intellectual knowledge for the community's benefit. Jessica is an animal rights activist who enjoys reading and drinking strong coffee.

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How to present limitations in research

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30 January 2024

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Limitations don’t invalidate or diminish your results, but it’s best to acknowledge them. This will enable you to address any questions your study failed to answer because of them.

In this guide, learn how to recognize, present, and overcome limitations in research.

  • What is a research limitation?

Research limitations are weaknesses in your research design or execution that may have impacted outcomes and conclusions. Uncovering limitations doesn’t necessarily indicate poor research design—it just means you encountered challenges you couldn’t have anticipated that limited your research efforts.

Does basic research have limitations?

Basic research aims to provide more information about your research topic . It requires the same standard research methodology and data collection efforts as any other research type, and it can also have limitations.

  • Common research limitations

Researchers encounter common limitations when embarking on a study. Limitations can occur in relation to the methods you apply or the research process you design. They could also be connected to you as the researcher.

Methodology limitations

Not having access to data or reliable information can impact the methods used to facilitate your research. A lack of data or reliability may limit the parameters of your study area and the extent of your exploration.

Your sample size may also be affected because you won’t have any direction on how big or small it should be and who or what you should include. Having too few participants won’t adequately represent the population or groups of people needed to draw meaningful conclusions.

Research process limitations

The study’s design can impose constraints on the process. For example, as you’re conducting the research, issues may arise that don’t conform to the data collection methodology you developed. You may not realize until well into the process that you should have incorporated more specific questions or comprehensive experiments to generate the data you need to have confidence in your results.

Constraints on resources can also have an impact. Being limited on participants or participation incentives may limit your sample sizes. Insufficient tools, equipment, and materials to conduct a thorough study may also be a factor.

Common researcher limitations

Here are some of the common researcher limitations you may encounter:

Time: some research areas require multi-year longitudinal approaches, but you might not be able to dedicate that much time. Imagine you want to measure how much memory a person loses as they age. This may involve conducting multiple tests on a sample of participants over 20–30 years, which may be impossible.

Bias: researchers can consciously or unconsciously apply bias to their research. Biases can contribute to relying on research sources and methodologies that will only support your beliefs about the research you’re embarking on. You might also omit relevant issues or participants from the scope of your study because of your biases.

Limited access to data : you may need to pay to access specific databases or journals that would be helpful to your research process. You might also need to gain information from certain people or organizations but have limited access to them. These cases require readjusting your process and explaining why your findings are still reliable.

  • Why is it important to identify limitations?

Identifying limitations adds credibility to research and provides a deeper understanding of how you arrived at your conclusions.

Constraints may have prevented you from collecting specific data or information you hoped would prove or disprove your hypothesis or provide a more comprehensive understanding of your research topic.

However, identifying the limitations contributing to your conclusions can inspire further research efforts that help gather more substantial information and data.

  • Where to put limitations in a research paper

A research paper is broken up into different sections that appear in the following order:

Introduction

Methodology

The discussion portion of your paper explores your findings and puts them in the context of the overall research. Either place research limitations at the beginning of the discussion section before the analysis of your findings or at the end of the section to indicate that further research needs to be pursued.

What not to include in the limitations section

Evidence that doesn’t support your hypothesis is not a limitation, so you shouldn’t include it in the limitation section. Don’t just list limitations and their degree of severity without further explanation.

  • How to present limitations

You’ll want to present the limitations of your study in a way that doesn’t diminish the validity of your research and leave the reader wondering if your results and conclusions have been compromised.

Include only the limitations that directly relate to and impact how you addressed your research questions. Following a specific format enables the reader to develop an understanding of the weaknesses within the context of your findings without doubting the quality and integrity of your research.

Identify the limitations specific to your study

You don’t have to identify every possible limitation that might have occurred during your research process. Only identify those that may have influenced the quality of your findings and your ability to answer your research question.

Explain study limitations in detail

This explanation should be the most significant portion of your limitation section.

Link each limitation with an interpretation and appraisal of their impact on the study. You’ll have to evaluate and explain whether the error, method, or validity issues influenced the study’s outcome and how.

Propose a direction for future studies and present alternatives

In this section, suggest how researchers can avoid the pitfalls you experienced during your research process.

If an issue with methodology was a limitation, propose alternate methods that may help with a smoother and more conclusive research project . Discuss the pros and cons of your alternate recommendation.

Describe steps taken to minimize each limitation

You probably took steps to try to address or mitigate limitations when you noticed them throughout the course of your research project. Describe these steps in the limitation section.

  • Limitation example

“Approaches like stem cell transplantation and vaccination in AD [Alzheimer’s disease] work on a cellular or molecular level in the laboratory. However, translation into clinical settings will remain a challenge for the next decade.”

The authors are saying that even though these methods showed promise in helping people with memory loss when conducted in the lab (in other words, using animal studies), more studies are needed. These may be controlled clinical trials, for example. 

However, the short life span of stem cells outside the lab and the vaccination’s severe inflammatory side effects are limitations. Researchers won’t be able to conduct clinical trials until these issues are overcome.

  • How to overcome limitations in research

You’ve already started on the road to overcoming limitations in research by acknowledging that they exist. However, you need to ensure readers don’t mistake weaknesses for errors within your research design.

To do this, you’ll need to justify and explain your rationale for the methods, research design, and analysis tools you chose and how you noticed they may have presented limitations.

Your readers need to know that even when limitations presented themselves, you followed best practices and the ethical standards of your field. You didn’t violate any rules and regulations during your research process.

You’ll also want to reinforce the validity of your conclusions and results with multiple sources, methods, and perspectives. This prevents readers from assuming your findings were derived from a single or biased source.

  • Learning and improving starts with limitations in research

Dealing with limitations with transparency and integrity helps identify areas for future improvements and developments. It’s a learning process, providing valuable insights into how you can improve methodologies, expand sample sizes, or explore alternate approaches to further support the validity of your findings.

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Writing Limitations of Research Study — 4 Reasons Why It Is Important!

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It is not unusual for researchers to come across the term limitations of research during their academic paper writing. More often this is interpreted as something terrible. However, when it comes to research study, limitations can help structure the research study better. Therefore, do not underestimate significance of limitations of research study.

Allow us to take you through the context of how to evaluate the limits of your research and conclude an impactful relevance to your results.

Table of Contents

What Are the Limitations of a Research Study?

Every research has its limit and these limitations arise due to restrictions in methodology or research design.  This could impact your entire research or the research paper you wish to publish. Unfortunately, most researchers choose not to discuss their limitations of research fearing it will affect the value of their article in the eyes of readers.

However, it is very important to discuss your study limitations and show it to your target audience (other researchers, journal editors, peer reviewers etc.). It is very important that you provide an explanation of how your research limitations may affect the conclusions and opinions drawn from your research. Moreover, when as an author you state the limitations of research, it shows that you have investigated all the weaknesses of your study and have a deep understanding of the subject. Being honest could impress your readers and mark your study as a sincere effort in research.

peer review

Why and Where Should You Include the Research Limitations?

The main goal of your research is to address your research objectives. Conduct experiments, get results and explain those results, and finally justify your research question . It is best to mention the limitations of research in the discussion paragraph of your research article.

At the very beginning of this paragraph, immediately after highlighting the strengths of the research methodology, you should write down your limitations. You can discuss specific points from your research limitations as suggestions for further research in the conclusion of your thesis.

1. Common Limitations of the Researchers

Limitations that are related to the researcher must be mentioned. This will help you gain transparency with your readers. Furthermore, you could provide suggestions on decreasing these limitations in you and your future studies.

2. Limited Access to Information

Your work may involve some institutions and individuals in research, and sometimes you may have problems accessing these institutions. Therefore, you need to redesign and rewrite your work. You must explain your readers the reason for limited access.

3. Limited Time

All researchers are bound by their deadlines when it comes to completing their studies. Sometimes, time constraints can affect your research negatively. However, the best practice is to acknowledge it and mention a requirement for future study to solve the research problem in a better way.

4. Conflict over Biased Views and Personal Issues

Biased views can affect the research. In fact, researchers end up choosing only those results and data that support their main argument, keeping aside the other loose ends of the research.

Types of Limitations of Research

Before beginning your research study, know that there are certain limitations to what you are testing or possible research results. There are different types that researchers may encounter, and they all have unique characteristics, such as:

1. Research Design Limitations

Certain restrictions on your research or available procedures may affect your final results or research outputs. You may have formulated research goals and objectives too broadly. However, this can help you understand how you can narrow down the formulation of research goals and objectives, thereby increasing the focus of your study.

2. Impact Limitations

Even if your research has excellent statistics and a strong design, it can suffer from the influence of the following factors:

  • Presence of increasing findings as researched
  • Being population specific
  • A strong regional focus.

3. Data or statistical limitations

In some cases, it is impossible to collect sufficient data for research or very difficult to get access to the data. This could lead to incomplete conclusion to your study. Moreover, this insufficiency in data could be the outcome of your study design. The unclear, shabby research outline could produce more problems in interpreting your findings.

How to Correctly Structure Your Research Limitations?

There are strict guidelines for narrowing down research questions, wherein you could justify and explain potential weaknesses of your academic paper. You could go through these basic steps to get a well-structured clarity of research limitations:

  • Declare that you wish to identify your limitations of research and explain their importance,
  • Provide the necessary depth, explain their nature, and justify your study choices.
  • Write how you are suggesting that it is possible to overcome them in the future.

In this section, your readers will see that you are aware of the potential weaknesses in your business, understand them and offer effective solutions, and it will positively strengthen your article as you clarify all limitations of research to your target audience.

Know that you cannot be perfect and there is no individual without flaws. You could use the limitations of research as a great opportunity to take on a new challenge and improve the future of research. In a typical academic paper, research limitations may relate to:

1. Formulating your goals and objectives

If you formulate goals and objectives too broadly, your work will have some shortcomings. In this case, specify effective methods or ways to narrow down the formula of goals and aim to increase your level of study focus.

2. Application of your data collection methods in research

If you do not have experience in primary data collection, there is a risk that there will be flaws in the implementation of your methods. It is necessary to accept this, and learn and educate yourself to understand data collection methods.

3. Sample sizes

This depends on the nature of problem you choose. Sample size is of a greater importance in quantitative studies as opposed to qualitative ones. If your sample size is too small, statistical tests cannot identify significant relationships or connections within a given data set.

You could point out that other researchers should base the same study on a larger sample size to get more accurate results.

4. The absence of previous studies in the field you have chosen

Writing a literature review is an important step in any scientific study because it helps researchers determine the scope of current work in the chosen field. It is a major foundation for any researcher who must use them to achieve a set of specific goals or objectives.

However, if you are focused on the most current and evolving research problem or a very narrow research problem, there may be very little prior research on your topic. For example, if you chose to explore the role of Bitcoin as the currency of the future, you may not find tons of scientific papers addressing the research problem as Bitcoins are only a new phenomenon.

It is important that you learn to identify research limitations examples at each step. Whatever field you choose, feel free to add the shortcoming of your work. This is mainly because you do not have many years of experience writing scientific papers or completing complex work. Therefore, the depth and scope of your discussions may be compromised at different levels compared to academics with a lot of expertise. Include specific points from limitations of research. Use them as suggestions for the future.

Have you ever faced a challenge of writing the limitations of research study in your paper? How did you overcome it? What ways did you follow? Were they beneficial? Let us know in the comments below!

Frequently Asked Questions

Setting limitations in our study helps to clarify the outcomes drawn from our research and enhance understanding of the subject. Moreover, it shows that the author has investigated all the weaknesses in the study.

Scope is the range and limitations of a research project which are set to define the boundaries of a project. Limitations are the impacts on the overall study due to the constraints on the research design.

Limitation in research is an impact of a constraint on the research design in the overall study. They are the flaws or weaknesses in the study, which may influence the outcome of the research.

1. Limitations in research can be written as follows: Formulate your goals and objectives 2. Analyze the chosen data collection method and the sample sizes 3. Identify your limitations of research and explain their importance 4. Provide the necessary depth, explain their nature, and justify your study choices 5. Write how you are suggesting that it is possible to overcome them in the future

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Limited by our limitations

Paula t. ross.

Medical School, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI USA

Nikki L. Bibler Zaidi

Study limitations represent weaknesses within a research design that may influence outcomes and conclusions of the research. Researchers have an obligation to the academic community to present complete and honest limitations of a presented study. Too often, authors use generic descriptions to describe study limitations. Including redundant or irrelevant limitations is an ineffective use of the already limited word count. A meaningful presentation of study limitations should describe the potential limitation, explain the implication of the limitation, provide possible alternative approaches, and describe steps taken to mitigate the limitation. This includes placing research findings within their proper context to ensure readers do not overemphasize or minimize findings. A more complete presentation will enrich the readers’ understanding of the study’s limitations and support future investigation.

Introduction

Regardless of the format scholarship assumes, from qualitative research to clinical trials, all studies have limitations. Limitations represent weaknesses within the study that may influence outcomes and conclusions of the research. The goal of presenting limitations is to provide meaningful information to the reader; however, too often, limitations in medical education articles are overlooked or reduced to simplistic and minimally relevant themes (e.g., single institution study, use of self-reported data, or small sample size) [ 1 ]. This issue is prominent in other fields of inquiry in medicine as well. For example, despite the clinical implications, medical studies often fail to discuss how limitations could have affected the study findings and interpretations [ 2 ]. Further, observational research often fails to remind readers of the fundamental limitation inherent in the study design, which is the inability to attribute causation [ 3 ]. By reporting generic limitations or omitting them altogether, researchers miss opportunities to fully communicate the relevance of their work, illustrate how their work advances a larger field under study, and suggest potential areas for further investigation.

Goals of presenting limitations

Medical education scholarship should provide empirical evidence that deepens our knowledge and understanding of education [ 4 , 5 ], informs educational practice and process, [ 6 , 7 ] and serves as a forum for educating other researchers [ 8 ]. Providing study limitations is indeed an important part of this scholarly process. Without them, research consumers are pressed to fully grasp the potential exclusion areas or other biases that may affect the results and conclusions provided [ 9 ]. Study limitations should leave the reader thinking about opportunities to engage in prospective improvements [ 9 – 11 ] by presenting gaps in the current research and extant literature, thereby cultivating other researchers’ curiosity and interest in expanding the line of scholarly inquiry [ 9 ].

Presenting study limitations is also an ethical element of scientific inquiry [ 12 ]. It ensures transparency of both the research and the researchers [ 10 , 13 , 14 ], as well as provides transferability [ 15 ] and reproducibility of methods. Presenting limitations also supports proper interpretation and validity of the findings [ 16 ]. A study’s limitations should place research findings within their proper context to ensure readers are fully able to discern the credibility of a study’s conclusion, and can generalize findings appropriately [ 16 ].

Why some authors may fail to present limitations

As Price and Murnan [ 8 ] note, there may be overriding reasons why researchers do not sufficiently report the limitations of their study. For example, authors may not fully understand the importance and implications of their study’s limitations or assume that not discussing them may increase the likelihood of publication. Word limits imposed by journals may also prevent authors from providing thorough descriptions of their study’s limitations [ 17 ]. Still another possible reason for excluding limitations is a diffusion of responsibility in which some authors may incorrectly assume that the journal editor is responsible for identifying limitations. Regardless of reason or intent, researchers have an obligation to the academic community to present complete and honest study limitations.

A guide to presenting limitations

The presentation of limitations should describe the potential limitations, explain the implication of the limitations, provide possible alternative approaches, and describe steps taken to mitigate the limitations. Too often, authors only list the potential limitations, without including these other important elements.

Describe the limitations

When describing limitations authors should identify the limitation type to clearly introduce the limitation and specify the origin of the limitation. This helps to ensure readers are able to interpret and generalize findings appropriately. Here we outline various limitation types that can occur at different stages of the research process.

Study design

Some study limitations originate from conscious choices made by the researcher (also known as delimitations) to narrow the scope of the study [ 1 , 8 , 18 ]. For example, the researcher may have designed the study for a particular age group, sex, race, ethnicity, geographically defined region, or some other attribute that would limit to whom the findings can be generalized. Such delimitations involve conscious exclusionary and inclusionary decisions made during the development of the study plan, which may represent a systematic bias intentionally introduced into the study design or instrument by the researcher [ 8 ]. The clear description and delineation of delimitations and limitations will assist editors and reviewers in understanding any methodological issues.

Data collection

Study limitations can also be introduced during data collection. An unintentional consequence of human subjects research is the potential of the researcher to influence how participants respond to their questions. Even when appropriate methods for sampling have been employed, some studies remain limited by the use of data collected only from participants who decided to enrol in the study (self-selection bias) [ 11 , 19 ]. In some cases, participants may provide biased input by responding to questions they believe are favourable to the researcher rather than their authentic response (social desirability bias) [ 20 – 22 ]. Participants may influence the data collected by changing their behaviour when they are knowingly being observed (Hawthorne effect) [ 23 ]. Researchers—in their role as an observer—may also bias the data they collect by allowing a first impression of the participant to be influenced by a single characteristic or impression of another characteristic either unfavourably (horns effect) or favourably (halo effort) [ 24 ].

Data analysis

Study limitations may arise as a consequence of the type of statistical analysis performed. Some studies may not follow the basic tenets of inferential statistical analyses when they use convenience sampling (i.e. non-probability sampling) rather than employing probability sampling from a target population [ 19 ]. Another limitation that can arise during statistical analyses occurs when studies employ unplanned post-hoc data analyses that were not specified before the initial analysis [ 25 ]. Unplanned post-hoc analysis may lead to statistical relationships that suggest associations but are no more than coincidental findings [ 23 ]. Therefore, when unplanned post-hoc analyses are conducted, this should be clearly stated to allow the reader to make proper interpretation and conclusions—especially when only a subset of the original sample is investigated [ 23 ].

Study results

The limitations of any research study will be rooted in the validity of its results—specifically threats to internal or external validity [ 8 ]. Internal validity refers to reliability or accuracy of the study results [ 26 ], while external validity pertains to the generalizability of results from the study’s sample to the larger, target population [ 8 ].

Examples of threats to internal validity include: effects of events external to the study (history), changes in participants due to time instead of the studied effect (maturation), systematic reduction in participants related to a feature of the study (attrition), changes in participant responses due to repeatedly measuring participants (testing effect), modifications to the instrument (instrumentality) and selecting participants based on extreme scores that will regress towards the mean in repeat tests (regression to the mean) [ 27 ].

