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How to Present the Limitations of the Study Examples

research design limitations

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

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.

Charla Viera, MS, Library and Information Science Texas Woman's University

Charla Viera, MS

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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 know 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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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

Enago Academy

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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  • The role of limitations in research: why they are important
  • How to Organize Limitations of a Research Study

researcher doing a study and organizing limitation in research

What are the Limitations of a Study (Research)?

Why and where to include limitations in my research paper, common limitations of the researchers.

  • Limited Access to Information

Time Limits

Conflicts on biased views and personal issues, different types, 1. research design limitations, 2. impact limitations, 3. data or statistical limitations, how to structure your research limitations correctly, how to set your research limitations, formulation of your objectives and aims, implementation of your data collection methods, what are sample sizes, lacking previous studies in the same field, scope of discussions, concluding thoughts.

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.

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.

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.   

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. To find more information on how to identify a resesrch problem , check our guide. 

Writing 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.

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.

Any research suffers from specific limitations that range from common flaws to serious problems in design or methodology dissertation has. 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.

What comes first, the research design or research problem selection? Read on this guide from our dissertation writing service if you are struggling to answer this question. Any research paper is based on the hypothesis, datum, and methodology. These things though are not written down in the instruct...

The methodology is an important part of your dissertation. It describes a broad philosophical underpinning to your chosen research methods, either quantitative or qualitative, to explain to readers your approach better. Make sure that you’re clear about an academic basis for your choice of research ...

Students have to complete different writing assignments, and some of them are utterly complex. Every assignment has the central idea or problem, which is supposed to be discussed and analyzed during the entire work. It’s called a thesis statement. The main objective of the statement is to explain to...

Scientific Research and Methodology : An introduction to quantitative research and statistics

9 study design limitations.

So far, you have learnt to ask a RQ, identify study designs and designs studies. In this chapter , you will learn to identify and describe the limitations of a study. You will learn to:

  • identify when and how study results are internally valid.
  • identify when and how study results are externally valid.
  • identify when and how study results are ecologically valid.

research design limitations

9.1 Introduction

The type of study and how that study is designed can determine how the results of the study should be interpreted. Ideally, a study would be perfectly externally and internally valid; in practice this is very difficult to achieve. Practically every study has limitations. The results of a study should be interpreted in light of these limitations.

Limitations generally can be discussed through three components:

  • Internal validity (Sect. 3.7 ): Discuss what study design features may compromise the internal validity of the study (such as identifying possible confounding variables). This is related to the effectiveness of the study with the sample (Sect. 9.2 ).
  • External validity (Sect. 3.8 ): Discuss how well the sample represents the intended population. This is related to the generalisability of the study to the intended population (Sect. 9.3 ).
  • Ecological validity : Discuss how well the study methods, materials and context approximate the real situation being studied. This is related to the practicality of the results to real life (Sect. 9.4 ).

All these issues should be considered when considering the study limitations.

Almost every study has limitations. Identifying potential limitations, and discussing the likely impact they have on the interpretation of the study results, is important and ethical.

Example 9.1 Delarue et al. ( 2019 ) discuss studies where subjects rate the taste of new food products. They note that taste-testing studies should (p. 78):

... allow generalizing the conclusions obtained with a consumer sample in one particular study to the general targeted population (this ability is commonly referred to as external validity). In the same time, tests should be reliable in terms of accuracy and replicability (this is commonly referred to as internal validity).

Then they state that, even when studies have good internal and external validity, these studies often result in a 'high rate of failures of new launched products'. That is, the study results often do not translate into the real world, and so lack ecological validity .

9.2 Limitations: internal validity

Internal validity refers to how well the study design isolates the relationship of interest and eliminates all other possible explanations (Sect. 3.7 ). A discussion of the limitations of internal validity should cover, as appropriate: possible confounding variables; the impact of the carry-over, Hawthorne, observer and placebo effects; the impact of any other design decisions.

If any of these issues are likely to compromise internal validity, the implications on the interpretation of the results should be discussed. For example, if the study design implies that the Hawthorne effect may be an issue (since the participants were not blinded), this should be clearly stated, and the conclusion should indicate that the individuals in the study may have behaved differently than usual because (for example) they knew the were in a study.

research design limitations

Example 9.2 (Study limitations) A study ( Axmann et al. 2020 ) randomly allocated Ugandan farmers to receive, or not receive, hybrid maize seeds. The random allocation is good for internal validity. However, the authors identified one threat to internal validity: farmers recieving the hybrid seeds could share their seeds with their neighbours.

