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Writing your paper: materials and methods section

By Mark Denavit, Erica Fischer, Matthew Eatherton, Jack Baker

Posted 5/20/2024

Your paper's materials and methods section describes what you did and how you did it. It documents the materials, procedures, and equipment you used, and rationale for your choices. The goals of this section are to tell the reader how you obtained your results, provide context for your findings, and enable the reader to reproduce or perform a numerical simulation of the experiment.

The following is a list of common components of a materials and methods section for a physical structural engineering experiment. Depending on the topic of your study, this may work directly as a checklist, or as inspiration for similar information that you should provide. You will be most efficient if you consider this list prior to and during your work, so that you document the work while it is fresh in your mind.

Test specimens

  • Describe the physical characteristics of the specimens, including what differs among the specimens and what is the same.

  • Describe the test/specimen naming convention.

  • Provide a table documenting test names and differences among the tests. Characteristics that are the same for all tests can be described in the text.

  • Indicate which dimensions are measured and which are nominal.

  • Explain design choices that may not be obvious to the reader (e.g., specimens were sized to match the spacing of the holes in the strong floor).

  • Note relevant fabrication details. For example, note how a steel plate was cut if the condition of the resulting surface can impact the results.

Material Testing

  • Describe the results of material testing for important materials, especially materials for components that were pushed into the inelastic range.

  • Reference the standard used for testing and state the number of samples used.

  • The types of material testing will vary by material and research objective. Typical important characteristics include:

    • Steel: yield stress, ultimate stress, elongation from tensile coupon tests, and gage length for the elongation.

    • Concrete: compressive strength, and the size and shape of the sample.

    • Wood: moisture content and specific gravity.

  • Provide nominal material properties or those from the manufacturer or fabricator.

  • Provide tables of the above results if multiple materials are reported.

Test Configuration

  • Describe the test frame. You don’t need to name the system or its capacity unless that is relevant to the work.

  • Describe how the specimens were built (e.g., tightening of bolts, post-tensioning to the strong floor/wall)

  • Describe steps taken before loading, such as measuring initial geometric imperfections.

  • Describe the connections between the specimen and the test frame.

Testing Control

  • Describe how the specimen was loaded (e.g., force- versus deformation-controlled).

  • State the loading rate.

  • Describe when the loading was stopped.

  • If the test was cyclic, consider including a table or figure of the loading protocol.

  • For experiments with combined loading (e.g., durability or fire testing) document all imposed loading.


  • Describe the sensor types and locations, and details about the type of data acquired.

Data Analysis

  • Define derived metrics, such as stiffness and strength, and the approach used to calculate them.

  • Describe basic calculated responses (e.g., moment including second-order effects calculated from load and deformation measurements).

  • Some data analysis may fit more naturally in the Results or Discussion sections of the paper, but basic underlying calculations and procedures often fit best here.

For all of the above results, consider what formats will be most effective for communication. Figures are useful to illustrate dimensions, boundary conditions, sensor locations and other test configuration features. Tables are effective for numerical data, especially when there are multiple tests or materials, as they can be information-dense and make it easy for the reader to look up quantities. Paragraphs of text are useful for descriptions, explanations, and other nonstructured data. Try to avoid bullet-point lists, as they are informal for academic writing and their terseness can tempt you to omit key details. Provide citations for any data acquisition, testing protocol, or derived quantity specified in more detail elsewhere.

Do not report findings or interpretations in this section. While it can be tempting to start commenting on your experiments, this is not appropriate given the above-stated goals of the section, and it will confuse a reader looking for information in specific sections. A well-written materials and methods section will thus not be an exciting story of discovery, but it will provide credibility and increase your impact by enabling a reader to understand what you did and why.


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