Threats to external validity include factors that might inhibit generalizability of results from the study’s sample to the larger, target population [ 8 , 27 ]. External validity is challenged when results from a study cannot be generalized to its larger population or to similar populations in terms of the context, setting, participants and time [ 18 ]. Therefore, limitations should be made transparent in the results to inform research consumers of any known or potentially hidden biases that may have affected the study and prevent generalization beyond the study parameters.

Explain the implication(s) of each limitation

Authors should include the potential impact of the limitations (e.g., likelihood, magnitude) [ 13 ] as well as address specific validity implications of the results and subsequent conclusions [ 16 , 28 ]. For example, self-reported data may lead to inaccuracies (e.g. due to social desirability bias) which threatens internal validity [ 19 ]. Even a researcher’s inappropriate attribution to a characteristic or outcome (e.g., stereotyping) can overemphasize (either positively or negatively) unrelated characteristics or outcomes (halo or horns effect) and impact the internal validity [ 24 ]. Participants’ awareness that they are part of a research study can also influence outcomes (Hawthorne effect) and limit external validity of findings [ 23 ]. External validity may also be threatened should the respondents’ propensity for participation be correlated with the substantive topic of study, as data will be biased and not represent the population of interest (self-selection bias) [ 29 ]. Having this explanation helps readers interpret the results and generalize the applicability of the results for their own setting.

Provide potential alternative approaches and explanations

Often, researchers use other studies’ limitations as the first step in formulating new research questions and shaping the next phase of research. Therefore, it is important for readers to understand why potential alternative approaches (e.g. approaches taken by others exploring similar topics) were not taken. In addition to alternative approaches, authors can also present alternative explanations for their own study’s findings [ 13 ]. This information is valuable coming from the researcher because of the direct, relevant experience and insight gained as they conducted the study. The presentation of alternative approaches represents a major contribution to the scholarly community.

Describe steps taken to minimize each limitation

No research design is perfect and free from explicit and implicit biases; however various methods can be employed to minimize the impact of study limitations. Some suggested steps to mitigate or minimize the limitations mentioned above include using neutral questions, randomized response technique, force choice items, or self-administered questionnaires to reduce respondents’ discomfort when answering sensitive questions (social desirability bias) [ 21 ]; using unobtrusive data collection measures (e.g., use of secondary data) that do not require the researcher to be present (Hawthorne effect) [ 11 , 30 ]; using standardized rubrics and objective assessment forms with clearly defined scoring instructions to minimize researcher bias, or making rater adjustments to assessment scores to account for rater tendencies (halo or horns effect) [ 24 ]; or using existing data or control groups (self-selection bias) [ 11 , 30 ]. When appropriate, researchers should provide sufficient evidence that demonstrates the steps taken to mitigate limitations as part of their study design [ 13 ].

In conclusion, authors may be limiting the impact of their research by neglecting or providing abbreviated and generic limitations. We present several examples of limitations to consider; however, this should not be considered an exhaustive list nor should these examples be added to the growing list of generic and overused limitations. Instead, careful thought should go into presenting limitations after research has concluded and the major findings have been described. Limitations help focus the reader on key findings, therefore it is important to only address the most salient limitations of the study [ 17 , 28 ] related to the specific research problem, not general limitations of most studies [ 1 ]. It is important not to minimize the limitations of study design or results. Rather, results, including their limitations, must help readers draw connections between current research and the extant literature.

The quality and rigor of our research is largely defined by our limitations [ 31 ]. In fact, one of the top reasons reviewers report recommending acceptance of medical education research manuscripts involves limitations—specifically how the study’s interpretation accounts for its limitations [ 32 ]. Therefore, it is not only best for authors to acknowledge their study’s limitations rather than to have them identified by an editor or reviewer, but proper framing and presentation of limitations can actually increase the likelihood of acceptance. Perhaps, these issues could be ameliorated if academic and research organizations adopted policies and/or expectations to guide authors in proper description of limitations.

Research Limitations: A Comprehensive Guide

Embarking on a research journey is an exciting endeavor, but every study has its boundaries and constraints. Understanding and transparently acknowledging these limitations is a crucial aspect of scholarly work. In this guide, we'll explore the concept of research limitations, why they matter, and how to effectively address and navigate them in your academic endeavors.

1. Defining Research Limitations:

  • Definition: Research limitations are the constraints or shortcomings that affect the scope, applicability, and generalizability of a study.
  • Inherent in Research: Every research project, regardless of its scale or significance, possesses limitations.

2. Types of Research Limitations:

  • Methodological Limitations: Constraints related to the research design, data collection methods, or analytical techniques.
  • Sampling Limitations: Issues associated with the representativeness or size of the study sample.
  • Contextual Limitations: Restrictions stemming from the specific time, place, or cultural context of the study.
  • Resource Limitations: Constraints related to time, budget, or access to necessary resources.

3. Why Acknowledge Limitations?

  • Transparency: Acknowledging limitations demonstrates transparency and honesty in your research.
  • Robustness of Findings: Recognizing limitations adds nuance to your findings, making them more robust.
  • Future Research Directions: Addressing limitations provides a foundation for future researchers to build upon.

4. Identifying Research Limitations:

  • Reflect on Methodology: Consider the strengths and weaknesses of your research design, data collection methods, and analysis.
  • Examine Sample Characteristics: Evaluate the representativeness and size of your study sample.
  • Consider External Factors: Assess external factors that may impact the generalizability of your findings.

5. How to Address Limitations:

  • In the Methodology Section: Clearly articulate limitations in the methodology section of your research paper.
  • Offer Solutions: If possible, propose ways to mitigate or address identified limitations.
  • Future Research Suggestions: Use limitations as a springboard to suggest areas for future research.

6. Common Phrases to Express Limitations:

  • "This study is not without limitations."
  • "One limitation of our research is..."
  • "It is important to acknowledge the constraints of this study, including..."

7. Examples of Addressing Limitations:

  • Example 1 (Methodological): "While our survey provided valuable insights, the reliance on self-reported data introduces the possibility of response bias."
  • Example 2 (Sampling): "The small sample size of our study limits the generalizability of our findings to a broader population."
  • Example 3 (Resource): "Due to budget constraints, our research was limited to a single geographical location, potentially impacting the external validity."

8. Balancing Strengths and Limitations:

  • Emphasize Contributions: Highlight the contributions and strengths of your research alongside the limitations.
  • Maintain a Positive Tone: Discuss limitations objectively without undermining the significance of your study.

9. Feedback and Peer Review:

  • Seek Feedback: Share your research with peers or mentors to gain valuable insights.
  • Peer Review: Embrace the feedback received during the peer-review process to enhance the robustness of your work.

10. Continuous Reflection:

  • Throughout the Research Process: Continuously reflect on potential limitations during the entire research process.
  • Adjust as Needed: Be willing to adjust your approach as you encounter unforeseen challenges.

Conclusion:

Understanding and effectively addressing research limitations is a hallmark of rigorous and responsible scholarship. By openly acknowledging these constraints, you not only enhance the credibility of your work but also contribute to the broader academic discourse. Embrace the nuances of your research journey, navigate its limitations thoughtfully, and pave the way for future investigations.

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limitations of the research

Research Limitations & Delimitations

What they are and how they’re different (with examples)

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewed By: David Phair (PhD) | September 2022

If you’re new to the world of research, you’ve probably heard the terms “ research limitations ” and “ research delimitations ” being thrown around, often quite loosely. In this post, we’ll unpack what both of these mean, how they’re similar and how they’re different – so that you can write up these sections the right way.

Overview: Limitations vs Delimitations

  • Are they the same?
  • What are research limitations
  • What are research delimitations
  • Limitations vs delimitations

First things first…

Let’s start with the most important takeaway point of this post – research limitations and research delimitations are not the same – but they are related to each other (we’ll unpack that a little later). So, if you hear someone using these two words interchangeably, be sure to share this post with them!

Research Limitations

Research limitations are, at the simplest level, the weaknesses of the study , based on factors that are often outside of your control as the researcher. These factors could include things like time , access to funding, equipment , data or participants . For example, if you weren’t able to access a random sample of participants for your study and had to adopt a convenience sampling strategy instead, that would impact the generalizability of your findings and therefore reflect a limitation of your study.

Research limitations can also emerge from the research design itself . For example, if you were undertaking a correlational study, you wouldn’t be able to infer causality (since correlation doesn’t mean certain causation). Similarly, if you utilised online surveys to collect data from your participants, you naturally wouldn’t be able to get the same degree of rich data that you would from in-person interviews .

Simply put, research limitations reflect the shortcomings of a study , based on practical (or theoretical) constraints that the researcher faced. These shortcomings limit what you can conclude from a study, but at the same time, present a foundation for future research . Importantly, all research has limitations , so there’s no need to hide anything here – as long as you discuss how the limitations might affect your findings, it’s all good.

Research Delimitations

Alright, now that we’ve unpacked the limitations, let’s move on to the delimitations .

Research delimitations are similar to limitations in that they also “ limit ” the study, but their focus is entirely different. Specifically, the delimitations of a study refer to the scope of the research aims and research questions . In other words, delimitations reflect the choices you, as the researcher, intentionally make in terms of what you will and won’t try to achieve with your study. In other words, what your research aims and research questions will and won’t include.

As we’ve spoken about many times before, it’s important to have a tight, narrow focus for your research, so that you can dive deeply into your topic, apply your energy to one specific area and develop meaningful insights. If you have an overly broad scope or unfocused topic, your research will often pull in multiple, even opposing directions, and you’ll just land up with a muddy mess of findings .

So, the delimitations section is where you’ll clearly state what your research aims and research questions will focus on – and just as importantly, what they will exclude . For example, you might investigate a widespread phenomenon, but choose to focus your study on a specific age group, ethnicity or gender. Similarly, your study may focus exclusively on one country, city or even organization. As long as the scope is well justified (in other words, it represents a novel, valuable research topic), this is perfectly acceptable – in fact, it’s essential. Remember, focus is your friend.

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limitations of the research

Conclusion: Limitations vs Delimitations

Ok, so let’s recap.

Research limitations and research delimitations are related in that they both refer to “limits” within a study. But, they are distinctly different. Limitations reflect the shortcomings of your study, based on practical or theoretical constraints that you faced.

Contrasted to that, delimitations reflect the choices that you made in terms of the focus and scope of your research aims and research questions. If you want to learn more about research aims and questions, you can check out this video post , where we unpack those concepts in detail.

limitations of the research

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18 Comments

GUDA EMMANUEL

Good clarification of ideas on how a researcher ought to do during Process of choice

Stephen N Senesie

Thank you so much for this very simple but explicit explanation on limitation and delimitation. It has so helped me to develop my masters proposal. hope to recieve more from your site as time progresses

Lucilio Zunguze

Thank you for this explanation – very clear.

Mohammed Shamsudeen

Thanks for the explanation, really got it well.

Lolwethu

This website is really helpful for my masters proposal

Julita Chideme Maradzika

Thank you very much for helping to explain these two terms

I spent almost the whole day trying to figure out the differences

when I came across your notes everything became very clear

nicholas

thanks for the clearly outlined explanation on the two terms, limitation and delimitation.

Zyneb

Very helpful Many thanks 🙏

Saad

Excellent it resolved my conflict .

Aloisius

I would like you to assist me please. If in my Research, I interviewed some participants and I submitted Questionnaires to other participants to answered to the questions, in the same organization, Is this a Qualitative methodology , a Quantitative Methodology or is it a Mixture Methodology I have used in my research? Please help me

Rexford Atunwey

How do I cite this article in APA format

Fiona gift

Really so great ,finally have understood it’s difference now

Jonomo Rondo

Getting more clear regarding Limitations and Delimitation and concepts

Mohammed Ibrahim Kari

I really appreciate your apt and precise explanation of the two concepts namely ; Limitations and Delimitations.

LORETTA SONGOSE

This is a good sources of research information for learners.

jane i. butale

thank you for this, very helpful to researchers

TAUNO

Very good explained

Mary Mutanda

Great and clear explanation, after a long confusion period on the two words, i can now explain to someone with ease.

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Research-Methodology

Research Limitations

It is for sure that your research will have some limitations and it is normal. However, it is critically important for you to be striving to minimize the range of scope of limitations throughout the research process.  Also, you need to provide the acknowledgement of your research limitations in conclusions chapter honestly.

It is always better to identify and acknowledge shortcomings of your work, rather than to leave them pointed out to your by your dissertation assessor. While discussing your research limitations, don’t just provide the list and description of shortcomings of your work. It is also important for you to explain how these limitations have impacted your research findings.

Your research may have multiple limitations, but you need to discuss only those limitations that directly relate to your research problems. For example, if conducting a meta-analysis of the secondary data has not been stated as your research objective, no need to mention it as your research limitation.

Research limitations in a typical dissertation may relate to the following points:

1. Formulation of research aims and objectives . You might have formulated research aims and objectives too broadly. You can specify in which ways the formulation of research aims and objectives could be narrowed so that the level of focus of the study could be increased.

2. Implementation of data collection method . Because you do not have an extensive experience in primary data collection (otherwise you would not be reading this book), there is a great chance that the nature of implementation of data collection method is flawed.

3. Sample size. Sample size depends on the nature of the research problem. If sample size is too small, statistical tests would not be able to identify significant relationships within data set. You can state that basing your study in larger sample size could have generated more accurate results. The importance of sample size is greater in quantitative studies compared to qualitative studies.

4. Lack of previous studies in the research area . Literature review is an important part of any research, because it helps to identify the scope of works that have been done so far in research area. Literature review findings are used as the foundation for the researcher to be built upon to achieve her research objectives.

However, there may be little, if any, prior research on your topic if you have focused on the most contemporary and evolving research problem or too narrow research problem. For example, if you have chosen to explore the role of Bitcoins as the future currency, you may not be able to find tons of scholarly paper addressing the research problem, because Bitcoins are only a recent phenomenon.

5. Scope of discussions . You can include this point as a limitation of your research regardless of the choice of the research area. Because (most likely) you don’t have many years of experience of conducing researches and producing academic papers of such a large size individually, the scope and depth of discussions in your paper is compromised in many levels compared to the works of experienced scholars.

You can discuss certain points from your research limitations as the suggestion for further research at conclusions chapter of your dissertation.

My e-book,  The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Dissertation in Business Studies: a step by step assistance  offers practical assistance to complete a dissertation with minimum or no stress. The e-book covers all stages of writing a dissertation starting from the selection to the research area to submitting the completed version of the work within the deadline. John Dudovskiy

Research Limitations

limitations of the research

Stating the Obvious: Writing Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations

Stating the Obvious: Writing Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations

During the process of writing your thesis or dissertation, you might suddenly realize that your research has inherent flaws. Don’t worry! Virtually all projects contain restrictions to your research. However, being able to recognize and accurately describe these problems is the difference between a true researcher and a grade-school kid with a science-fair project. Concerns with truthful responding, access to participants, and survey instruments are just a few of examples of restrictions on your research. In the following sections, the differences among delimitations, limitations, and assumptions of a dissertation will be clarified.

Delimitations

Delimitations are the definitions you set as the boundaries of your own thesis or dissertation, so delimitations are in your control. Delimitations are set so that your goals do not become impossibly large to complete. Examples of delimitations include objectives, research questions, variables, theoretical objectives that you have adopted, and populations chosen as targets to study. When you are stating your delimitations, clearly inform readers why you chose this course of study. The answer might simply be that you were curious about the topic and/or wanted to improve standards of a professional field by revealing certain findings. In any case, you should clearly list the other options available and the reasons why you did not choose these options immediately after you list your delimitations. You might have avoided these options for reasons of practicality, interest, or relativity to the study at hand. For example, you might have only studied Hispanic mothers because they have the highest rate of obese babies. Delimitations are often strongly related to your theory and research questions. If you were researching whether there are different parenting styles between unmarried Asian, Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic women, then a delimitation of your study would be the inclusion of only participants with those demographics and the exclusion of participants from other demographics such as men, married women, and all other ethnicities of single women (inclusion and exclusion criteria). A further delimitation might be that you only included closed-ended Likert scale responses in the survey, rather than including additional open-ended responses, which might make some people more willing to take and complete your survey. Remember that delimitations are not good or bad. They are simply a detailed description of the scope of interest for your study as it relates to the research design. Don’t forget to describe the philosophical framework you used throughout your study, which also delimits your study.

Limitations

Limitations of a dissertation are potential weaknesses in your study that are mostly out of your control, given limited funding, choice of research design, statistical model constraints, or other factors. In addition, a limitation is a restriction on your study that cannot be reasonably dismissed and can affect your design and results. Do not worry about limitations because limitations affect virtually all research projects, as well as most things in life. Even when you are going to your favorite restaurant, you are limited by the menu choices. If you went to a restaurant that had a menu that you were craving, you might not receive the service, price, or location that makes you enjoy your favorite restaurant. If you studied participants’ responses to a survey, you might be limited in your abilities to gain the exact type or geographic scope of participants you wanted. The people whom you managed to get to take your survey may not truly be a random sample, which is also a limitation. If you used a common test for data findings, your results are limited by the reliability of the test. If your study was limited to a certain amount of time, your results are affected by the operations of society during that time period (e.g., economy, social trends). It is important for you to remember that limitations of a dissertation are often not something that can be solved by the researcher. Also, remember that whatever limits you also limits other researchers, whether they are the largest medical research companies or consumer habits corporations. Certain kinds of limitations are often associated with the analytical approach you take in your research, too. For example, some qualitative methods like heuristics or phenomenology do not lend themselves well to replicability. Also, most of the commonly used quantitative statistical models can only determine correlation, but not causation.

Assumptions

Assumptions are things that are accepted as true, or at least plausible, by researchers and peers who will read your dissertation or thesis. In other words, any scholar reading your paper will assume that certain aspects of your study is true given your population, statistical test, research design, or other delimitations. For example, if you tell your friend that your favorite restaurant is an Italian place, your friend will assume that you don’t go there for the sushi. It’s assumed that you go there to eat Italian food. Because most assumptions are not discussed in-text, assumptions that are discussed in-text are discussed in the context of the limitations of your study, which is typically in the discussion section. This is important, because both assumptions and limitations affect the inferences you can draw from your study. One of the more common assumptions made in survey research is the assumption of honesty and truthful responses. However, for certain sensitive questions this assumption may be more difficult to accept, in which case it would be described as a limitation of the study. For example, asking people to report their criminal behavior in a survey may not be as reliable as asking people to report their eating habits. It is important to remember that your limitations and assumptions should not contradict one another. For instance, if you state that generalizability is a limitation of your study given that your sample was limited to one city in the United States, then you should not claim generalizability to the United States population as an assumption of your study. Statistical models in quantitative research designs are accompanied with assumptions as well, some more strict than others. These assumptions generally refer to the characteristics of the data, such as distributions, correlational trends, and variable type, just to name a few. Violating these assumptions can lead to drastically invalid results, though this often depends on sample size and other considerations.