To ensure this was not occurring, the researchers contacted the 75 farmers allocated to receive the hybrid seeds; none of the 30 farmers who could be contacted reported selling or giving seeds to other farmers. This extra step increased the internal validity of the study.

The internal validity of observational studies is often compromised because confounding can be less effectively managed than for experimental studies (e.g., random allocation is not possible). The internal validity of experimental studies involving people is often compromised because people must be informed that they are participating in a study.

research design limitations

Example 9.3 (Internal validity) In a study of the hand-hygiene practices of paramedics ( Barr et al. 2017 ) , self -reported hand-hygiene practices were very different than what was reported by peers .

When participants knew they were being studied, their responses made their own behaviours appear better than their colleagues. This is a study limitation that was necessary to discuss.

Example 9.4 (Internal validity) A study evaluated using a new therapy on elderly men, and listed some limitations of their study:

... the researcher was not blinded and had prior knowledge of the research aims, disease status, and intervention. As such, these could all have influenced data recording [...] The potential of reporting bias and observer bias could be reduced by implementing blinding in future studies. --- Kabata-Piżuch et al. ( 2021 ) , p. 10

A study ( Botelho et al. 2019 ) examined the food choices made when subjects were asked to shop for ingredients to make a last-minute meal. Half were told to prepare a 'healthy meal', and the other half told just to prepare a 'meal'. Part of the Discussion stated:

Another limitation is that results report findings from a simulated purchase. As participants did not have to pay for their selection, actual choices could be different. Participants may also have not behaved in their usual manner since they were taking part in a research study, a situation known as the Hawthorne effect. --- Botelho et al. ( 2019 ) , p. 436

9.3 Limitations: external validity

research design limitations

External validity refers to the ability to generalise the results to the entire intended population, based on the sample studied (Sect. 3.8 ). For a study to be externally valid, it must first be internally valid: If the study of not effective in the sample studied (i.e., internally valid), the results may not apply to the intended population either.

External validity refers to how well the sample is likely to represent the target population in the RQ. If the RQ is 'Among Alaskans, what proportion own a smart speaker?', then the study is externally valid if the sample is representative of Alaskans. The results do not have to apply to people in the rest of the United States (though this can be commented on, too). The intended population, in the RQ, is Alaskans .

External validity depends on how the sample was obtained. Results from random samples are likely to generalise to the population and be externally valid . (The analyses in this book assume all samples are simple random samples .) Furthermore, results from approximately representative samples may generalise to the population and be externally valid if those in the study are not obviously different than those not in the study.

Example 9.5 (External validity) A New Zealand study ( Gammon et al. 2012 ) identified (for well-documented reasons) a particular group to study: 'women of South Asian origin living in New Zealand' (p. 21). The women in the sample were 'women of South Asian origin living in New Zealand [...] recruited using a convenience sample method throughout Auckland' (p. 21).

The results may not generalise to the intended population of 'women of South Asian origin living in New Zealand' because all the women in the sample came from only one city (Auckland), and the sample was not a random sample (so the study may not be externally valid).

The results will not generalise to all New Zealand women, but this is not a limitation: the target population was only 'women of South Asian origin living in New Zealand'. The researchers did not intend the results to apply to all New Zealand women.

Example 9.6 (Using biochar) A study of growing ginger using biochar ( Farrar et al. 2018 ) used one farm at Mt Mellum, Australia. While the results may only generalise to growing ginger at Mt Mellum, the encouraging results suggest that a wider, more general, study of the impact of using biochar to grow ginger would be worthwhile. In addition, ginger is usually grown is similar types of climates and soils, so the results may apply to other ginger farms also.

9.4 Limitations: ecological validity

The likely practicality of the study results in the real world should also be discussed. This is called ecological validity .

research design limitations

Definition 9.1 (Ecological validity) A study is ecologically valid if the study methods, materials and context approximate the real situation of interest.

