An individual working at a scientific bench in front of a microscope.
All studies have limitations. How scientists present them can make a big difference.

Scientists work with many different limitations. First and foremost, they navigate informational limitations, work around knowledge gaps when designing studies, formulating hypotheses, and analyzing data. They also handle technical limitations, making the most of what their hands, equipment, and instruments can achieve. Finally, researchers must also manage logistical limitations. Scientists will often experience sample scarcity, financial issues, or simply be unable to access the technology or materials that they want.

All scientific studies have limitations, and no study is perfect. Researchers should not run from this reality, but engage it directly. It is better to directly address the specific limitations of the work in question, and doing so is actually a way to demonstrate an author’s proficiency and aptitude.

Do: Be Transparent

From a practical perspective, being transparent is the main key to directly addressing the specific limitations of a study. Was there an experiment that the researchers wanted to perform but could not, or a sample that existed that the scientists could not obtain? Was there a piece of knowledge that would explain a question raised by the data presented within the current study? If the answer is yes, the authors should mention this and elaborate upon it within the discussion section.

Asking and addressing these questions demonstrates that the authors have knowledge, understanding, and expertise of the subject area beyond what the study directly investigated. It further demonstrates a solid grasp of the existing literature—which means a solid grasp of what others are doing, what techniques they are using, and what limitations impede their own studies. This information helps the authors contextualize where their study fits within what others have discovered, thereby mitigating the perceived effect of a given limitation on the study’s legitimacy. In essence, this strategy turns limitations, often considered weaknesses, into strengths.

For example, in their 2021 Cell Reports study on macrophage polarization mechanisms, dermatologist Alexander Marneros and colleagues wrote the following.1

A limitation of studying macrophage polarization in vitro is that this approach only partially captures the tissue microenvironment context in which many different factors affect macrophage polarization. However, it is likely that the identified signaling mechanisms that promote polarization in vitro are also critical for polarization mechanisms that occur in vivo. This is supported by our observation that trametinib and panobinostat inhibited M2-type macrophage polarization not only in vitro but also in skin wounds and laser-induced CNV lesions.

This is a very effective structure. In the first sentence (yellow), the authors outlined the limitation. In the next sentence (green), they offered a rationalization that mitigates the effect of the limitation. Finally, they provided the evidence (blue) for this rationalization, using not just information from the literature, but also data that they obtained in their study specifically for this purpose. 

The Do’s and Don’ts of Presenting a Study’s Limitations. Researchers should be transparent, specific, present limitations as future opportunities, and use data or the literature to support rationalizations. They should not be evasive, general, defensive, and downplay limitations without evidence.
There are things that researchers should do and should not do when outlining their study’s limitations.
The Scientist

Don't: Be Defensive

It can feel natural to avoid talking about a study’s limitations. Scientists may believe that mentioning the drawbacks still present in their study will jeopardize their chances of publication. As such, researchers will sometimes skirt around the issue. They will present “boilerplate faults”—generalized concerns about sample size/diversity and time limitations that all researchers face—rather than honestly discussing their own study. Alternatively, they will describe their limitations in a defensive manner, positioning their problems as something that “could not be helped”—as something beyond what science can currently achieve.

However, their audience can see through this, because they are largely peers who understand and have experienced how modern research works. They can tell the difference between global challenges faced by every scientific study and limitations that are specific to a single study. Avoiding these specific limitations can therefore betray a lack of confidence that the study is good enough to withstand problems stemming from legitimate limitations. As such, researchers should actively engage with the greater scientific implications of the limitations that they face. Indeed, doing this is actually a way to demonstrate an author’s proficiency and aptitude.

In an example, neurogeneticist Nancy Bonini and colleagues, in their publication in Nature, discussed a question raised by their data that they have elected not to directly investigate in this study, writing “Among the intriguing questions raised by these data is how senescent glia promote LDs in other glia.” To show both the legitimacy of the question and how seriously they have considered it, the authors provided a comprehensive summary of the literature in the following seven sentences, offering two hypotheses backed by a combined eight different sources.2 Rather than shying away from a limitation, they attacked it as something to be curious about and to discuss. This is not just a very effective way of demonstrating their expertise, but it frames the limitation as something that, when overcome, will build upon the present study rather than something that negatively affects the legitimacy of their current findings.

Striking the Right Balance

Scientists have to navigate the fine line between acknowledging the limitations of their study while also not diminishing the effect and value of their own work. To be aware of legitimate limitations and properly assess and dissect them shows a profound understanding of a field, where the study fits within that field, and what the rest of the scientific community are doing and what challenges they face.

All studies are parts of a greater whole. Pretending otherwise is a disservice to the scientific community.

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