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Limitations of the Study – How to Write & Examples

limitations of the research

What are the limitations of a study?

The limitations of a study are the elements of methodology or study design that impact the interpretation of your research results. The limitations essentially detail any flaws or shortcomings in your study. Study limitations can exist due to constraints on research design, methodology, materials, etc., and these factors may impact the findings of your study. However, researchers are often reluctant to discuss the limitations of their study in their papers, feeling that bringing up limitations may undermine its research value in the eyes of readers and reviewers.

In spite of the impact it might have (and perhaps because of it) you should clearly acknowledge any limitations in your research paper in order to show readers—whether journal editors, other researchers, or the general public—that you are aware of these limitations and to explain how they affect the conclusions that can be drawn from the research.

In this article, we provide some guidelines for writing about research limitations, show examples of some frequently seen study limitations, and recommend techniques for presenting this information. And after you have finished drafting and have received manuscript editing for your work, you still might want to follow this up with academic editing before submitting your work to your target journal.

Why do I need to include limitations of research in my paper?

Although limitations address the potential weaknesses of a study, writing about them toward the end of your paper actually strengthens your study by identifying any problems before other researchers or reviewers find them.

Furthermore, pointing out study limitations shows that you’ve considered the impact of research weakness thoroughly and have an in-depth understanding of your research topic. Since all studies face limitations, being honest and detailing these limitations will impress researchers and reviewers more than ignoring them.

limitations of the study examples, brick wall with blue sky

Where should I put the limitations of the study in my paper?

Some limitations might be evident to researchers before the start of the study, while others might become clear while you are conducting the research. Whether these limitations are anticipated or not, and whether they are due to research design or to methodology, they should be clearly identified and discussed in the discussion section —the final section of your paper. Most journals now require you to include a discussion of potential limitations of your work, and many journals now ask you to place this “limitations section” at the very end of your article. 

Some journals ask you to also discuss the strengths of your work in this section, and some allow you to freely choose where to include that information in your discussion section—make sure to always check the author instructions of your target journal before you finalize a manuscript and submit it for peer review .

Limitations of the Study Examples

There are several reasons why limitations of research might exist. The two main categories of limitations are those that result from the methodology and those that result from issues with the researcher(s).

Common Methodological Limitations of Studies

Limitations of research due to methodological problems can be addressed by clearly and directly identifying the potential problem and suggesting ways in which this could have been addressed—and SHOULD be addressed in future studies. The following are some major potential methodological issues that can impact the conclusions researchers can draw from the research.

Issues with research samples and selection

Sampling errors occur when a probability sampling method is used to select a sample, but that sample does not reflect the general population or appropriate population concerned. This results in limitations of your study known as “sample bias” or “selection bias.”

For example, if you conducted a survey to obtain your research results, your samples (participants) were asked to respond to the survey questions. However, you might have had limited ability to gain access to the appropriate type or geographic scope of participants. In this case, the people who responded to your survey questions may not truly be a random sample.

Insufficient sample size for statistical measurements

When conducting a study, it is important to have a sufficient sample size in order to draw valid conclusions. The larger the sample, the more precise your results will be. If your sample size is too small, it will be difficult to identify significant relationships in the data.

Normally, statistical tests require a larger sample size to ensure that the sample is considered representative of a population and that the statistical result can be generalized to a larger population. It is a good idea to understand how to choose an appropriate sample size before you conduct your research by using scientific calculation tools—in fact, many journals now require such estimation to be included in every manuscript that is sent out for review.

Lack of previous research studies on the topic

Citing and referencing prior research studies constitutes the basis of the literature review for your thesis or study, and these prior studies provide the theoretical foundations for the research question you are investigating. However, depending on the scope of your research topic, prior research studies that are relevant to your thesis might be limited.

When there is very little or no prior research on a specific topic, you may need to develop an entirely new research typology. In this case, discovering a limitation can be considered an important opportunity to identify literature gaps and to present the need for further development in the area of study.

Methods/instruments/techniques used to collect the data

After you complete your analysis of the research findings (in the discussion section), you might realize that the manner in which you have collected the data or the ways in which you have measured variables has limited your ability to conduct a thorough analysis of the results.

For example, you might realize that you should have addressed your survey questions from another viable perspective, or that you were not able to include an important question in the survey. In these cases, you should acknowledge the deficiency or deficiencies by stating a need for future researchers to revise their specific methods for collecting data that includes these missing elements.

Common Limitations of the Researcher(s)

Study limitations that arise from situations relating to the researcher or researchers (whether the direct fault of the individuals or not) should also be addressed and dealt with, and remedies to decrease these limitations—both hypothetically in your study, and practically in future studies—should be proposed.

Limited access to data

If your research involved surveying certain people or organizations, you might have faced the problem of having limited access to these respondents. Due to this limited access, you might need to redesign or restructure your research in a different way. In this case, explain the reasons for limited access and be sure that your finding is still reliable and valid despite this limitation.

Time constraints

Just as students have deadlines to turn in their class papers, academic researchers might also have to meet deadlines for submitting a manuscript to a journal or face other time constraints related to their research (e.g., participants are only available during a certain period; funding runs out; collaborators move to a new institution). The time available to study a research problem and to measure change over time might be constrained by such practical issues. If time constraints negatively impacted your study in any way, acknowledge this impact by mentioning a need for a future study (e.g., a longitudinal study) to answer this research problem.

Conflicts arising from cultural bias and other personal issues

Researchers might hold biased views due to their cultural backgrounds or perspectives of certain phenomena, and this can affect a study’s legitimacy. Also, it is possible that researchers will have biases toward data and results that only support their hypotheses or arguments. In order to avoid these problems, the author(s) of a study should examine whether the way the research problem was stated and the data-gathering process was carried out appropriately.

Steps for Organizing Your Study Limitations Section

When you discuss the limitations of your study, don’t simply list and describe your limitations—explain how these limitations have influenced your research findings. There might be multiple limitations in your study, but you only need to point out and explain those that directly relate to and impact how you address your research questions.

We suggest that you divide your limitations section into three steps: (1) identify the study limitations; (2) explain how they impact your study in detail; and (3) propose a direction for future studies and present alternatives. By following this sequence when discussing your study’s limitations, you will be able to clearly demonstrate your study’s weakness without undermining the quality and integrity of your research.

Step 1. Identify the limitation(s) of the study

  • This part should comprise around 10%-20% of your discussion of study limitations.

The first step is to identify the particular limitation(s) that affected your study. There are many possible limitations of research that can affect your study, but you don’t need to write a long review of all possible study limitations. A 200-500 word critique is an appropriate length for a research limitations section. In the beginning of this section, identify what limitations your study has faced and how important these limitations are.

You only need to identify limitations that had the greatest potential impact on: (1) the quality of your findings, and (2) your ability to answer your research question.

limitations of a study example

Step 2. Explain these study limitations in detail

  • This part should comprise around 60-70% of your discussion of limitations.

After identifying your research limitations, it’s time to explain the nature of the limitations and how they potentially impacted your study. For example, when you conduct quantitative research, a lack of probability sampling is an important issue that you should mention. On the other hand, when you conduct qualitative research, the inability to generalize the research findings could be an issue that deserves mention.

Explain the role these limitations played on the results and implications of the research and justify the choice you made in using this “limiting” methodology or other action in your research. Also, make sure that these limitations didn’t undermine the quality of your dissertation .

methodological limitations example

Step 3. Propose a direction for future studies and present alternatives (optional)

  • This part should comprise around 10-20% of your discussion of limitations.

After acknowledging the limitations of the research, you need to discuss some possible ways to overcome these limitations in future studies. One way to do this is to present alternative methodologies and ways to avoid issues with, or “fill in the gaps of” the limitations of this study you have presented.  Discuss both the pros and cons of these alternatives and clearly explain why researchers should choose these approaches.

Make sure you are current on approaches used by prior studies and the impacts they have had on their findings. Cite review articles or scientific bodies that have recommended these approaches and why. This might be evidence in support of the approach you chose, or it might be the reason you consider your choices to be included as limitations. This process can act as a justification for your approach and a defense of your decision to take it while acknowledging the feasibility of other approaches.

P hrases and Tips for Introducing Your Study Limitations in the Discussion Section

The following phrases are frequently used to introduce the limitations of the study:

  • “There may be some possible limitations in this study.”
  • “The findings of this study have to be seen in light of some limitations.”
  •  “The first is the…The second limitation concerns the…”
  •  “The empirical results reported herein should be considered in the light of some limitations.”
  • “This research, however, is subject to several limitations.”
  • “The primary limitation to the generalization of these results is…”
  • “Nonetheless, these results must be interpreted with caution and a number of limitations should be borne in mind.”
  • “As with the majority of studies, the design of the current study is subject to limitations.”
  • “There are two major limitations in this study that could be addressed in future research. First, the study focused on …. Second ….”

For more articles on research writing and the journal submissions and publication process, visit Wordvice’s Academic Resources page.

And be sure to receive professional English editing and proofreading services , including paper editing services , for your journal manuscript before submitting it to journal editors.

Wordvice Resources

Proofreading & Editing Guide

Writing the Results Section for a Research Paper

How to Write a Literature Review

Research Writing Tips: How to Draft a Powerful Discussion Section

How to Captivate Journal Readers with a Strong Introduction

Tips That Will Make Your Abstract a Success!

APA In-Text Citation Guide for Research Writing

Additional Resources

  • Diving Deeper into Limitations and Delimitations (PhD student)
  • Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Limitations of the Study (USC Library)
  • Research Limitations (Research Methodology)
  • How to Present Limitations and Alternatives (UMASS)

Article References

Pearson-Stuttard, J., Kypridemos, C., Collins, B., Mozaffarian, D., Huang, Y., Bandosz, P.,…Micha, R. (2018). Estimating the health and economic effects of the proposed US Food and Drug Administration voluntary sodium reformulation: Microsimulation cost-effectiveness analysis. PLOS. https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1002551

Xu, W.L, Pedersen, N.L., Keller, L., Kalpouzos, G., Wang, H.X., Graff, C,. Fratiglioni, L. (2015). HHEX_23 AA Genotype Exacerbates Effect of Diabetes on Dementia and Alzheimer Disease: A Population-Based Longitudinal Study. PLOS. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1001853

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How to Identify Limitations in Research

How to Identify Limitations in Research

4-minute read

  • 7th March 2022

Whether you’re a veteran researcher with years of experience under your belt or a novice to the field that’s feeling overwhelmed with where to start, you must understand that every study has its limitations. These are restrictions that arise from the study’s design, or the methodology implemented during the testing phase. Unfortunately, research limitations will always exist due to the subjective nature of testing a hypothesis. We’ve compiled some helpful information below on how to identify and accept research limitations and use them to your advantage. Essentially, we’ll show you how to make lemonade (a brilliant piece of academic work ) from the lemons you receive (the constraints your study reveals).

Research Limitations

So, let’s dive straight in, shall we? It’s always beneficial (and good practice) to disclose your research limitations . A common thought is that divulging these shortcomings will undermine the credibility and quality of your research. However, this is certainly not the case— stating the facts upfront not only reinforces your reputation as a researcher but also lets the assessor or reader know that you’re confident and transparent about the results and relevance of your study, despite these constraints.

Additionally, it creates a gap for more research opportunities, where you can analyze these limitations and determine how to incorporate or address them in a new batch of tests or create a new hypothesis altogether. Another bonus is that it helps readers to understand the optimum conditions for how to apply the results of your testing. This is a win-win, making for a far more persuasive research paper .

Now that you know why you should clarify your research limitations, let’s focus on which ones take precedence and should be disclosed. Any given research project can be vulnerable to various hindrances, so how do you identify them and single out the most significant ones to discuss? Well, that depends entirely on the nature of your study. You’ll need to comb through your research approach, methodology, testing processes, and expected results to identify the type of limitations your study may be exposed to. It’s worth noting that this understanding can only offer a broad idea of the possible restrictions you’ll face and may potentially change throughout the study.

We’ve compiled a list of the most common types of research limitations that you may encounter so you can adequately prepare for them and remain vigilant during each stage of your study.

Sample Size:

It’s critical that you choose a sample size that accurately represents the population you wish to test your theory on. If a sample is too small, the results cannot reliably be generalized across a large population.

Methodology:

The method you choose before you commence testing might seem effective in theory, but too many stumbling blocks during the testing phase can influence the accuracy and reliability of the results.

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Collection of Data:

The methods you utilize to obtain your research—surveys, emails, in-person interviews, phone calls—will directly influence the type of results your study yields.

Age of Data:

The nature of the information—and how far back it goes—affects the type of assumptions you can make. Extrapolating older data for a current hypothesis can significantly change the outcome of your testing.

Time Constraints:

Working within the deadline of when you need to submit your findings will determine the extent of your research and testing and, therefore, can heavily impact your results. Limited time frames for testing might mean not achieving the scope of results you were originally looking for.

Limited Budget:

Your study may require equipment and other resources that can become extremely costly. Budget constraints may mean you cannot acquire advanced software, programs, or travel to multiple destinations to interview participants. All of these factors can substantially influence your results.

So, now that you know how to determine your research limitations and the types you might experience, where should you document it? It’s commonly disclosed at the beginning of your discussion section , so the reader understands the shortcomings of your study before digging into the juicy bit—your findings. Alternatively, you can detail the constraints faced at the end of the discussion section to emphasize the requirements for the completion of further studies.

We hope this post will prepare you for some of the pitfalls you may encounter when conducting and documenting your research. Once you have a first draft ready, consider submitting a free sample to us for proofreading to ensure that your writing is concise and error-free and your results—despite their limitations— shine through.

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Limitations of a Study

How to Present the Limitations of a Study in Research?

The limitations of the study convey to the reader how and under which conditions your study results will be evaluated. Scientific research involves investigating research topics, both known and unknown, which inherently includes an element of risk. The risk could arise due to human errors, barriers to data gathering, limited availability of resources, and researcher bias. Researchers are encouraged to discuss the limitations of their research to enhance the process of research, as well as to allow readers to gain an understanding of the study’s framework and value.

Limitations of the research are the constraints placed on the ability to generalize from the results and to further describe applications to practice. It is related to the utility value of the findings based on how you initially chose to design the study, the method used to establish internal and external validity, or the result of unanticipated challenges that emerged during the study. Knowing about these limitations and their impact can explain how the limitations of your study can affect the conclusions and thoughts drawn from your research. 1

Table of Contents

What are the limitations of a study

Researchers are probably cautious to acknowledge what the limitations of the research can be for fear of undermining the validity of the research findings. No research can be faultless or cover all possible conditions. These limitations of your research appear probably due to constraints on methodology or research design and influence the interpretation of your research’s ultimate findings. 2 These are limitations on the generalization and usability of findings that emerge from the design of the research and/or the method employed to ensure validity internally and externally. But such limitations of the study can impact the whole study or research paper. However, most researchers prefer not to discuss the different types of limitations in research for fear of decreasing the value of their paper amongst the reviewers or readers.

limitations of the research

Importance of limitations of a study

Writing the limitations of the research papers is often assumed to require lots of effort. However, identifying the limitations of the study can help structure the research better. Therefore, do not underestimate the importance of research study limitations. 3

  • Opportunity to make suggestions for further research. Suggestions for future research and avenues for further exploration can be developed based on the limitations of the study.
  • Opportunity to demonstrate critical thinking. A key objective of the research process is to discover new knowledge while questioning existing assumptions and exploring what is new in the particular field. Describing the limitation of the research shows that you have critically thought about the research problem, reviewed relevant literature, and correctly assessed the methods chosen for studying the problem.
  • Demonstrate Subjective learning process. Writing limitations of the research helps to critically evaluate the impact of the said limitations, assess the strength of the research, and consider alternative explanations or interpretations. Subjective evaluation contributes to a more complex and comprehensive knowledge of the issue under study.

Why should I include limitations of research in my paper

All studies have limitations to some extent. Including limitations of the study in your paper demonstrates the researchers’ comprehensive and holistic understanding of the research process and topic. The major advantages are the following:

  • Understand the study conditions and challenges encountered . It establishes a complete and potentially logical depiction of the research. The boundaries of the study can be established, and realistic expectations for the findings can be set. They can also help to clarify what the study is not intended to address.
  • Improve the quality and validity of the research findings. Mentioning limitations of the research creates opportunities for the original author and other researchers to undertake future studies to improve the research outcomes.
  • Transparency and accountability. Including limitations of the research helps maintain mutual integrity and promote further progress in similar studies.
  • Identify potential bias sources.  Identifying the limitations of the study can help researchers identify potential sources of bias in their research design, data collection, or analysis. This can help to improve the validity and reliability of the findings.

Where do I need to add the limitations of the study in my paper

The limitations of your research can be stated at the beginning of the discussion section, which allows the reader to comprehend the limitations of the study prior to reading the rest of your findings or at the end of the discussion section as an acknowledgment of the need for further research.

Types of limitations in research

There are different types of limitations in research that researchers may encounter. These are listed below:

  • Research Design Limitations : Restrictions on your research or available procedures may affect the research outputs. If the research goals and objectives are too broad, explain how they should be narrowed down to enhance the focus of your study. If there was a selection bias in your sample, explain how this may affect the generalizability of your findings. This can help readers understand the limitations of the study in terms of their impact on the overall validity of your research.
  • Impact Limitations : Your study might be limited by a strong regional-, national-, or species-based impact or population- or experimental-specific impact. These inherent limitations on impact affect the extendibility and generalizability of the findings.
  • Data or statistical limitations : Data or statistical limitations in research are extremely common in experimental (such as medicine, physics, and chemistry) or field-based (such as ecology and qualitative clinical research) studies. Sometimes, it is either extremely difficult to acquire sufficient data or gain access to the data. These limitations of the research might also be the result of your study’s design and might result in an incomplete conclusion to your research.