Studies don't need to be ecologically valid to be useful; much can be learnt under special conditions, as long as the potential limitations are understood when applying the results to the real world. Although ecological validity is not essential for a good study, ecological validity is useful if is possible to achieve. The ecological validity of experimental studies may be compromised because the experimental conditions are sometimes artificially controlled (for good reason).

research design limitations

Example 9.7 (Ecological validity) Consider a study to determine the proportion of people that buy a coffee in a reuseable cup. People could be asked about their behaviour . This may not be ecologically valid, as how people act may not align with what they say .

An alternative study could watch people buy coffees at various coffee shops, and record what people do in practice. This second study is more likely to be ecologically valid , as we are watching real-world behaviour.

A study observed the effect of using high-mounted rear brake lights ( Kahane and Hertz 1998 ) , which are now commonplace. The American study showed that such lights reduced rear-end collisions by about 50%. However, after making these lights mandatory, rear-end collisions reduced by only 5%. Why?

9.5 Study designs and limitations

Experimental studies, in general, have higher internal validity than observational studies, since more of the study design in under the control of the researchers; for example, random allocation of treatments is possible to minimise confounding.

However, experimental studies may suffer from poor ecological validity; for instance, laboratory experiments are often conducted conducted under controlled temperature and humidity. Many experiments also require that people be told about being in a study (due to ethical requirements), and so internal validity may be comprised due to the Hawthorne effect .

Example 9.8 (Retrofitting) In a study of retro-fitting house with energy-saving devices, Giandomenico, Papineau, and Rivers ( 2022 ) found large discrepancies between saving when observational (cross-sectional) studies were used (12.2%) and when experimental (randomised controlled trial) studies were used (6.2%). The authors say that 'this finding reinforces the importance of using study designs with high internal validity to evaluate program savings' (p. 692).

9.6 Summary

The limitations in a study need to be identified, and may be related to:

  • internal validity (effectiveness): how well the study is conducted with the sample, isolating the relationship of interest.
  • external validity (generalisability): how well the sample results are likely to apply to the intended population.
  • ecological validity (practicality): how well the results may apply to the real-world situation.

9.7 Quick review questions

Are the following statements true or false?

  • When interpreting the results of studies, the steps taken to maximize internal validity should be considered. TRUE FALSE
  • If studies are not externally valid, then they are not very useful. TRUE FALSE
  • When interpreting the results of studies, the steps taken to maximize external validity do not need to be considered. TRUE FALSE
  • When interpreting the results of studies, ecological validity is about the impact of the study on the environment. TRUE FALSE

9.8 Exercises

Selected answers are available in Sect. D.9 .

Exercise 9.1 A research study examined how people can save energy through lighting choices ( Gentile 2022 ) . The study states (p. 9) that 'are limited to the specific study and cannot be easily projected to other similar settings'.

What type of validity is being discussed here?

Exercise 9.2 In a study evaluating the study of farm managament practices, Kluger, Owen, and Lobell ( 2022 ) state (p. 2) stated:

... conclusions may not apply to farms with different soil, climate, or management conditions than those of the experimental site.

Later, they say (p. 2) that a

... the estimates for the causal effect based on the observational study are biased and do not properly estimate the causal effect in the study sample.

What types of validity is being discussed in these two extracts?

Exercise 9.3 When interpreting the results of studies, we consider the practicality ( internal external ecological validity), the generalizability ( internal external ecological validity) and the effectiveness ( internal external ecological validity).

Internal validity refers to issues such as confounding sampling and the Hawthorne effect.

External validity refers to confounding sampling methods.

Exercise 9.4 A student project at the university where I work asked the RQ:

Among university students on-campus, is the percentage of word retention higher in male students than female students?

When discussing external validity , the students stated:

We cannot say whether or not that the general public have better or worse word retention compared to the students that we will be studying.

Why is the statement not relevant?