Limitations of study examples

All possible limitations of the study cannot be included in the discussion section of the research paper or dissertation. It will vary greatly depending on the type and nature of the study. These include types of research limitations that are related to methodology and the research process and that of the researcher as well that you need to describe and discuss how they possibly impacted your results.

Common methodological limitations of the study

Limitations of research due to methodological problems are addressed by identifying the potential problem and suggesting ways in which this should have been addressed. Some potential methodological limitations of the study are as follows. 1

  • Sample size: The sample size 4 is dictated by the type of research problem investigated. If the sample size is too small, finding a significant relationship from the data will be difficult, as statistical tests require a large sample size to ensure a representative population distribution and generalize the study findings.
  • Lack of available/reliable data: A lack of available/reliable data will limit the scope of your analysis and the size of your sample or present obstacles in finding a trend or meaningful relationship. So, when writing about the limitations of the study, give convincing reasons why you feel data is absent or untrustworthy and highlight the necessity for a future study focused on developing a new data-gathering strategy.
  • Lack of prior research studies: Citing prior research studies is required to help understand the research problem being investigated. If there is little or no prior research, an exploratory rather than an explanatory research design will be required. Also, discovering the limitations of the study presents an opportunity to identify gaps in the literature and describe the need for additional study.
  • Measure used to collect the data: Sometimes, the data gathered will be insufficient to conduct a thorough analysis of the results. A limitation of the study example, for instance, is identifying in retrospect that a specific question could have helped address a particular issue that emerged during data analysis. You can acknowledge the limitation of the research by stating the need to revise the specific method for gathering data in the future.
  • Self-reported data: Self-reported data cannot be independently verified and can contain several potential bias sources, such as selective memory, attribution, and exaggeration. These biases become apparent if they are incongruent with data from other sources.

General limitations of researchers

Limitations related to the researcher can also influence the study outcomes. These should be addressed, and related remedies should be proposed.

  • Limited access to data : If your study requires access to people, organizations, data, or documents whose access is denied or limited, the reasons need to be described. An additional explanation stating why this limitation of research did not prevent you from following through on your study is also needed.
  • Time constraints : Researchers might also face challenges in meeting research deadlines due to a lack of timely participant availability or funds, among others. The impacts of time constraints must be acknowledged by mentioning the need for a future study addressing this research problem.
  • Conflicts due to biased views and personal issues : Differences in culture or personal views can contribute to researcher bias, as they focus only on the results and data that support their main arguments. To avoid this, pay attention to the problem statement and data gathering.

Steps for structuring the limitations section

Limitations are an inherent part of any research study. 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 the limitations of the study can be mitigated. This enhances the process of the research and helps readers gain a comprehensive understanding of a study’s conditions.

  • Identify the research constraints : Identify those limitations having the greatest impact on the quality of the research findings and your ability to effectively answer your research questions and/or hypotheses. These include sample size, selection bias, measurement error, or other issues affecting the validity and reliability of your research.
  • Describe their impact on your research : Reflect on the nature of the identified limitations and justify the choices made during the research to identify the impact of the study’s limitations on the research outcomes. Explanations can be offered if needed, but without being defensive or exaggerating them. Provide context for the limitations of your research to understand them in a broader context. Any specific limitations due to real-world considerations need to be pointed out critically rather than justifying them as done by some other author group or groups.
  • Mention the opportunity for future investigations : Suggest ways to overcome the limitations of the present study through future research. This can help readers understand how the research fits into the broader context and offer a roadmap for future studies.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should I mention all the limitations of my study in the research report?

Restrict limitations to what is pertinent to the research question under investigation. The specific limitations you include will depend on the nature of the study, the research question investigated, and the data collected.

  • Can the limitations of a study affect its credibility?

Stating the limitations of the research is considered favorable by editors and peer reviewers. Connecting your study’s limitations with future possible research can help increase the focus of unanswered questions in this area. In addition, admitting limitations openly and validating that they do not affect the main findings of the study increases the credibility of your study. However, if you determine that your study is seriously flawed, explain ways to successfully overcome such flaws in a future study. For example, if your study fails to acquire critical data, consider reframing the research question as an exploratory study to lay the groundwork for more complete research in the future.

  • How can I mitigate the limitations of my study?

Strategies to minimize limitations of the research should focus on convincing reviewers and readers that the limitations do not affect the conclusions of the study by showing that the methods are appropriate and that the logic is sound. Here are some steps to follow to achieve this:

  • Use data that are valid.
  • Use methods that are appropriate and sound logic to draw inferences.
  • Use adequate statistical methods for drawing inferences from the data that studies with similar limitations have been published before.

Admit limitations openly and, at the same time, show how they do not affect the main conclusions of the study.

  • Can the limitations of a study impact its publication chances?

Limitations in your research can arise owing to restrictions in methodology or research design. Although this could impact your chances of publishing your research paper, it is critical to explain your study’s limitations to your intended audience. For example, it can explain how your study constraints may impact the results and views generated from your investigation. It also shows that you have researched the flaws of your study and have a thorough understanding of the subject.

  • How can limitations in research be used for future studies?

The limitations of a study give you an opportunity to offer suggestions for further research. Your study’s limitations, including problems experienced during the study and the additional study perspectives developed, are a great opportunity to take on a new challenge and help advance knowledge in a particular field.

References:

  • Brutus, S., Aguinis, H., & Wassmer, U. (2013). Self-reported limitations and future directions in scholarly reports: Analysis and recommendations.  Journal of Management ,  39 (1), 48-75.
  • Ioannidis, J. P. (2007). Limitations are not properly acknowledged in the scientific literature.  Journal of Clinical Epidemiology ,  60 (4), 324-329.
  • Price, J. H., & Murnan, J. (2004). Research limitations and the necessity of reporting them.  American Journal of Health Education ,  35 (2), 66.
  • Boddy, C. R. (2016). Sample size for qualitative research.  Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal ,  19 (4), 426-432.

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TRIO McNair Undergraduate Research Guide: Limitations of the Study

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The limitations of the study are those characteristics of design or methodology that impacted or influenced the application or interpretation of the results of your study. They are the constraints on generalizability and utility of findings that are the result of the ways in which you chose to design the study and/or the method used to establish internal and external validity. 

Importance of...

Always acknowledge a study's limitations. It is far better for you to identify and acknowledge your study’s limitations than to have them pointed out by your professor and be graded down because you appear to have ignored them. 

Keep in mind that acknowledgement of a study's limitations is an opportunity to make suggestions for further research . If you do connect your study's limitations to suggestions for further research, be sure to explain the ways in which these unanswered questions may become more focused because of your study. 

Acknowledgement of a study's limitations also provides you with an opportunity to demonstrate to your professor that you have thought critically about the research problem, understood the relevant literature published about it, and correctly assessed the methods chosen for studying the problem. A key objective of the research process is not only discovering new knowledge but also to confront assumptions and explore what we don't know. 

Claiming limitations is a subjective process because you must evaluate the impact of those limitations. Don't just list key weaknesses and the magnitude of a study's limitations. To do so diminishes the validity of your research because it leaves the reader wondering whether, or in what ways, limitation(s) in your study may have impacted the findings and conclusions. Limitations require a critical, overall appraisal and interpretation of their impact. You should answer the question: do these problems with errors, methods, validity, etc. eventually matter and, if so, to what extent? 

Structure: How to Structure the Research Limitations Section of Your Dissertation . Dissertations and Theses: An Online Textbook. Laerd.com.

Descriptions of Possible Limitations

All studies have limitations. However, it is important that you restrict your discussion to limitations related to the research problem under investigation. For example, if a meta-analysis of existing literature is not a stated purpose of your research, it should not be discussed as a limitation. Do not apologize for not addressing issues that you did not promise to investigate in your paper. 

Here are examples of limitations you may need to describe and to discuss how they possibly impacted your findings. Descriptions of limitations should be stated in the past tense. 

Possible Methodological Limitations 

Sample size -- the number of the units of analysis you use in your study is dictated by the type of research problem you are investigating. Note that, if your sample size is too small, it will be difficult to find significant relationships from the data, as statistical tests normally require a larger sample size to ensure a representative distribution of the population and to be considered representative of groups of people to whom results will be generalized or transferred. 

Lack of available and/or reliable data -- a lack of data or of reliable data will likely require you to limit the scope of your analysis, the size of your sample, or it can be a significant obstacle in finding a trend and a meaningful relationship. You need to not only describe these limitations but to offer reasons why you believe data is missing or is unreliable. However, don’t just throw up your hands in frustration; use this as an opportunity to describe the need for future research. 

Lack of prior research studies on the topic -- citing prior research studies forms the basis of your literature review and helps lay a foundation for understanding the research problem you are investigating. Depending on the currency or scope of your research topic, there may be little, if any, prior research on your topic. Before assuming this to be true, consult with a librarian! In cases when a librarian has confirmed that there is a lack of prior research, you may be required to develop an entirely new research typology [for example, using an exploratory rather than an explanatory research design]. Note that this limitation can serve as an important opportunity to describe the need for further research. 

Measure used to collect the data -- sometimes it is the case that, after completing your interpretation of the findings, you discover that the way in which you gathered data inhibited your ability to conduct a thorough analysis of the results. For example, you regret not including a specific question in a survey that, in retrospect, could have helped address a particular issue that emerged later in the study. Acknowledge the deficiency by stating a need in future research to revise the specific method for gathering data. 

Self-reported data -- whether you are relying on pre-existing self-reported data or you are conducting a qualitative research study and gathering the data yourself, self-reported data is limited by the fact that it rarely can be independently verified. In other words, you must take what people say, whether in interviews, focus groups, or on questionnaires, at face value. However, self-reported data contain several potential sources of bias that should be noted as limitations: (1) selective memory (remembering or not remembering experiences or events that occurred at some point in the past); (2) telescoping [recalling events that occurred at one time as if they occurred at another time]; (3) attribution [the act of attributing positive events and outcomes to one's own agency but attributing negative events and outcomes to external forces]; and, (4) exaggeration [the act of representing outcomes or embellishing events as more significant than is actually suggested from other data]. 

Possible Limitations of the Researcher 

Access -- if your study depends on having access to people, organizations, or documents and, for whatever reason, access is denied or otherwise limited, the reasons for this need to be described. 

Longitudinal effects -- unlike your professor, who can devote years [even a lifetime] to studying a single research problem, the time available to investigate a research problem and to measure change or stability within a sample is constrained by the due date of your assignment. Be sure to choose a topic that does not require an excessive amount of time to complete the literature review, apply the methodology, and gather and interpret the results. If you're unsure, talk to your professor. 

Cultural and other types of bias -- we all have biases, whether we are conscience of them or not. Bias is when a person, place, or thing is viewed or shown in a consistently inaccurate way. It is usually negative, though one can have a positive bias as well. When proof-reading your paper, be especially critical in reviewing how you have stated a problem, selected the data to be studied, what may have been omitted, the way you have ordered events, people, or places and how you have chosen to represent a person, place, or thing, to name a phenomenon, or to use possible words with a positive or negative connotation. Note that if you detect bias in prior research, it must be acknowledged, and you should explain what measures were taken to avoid perpetuating bias. 

Fluency in a language -- if your research focuses on measuring the perceived value of after-school tutoring among Mexican American ESL [English as a Second Language] students, for example, and you are not fluent in Spanish, you are limited in being able to read and interpret Spanish language research studies on the topic. This deficiency should be acknowledged. 

Brutus, Stéphane et al. Self-Reported Limitations and Future Directions in Scholarly Reports: Analysis and Recommendations.  Journal of Management  39 (January 2013): 48-75; Senunyeme, Emmanuel K.  Business Research Methods . Powerpoint Presentation. Regent University of Science and Technology.

Structure and Writing Style

Information about the limitations of your study is 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 a pilot 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 later studies. 

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 reframe 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 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 ask a particular question in a survey 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 any future study. An underlying goal of scholarly research is not only to prove what works, but to demonstrate what doesn't work or what needs further clarification. 

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.

Writing Tip

Don't Inflate the Importance of Your Findings!    After all the hard work and long hours devoted to writing your research paper, it is easy to get carried away with attributing unwarranted importance to what you’ve done. We all want our academic work to be viewed as excellent and worthy of a good grade, but it is important that you understand and openly acknowledge the limitations of your study. Inflating the importance of your study's findings in an attempt to hide its flaws is a big turn off to your readers. A measure of humility goes a long way! 

Another Writing Tip

Negative Results are Not a Limitation! 

Negative evidence refers to findings that unexpectedly challenge rather than support your hypothesis. If you didn't get the results you anticipated, it may mean your hypothesis was incorrect and needs to be reformulated, or perhaps you have stumbled onto something unexpected that warrants further study. Moreover, the absence of an effect may be very telling in many situations, particularly in experimental research designs. In any case, your results may be of importance to others even though they did not support your hypothesis. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that results contrary to what you expected is a limitation to your study. If you carried out the research well, they are simply your results and only require additional interpretation. 

Yet Another Writing Tip

A Note about Sample Size Limitations in Qualitative Research 

Sample sizes are typically smaller in qualitative research because, as the study goes on, acquiring more data does not necessarily lead to more information. This is because one occurrence of a piece of data, or a code, is all that is necessary to ensure that it becomes part of the analysis framework. However, it remains true that sample sizes that are too small cannot adequately support claims of having achieved valid conclusions and sample sizes that are too large do not permit the deep, naturalistic, and inductive analysis that defines qualitative inquiry. Determining adequate sample size in qualitative research is ultimately a matter of judgment and experience in evaluating the quality of the information collected against the uses to which it will be applied, and the particular research method and purposeful sampling strategy employed. If the sample size is found to be a limitation, it may reflect your judgement about the methodological technique chosen [e.g., single life history study versus focus group interviews] rather than the number of respondents used. 

Huberman, A. Michael and Matthew B. Miles. Data Management and Analysis Methods. In Handbook of Qualitative Research. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994), pp. 428-444.

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How to Organize Limitations of a Research Study

How to Organize Limitations of a Research Study

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When completing a study or any other important work, there are different details that you should include to present its comprehensive and clear description. Sometimes you might even need to hire a thesis writer to help you with the whole writing process. Don’t underrate the section with limitations in research. It plays a big role in the entire process. Some students find it difficult to write this part, while others are reluctant to include it in their academic papers. Don’t underestimate the significance of limitations in research to provide readers with an accurate context of your work and enough data to evaluate the impact and relevance of your results. What is the best way to go about them? Keep reading to find out more.

What are the Limitations of a Study (Research)?

Every research has its limitations. These limitations can appear due to constraints on methodology or research design. Needless to say, this may impact your whole study or research paper. Most researchers prefer to not discuss their study limitations because they think it may decrease the value of their paper in the eyes of the audience.

Remember that it’s quite important to show your study limitations to your audience (other researchers, editors of journals, and public readers). You need to notice that you know about these limitations and about the impact they may have. It’s important to give an explanation of how your research limitations can affect the conclusions and thoughts drawn from your research. 

In this guide, you can read useful tips on how to write limitations on your future research. Read great techniques on making a proper limitations section and see examples to make sure you have got an idea of writing your qualitative research limitations. You need to understand that even if limitations show the weaknesses of your future research, including them in your study can make your paper strengthen because you show all the problems before your readers will discover them by themselves. 

Apart from this, when the author points out the study limitations, it means that you have researched all the weak sides of your study and you understand the topic deeply. Needless to say, all the studies have their limitations even if you know how to make research design properly. When you’re honest with your readers, it can impress people much better than ignoring limitations at all.

Why and Where to Include Limitations in My Research Paper

Every research has certain limitations, and it’s completely normal, but you need to minimize their range of scope in the process. Provide your acknowledgment of them in the conclusion. Identify and understand potential shortcomings in your work.

When discussing limitations in research, explain how they impact your findings because creating their short list or description isn’t enough. Your research may have many limitations. Your basic goal is to discuss the ones that relate to the research questions that you choose for a specific academic assignment.

Limitations of your qualitative research can become clear to your readers even before they start to read your study. Sometimes, people can see the limitations only when they have viewed the whole document. You have to present your study limitations clearly in the discussion section of a researh paper . This is the final part of your work where it’s logical to place the limitations section. You should write the limitations at the very beginning of this paragraph, just after you have highlighted the strong sides of the research methodology. When you discuss the limitations before the findings are analyzed, it will help to see how to qualify and apply these findings in future research.

Common Limitations of the Researchers

Limitations related to the researcher must also be written and shown to readers. You have to provide suggestions on decreasing these limitations in both your and future studies.

Limited Access to Information 

Your study may involve some organizations and people in the research, and sometimes you may get problems with access to these organizations. Due to this, you need to redesign and rewrite your study. You need to explain the cause of limited access to your readers.

Time Limits

Needless to say, all the researchers have their deadlines when they need to complete their studies. Sometimes, time constraints can affect your research negatively. If this happened, you need to acknowledge it and mention a need for future research to solve the main problem. 

Conflicts on Biased Views and Personal Issues

Some researchers can have biased views because of their cultural background or personal views. Needless to say, it can affect the research. Apart from this, researchers with biased views can choose only those results and data that support their main arguments. If you want to avoid this problem, pay your attention to the problem statement and proper data gathering.

Different types

Before you start your study or work, keep in mind that there are specific limitations to what you test or possible research results. What are their types? There are different types that students may encounter and they all have unique features, including:

  • Research design limitations,
  • Impact limitations,
  • Data or statistical limitations.

1. Research design limitations

Specific constraints on your population research or available procedures may affect the final outcomes or results that you obtain.

2. Impact limitations?

Even if your research has excellent stats and a strong design, it may suffer from the impact of such factors as:

  • The field is conductive to incremental findings,
  • Being too population-specific.
  • A strong regional focus.

3. Data or statistical limitations

In some cases, it’s impossible to collect enough data or enrollment is very difficult, and all that under-powers your research results. They may stem from your study design. They produce more issues in interpreting your findings.

How to structure your research limitations correctly

There are strict rules to structure this section of your academic paper where you need to justify and explain its potential weaknesses. Take these basic steps to end up with a well-structured section:

  • Announce to identify your research limitations and explain their importance,
  • Reflect to provide the necessary depth, explain their nature, and justify your study choices,
  • Look forward to suggest how it’s possible to overcome them in the future.

They walk your readers through this section. You need them to make it clear to your target audience that you recognize potential weaknesses in your work, understand them, and can point effective solutions.

How to set your research limitations?

No one is perfect. It means that your work isn’t beyond possible flaws, but you need to use them as a great opportunity to overcome new challenges and improve your knowledge. In a typical academic paper, research limitations can relate to these points:

  • Formulation of your objectives and aims,
  • Implementation of your data collection methods,
  • Sample sizes,
  • Lack of previous studies in your chosen area,
  • The scope of discussions.

Learn to determine them in each one.

Formulation of your objectives and aims

Your work has certain shortcomings if you formulate objectives and aims in a very broad manner. What to do in this case? Specify effective methods or ways to narrow your formulation of objectives and aims to increase the level of your study focus.

Implementation of your data collection methods

If you don’t have a lot of experience in collecting primary data, there’s a certain risk that the implementation of your methods has flaws. It’s necessary to acknowledge that.

What are sample sizes?

They depend on the nature of your chosen problem and their significance is bigger in quantitative studies, unlike the qualitative ones. If your sample size is very small, statistical tests will fail to identify important relationships or connections within a particular data set. How to solve this problem? State that other researchers need to base the same study on a larger sample size to end up with more accurate results.

Lacking previous studies in the same field

A literature review is a key step in any scientific work because it helps students determine the scope of existing studies in the chosen area. Why should you use the literature review findings? They are a basic foundation for any researcher who must use them to achieve a set of specific objectives or aims. What if there are no previous works? You may face this challenge if you choose an evolving or current problem for your study or if it’s very narrow.

Scope of discussions

Feel free to include this point as a shortcoming of your work, no matter what your chosen area is. Why? The main reason is that you don’t have long years of experience in writing scientific papers or completing complex studies. That’s why the depth and scope of your discussions can be compromised in different levels compared to scholars with a lot of expertise. Include certain points from limitations in research. Use them as suggestions for the future.

Concluding thoughts

Any research suffers from specific limitations that range from common flaws to serious problems in design or methodology. The ability to set these shortcomings plays a huge role in writing a successful academic paper and earning good grades. What if you lack it? Turn to our professional thesis writers and get their expert consultation on thesis or research paper.

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Limitations of the Study

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The limitations of the study are those characteristics of design or methodology that impacted or influenced the interpretation of the findings from your research. They are the constraints on generalizability, applications to practice, and/or utility of findings that are the result of the ways in which you initially chose to design the study and/or the method used to establish internal and external validity.

Price, James H. and Judy Murnan. “Research Limitations and the Necessity of Reporting Them.” American Journal of Health Education 35 (2004): 66-67.

Always acknowledge a study's limitations. It is far better that you identify and acknowledge your study’s limitations than to have them pointed out by your professor and be graded down because you appear to have ignored them.

Keep in mind that acknowledgement of a study's limitations is an opportunity to make suggestions for further research. If you do connect your study's limitations to suggestions for further research, be sure to explain the ways in which these unanswered questions may become more focused because of your study.

Acknowledgement of a study's limitations also provides you with an opportunity to demonstrate that you have thought critically about the research problem, understood the relevant literature published about it, and correctly assessed the methods chosen for studying the problem. A key objective of the research process is not only discovering new knowledge but to also confront assumptions and explore what we don't know.

Claiming limitations is a subjective process because you must evaluate the impact of those limitations . Don't just list key weaknesses and the magnitude of a study's limitations. To do so diminishes the validity of your research because it leaves the reader wondering whether, or in what ways, limitation(s) in your study may have impacted the results and conclusions. Limitations require a critical, overall appraisal and interpretation of their impact. You should answer the question: do these problems with errors, methods, validity, etc. eventually matter and, if so, to what extent?

Price, James H. and Judy Murnan. “Research Limitations and the Necessity of Reporting Them.” American Journal of Health Education 35 (2004): 66-67; Structure: How to Structure the Research Limitations Section of Your Dissertation . Dissertations and Theses: An Online Textbook. Laerd.com.

Descriptions of Possible Limitations

All studies have limitations . However, it is important that you restrict your discussion to limitations related to the research problem under investigation. For example, if a meta-analysis of existing literature is not a stated purpose of your research, it should not be discussed as a limitation. Do not apologize for not addressing issues that you did not promise to investigate in the introduction of your paper.

Here are examples of limitations related to methodology and the research process you may need to describe and to discuss how they possibly impacted your results. Descriptions of limitations should be stated in the past tense because they were discovered after you completed your research.

Possible Methodological Limitations

  • Sample size -- the number of the units of analysis you use in your study is dictated by the type of research problem you are investigating. Note that, if your sample size is too small, it will be difficult to find significant relationships from the data, as statistical tests normally require a larger sample size to ensure a representative distribution of the population and to be considered representative of groups of people to whom results will be generalized or transferred. Note that sample size is less relevant in qualitative research.
  • Lack of available and/or reliable data -- a lack of data or of reliable data will likely require you to limit the scope of your analysis, the size of your sample, or it can be a significant obstacle in finding a trend and a meaningful relationship. You need to not only describe these limitations but to offer reasons why you believe data is missing or is unreliable. However, don’t just throw up your hands in frustration; use this as an opportunity to describe the need for future research.
  • Lack of prior research studies on the topic -- citing prior research studies forms the basis of your literature review and helps lay a foundation for understanding the research problem you are investigating. Depending on the currency or scope of your research topic, there may be little, if any, prior research on your topic. Before assuming this to be true, though, consult with a librarian. In cases when a librarian has confirmed that there is no prior research, you may be required to develop an entirely new research typology [for example, using an exploratory rather than an explanatory research design]. Note again that discovering a limitation can serve as an important opportunity to identify new gaps in the literature and to describe the need for further research.
  • Measure used to collect the data -- sometimes it is the case that, after completing your interpretation of the findings, you discover that the way in which you gathered data inhibited your ability to conduct a thorough analysis of the results. For example, you regret not including a specific question in a survey that, in retrospect, could have helped address a particular issue that emerged later in the study. Acknowledge the deficiency by stating a need for future researchers to revise the specific method for gathering data.
  • Self-reported data -- whether you are relying on pre-existing data or you are conducting a qualitative research study and gathering the data yourself, self-reported data is limited by the fact that it rarely can be independently verified. In other words, you have to take what people say, whether in interviews, focus groups, or on questionnaires, at face value. However, self-reported data can contain several potential sources of bias that you should be alert to and note as limitations. These biases become apparent if they are incongruent with data from other sources. These are: (1) selective memory [remembering or not remembering experiences or events that occurred at some point in the past]; (2) telescoping [recalling events that occurred at one time as if they occurred at another time]; (3) attribution [the act of attributing positive events and outcomes to one's own agency but attributing negative events and outcomes to external forces]; and, (4) exaggeration [the act of representing outcomes or embellishing events as more significant than is actually suggested from other data].

Possible Limitations of the Researcher

  • Access -- if your study depends on having access to people, organizations, or documents and, for whatever reason, access is denied or limited in some way, the reasons for this need to be described.
  • Longitudinal effects -- unlike your professor, who can literally devote years [even a lifetime] to studying a single topic, the time available to investigate a research problem and to measure change or stability over time is pretty much constrained by the due date of your assignment. Be sure to choose a research problem that does not require an excessive amount of time to complete the literature review, apply the methodology, and gather and interpret the results. If you're unsure whether you can complete your research within the confines of the assignment's due date, talk to your professor.
  • Cultural and other type of bias -- we all have biases, whether we are conscience of them or not. Bias is when a person, place, or thing is viewed or shown in a consistently inaccurate way. Bias is usually negative, though one can have a positive bias as well, especially if that bias reflects your reliance on research that only support for your hypothesis. When proof-reading your paper, be especially critical in reviewing how you have stated a problem, selected the data to be studied, what may have been omitted, the manner in which you have ordered events, people, or places, how you have chosen to represent a person, place, or thing, to name a phenomenon, or to use possible words with a positive or negative connotation.

NOTE:   If you detect bias in prior research, it must be acknowledged and you should explain what measures were taken to avoid perpetuating that bias.

  • Fluency in a language -- if your research focuses on measuring the perceived value of after-school tutoring among Mexican-American ESL [English as a Second Language] students, for example, and you are not fluent in Spanish, you are limited in being able to read and interpret Spanish language research studies on the topic. This deficiency should be acknowledged.

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; Senunyeme, Emmanuel K. Business Research Methods . Powerpoint Presentation. Regent University of Science and Technology; ter Riet, Gerben et al. “All That Glitters Isn't Gold: A Survey on Acknowledgment of Limitations in Biomedical Studies.” PLOS One 8 (November 2013): 1-6.

Structure and Writing Style

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.

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.

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Deception and/or Withholding Information from a Participant

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IRB-SBS Researcher

For some studies, in order to obtain a true response from a participant, the participant is told something that isn’t true.  Deception studies provide participants with an alternative explanation for the purpose of the study or provide them with misleading information about the study. Some studies may not directly deceive the participant but will withhold some information, such as the reason why a participant was selected for the study. Not providing the participant with accurate information contradicts the idea that participants should be informed about a study in order to make the best decision as to whether they should participate. Thus it is necessary that additional safeguards be in place in order to conduct a study with deceptive elements, including providing an appropriate consent form before the study and a debriefing session with a post-debrief consent form, which allows the participant to consent again after they learn the true nature of the study.

The  APA (American Psychological Association) Ethics Code (2002)  includes the following regarding deception:

5.01 Avoidance of False or Deceptive Statements (a) Public statements include but are not limited to paid or unpaid advertising, product endorsements, grant applications, licensing applications, other credentialing applications, brochures, printed matter, directory listings, personal resumes or curricula vitae, or comments for use in media such as print or electronic transmission, statements in legal proceedings, lectures and public oral presentations, and published materials. Psychologists do not knowingly make public statements that are false, deceptive, or fraudulent concerning their research, practice, or other work activities or those of persons or organizations with which they are affiliated.

(b) Psychologists do not make false, deceptive, or fraudulent statements concerning (1) their training, experience, or competence; (2) their academic degrees; (3) their credentials; (4) their institutional or association affiliations; (5) their services; (6) the scientific or clinical basis for, or results or degree of success of, their services; (7) their fees; or (8) their publications or research findings.

(c) Psychologists claim degrees as credentials for their health services only if those degrees (1) were earned from a regionally accredited educational institution or (2) were the basis for psychology licensure by the state in which they practice.

8.07 Deception in Research (a) Psychologists do not conduct a study involving deception unless they have determined that the use of deceptive techniques is justified by the study's significant prospective scientific, educational, or applied value and that effective nondeceptive alternative procedures are not feasible.

(b) Psychologists do not deceive prospective participants about research that is reasonably expected to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress.

(c) Psychologists explain any deception that is an integral feature of the design and conduct of an experiment to participants as early as is feasible, preferably at the conclusion of their participation, but no later than at the conclusion of the data collection, and permit participants to withdraw their data. (See also Standard 8.08, Debriefing.)

8.08 Debriefing (a) Psychologists provide a prompt opportunity for participants to obtain appropriate information about the nature, results, and conclusions of the research, and they take reasonable steps to correct any misconceptions that participants may have of which the psychologists are aware.

(b) If scientific or humane values justify delaying or withholding this information, psychologists take reasonable measures to reduce the risk of harm.

(c) When psychologists become aware that research procedures have harmed a participant, they take reasonable steps to minimize the harm.

In other words, researchers should not use deception unless it is the best and only feasible method, it will not cause pain or distress, and participants will have the opportunity to understand the deception as soon as possible with the option to withdraw their data should they so choose.

Deception becomes problematic for the informed consent process because at some level the participant can’t be fully informed for the study to work.  However, the Board requires the following for the consent process in a deception study:

  • The consent form is not part of the deception.  Although your description of “What you will do” won’t have the entire detail of the study, you should provide as much information as possible.  The information provided on the consent form should be true information, not information that supports the deception.  If there are elements that may make a person uncomfortable or put them at any physical risk, you should warn participants, even in vague terms. 
  • Consent is an on - going process.  Even though a participant has given their okay to participate, monitor their progress throughout the study. If there are signs that the participant is becoming upset or frustrated, check with the participant to see if he or she still wants to continue.
  • The participant is provided with a debriefing session, debriefing statement, and post-debrief consent form after the study is complete.   At some point in the study, usually after their participation is complete, participants must be made aware of the full nature of the study and the deception involved.  The Board requires that you provide a debriefing session with the participants to explain the study.  As part of this session, you should provide a debriefing statement which outlines the full nature of the study (this is required in particular for studies that involve participants from the Psychology Participant Pool). As part of the debriefing session, make sure that the participant is okay, that he or she isn’t showing signs of emotional distress, etc. For a benign deception, most participants likely won’t be upset, but more intense deception activities may require an in-depth debriefing process. After the participants are fully debriefed, you are required to provide a post-debrief consent form which asks for participants to again consent to participate in the study.  Participants have the option, after learning the true nature of the study, to decide not to allow their data to be used in the study. 
  • If the participant withdraws from the study prior to the study’s completion, he or she still receives the debriefing period.  Regardless of whether a participant completes the study, it is important that they are fully informed of the nature of the study. It is appropriate that you provide a withdrawing participant with a debriefing form and they should receive the same debriefing process given as if they completed the study. If the consent form states that the data will be destroyed if a participant withdraws, the participant won’t need the post-debrief consent form as their information will be removed from the study anyway.  If this is not in the consent form, you should provide them with a post-debrief consent form.

A debriefing session takes place after a participant completes their portion of the study (or when a participant decides to withdraw from a study before the study is complete). There are two types of debriefing sessions, an educational debriefing session and a  post-deception debriefing session . Both sessions will function in essentially the same manner; i.e. the researcher will meet with the participant after their participation ends to discuss the study and provide the participant with a written debriefing statement. The purpose of an educational debriefing session is to provide a participant with educational feedback regarding the study and is required for studies using participant pools (please see Participant Pools: Educational Debriefing Sessions for more information).

The same education information about the study may also be included in a post-deception debriefing session, but the purpose of this session is to also  discuss any deception in a study ,  provide a full explanation of the purpose of the study , and  explain why a participant was deceived . This method may also be used for participants who were involved in a study where the study was potentially upsetting or concerning, and the debriefing session will be used to help the participant better understand the context for their upsetting experience as well as help the researcher gauge the participant’s response to see if any additional help is needed to ameliorate the study’s affects. A carefully conducted debriefing session can help a participant to gain meaning from their experience, which can significantly improve a participant’s ability to handle even a stressful and/or upsetting experience, helping reduce any lasting impact from the study.

The debriefing session should be considered a secondary consent session. You will give the participant a post-deception consent form. Now that the participant understands the full scope of the study, the participant has the opportunity to decide whether he or she wants to include their data in the study. Unless other circumstances disallow it, ideal debriefings are done verbally and interactively with participants (in addition to providing the standard written debriefing). A written debriefing statement should always use non-technical language and provide participants with a clear sense of the main question and the importance of the answer.

The debriefing statement needs to explain three elements:

  • Why the experiment was developed   and why the deception was necessary .
  • What the current research says about the topic , which includes providing reference materials that the participants can reasonably access (if you have an academic and non-academic population, you may need to provide more than one version of the debriefing statement or make sure that the references can be accessed by the least educated of the population).
  • Any additional resources that would be useful for the participant . Resources need to be appropriate and accessible for the participants. For example, if you are conducting a study on parenting, you could include community resources for parenting classes or recommendations for parenting guides.

Please keep the information clear and concise, and make sure to include  contact  information for the IRB-SBS.

Example language from a study debriefing form:

"In this study, we told you that you would receive a blue sticker and then we would ask you to report about how you felt about the sticker. Instead, we gave you a red sticker and told you that your friend took the last blue sticker.  However, this was not true; your friend didn’t take the last blue sticker. We did not tell you the full nature of the experiment because we wanted to gauge your honest reaction to the news that your friend took your sticker.

Stickers, and the way that friends react to them, provide interesting insights into interpersonal relationships. In previous studies, such as the Milgram Blue study, blue was found to be particularly desirable, thus it was chosen in order to evoke a stronger response. We are interested in learning if there is a correlation between individuals who are more capable of negotiating the lack of a blue sticker and their ability to maintain a friendship.

Please know that your friend was not involved in this study and had nothing to do with the blue sticker. It is important that you do not let this incident become an issue in your relationship. If you feel that you didn’t negotiate the loss of a sticker in a positive way, this may be an opportunity to evaluate your friendship and learn what you can do to better handle this situation should it arise. The “Sticker Group” is an informal friendship counseling group available for UVa students; for more information, see their website: www.virginia.edu/stickergroup. If you have further concerns, please contact the researcher (name, contact information) to discuss any questions about the research."

Please see the Consent Templates webpage under the Debrief section for the Sample Debrief Form template.

  • Consent Templates

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Preventive Service Usage and New Chronic Disease Diagnoses: Using PCORnet Data to Identify Emerging Trends, United States, 2018–2022

ORIGINAL RESEARCH — Volume 21 — July 3, 2024

Sandra L. Jackson, PhD, MPH 1 ; Akaki Lekiachvili, MD, MBA 2 ; Jason P. Block, MD, MPH 3 ; Thomas B. Richards, MD 4 ; Kshema Nagavedu, MPH 5 ; Christine C. Draper 5 ; Alain K. Koyama, ScD 6 ; Lindsay S. Womack, PhD, MPH 7 ; Thomas W. Carton, PhD, MS 8 ; Kenneth H. Mayer, MD 9 ; Sonja A. Rasmussen, MD, MS 10 ; William E. Trick, MD 11 ; Elizabeth A. Chrischilles, PhD 12 ; Mark G. Weiner, MD 13 ; Pradeep S. B. Podila, PhD, MHA, MS 14 ; Tegan K. Boehmer, PhD, MPH 15 ,16 ; Jennifer L. Wiltz, MD, MPH 2 ,16 ; on behalf of PCORnet Network Partners ( View author affiliations )

Suggested citation for this article: Jackson SL, Lekiachvili A, Block JP, Richards TB, Nagavedu K, Draper CC, et al. Preventive Service Usage and New Chronic Disease Diagnoses: Using PCORnet Data to Identify Emerging Trends, United States, 2018–2022. Prev Chronic Dis 2024;21:230415. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd21.230415 .

PEER REVIEWED

Introduction

Acknowledgments, author information.

What is already known on this topic?

Preventive services and screenings facilitate prevention, early detection, and treatment of chronic diseases, but the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted care.

What is added by this report?