Exercise 9.5 Despite their common use, no experimental scientific evidence shows that parachutes are effective ( Smith and Pell 2003 ) . To obtain evidence, researchers studied this scenario ( Yeh et al. 2018 ) . Part of the Abstract for the paper (slightly edited for clarity) says:

Objective To determine if using a parachute prevents death or major traumatic injury when jumping from an aircraft. Design Randomized controlled trial. Setting Private or commercial aircraft between September 2017 and August 2018. Participants 92 aircraft passengers aged 18 and over were screened for participation. 23 agreed to be enrolled and were randomized [into th etwo groups]. Intervention Jumping from an aircraft (airplane or helicopter) with a parachute versus an empty backpack (unblinded). Main outcome measures Composite of death or major traumatic injury (defined by an Injury Severity Score over 15) upon impact with the ground measured immediately after landing. Results Parachute use did not significantly reduce death or major injury (0% for parachute v 0% for control). Conclusions Parachute use did not reduce death or major traumatic injury when jumping from aircraft in the first randomized evaluation of this intervention. However, the trial was only able to enroll participants on small stationary aircraft on the ground, suggesting cautious extrapolation to high altitude jumps [...] --- Yeh et al. ( 2018 )

Based on this information:

  • Carefully define POCI.
  • What type of study is this: observational or experimental?
  • What are the variables?
  • Comment on the ecological validity of this study.
  • Comment on the limitations of the study.
  • What are the conclusions?

Exercise 9.6 A study of how well hospital patients sleep at night ( Delaney et al. 2018 ) set out to 'investigate the perceived duration and quality of patient sleep' (p. 1). In discussing the study, the researchers state (p. 2):

Patients and nursing staff were recruited for this study. Non-probability convenience sampling was used to recruit patients to participate...

Later, while discussing the limitations, the researchers state (p. 7):

While the multiple methods of data collection and inclusion of 15 clinical areas are strengths of this study, the results may not be generalisable to all hospitals or all ward areas [...] while most healthy individuals sleep primarily or exclusively at night, it is important to consider that patients requiring hospitalization will likely require some daytime nap periods. This study looks at sleep only in the night-time period 22:00--07:00h, without the context of daytime sleep considered.

Discuss these issues using the language introduced in this chapter.

Grad Coach

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.

Need a helping hand?

research design limitations

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.

research design limitations

Psst… there’s more (for free)

This post is part of our dissertation mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project. 

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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.


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


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


Very helpful Many thanks 🙏


Excellent it resolved my conflict .


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.

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  • Limitations in Research: Writing about Your Study Limitations
  • Limitations in Research: Best Tips and Examples for Everyone

Limitations in Research: Best Tips and Examples for Everyone

What are the limitations in research?

Types of limitations in research, best tips on organizing study limitations, to conclude.

All of us encountered the term limitations in research at least once in academic paper writing . Usually, we interpret it as something bad. However, when it comes to your studies, restraints can actually become a positive thing. We have written an article about limitations in research which would explain not only what the limitations are, but also how to use them in your study.    

Limitations in research are restrictions and constraints which have been put on your methodology of study and exploration process in general. Unfortunately, many researchers don’t work with restraints and ignore them. They do so because they feel like if they do actually determine some of the limitations, their work will not be valued as much. Limitations depend on the different types of research design . Of course, this is not the true cause. Every study should have its limits. If you want your work to be accurate, the research limitations section should be a must-have for your study. The truth is that each study has its flaws and negative sides, but this fact does not ultimately make writing your case study worse. Here are the key rules you should follow:

  • Acknowledge the research limitations of your study before someone else does.
  • Remember: problems and flaws can actually give you a chance to continue and develop your studies. You might get questions without any answer, and to get them, you need to know which restraints you had in a previous paper.
  • Mentioning limitations can actually show your skills of critical analysis. During your research, you go through a lot of literature, i.e. literature review  and experiments. When you come up with not only observations but also understanding of the flaws of your study, you take a step towards making your paper better.
  • Sample size/sample bias. For example, let’s say 100 hundred people should participate in your survey. Each person may give you individual results, but it does not mean that the same results belong to the whole population.
  • Access to data. You will not always be able to go through all the resources. You can’t gather all the data you want for your research since it will take a lot of time. Because of it, your work might not cover each aspect.
  • Lack of time. Often deadlines are the reason why your study and research might not be complete. When we get a task, we have a limited amount of time to do it. To get a good grade, we need to submit the assignment prior to the deadline.
  • Financial resources. Sometimes we need some equipment or additional software to conduct the research. This might be a problem since we don’t always have the sum we need.
  • Data collection. There are different ways to collect data: interviews, surveys, questionnaire, etc. The way you collect data might be a real limitation since the answers and the results vary.
  • Method. When you are finding new information, you use a specific research method and research methodology . Different methods give you various opportunities. Quality of the datum you get often depends on the method you choose.