This study of over 30 million US adults during 2018 through 2022 leveraged electronic health record (EHR) data from PCORnet, a national network, to examine use of preventive services and diagnoses of new chronic disease, including trends over time and stratifications by demographic characteristics. Preventive services and chronic disease diagnoses declined during 2020 and subsequently rebounded to nearly prepandemic levels but lagged behind prepandemic levels for some services and diagnoses.

What are the implications for public health practice?

EHR data can augment traditional surveillance and highlight key emerging patterns in health care service usage and in diagnosis of chronic disease. Such data may help optimize prevention and outcomes.

Data modernization efforts to strengthen surveillance capacity could help assess trends in use of preventive services and diagnoses of new chronic disease during the COVID-19 pandemic, which broadly disrupted health care access.

This cross-sectional study examined electronic health record data from US adults aged 21 to 79 years in a large national research network (PCORnet), to describe use of 8 preventive health services (N = 30,783,825 patients) and new diagnoses of 9 chronic diseases (N = 31,588,222 patients) during 2018 through 2022. Joinpoint regression assessed significant trends, and health debt was calculated comparing 2020 through 2022 volume to prepandemic (2018 and 2019) levels.

From 2018 to 2022, use of some preventive services increased (hemoglobin A 1c and lung computed tomography, both P < .05), others remained consistent (lipid testing, wellness visits, mammograms, Papanicolaou tests or human papillomavirus tests, stool-based screening), and colonoscopies or sigmoidoscopies declined ( P < .01). Annual new chronic disease diagnoses were mostly stable (6% hypertension; 4% to 5% cholesterol; 4% diabetes; 1% colonic adenoma; 0.1% colorectal cancer; among women, 0.5% breast cancer), although some declined (lung cancer, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia or carcinoma in situ, cervical cancer, all P < .05). The pandemic resulted in health debt, because use of most preventive services and new diagnoses of chronic disease were less than expected during 2020; these partially rebounded in subsequent years. Colorectal screening and colonic adenoma detection by age group aligned with screening recommendation age changes during this period.

Among over 30 million patients receiving care during 2018 through 2022, use of preventive services and new diagnoses of chronic disease declined in 2020 and then rebounded, with some remaining health debt. These data highlight opportunities to augment traditional surveillance with EHR-based data.

Chronic diseases are primary causes of illness, disability, and death in the United States, and prevention or early detection can facilitate treatment and improve outcomes (1). The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends screening for chronic diseases including hypertension, diabetes, breast cancer, cervical cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer (2). However, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted health care access and impaired the ability of US adults to obtain preventive care such as screening for chronic disease, resulting in health debt (ie, missed services, screenings, treatment, or diagnoses) that could have long-lasting negative health consequences (1,3–5). Given health care system burden, as well as concerns about exposure to COVID-19 for at-risk populations during office visits, some experts recommended deferring screening during the most acute phase of the pandemic (6,7). The extent of the disruption, its duration, and its potential impact on subsequent chronic disease diagnoses have been difficult to assess by using existing public health data.

As a component of data modernization efforts, electronic health record (EHR) data have the potential to augment traditional chronic disease surveillance and provide timely and actionable data for public health policies and programs (8). In contrast to some existing surveys such as the National Health Interview Survey and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), EHR data offer objective measurements of chronic disease status and screening practices (rather than self-report), large population sizes that allow for examination of rare events, and more timely insights. PCORnet, the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network, is an EHR-based network designed to generate high-quality, actionable evidence to support clinical care and high-priority research (9,10). As of 2020, PCORnet collected data from over 300 hospitals, 3,500 primary care practices, 1,000 community clinics, and 80 million patients, with broad geographic coverage across the US (9). Because of the large, diverse population receiving care in its participating health systems, PCORnet has the potential to complement traditional surveillance efforts.

The primary objectives of this study were to examine recent trends in use of preventive services and in new diagnoses of chronic disease and quantify health debt during the COVID-19 pandemic by using a large multisite cohort of US adults. A secondary objective was to explore and describe the usefulness of PCORnet data for chronic disease surveillance.

Participants and procedures

PCORnet is a distributed research network wherein participating health systems perform quarterly data updates and quality checks, and map raw clinical data to a standardized Common Data Model, enabling cross-site interoperability. With this standardization, modular statistical programs can query data across sites in a distributed model and combine results to produce aggregate reports. This cross-sectional study used a modular program (https://github.com/PCORnet-DRN-OC/Query-Details/) to generate site-level aggregate data in 2 separate queries; all results were returned to a coordinating center and combined. The first query examined preventive services (distributed in March 2023; N = 30,783,825 patients) and the second query examined new chronic disease diagnoses (distributed in June 2023; N = 31,588,222 patients). Both queries were performed by 36 PCORnet sites (each representing 1 or more health systems); a data refresh occurred between the 2 queries, resulting in additional patients (9,10). Adults aged 21 to 79 years who had at least 1 encounter at a PCORnet site from January 1, 2018, through December 31, 2022, were included (Supplemental Table 1, available at https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/156743). Diagnoses and services were identified by procedure codes (Current Procedural Terminology; Healthcare Common Procedure Coding Systems [CPT/HCPCS], 9th and 10th Revisions), diagnostic codes (International Classification of Diseases, 9th and 10th Revisions, Clinical Modification [ICD-9-CM and ICD-10-CM]), laboratory codes (Logical Observation Identifiers Names and Codes [LOINC]), or prescribing codes (National Drug Code [NDC]; vocabulary for normalizing prescription and over-the-counter drugs [RxNorm]). All codes are available at the GitHub link above.

Preventive services

We examined 8 preventive services: 1) wellness visits; 2) glycated hemoglobin (HbA 1c ) laboratory tests; 3) lipid panel laboratory tests; 4) mammograms (among women); 5) Papanicolaou (Pap) tests or human papillomavirus (HPV) tests (among women); 6) low dose computed tomography (CT) scans for lung cancer; 7) colonoscopies or sigmoidoscopies; and 8) stool-based colorectal cancer screening tests, including fecal immunochemical tests or stool DNA-fecal immunochemical tests (eg, Cologuard). Results for mammograms and Pap tests/HPV tests are presented as percentages of all unique female patients; the other percentages are of all unique patients.

New chronic disease diagnoses

We examined new diagnoses of 9 chronic conditions — among patients with no prior record in PCORnet of each condition at any point since January 1, 2009. For new conditions in each year, exclusions were made for any period before that specific year. The 9 conditions were defined by using ICD codes unless specified: 1) type 2 diabetes mellitus (defined as HbA 1c value ≥6.5%, or an RxNorm or NDC code for a diabetes medication [other than metformin or a SGLT2 receptor antagonist, which are often used for conditions other than diabetes], or an ICD code for diabetes); 2) hypertension; 3) hypercholesterolemia (defined as starting a cholesterol medication by using RxNorm or NDC code); 4) breast cancer (among women); 5) cervical cancer (among women); 6) cervical intraepithelial neoplasia or carcinoma in situ (CIN/CIS) (among women); 7) lung cancer; 8) colorectal cancer; and 9) colonic adenoma. Some of these new diagnoses were merely new diagnoses in the PCORnet system, as some patients may have been previously diagnosed in a nonparticipating health system.

Health debt

Health debt was estimated by averaging the prepandemic (2018 and 2019) annual percentages of unique patients receiving each preventive service or new chronic disease diagnosis. Next, these prepandemic percentages were multiplied by the annual total unique patients per year (2020, 2021, and 2022) to calculate expected annual services or chronic disease diagnoses during the pandemic period if prepandemic levels of preventive services and diagnoses had continued. The observed annual numbers were then divided by the expected annual numbers, for each year individually (2020, 2021, and 2022), as well as collectively (the sum of observed services or diagnoses for 2020 through 2022 divided by the sum of expected services or diagnoses for 2020 through 2022). The resulting percentages indicate health debt if less than 100% (ie, observed services or diagnoses were less than expected).

Sociodemographic and clinical characteristics

Variables included age, sex (male, female, other/missing), and race and ethnicity (non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native, non-Hispanic Asian, non-Hispanic Black, non-Hispanic multiple race, non-Hispanic Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, non-Hispanic White, other, missing, and Hispanic). Some US Census measures were linked at the ZIP Code Tabulation Area level, including urbanicity (isolated, small rural, large rural, urban, missing) based on Rural-Urban Commuting Area codes (https://depts.washington.edu/uwruca/) and socioeconomic status measured by Area Deprivation Index (ADI) (Quartile 1, ADI 0–38; Quartile 2, ADI 39–43; Quartile 3, ADI 44–49; Quartile 4, ADI 50–100; missing) (11,12). Clinical characteristics included body mass index (BMI, with obesity defined as BMI ≥30 calculated as weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters) and comorbidity status (by using up to 5-year diagnostic history for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, mental health disorders, and smoking, for those with available data).

Statistical analysis

Each PCORnet site executed the SAS-based modular statistical program query (SAS Institute Inc) on patient-level data that remained behind each health system’s firewall. The coordinating center combined all data across sites, and descriptive analyses were performed on the aggregate data in 2023 using Excel (Microsoft) and R (The R Foundation). Joinpoint regression was conducted to assess significant trends from 2018 to 2022 by using the National Cancer Institute’s Joinpoint Trend Analysis Software (version 5.0.2). Results were calculated overall and were stratified by select demographic characteristics. For example, results related to colorectal cancer screening and diagnoses were examined by age group to examine potential changes in relation to the 2021 USPSTF recommendation that lowered the colorectal cancer screening threshold from age 50 to age 45 (2). This activity was reviewed by the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institutional Review Board and by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was deemed not human subjects research, and was conducted consistent with applicable federal law and CDC policy. The data for this study were shared by using existing data use agreements between sites involved. For data requests from outside collaborators, PCORnet has a standard process called the Front Door (https://pcornet.org/front-door/).

During 2018 through 2022, approximately 12 to 16 million adult patients per year received care in participating PCORnet sites ( Table 1 , preventive services query results; Supplemental Table 2, available at https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/156743, shows results for new chronic disease diagnoses). Of these, 59% were women and most (>75%) lived in urban areas. Over half were non-Hispanic White, approximately 16% were non-Hispanic Black, 13% were Hispanic, and 3% were non-Hispanic Asian (6%–9% missing, 2%–3% other; there was some variation by year). Among those with available BMI (~70%), approximately 40% had obesity.

Preventive service use

During 2018 through 2022 ( Figure 1 ), there was a significant increasing trend in usage of some preventive services, including HbA 1c testing (18% to 22%, P = .03) and lung CT scans (0.2% to 0.4%, P < .01). Usage of other preventive services did not change significantly: lipid testing, approximately 26%; wellness visits, 20%; mammograms among women, 18%; Pap tests or HPV tests among women, approximately 10%; and stool-based screening tests, 2%. However, there was a significant increasing trend in stool-based screening among those aged 45 to 49 years, with prevalence increasing from 0.6% in 2018 to 4.6% in 2022 ( P = .02; shown in Supplemental Figure 1, available at https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/156743). Among all patients, there was a significant decreasing trend in colonoscopies or sigmoidoscopies, from approximately 3% to 2% ( P < .01) .

Most preventive services experienced a decrease in usage during 2020 compared with 2019 ( Figure 1 ). Examining the monthly distribution of usage of each preventive service during 2020, few preventive services occurred during April and May compared with the rest of the year (Supplemental Figure 2, available at https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/156743). There was estimated health debt for nearly all preventive services in 2020, although lung CT scans exceeded prepandemic expected levels (113%; Table 2 ). By 2022, all but 2 preventive services (Pap tests or HPV tests, 81%; colonoscopies or sigmoidoscopies, 81%; Table 2 ) had rebounded to, or exceeded, prepandemic levels (≥99%).

There was variation by race and ethnicity in preventive service usage (Supplemental Figure 3, available at https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/156743). For example, in 2022, non-Hispanic Asian adults had the highest percentage receiving lipid panel testing (34%) and wellness visits (26%); Hispanic adults had the highest percentage receiving HbA 1c tests (32%), Pap tests or HPV tests (15% of women), and stool-based screening tests (6%); and non-Hispanic White adults had the highest percentage receiving mammograms (20% of women) and lung CT scans (0.6%).

Preventive service trends showed some variation by race and ethnicity from 2018 to 2022. For example, there was a significant decreasing trend in colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy among non-Hispanic White adults ( P < .01; Supplemental Figure 4, available at https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/156743). All race and ethnicity groups had a significant increase in lung CT scans ( P < .05 for all).

From 2018 to 2022, annual chronic disease diagnoses remained mostly stable, with a dip during 2020 ( Figure 2 ). Over this period, approximately 6% of patients annually received a new hypertension diagnosis, 4% to 5% began a cholesterol medication, and 4% received a new diabetes diagnosis. Approximately 1% had a new colonic adenoma; 0.1% had new colorectal cancer; and among women, 0.5% had a new diagnosis of breast cancer. There was a significant decreasing trend in CIN/CIS among women (0.30% in 2018 to 0.26% in 2022, P = .01), cervical cancer among women (0.05% to 0.04%, P = .02), and lung cancer among all patients (0.18% to 0.16%, P = .04). For colonic adenoma, there was an increasing trend in new diagnoses among those aged 45 to 49 years (0.7% to 1.9%, P < .05; Supplemental Figure 1, available at https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/156743). Among patients aged 45 to 49 years, approximately 60 patients per 100,000 were diagnosed with colonic adenoma during 2018 through 2020; this increased to 88 per 100,000 in 2021 and 179 per 100,000 in 2022 .

The monthly distribution of new chronic disease diagnoses during 2020 showed few new diagnoses during April and May compared with the rest of the year (Supplemental Figure 5, available at https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/156743). There was estimated health debt for all chronic diseases in 2020, with observed levels ranging from 81% (colonic adenoma) to 92% (breast cancer) of expected prepandemic levels ( Table 2 ). In 2022, new diagnoses of 3 conditions (hypertension, diabetes, and colonic adenoma) and new prescriptions for cholesterol medications had rebounded to, or exceeded, prepandemic levels (≥99%). However, any excess during 2022 was not sufficient to make up for the lost volume of diagnoses in 2020 and 2021. Over the combined 3-year pandemic period, 2020 through 2022, health debt remained for all 9 conditions. For the combined period 2020 through 2022, 3-year health debt ranged from 84% (cervical cancer) to 98% (new cholesterol medications).

Chronic disease diagnoses varied by race and ethnicity (Supplemental Figure 6, available at https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/156743). For example, in 2022, non-Hispanic Black adults had the highest percentage of new hypertension (8%) and diabetes (5%) diagnoses. Hispanic women had the highest percentage of new CIN/CIS (0.4%). During 2018 through 2022, diagnoses of new CIN/CIS decreased significantly among non-Hispanic White women ( P < .01), and diagnoses of new cervical cancer decreased significantly among both non-Hispanic White ( P < .01) and Hispanic ( P = .02) women (Supplemental Figure 7, available at https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/156743).

In this EHR-based assessment of over 30 million US adults receiving care during 2018 through 2022, usage of preventive services and new diagnoses of chronic disease decreased during 2020, especially in the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Preventive services and chronic disease diagnoses rebounded during 2021 and 2022, returning to nearly prepandemic levels, but health debt remained for several preventive services and chronic disease diagnoses. Use of EHR data allowed for stratification by sociodemographic factors, revealing racial and ethnic screening disparities as well as differential trends by age for those affected by colorectal cancer screening guideline changes (2). Overall, these findings highlight the usefulness of PCORnet data for chronic disease surveillance.

The observed decrease in preventive service usage during 2020 is consistent with prior work, although most existing studies were limited to specific settings, populations, or conditions. Researchers have reported decreases during 2020 for routine medical visits (4), HbA 1c testing (13), lipid testing (13,14), mammograms (7), colonoscopies (7), Pap tests (7), and lung CT scans (15,16). Telehealth and home-based services with clinical support, such as self-measured blood pressure monitoring (17,18), blood glucose monitoring (19,20), home-based HPV screening kits (21,22), and at-home colorectal screening (7) can reduce barriers to care and may have partially mitigated disruption from the pandemic, at least for some tests and diagnoses (14). The pandemic’s effects on screening choices may have contributed to results of this study, such as the observed decrease in colonoscopies or sigmoidoscopies and simultaneous increase in stool-based testing. Expanded implementation of alternative, more accessible modalities of care could support future chronic disease prevention, detection, and management.

Similar to the observed decrease in preventive service usage, there was a decrease in new chronic disease diagnoses during 2020. This finding was expected and is consistent with prior studies. For example, pandemic-related decreases occurred in cancer diagnoses (23–26), including colorectal, female breast, cervical, and lung cancer, as well as hypertension diagnostic procedures (27) and new statin prescriptions (13). Although diagnoses rebounded in 2021 and 2022, any delay in diagnosis can delay treatment, potentially leading to worse outcomes for affected patients. In a national, hospital-based registry capturing about 70% of all US cancer diagnoses annually, the proportion of cancers detected at early stages decreased during 2020 (24); also, a modeling study from England suggested that pandemic-related diagnostic delays for colorectal, breast, and lung cancers could have resulted in approximately 15%, 8%, and 5% increases, respectively, in deaths over 5 years (28). In addition, patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and cancer are at increased risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 (29,30), underscoring the importance of continued diagnosis and management of chronic conditions even amidst acute pandemic phases.

Racial and ethnic disparities are well documented for screening and burden of chronic disease. For example, non-Hispanic Black men have higher incidence of lung cancer than non-Hispanic White men; however non-Hispanic Black men are less likely to be screened, receive later-stage diagnoses, have lower rates of treatment, and have more deaths from lung cancer (31). In our study, non-Hispanic Black adults had lower receipt of lung CT scans compared with non-Hispanic White adults. In a prior study, non-Hispanic Black women had higher breast cancer mortality than non-Hispanic White women (32); however, another study found that non-Hispanic Black women were more likely to meet breast cancer screening guidelines than non-Hispanic White women (33). Our results were inconsistent with this prior study in that we observed lower mammography screening in non-Hispanic Black women compared with non-Hispanic White women. This difference may have been due to differences in population, measurement, or methodology. To some extent, our results stratified by race and ethnicity, with no further adjustment for age differences between these populations, may mask the degree of inequality. For example, a much younger age distribution among communities of color may partly explain the higher observed prevalence of Pap tests or HPV testing among Hispanic and non-Hispanic Asian women compared with non-Hispanic White women.

Age stratification revealed a sharp increase in both colonoscopy and stool-based screening among patients aged 45 to 49 in 2021 and 2022, corresponding to the 2021 USPSTF recommendation lowering the colorectal cancer screening threshold from age 50 to age 45 (2). Among this age group, we also observed increased diagnoses of new colonic adenoma. However, the observed volume of colorectal screening test usage remained low, consistent with prior estimates that nearly 30% of eligible US adults were not up to date with screening in 2021 (34). The ability to track implementation and potential impact of new screening recommendations or guidelines in clinical practice with timely, real-world data is a unique strength of EHR-based surveillance using PCORnet.

Limitations

This study had several limitations. First, PCORnet is not a nationally representative sample of the US population: PCORnet has overrepresentation in academic health care settings and represents a care-seeking population (ie, patients who have some degree of access to and engagement in a health system). Second, included patients could have also obtained preventive services and diagnoses from other facilities that did not contribute data to PCORnet. Third, denominators for each preventive service were all adults, or all women, rather than the specific population recommended for each service based on age, risk factors, and recommended screening time intervals. Thus, this study was not designed to estimate whether patients were individually up to date with screening recommendations. Fourth, some patients may have received preventive care services as disease monitoring rather than screening; thus, our estimates likely overestimate the percentage of patients who received these tests for screening purposes alone. Furthermore, some lung CT scans during the COVID-19 pandemic may reflect pulmonary evaluations for COVID-19 rather than lung cancer screenings. Fifth, if a patient’s first encounter with a PCORnet health system occurred during our study period and led to the first documentation of a chronic disease, then some prevalent cases could have been included as new chronic disease diagnoses. Thus, our estimates for new diagnoses may be higher than actual incidence. Sixth, it is impossible to disentangle whether any changes in recorded new diagnoses were a consequence of altered testing and treatment during the pandemic rather than other secular trends that may have occurred even without the pandemic, such as increasing disease incidence or declining health care usage. Seventh, some patients could have been represented in the data more than once if they received care from multiple PCORnet sites. Finally, as EHR data are real-world data, they are subject to limitations such as missingness and variation across sites; further analyses could replicate these findings using varied data sources and phenotype definitions.

Despite these limitations, trends show a clear national level health debt with a drop in usage of preventive services and new chronic disease diagnoses during 2020 through 2022, despite some services rebounding to prepandemic levels. If trends in preventive services or diagnoses were not flat during the prepandemic period (2018–2019), then our method of estimating health debt could lead to overestimates (if trends were declining) or underestimates (if trends were increasing). Also, if fewer patients received care of any kind during the pandemic period (2020–2022), our method may underestimate health debt, since expected numbers of services and diagnoses were based on the number of patients who had encounters in institutions participating in PCORnet. Furthermore, while our study examined trends in yearly cross-sectional data, a longitudinal study examining patient-level data could better assess whether results are clinically meaningful, and what opportunities might exist for public health intervention. Future work could investigate health debt in more detail, including geographic variation, underlying causes of trends (such as health care capacity or delivery issues, or misinformation among patients), factors associated with returning to care, populations most affected by health debt, and potential effects of delayed diagnoses, later-stage disease detection, or delayed treatment initiation. Further exploration of incidence and services, such as whether eligible patients are up to date with their screenings, will be important for informing public health activities. In support of future efforts, this study’s codes and methodology have been shared publicly for replication, refinement, and use.

Conclusions

This multisite, nationwide assessment of over 30 million patients revealed a decrease in both preventive services and new chronic disease diagnoses during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by an increase in 2021 and 2022 to nearly prepandemic levels. In addition to examining health debt in preventive services and chronic disease diagnoses during the COVID-19 pandemic, PCORnet data also allow for examination of disparities by race and ethnicity as well as implementation of new screening recommendations. Overall, this study highlights ways to augment traditional chronic disease surveillance with data from PCORnet or other EHR-based surveillance systems — for timely assessment of emerging trends in chronic disease nationwide.

The authors report no conflicts of interest and have no funders to report for this work. No copyrighted material was adapted or reused in this article.

The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We thank Sharon Saydah and Emilia Koumans from the CDC Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Viruses Division, the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network, and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.

PCORnet Network Partners: Faraz S. Ahmad, MD, MS, Division of Cardiology, Department of Medicine, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine; Saul Blecker, MD, MHS, NYU Grossman School of Medicine; Olveen Carrasquillo, MD, MPH, University of Miami; Bernard P. Chang, MD, PhD, Ochsner Health; Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH, Seattle Children’s Research Institute; Katherine Chung-Bridges, MD, MPH, Health Choice Network; Lauren P. Cleveland, MS, MPH, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute; Lindsay G. Cowell, MD, PhD, O’Donnell School of Public Health, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; Janis L. Curtis, MSPH, MA, Duke University School of Medicine; Christopher B. Forrest, MD, PhD, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Daniel Fort, PhD, MPH, Ochsner Health; Carol Reynolds Geary, PhD, MBA, RN, University of Nebraska Medical Center; Philip A. Giordano, MD, Orlando Health, Inc; David Hanauer, MD, MS, University of Michigan; Rachel Hess, MD, MS, University of Utah Health; Benjamin D. Horne, PhD, MStat, MPH, Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute; Wenke Hwang, PhD, Penn State University College of Medicine; Harold P. Lehmann, MD, PhD, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; Abu Saleh Mohammad Mosa, PhD, MS, University of Missouri; Samyuktha Nandhakumar, MS, North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute, UNC School of Medicine; Jihad S. Obeid, MD, Medical University of South Carolina; Brian Ostasiewski, BS, Wake Forest School of Medicine; Nathan M. Pajor, MD, MS, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center; Lav P. Patel, MS, University of Kansas Medical Center; Suchitra Rao, MBBS, MSCS, University of Colorado; Pedro Rivera, MS, OCHIN; Patricia S. Robinson, PhD, APRN, AdventHealth; Marc Rosenman, MD, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago; Russell L. Rothman, MD, MPP, Vanderbilt University Medical Center; Jonathan C. Silverstein, MD, MS, University of Pittsburgh; Alexander Stoddard, MS, Medical College of Wisconsin.

Corresponding Author: Sandra Jackson, PhD, MPH, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4770 Buford Highway NE, Mailstop S107-1, Atlanta, GA 30341 ( [email protected] ).

Author Affiliations: 1 Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia. 2 National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia. 3 Division of Chronic Disease Research Across the Lifecourse, Department of Population Medicine, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. 4 Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia. 5 Division of Therapeutics Research and Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Department of Population Medicine, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. 6 Division of Diabetes Translation, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia. 7 Division of Reproductive Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia. 8 Louisiana Public Health Institute, New Orleans. 9 The Fenway Institute, Fenway Health and the Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. 10 Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland. 11 Center for Health Equity and Innovation, Cook County Health, Chicago, Illinois. 12 Department of Epidemiology, College of Public Health, University of Iowa, Iowa City. 13 Department of Population Health Sciences, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, New York. 14 Office of Informatics and Information Resource Management, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia. 15 Office of Public Health Data, Surveillance, and Technology, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia. 16 US Public Health Service, Atlanta, Georgia.

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Table 1. Demographic and Clinical Characteristics of Adult Patients in the Preventive Services Query, 36 National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network (PCORnet) sites , 2018–2022
Characteristic 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
12,236,819 13,026,666 13,353,937 15,590,610 13,826,891
21–34 24 24 25 24 24
35–39 9 9 9 9 9
40–44 8 8 8 8 8
45–49 9 8 8 8 8
50–64 30 29 29 28 28
65–79 21 21 21 22 23
Female 59 59 59 59 59
Male 41 41 41 41 41
Non-Hispanic Asian 3 3 3 3 3
Non-Hispanic Black 16 16 15 15 16
Non-Hispanic White 59 59 58 56 57
Hispanic 13 13 13 13 13
Underweight (<18.5) 2 2 2 2 2
Normal weight (18.5–<25) 27 26 26 25 25
Overweight (25–<30) 32 31 31 31 31
Obese (≥30) 40 41 42 42 43
Heart disease 11 11 11 10 12
Diabetes 10 11 11 10 12
Cancer 6 6 6 5 6
Hypertension 24 24 24 23 25
Mental health disorders 11 11 12 11 13
Smoking 13 13 13 12 13
Isolated 2 2 2 2 2
Small rural 2 2 2 2 2
Large rural 6 6 6 6 6
Urban 84 83 82 80 76
Quartile 1: 0–38 27 26 26 26 24
Quartile 2: 39–43 23 23 23 22 21
Quartile 3: 44–49 22 22 22 21 21
Quartile 4: 50–100 23 22 21 20 20

a National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network (PCORnet) sites: Duke University, Medical University of South Carolina, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Wake Forest Baptist Health, Allina Health, Medical College of Wisconsin, University of Iowa Healthcare, University of Kansas, University of Missouri HC, University of Nebraska, University of Texas SW Medical Center, University of Utah, University Medical Center New Orleans, Ochsner Health System, Children’s Hospital Colorado, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Nemours Children’s Hospital, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Lurie Children’s Hospital, Columbia, Cook County, Northwestern University, Fenway Health, Health Choice Network, OCHIN, Inc, Johns Hopkins University, Penn State College of Medicine and Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Temple University, University of Michigan, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, AdventHealth, Orlando Health System, University of Florida Health, University of Miami. These sites represent academic and community health systems. Patients who receive care in these institutions reside across all 50 states; Washington, DC; Puerto Rico; US Virgin Islands; and Guam. b Age category based on patient age at the time of first encounter during the 1-year period. c Other/missing not shown. d Not shown: non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native (<1%), non-Hispanic multiple race (<1%), non-Hispanic Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (<1%), other (2%), and missing (6%–9%; there were some variations by year). e Body mass index (BMI) data were missing from 25% to 35% of patients. BMI category percentages have been calculated among those with available BMI data. BMI calculation: weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters.

Table 2. Estimated Health Debt for Use of Preventive Services and Diagnoses of New Chronic Disease in 2020–2022 Compared With 2018–2019, National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network (PCORnet)
Service or diagnosis 2020 2021 2022 2020–2022
Wellness visit 90 98 100
Hemoglobin A 100 110 120
Lipid testing 95 102 105
Colonoscopy 89 86 81
Stool-based test 94 103 130
Lung computed tomography 113 144 190
Mammogram 93 101 99
Papanicolaou tests or human papillomavirus tests 84 92 81
Hypertension 90 98 99
Diabetes 87 92 100
Cholesterol 90 96 106
Colorectal cancer 90 91 97
Colonic adenoma 81 93 105
Lung cancer 89 85 88
Breast cancer 92 95 97
Cervical cancer 87 81 83
Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia or carcinoma in situ 90 87 87

a The average from 2018 to 2019 was used as the baseline for estimation of health debt. The observed annual numbers were then divided by the expected annual numbers, for each year individually (2020, 2021, and 2022), as well as collectively (2020–2022). Percentages indicate health debt if less than 100%. Health debt for mammograms, Papanicolaou tests and/or human papillomavirus tests, breast cancer, cervical cancer, and cervical intraepithelial neoplasia or carcinoma in situ are presented for all women; all other health debt estimates are for all patients (men and women). Colonoscopy indicates colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. Stool-based test indicates stool-based colorectal test. Cholesterol indicates initiation of a new cholesterol medication.

The opinions expressed by authors contributing to this journal do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the authors’ affiliated institutions.

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  • http://orcid.org/0000-0002-1987-0394 Miguel Angel Alvarez de Mon 1 , 2 ,
  • Almudena Sánchez-Villegas 3 ,
  • Luis Gutiérrez-Rojas 4 ,
  • http://orcid.org/0000-0002-3917-9808 Miguel A Martinez-Gonzalez 3
  • 1 Psychiatry and Mental Health , Hospital Universitario Infanta Leonor , Madrid , Spain
  • 2 Psychiatry , University of Alcalá , Madrid , Spain
  • 3 Institute for Innovation and Sustained Development in Food Chain (ISFOOD) , Public University of Navarra , Pamplona , Spain
  • 4 Psychiatry Service, San Cecilio University Hospital , Andalusian Health Service , Granada , Spain
  • Correspondence to Dr Miguel A Martinez-Gonzalez, PREVENTIVE MEDICINE AND PUBLIC HEALTH, University of Navarra, Pamplona, NAVARRA, Spain; mamartinez{at}unav.es

During the last decade, a multitude of epidemiological studies with different designs have been published assessing the association between the use of digital media and psychological well-being, including the incidence of mental disorders and suicidal behaviours. Particularly, available research has very often focused on smartphone use in teenagers, with highly addictive potential, coining the term ‘problematic smartphone use’ and developing specific scales to measure the addictive or problematic use of smartphones. Available studies, despite some methodological limitations and gaps in knowledge, suggest that higher screen time is associated with impaired psychological well-being, lower self-esteem, higher levels of body dissatisfaction, higher incidence of eating disorders, poorer sleeping outcomes and higher odds of depressive symptoms in adolescents. Moreover, a significant association has also been found between screen time and higher suicide risk. Finally, problematic pornography has been shown to be highly prevalent and it is a strong cause of concern to many public health departments and national governments because it might be eventually associated with aggressive sexual behaviours.

  • BEHAVIOR, ADDICTIVE
  • SEX EDUCATION

https://doi.org/10.1136/jech-2023-220577

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Contributors MAAdM and MAM-G were the principal contributors to the writing, whereas AS-V and LG-R contributed to the manuscript by reviewing and editing it. MAM-G is the guarantor and corresponding author.

Competing interests None declared.

Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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New One-Step Method to Make Multiple Edits to a Cell’s Genome

Seth Shipman and Alejandro González-Delgado discuss science at Gladstone Institutes

Seth Shipman (left) and Alejandro González-Delgado (right) developed a more efficient way to make precise edits to human cells in multiple locations at once. Their study was published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

Genome editing has become a widely adopted technology to modify DNA in cells, allowing scientists to study diseases in the lab and develop therapies that repair disease-causing mutations. However, with current approaches, it’s only possible to edit cells in one location at a time.

Now, a team of scientists at Gladstone Institutes has developed a new method that enables them to make precise edits in multiple locations within a cell—all at once. Using molecules called retrons, they created a tool that can efficiently modify DNA in bacteria, yeast, and human cells.

“We wanted to push the boundaries of genomic technologies by engineering tools to help us study the true complexity of biology and disease,” says Associate Investigator Seth Shipman, PhD, senior author of a new study published in Nature Chemical Biology .

Conquering Limitations

Shipman is a leader in the nascent and fast-growing field of retrons, which are molecular components from a bacterial immune system that can produce large quantities of DNA. In 2022, by combining retrons with CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing, his lab pioneered a system to edit human cells quickly and efficiently.

With the new study, the researchers wanted to use their system to overcome a limitation of current genome editing methods.

Postdoctoral scholar Alejandro Gonzalez-Delgado at Gladstone Institutes

González-Delgado helped engineer retrons so they can make multiple edits simultaneously to a cell's genome.

“If you wanted to edit a cell in multiple locations of the genome that are not near each other, the standard approach before now was to make the modifications one after the other,” explains Alejandro González-Delgado, PhD, one of the first authors of the study and a postdoctoral scholar in Shipman’s lab. “It was a laborious cycle: you would first make an edit, then you would use the edited cells to introduce another edit, and so on.”

Instead, the team found a way to encode a retron so it can generate different portions of DNA. When delivered to a cell, these engineered retrons—called multitrons—can make multiple edits simultaneously.

Another benefit of multitrons is their ability to delete large sections of the genome.

“With multitrons, we can make sequential deletions to cut out and collapse middle portions of the genome region we’re targeting, bringing the far-apart ends closer together until the entire region is completely deleted,” says González-Delgado.

Many Potential Applications

As part of their study, Shipman and his team demonstrated immediate applications for their new method in molecular recording and metabolic engineering.

Researchers Seth Shipman and Alejandro Gonzalez-Delgado in the lab at Gladstone Institutes

The new genome editing method developed by Shipman (left) and González-Delgado (right) will help researchers model complex genetic diseases in the lab.

Retrons, they have previously shown, can be used to record molecular events in a cell, providing a detailed log of the cell’s activity and changes to its environment. With multitrons, the researchers have expanded this approach and can now record with greater sensitivity.

“Multitrons allow us to record very weak and very strong signals at the same time, expanding the dynamic range of our recordings,” says González-Delgado. “Eventually, we could imagine implementing this type of tool in the gut microbiome to record a signal like inflammation.”

As for metabolic engineering, the scientists showed that multitrons can be used to simultaneously edit multiple genes in a metabolic pathway to rapidly increase the production of a targeted substance within a cell. They tested their approach on a powerful antioxidant called lycopene and successfully increased the production of this compound threefold.

“In order to start modeling complex genetic diseases and eventually find treatments or cures, we need to make many different mutations to cells at once,” says Shipman, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences at UC San Francisco, as well as a Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Investigator. “Our new approach is a step toward that.”

Kelly Quigley Director, Science Communications and Media Relations 415.734.2690 Email

About the Study

The paper “Simultaneous multi-site editing of individual genomes using retron arrays” was published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology on July 9, 2024. The other authors are Santiago C. Lopez, Matías Rojas-Montero, and Chloe B. Fishman from Gladstone.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation (MCB 2137692), the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (R21EB031393), the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (1DP2GM140917), the UCSF Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research, Chan Zuckerberg Biohub San Francisco, the L.K. Whittier Foundation, the Pew Biomedical Scholars Program, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, and a Berkeley Fellowship for Graduate Study. 

About Gladstone Institutes

Gladstone Institutes is an independent, nonprofit life science research organization that uses visionary science and technology to overcome disease. Established in 1979, it is located in the epicenter of biomedical and technological innovation, in the Mission Bay neighborhood of San Francisco. Gladstone has created a research model that disrupts how science is done, funds big ideas, and attracts the brightest minds.

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Justin Eyquem Named a 2024 Pew-Stewart Scholar for Cancer Research

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Eyquem, an affiliate investigator at Gladstone Institutes, is working to enhance the efficiency of CAR-T therapy, a cancer treatment that modifies T cells to target cancer cells.

Scientists Push Single-Molecule DNA Sequencing to the Next Level

Gladstone Senior Investigator Vijay Ramani (left) and collaborator Siva Kasinathan

Two new tools created at Gladstone Institutes allow scientists to study DNA at single-molecule resolution using fewer cells than previously required, with clear applications for cancer and many other diseases.