Here are some tips on how to organize a discussion about research limitations for your studies.

  • Identify the restraints of your work. What are the limitations that affected your study? How did they influence your conclusion? Answer these questions and come up with the review of all possible limitations and why they are important for your studies.
  • Describe these restraints and explain why they took their place. This section should be short and give more details about what you have encountered in your research. Talk about the importance of the obstacles of your work and how they affect it. Don’t be ashamed to talk about it since it’s a normal thing: there are no perfect studies and researches.
  • Structure your research limitations. Firstly, write a list of all the restraints you had. Create a plan for this part and think how long you would like it to be. Write a few drafts to see how this section will fit in the text.
  • Give some thoughts on your future studies. Which mistakes would you try to avoid and how? Think about the perspective of additional studies. Note problems that you had and try to solve them when working on your next paper.

Limitations are a great way to have an open discussion about what did you discover and how your findings were influenced by these limits. Negative sides of your study can actually help you make your research better. Learn from the mistakes, and do your best to improve your work. In case you need some extra help with your papers you can always ask professionals to take care of it.

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Impact of Adding Revenue Canada Databases Under FOAEA—Part 1 Tracing For Locating Persons Final Report


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4.1    overview of components.

The overall objective of this research is to assess the impact and effectiveness of the addition of Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA) databases to processes used in tracking payors owing maintenance arrears and in identifying and locating the employers of payors against whom wage attachments (garnishees) might be applied.

The research design is comprised of two components:

  • Component I —determines the approximate percentage of cases over a period of time that require FOAEA trace searches within the federal-provincial tracing process. This provides a view of the proportional "significance" of the federal trace information.
  • Component II —assesses the quality, currency, impact and effectiveness of the CCRA data on the tracing of payors and the location of employers to whom attachments (garnishees) might apply.


Component I was designed to generate the following specific data:

  • The percentage of new and continuing cases enrolled in FMEP that are sent to FAMS for search during a specified period (in this case, January to June 1999);
  • The percentage of new and continuing cases sent from FAMS to the FOAEA Unit for federal tracing during this time period; and
  • The approximate overall percentage of cases arising in FMEP that require a federal search.

To arrive at the percentages identified above the following data was selected, aggregated, reviewed and compared:

  • The number and percentages of new and continuing cases enrolled at FMEP between January and June 1999. Because all FMEP cases may potentially require a trace, both new and continuing enrolments within FMEP were included in the baseline population;
  • The number and percentage of the cases (out of total FMEP enrolment numbers) that were sent from FMEP to FAMS for a FAMS search during this time. These do not include cases sent to FAMS for regular, automatic searches; and
  • The number and percentage of FAMS cases (originating at FMEP) sent to the FOAEA Unit for further trace data between January and June 1999.


4.3.1   objectives.

Component II is the primary component of this research. The main activity of this component was to identify and track a random sample of FMEP cases that have received FOAEA trace results in order to describe:

  • Recipient, client and case characteristics;
  • The type, completeness, timeliness, quality and source of HRDC and CCRA data returned by the FOAEA Unit;
  • Whether the data was utilized and/or resulted in the successful location of payors or employers;
  • Whether any type of payments were made as a result of FOAEA results; and
  • Whether the addition of CCRA data led to a higher number of completed traces or increased payments.

4.3.2   Sample Size and Selection

Three hundred and fifteen cases were randomly selected from a population of cases sent for trace by FAMS with data returns from the FOAEA Unit in the period between June and December 1999. These cases were sent by FAMS to the FOAEA Unit between June 1998 and December 1999 (see Table 1 ).

A lengthy time period between trace request and trace return was required in order to ensure that all tracing processes would be completed at the time of data analysis. It was estimated that the period between trace request and receipt would average between five and seven months. A generous time period after the receipt of trace results was also required in order to allow enough time for the review of trace results, the application of enforcement actions (e.g. issuance of a Notice of Attachment) and the possible receipt of payments.