CRISPR-Based Mapping Uncovers ‘Switches’ for Immune Genes Central to Health

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A new study in Nature Genetics expands our understanding of immune regulation and autoimmunity—with findings that could also be used in the development of cancer immunotherapies.

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Do You Know the 6 Warning Signs of a Debt Consolidation Scam?

Karon Warren has 20+ years of experience researching and writing about banking, mortgages, credit cards, savings, and other personal finance topics.

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What Is a Debt Consolidation Company?

Debt consolidation is the process of combining several debts into one debt. Typically, this is done through a debt consolidation loan . For example, if you owe a total of $10,000 on four credit cards you might get a $10,000 debt consolidation loan to pay them all off. Now you have just one payment to make each month—and ideally at a much lower interest rate.

Many regular banks and credit unions offer these loans , and consumers who want to consolidate their debts can often manage the process on their own. But there also are debt consolidation specialists who reach out to those with high levels of debt to offer loans or say they can get you one. Some of these companies are legitimate, but many are scams that could harm your credit, charge you excessive fees, jeopardize your personal information, or simply steal your money. Legitimate debt consolidation companies will only make contact after someone has expressed interest, don't charge upfront fees, are accredited, and don't make promises or guarantees.

Key Takeaways

  • Legitimate debt consolidation companies initiate contact only after someone has expressed interest.
  • Accreditation from reputable organizations such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) is an important indicator of a legitimate company.
  • Legitimate debt consolidation companies do not charge large upfront fees before providing any services.
  • Be cautious of companies that make unrealistic promises or guarantees.
  • Research and read reviews from reputable sources to gain insights into the experiences of other customers.

Signs of a Legitimate Debt Consolidation Company

The key to avoiding debt consolidation scams is recognizing the signs that indicate a debt consolidation company is not legit. A company that is on the level will be characterized by:

Clear and Transparent Communication

A reputable debt consolidation company will be clear in explaining what it can and can't do to help you with your debt. It will not make unrealistic promises.

For example, a debt consolidation company will not negotiate with your creditors to get you a lower interest rate or erase your debts. Companies that make such promises are properly called debt settlement or debt relief companies (although some may refer to their services as "debt consolidation"). Some debt settlement companies, most of which are for-profit businesses, are legitimate, while others are outright frauds.

In addition, if a company reaches out to you out of the blue, by phone, mail, or email, it's highly likely it could be a scam. Legitimate debt consolidation and debt settlement companies typically do not engage in unsolicited offers or cold calling. Instead, they follow up only after a consumer has expressed interest in their services.

Accreditation and Certification

For any debt consolidation company, lender, or organization you consider working with, check for certifications and licenses that demonstrate its compliance with industry standards.

For example, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), is a nonprofit organization of credit counseling services whose members must go through a certification program showing they meet its standards. These counselors often create debt management plans , which don't eliminate your debts but can make them easier to pay off.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is another source to check the credibility of a debt consolidation company or organization. Businesses can apply to be accredited by the BBB, and it posts ratings based on consumer feedback and other factors.

In the case of lenders or loan companies, you can check with your state's attorney general's office or banking department to make sure they are registered to do business in your state, as they are required to be.

No Upfront Fees

If a company asks for money upfront before discussing your situation with you or providing any services, run, don't walk, away. This is a major red flag with debt settlement companies, some of which may misrepresent themselves as providing debt consolidation.

Nonprofit credit counseling organizations charge only modest fees and may provide many services for free.

Realistic Claims and Guarantees

Getting a debt consolidation loan requires meeting a lender's eligibility requirements. Depending on your financial situation, you may not qualify for a loan or qualify for enough money to consolidate all of your debts.

Therefore, if a company makes bold promises or guarantees, such as eliminating all debt or improving credit scores overnight, be wary. Legitimate companies provide realistic expectations of debt consolidation and work within the confines of the borrower's financial situation.

And, again, you can always apply for a loan on your own, without the assistance of a debt consolidation company. Some lenders will even " pre-qualify " you, giving you a good idea of your likelihood of obtaining a loan before you file a formal application.

Beware of unsolicited sales calls from telemarketers that tell you that you've been selected for a special loan or balance transfer offer and ask for upfront payment or personal information as these are often scams.

6 Red Flags of Debt Consolidation Scams

In addition to the above, these are additional red flags to watch for in order to avoid a debt consolidation scam. 

1. High-Pressure Sales Tactics

If a company uses aggressive sales tactics to coerce you into working with them, walk away. Legitimate debt consolidation companies will never push you to work with them or make decisions you aren't ready to make. Instead, they should allow you time to thoroughly understand the terms and conditions of a debt consolidation loan.

2. Request for Personal Information

Be wary of companies that ask upfront for sensitive personal information such as Social Security numbers or bank account details. While legitimate companies many need some of this information for a debt consolidation loan application, they won't push for it right away. It's crucial to protect your personal information and only share it with trusted and verified entities.

3. Lack of Transparency

Legitimate companies provide clear and detailed information about their services, fees, and terms. If a company is evasive or unwilling to provide understandable answers to your questions, it is very likely a scam.

4. Instructions to Stop Paying Your Creditors

Debt consolidation, unlike debt settlement, is intended as a way to pay off your creditors, not to negotiate all, or some portion of, your debts away. Some companies may advise you to stop paying your creditors and send your credit payments to them instead. Supposedly this is a way to give them negotiation leverage over the creditor.

But beware of any company, even a seemingly legitimate one, that suggests this. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warns, "If you stop making payments, you will likely damage your credit. You may face collection efforts, additional late fees, and penalty interest charges, and you might be sued. These fees and charges will cause your debts to grow larger."

5. Instructions to Stop Talking to Your Creditors 

Similarly, dubious debt consolidation companies may tell clients to stop communicating with their creditors. Doing so could lead to hefty fines and collection actions.

Legitimate debt counselors are more likely to tell you to notify your creditors of your financial difficulties because the creditors may offer remedies to help you pay your debt.

6. Promises of Access to a "New" or "Special" Government Program 

There are no special government programs for debt consolidation. Both the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warn that any company making this claim should be avoided.

How to Avoid a Debt Consolidation Scam 

Follow these tips to avoid a debt consolation scam.

  • Research Different Companies. Don't go to the first company you find in your search. Check several, review their accreditations, and ask for referrals. 
  • Compare Multiple Offers. Shopping around with at least three different debt consolation companies is the most effective way to find the best loan terms to consolidate your debt. 
  • Read the Fine Print. Make sure you know all the terms of any debt consolidation loan and understand how much you will pay each month, the interest rate, when payments are due, and how long you will have to make them.
  • Ask About Fees. Find out how much you will pay to consolidate your debt. Make sure the fees don't just add to your debt. 
  • Get Everything in Writing. In the event that problems arise, you'll have proof of what you are responsible for as well as what the company is supposed to do on your behalf. 
  • Don't Provide Payment Upfront. Legitimate companies will never ask to be paid for their services upfront, although some credit counselors may charge a modest enrollment fee.  

How to Research Debt Consolidation Companies

Here are some key ways to determine whether a debt consolidation company is legitimate: 

  • Check Online Reviews and Ratings. You can check out specific debt consolidation companies by name online at the BBB or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Consumer Complaints Database. Reviews can provide insights into the experiences other customers have had with the company.
  • Verify Accreditation and Licenses. Verify the accreditation and licenses of a debt consolidation company or organization through official websites or directories such as the NFCC, the BBB, or your state attorney general's office.
  • Seek Professional Advice. A credit counselor , accountant, or financial planner may be able to provide referrals to reputable debt consolidation companies or potential lenders.

What Is a Debt Consolidation Loan?

A debt consolidation loan is a personal loan you take out to pay off multiple debts. Ideally it will have a lower interest rate than the debts you are paying off.  

What Are the Disadvantages of Debt Consolidation?

If your credit score is low, the interest rate on a debt consolidation loan could be similar to what you have on your existing debts, so it might not save you any money. In addition, if you can't get a loan that's large enough to cover all of your debts, you may still have to manage multiple payments.

How Can I Verify the Legitimacy of a Debt Consolidation Company?

You can check to see if the company is licensed or accredited through such agencies as the NFCC, the BBB, or your state's attorney general office.

What's the Difference Between Debt Consolidation and Debt Settlement?

Debt consolidation is the act of combining multiple debts into one debt. Debt settlement involves trying to settle, renegotiate, or change the terms of your debt in an effort to reduce how much you owe. 

How Do I Secure My Consolidation Loan?

Debt consolidation loans typically are unsecured personal loans that do not require collateral. 

The Bottom Line 

Legitimate debt consolidation companies work to help you get out of debt. They typically are accredited or licensed by reputable agencies, and they won't push you to do something you are uncomfortable doing or that is likely to make your credit situation even worse. Bear in mind, too, that they may not be able to do anything for you that you couldn't do on your own. 

Federal Trade Commission Consumer Advice. " Signs of a Debt Relief Scam ."

Attorney General of Texas. “ Debt Relief and Debt Relief Scams. ”

National Foundation for Credit Counseling. " Why It Matters if a Credit Counseling Agency Is NFCC Certified ."

Better Business Bureau. " Overview of Ratings ."

Federal Trade Commission Consumer Advice. " What to Know About Advance-Fee Loans ."

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. " What's the Difference Between a Credit Counselor and a Debt Settlement or Debt Relief Company? "

Consumer Financial Protection Board. “ I’ve Seen a Lot of Advertisements for Companies That Consolidate Credit Card Debt. Are These Legitimate? ”

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “ What Do I Need to Know about Consolidating My Credit Card Debt? ”

Federal Trade Commission. " How to Get Out of Debt. "

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. " What Is a Debt Relief Program and How Do I Know if I Should Use One? "

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Prey supply and predation as potential limitations to feasibility of anadromous salmonid introductions in a reservoir

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Publication Year 2024
Title Prey supply and predation as potential limitations to feasibility of anadromous salmonid introductions in a reservoir
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Organizing Academic Research Papers: Limitations of the Study

  • Purpose of Guide
  • Design Flaws to Avoid
  • Glossary of Research Terms
  • Narrowing a Topic Idea
  • Broadening a Topic Idea
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  • Academic Writing Style
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  • Acknowledgements

The limitations of the study are those characteristics of design or methodology that impacted or influenced the application or interpretation of the results of your study. They are the constraints on generalizability and utility of findings that are the result of the ways in which you chose to design the study and/or the method used to establish internal and external validity.

Importance of...

Always acknowledge a study's limitations. It is far better for you to identify and acknowledge your study’s limitations than to have them pointed out by your professor and be graded down because you appear to have ignored them.

Keep in mind that acknowledgement of a study's limitations is an opportunity to make suggestions for further research. If you do connect your study's limitations to suggestions for further research, be sure to explain the ways in which these unanswered questions may become more focused because of your study.

Acknowledgement of a study's limitations also provides you with an opportunity to demonstrate to your professor that you have thought critically about the research problem, understood the relevant literature published about it, and correctly assessed the methods chosen for studying the problem. A key objective of the research process is not only discovering new knowledge but also to confront assumptions and explore what we don't know.

Claiming limitiations is a subjective process because you must evaluate the impact of those limitations . Don't just list key weaknesses and the magnitude of a study's limitations. To do so diminishes the validity of your research because it leaves the reader wondering whether, or in what ways, limitation(s) in your study may have impacted the findings and conclusions. Limitations require a critical, overall appraisal and interpretation of their impact. You should answer the question: do these problems with errors, methods, validity, etc. eventually matter and, if so, to what extent?

Structure: How to Structure the Research Limitations Section of Your Dissertation . Dissertations and Theses: An Online Textbook. Laerd.com.

Descriptions of Possible Limitations

All studies have limitations . However, it is important that you restrict your discussion to limitations related to the research problem under investigation. For example, if a meta-analysis of existing literature is not a stated purpose of your research, it should not be discussed as a limitation. Do not apologize for not addressing issues that you did not promise to investigate in your paper.

Here are examples of limitations you may need to describe and to discuss how they possibly impacted your findings. Descriptions of limitations should be stated in the past tense.

Possible Methodological Limitations

  • Sample size -- the number of the units of analysis you use in your study is dictated by the type of research problem you are investigating. Note that, if your sample size is too small, it will be difficult to find significant relationships from the data, as statistical tests normally require a larger sample size to ensure a representative distribution of the population and to be considered representative of groups of people to whom results will be generalized or transferred.
  • Lack of available and/or reliable data -- a lack of data or of reliable data will likely require you to limit the scope of your analysis, the size of your sample, or it can be a significant obstacle in finding a trend and a meaningful relationship. You need to not only describe these limitations but to offer reasons why you believe data is missing or is unreliable. However, don’t just throw up your hands in frustration; use this as an opportunity to describe the need for future research.
  • Lack of prior research studies on the topic -- citing prior research studies forms the basis of your literature review and helps lay a foundation for understanding the research problem you are investigating. Depending on the currency or scope of your research topic, there may be little, if any, prior research on your topic. Before assuming this to be true, consult with a librarian! In cases when a librarian has confirmed that there is a lack of prior research, you may be required to develop an entirely new research typology [for example, using an exploratory rather than an explanatory research design]. Note that this limitation can serve as an important opportunity to describe the need for further research.
  • Measure used to collect the data -- sometimes it is the case that, after completing your interpretation of the findings, you discover that the way in which you gathered data inhibited your ability to conduct a thorough analysis of the results. For example, you regret not including a specific question in a survey that, in retrospect, could have helped address a particular issue that emerged later in the study. Acknowledge the deficiency by stating a need in future research to revise the specific method for gathering data.
  • Self-reported data -- whether you are relying on pre-existing self-reported data or you are conducting a qualitative research study and gathering the data yourself, self-reported data is limited by the fact that it rarely can be independently verified. In other words, you have to take what people say, whether in interviews, focus groups, or on questionnaires, at face value. However, self-reported data contain several potential sources of bias that should be noted as limitations: (1) selective memory (remembering or not remembering experiences or events that occurred at some point in the past); (2) telescoping [recalling events that occurred at one time as if they occurred at another time]; (3) attribution [the act of attributing positive events and outcomes to one's own agency but attributing negative events and outcomes to external forces]; and, (4) exaggeration [the act of representing outcomes or embellishing events as more significant than is actually suggested from other data].

Possible Limitations of the Researcher

  • Access -- if your study depends on having access to people, organizations, or documents and, for whatever reason, access is denied or otherwise limited, the reasons for this need to be described.
  • Longitudinal effects -- unlike your professor, who can literally devote years [even a lifetime] to studying a single research problem, the time available to investigate a research problem and to measure change or stability within a sample is constrained by the due date of your assignment. Be sure to choose a topic that does not require an excessive amount of time to complete the literature review, apply the methodology, and gather and interpret the results. If you're unsure, talk to your professor.
  • Cultural and other type of bias -- we all have biases, whether we are conscience of them or not. Bias is when a person, place, or thing is viewed or shown in a consistently inaccurate way. It is usually negative, though one can have a positive bias as well. When proof-reading your paper, be especially critical in reviewing how you have stated a problem, selected the data to be studied, what may have been omitted, the manner in which you have ordered events, people, or places and how you have chosen to represent a person, place, or thing, to name a phenomenon, or to use possible words with a positive or negative connotation. Note that if you detect bias in prior research, it must be acknowledged and you should explain what measures were taken to avoid perpetuating bias.
  • Fluency in a language -- if your research focuses on measuring the perceived value of after-school tutoring among Mexican-American ESL [English as a Second Language] students, for example, and you are not fluent in Spanish, you are limited in being able to read and interpret Spanish language research studies on the topic. This deficiency should be acknowledged.

Brutus, Stéphane et al. Self-Reported Limitations and Future Directions in Scholarly Reports: Analysis and Recommendations. Journal of Management 39 (January 2013): 48-75; Senunyeme, Emmanuel K. Business Research Methods . Powerpoint Presentation. Regent University of Science and Technology.

Structure and Writing Style

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 a pilot 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 later studies.

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 reframe 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 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 ask a particular question in a survey 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 any future study. A underlying goal of scholarly research is not only to prove what works, but to demonstrate what doesn't work or what needs further clarification.

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.

Writing Tip

Don't Inflate the Importance of Your Findings! After all the hard work and long hours devoted to writing your research paper, it is easy to get carried away with attributing unwarranted importance to what you’ve done. We all want our academic work to be viewed as excellent and worthy of a good grade, but it is important that you understand and openly acknowledge the limitiations of your study. Inflating of the importance of your study's findings in an attempt hide its flaws is a big turn off to your readers. A measure of humility goes a long way!

Another Writing Tip

Negative Results are Not a Limitation!

Negative evidence refers to findings that unexpectedly challenge rather than support your hypothesis. If you didn't get the results you anticipated, it may mean your hypothesis was incorrect and needs to be reformulated, or, perhaps you have stumbled onto something unexpected that warrants further study. Moreover, the absence of an effect may be very telling in many situations, particularly in experimental research designs. In any case, your results may be of importance to others even though they did not support your hypothesis. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that results contrary to what you expected is a limitation to your study. If you carried out the research well, they are simply your results and only require additional interpretation.

Yet Another Writing Tip

A Note about Sample Size Limitations in Qualitative Research

Sample sizes are typically smaller in qualitative research because, as the study goes on, acquiring more data does not necessarily lead to more information. This is because one occurrence of a piece of data, or a code, is all that is necessary to ensure that it becomes part of the analysis framework. However, it remains true that sample sizes that are too small cannot adequately support claims of having achieved valid conclusions and sample sizes that are too large do not permit the deep, naturalistic, and inductive analysis that defines qualitative inquiry. Determining adequate sample size in qualitative research is ultimately a matter of judgment and experience in evaluating the quality of the information collected against the uses to which it will be applied and the particular research method and purposeful sampling strategy employed. If the sample size is found to be a limitation, it may reflect your judgement about the methodological technique chosen [e.g., single life history study versus focus group interviews] rather than the number of respondents used.

Huberman, A. Michael and Matthew B. Miles. Data Management and Analysis Methods. In Handbook of Qualitative Research. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994), pp. 428-444.

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  2. Limitations of the Study

    The limitations of the study are those characteristics of design or methodology that impacted or influenced the interpretation of the findings from your research. Study limitations are the constraints placed on the ability to generalize from the results, to further describe applications to practice, and/or related to the utility of findings that are the result of the ways in which you ...

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