The original sample size was estimated at 250 cases to be taken from a population base of 1,585 cases. However, because of the manner in which the population was drawn, the base for the study was larger than first anticipated (3,870). In addition, when the files were reviewed it was found that almost one quarter of the FMEP files were sent to FAMS in mid to late 1998, a period when there were some technical slow downs in the data transfer between FAMS and the FOAEA Unit. As a result, a further 65 cases were randomly sampled in order to increase the proportion of 1999 cases in the study and to increase the validity of the results.

Given a total population size of 3,870, a confidence level of 95 percent and a hypothesized level of FOAEA trace results of 30 percent, a minimum sample size of 298 was required for the study.

Seventy-eight percent of cases forwarded to the FOAEA Unit for tracing were sent in 1999, with the largest proportion (44 percent) transmitted in the last six months of that year.

4.3.3   Methodology

A case analysis and trace tracking process was developed to collect recipient, payor and case characteristics and to assess trace history, duration, results, application and effectiveness.

A comprehensive Case Data Collection Form was developed on which to enter results from FMEP, FAMS and the FOAEA Unit prior to their being entered onto an electronic data management system (The Survey System) for aggregation and analysis.

FMEP, FAMS and FOAEA electronic data management systems were reviewed in order to identify the data elements required for the study. The location of the data elements, their descriptors and access points were defined during the Evaluation Design Phase of this project (see Table 2 ).

Data from each electronic system (FMEP, FAMS and FOAEA) was entered on the Case Data Collection form (see Appendix ), and was cross-checked and verified. Trace quality, timeliness and applicability were determined by cross-referencing and analyzing the results.

4.4   Design Phase and Pilot Testing

4.4.1   purpose of design and pilot phase.

Because of the number of data sources and complexity of the data collection process, a Pilot Phase was implemented in order to develop, clarify or refine:

  • The most efficient methods of determining and drawing the research sample;
  • The source, scope, yield and relevance of data elements;
  • Data field definitions;
  • Alternative and "best" sources of data;
  • Optimal pathways to data access (in FAMS, FMEP); and
  • Cross-validation mechanisms for data currency dates.

During the pilot phase, 20 cases that required and received FOAEA trace data were selected from FAMS records and tracked through the FMEP, FAMS and FOAEA systems.

Six drafts of the Client Data Collection Form were developed, "pre-tested" and revised during the pilot phase, taking into account case characteristics, data entry requirements, data limitations and program staff feedback. (See Appendix: Case Data Collection Form . )

4.5   Research Issues and Limitations

Several issues related to data definition completeness, accessibility, reliability and comparability affected this research. These are summarized below in relation to their impacts on the data collection and analysis process.

4.5.1   Difficulty in Determining Definitions of Data Fields

The lack of comprehensive data dictionaries (FMEP, FAMS and FOAEA) made the interpretation of some fields difficult. A selection of fields which required definition or clarification is presented in Table 3 .

4.5.2   Limitations of Data Fields

Some FMEP data fields and screens within FMEP were not well maintained with the most current enforcement status data, trace history or address related information. This was particularly true in the following four areas:

  • Enforcement data and enforcement screen —history of enforcement actions taken (e.g. Notices of Attachment) and active dates;
  • Tracing history data and screen —a history of traces requested and results received with active and termination dates;
  • Employer address logs —history of previous employer searches, including most active date believed to be correct at the time of entry and the date entered on the system; and
  • Payor address logs —history of payor address searches, including the most active date believed to be correct at the time of entry and the date entered on the system.

Enforcement data was sometimes missing and the status of enforcement actions unclear. This caused problems particularly if it was necessary to establish the status or currency of a Notice of Attachment (NOA) to determine whether an accurate employer contact had been made.

Trace history data was also frequently incomplete and/or missing. There were many instances where the specific FOAEA trace being addressed by this research was not included in the trace history record.

Although enforcement and tracing data are reported in this document, complete accuracy cannot be ensured.

Table 3   Selected field definitions

Of more consequence to this study was the lack of consistent, complete and up-to-date data in the FMEP employer and payor address logs (both fields and screens). These fields were expected to include a list of recent trace results (employer addresses or payor residential addresses), dates that these addresses were last considered to be active, and dates when the search results were entered into the FMEP system.

Accuracy of these fields was critical to this research because the data should have enabled the researchers to compare and assess the quality, currency and value of FOAEA results with that of existing data on the FMEP database (derived from FAMS and FMEP searches). However, data was frequently missing from these fields. The researchers found many instances where FOAEA trace results had been received, but were not entered, and other situations where fields were empty. They also found instances where an active date was entered, but not linked with any data.

In all these cases, it was necessary to "reconstruct" parts of the employer and payor address logs through a review of the FMEP running record. This enabled the researchers to assess the currency of FOAEA trace results.

4.5.3   Reliance on the Running Record

Because of the lack of information on trace results and trace histories in some key fields, it was necessary to reconstruct or confirm data in the running record. The running record is a narrative of case related actions and results completed by family maintenance staff in an abbreviated form. It contains the most complete picture of each case and tracing efforts, but it is subjective, not organized by category or key word, can be very lengthy, and is difficult for someone not involved in the case to interpret.

In order to assess and validate trace results, the running record was reviewed in each case. This contributed to the length of the review research process and difficulties in accurately determining outcomes.

4.5.4   Lack of Clear Information on Trace Outcome or Payments

There was no specific data field within the FMEP database to validate the source of the trace information or whether trace information had been received, reviewed or applied. It was also difficult to ascertain whether a specific trace had been successful, or whether the trace had resulted in payor or employer contact or payment. This information had to be inferred from other data and the data analyzed to establish cause and effect. For example, it was sometimes difficult to assess whether a Notice of Attachment (NOA) was issued as a result of a federal trace or from some other information. Similarly, it was not easy to determine whether payments made were the result of a NOA or another action.

The study attempted to determine the source of any maintenance payments made and whether these were voluntary or compulsory. Again, this was difficult to distinguish. Type of payment (e.g. cheque) was broadly defined and could include a variety of sources, including direct payment from a payor or from a company garnishee ( Table 18 ).

4.5.5   Difficulty in Assessing FMEP Review and Application of Data

In most cases, there was a minimum period of five to seven months between the FMEP search and request and the receipt of FOAEA data by FAMS. However, it was sometimes difficult to establish if and when FMEP staff had reviewed trace results after they had been sent by FOAEA via FAMS. In most cases, this was ascertained through a review of the running record. However, in some cases it appeared that there were lengthy delays before the FOAEA data was assessed and/or applied. In a small number of cases involving employer searches, data from the FOAEA Unit appeared to be correct and would likely have resulted in a NOA if the trace information had been reviewed immediately by FMEP.

4.5.6   Duplication of Data

Some of the data sent by the FOAEA Unit was incomplete and duplicative. This had implications for the overall quality of and response to the data. Inconsistencies were also found in the data sent and data entered into the FAMS system. This applied in relation to "postal code only data." In some cases, the FOAEA Unit sent several postal codes to FAMS, but with a range of active dates. However, the FAMS electronic system retained only the first postal code received even if subsequent data was more currently dated. Because postal code data is likely to be of limited value it is doubtful whether this filtering had negative impacts. Even so, all trace partners should clarify any automatic filtering. If filtering is applied, it should eliminate all but the most recently active information, even if the information is incomplete.

4.5.7   Lack of Precise Information on Trace Process Intervals and Applications

The trace request and return process, review and application of trace results and the triggering of enforcement processes are carried out in a series of stages. One of the objectives of this research was to ascertain time intervals between tracing stages. This was made difficult for the following reasons:

  • No clear FOAEA "send" date could be identified;
  • The "Federal Closed" date is identified in the FAMS system as the time when the FOAEA trace results are received. However, this date often reflects the point at which FAMS search officers retrieve data from the FOAEA system, not specifically the time when the data is actually sent or arrives. Sometimes there may be a lag between when the FOAEA Unit sends the trace results and their retrieval (recorded) by FAMS; and
  • FMEP does not note the date when FOAEA data is received, or more importantly, when its staff review the trace results. Because FOAEA data is sent to FMEP automatically by FAMS, the "Federal Closed" date was estimated as being approximately the same date as FMEP receipt.

4.5.8   The Difficulty of Determining the "Life Span" of Trace Data

The maintenance tracing process is complex and lengthy and operates in a dynamic and changing environment. FOAEA trace results comprise only a small part of the total amount of payor residential and employer address information that is available. They also can be affected by other data such as new information from the recipient or FAMS at any time. Even in cases where FOAEA data has been successful in determining the location of an employer or payor, it is impossible to say how long this data will remain accurate or current.

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