Research Limitations 101 📖

A Plain-Language Explainer (With Practical Examples)

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewer: Dr. Eunice Rautenbach | May 2024

Research limitations are one of those things that students tend to avoid digging into, and understandably so. No one likes to critique their own study and point out weaknesses. Nevertheless, being able to understand the limitations of your study – and, just as importantly, the implications thereof – a is a critically important skill.

In this post, we’ll unpack some of the most common research limitations you’re likely to encounter, so that you can approach your project with confidence.

What (exactly) are “research limitations”?

At the simplest level, research limitations (also referred to as “the limitations of the study”) are the constraints and challenges that will invariably influence your ability to conduct your study and draw reliable conclusions.

Research limitations are inevitable. Absolutely no study is perfect and limitations are an inherent part of any research design. These limitations can stem from a variety of sources, including access to data, methodological choices, and the more mundane constraints of budget and time. So, there’s no use trying to escape them – what matters is that you can recognise them.

Acknowledging and understanding these limitations is crucial, not just for the integrity of your research, but also for your development as a scholar. That probably sounds a bit rich, but realistically, having a strong understanding of the limitations of any given study helps you handle the inevitable obstacles professionally and transparently, which in turn builds trust with your audience and academic peers.

Simply put, recognising and discussing the limitations of your study demonstrates that you know what you’re doing, and that you’ve considered the results of your project within the context of these limitations. In other words, discussing the limitations is a sign of credibility and strength – not weakness. Contrary to the common misconception, highlighting your limitations (or rather, your study’s limitations) will earn you (rather than cost you) marks.

So, with that foundation laid, let’s have a look at some of the most common research limitations you’re likely to encounter – and how to go about managing them as effectively as possible.

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Limitation #1: Access To Information

One of the first hurdles you might encounter is limited access to necessary information. For example, you may have trouble getting access to specific literature or niche data sets. This situation can manifest due to several reasons, including paywalls, copyright and licensing issues or language barriers.

To minimise situations like these, it’s useful to try to leverage your university’s resource pool to the greatest extent possible. In practical terms, this means engaging with your university’s librarian and/or potentially utilising interlibrary loans to get access to restricted resources. If this sounds foreign to you, have a chat with your librarian 🙃

In emerging fields or highly specific study areas, you might find that there’s very little existing research (i.e., literature) on your topic. This scenario, while challenging, also offers a unique opportunity to contribute significantly to your field, as it indicates that there’s a significant research gap.

All of that said, be sure to conduct an exhaustive search using a variety of keywords and Boolean operators before assuming that there’s a lack of literature. Also, remember to snowball your literature base. In other words, scan the reference lists of the handful of papers that are directly relevant and then scan those references for more sources. You can also consider using tools like Litmaps and Connected Papers (see video below).

Limitation #2: Time & Money

Almost every researcher will face time and budget constraints at some point. Naturally, these limitations can affect the depth and breadth of your research – but they don’t need to be a death sentence.

Effective planning is crucial to managing both the temporal and financial aspects of your study. In practical terms, utilising tools like Gantt charts can help you visualise and plan your research timeline realistically, thereby reducing the risk of any nasty surprises. Always take a conservative stance when it comes to timelines, especially if you’re new to academic research. As a rule of thumb, things will generally take twice as long as you expect – so, prepare for the worst-case scenario.

If budget is a concern, you might want to consider exploring small research grants or adjusting the scope of your study so that it fits within a realistic budget. Trimming back might sound unattractive, but keep in mind that a smaller, well-planned study can often be more impactful than a larger, poorly planned project.

If you find yourself in a position where you’ve already run out of cash, don’t panic. There’s usually a pivot opportunity hidden somewhere within your project. Engage with your research advisor or faculty to explore potential solutions – don’t make any major changes without first consulting your institution.

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Limitation #3: Sample Size & Composition

As we’ve discussed before, the size and representativeness of your sample are crucial, especially in quantitative research where the robustness of your conclusions often depends on these factors. All too often though, students run into issues achieving a sufficient sample size and composition.

To ensure adequacy in terms of your sample size, it’s important to plan for potential dropouts by oversampling from the outset. In other words, if you aim for a final sample size of 100 participants, aim to recruit 120-140 to account for unexpected challenges. If you still find yourself short on participants, consider whether you could complement your dataset with secondary data or data from an adjacent sample – for example, participants from another city or country. That said, be sure to engage with your research advisor before making any changes to your approach.

A related issue that you may run into is sample composition. In other words, you may have trouble securing a random sample that’s representative of your population of interest. In cases like this, you might again want to look at ways to complement your dataset with other sources, but if that’s not possible, it’s not the end of the world. As with all limitations, you’ll just need to recognise this limitation in your final write-up and be sure to interpret your results accordingly. In other words, don’t claim generalisability of your results if your sample isn’t random.

Limitation #4: Methodological Limitations

As we alluded earlier, every methodological choice comes with its own set of limitations. For example, you can’t claim causality if you’re using a descriptive or correlational research design. Similarly, as we saw in the previous example, you can’t claim generalisability if you’re using a non-random sampling approach.

Making good methodological choices is all about understanding (and accepting) the inherent trade-offs. In the vast majority of cases, you won’t be able to adopt the “perfect” methodology – and that’s okay. What’s important is that you select a methodology that aligns with your research aims and research questions, as well as the practical constraints at play (e.g., time, money, equipment access, etc.). Just as importantly, you must recognise and articulate the limitations of your chosen methods, and justify why they were the most suitable, given your specific context.

Limitation #5: Researcher (In)experience 

A discussion about research limitations would not be complete without mentioning the researcher (that’s you!). Whether we like to admit it or not, researcher inexperience and personal biases can subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) influence the interpretation and presentation of data within a study. This is especially true when it comes to dissertations and theses, as these are most commonly undertaken by first-time (or relatively fresh) researchers.

When it comes to dealing with this specific limitation, it’s important to remember the adage “We don’t know what we don’t know”. In other words, recognise and embrace your (relative) ignorance and subjectivity – and interpret your study’s results within that context. Simply put, don’t be overly confident in drawing conclusions from your study – especially when they contradict existing literature.

Cultivating a culture of reflexivity within your research practices can help reduce subjectivity and keep you a bit more “rooted” in the data. In practical terms, this simply means making an effort to become aware of how your perspectives and experiences may have shaped the research process and outcomes.

As with any new endeavour in life, it’s useful to garner as many outsider perspectives as possible. Of course, your university-assigned research advisor will play a large role in this respect, but it’s also a good idea to seek out feedback and critique from other academics. To this end, you might consider approaching other faculty at your institution, joining an online group, or even working with a private coach.

Your inexperience and personal biases can subtly (but significantly) influence how you interpret your data and draw your conclusions.

Key Takeaways

Understanding and effectively navigating research limitations is key to conducting credible and reliable academic work. By acknowledging and addressing these limitations upfront, you not only enhance the integrity of your research, but also demonstrate your academic maturity and professionalism.

Whether you’re working on a dissertation, thesis or any other type of formal academic research, remember the five most common research limitations and interpret your data while keeping them in mind.

  1. Access to Information (literature and data)
  2. Time and money
  3. Sample size and composition
  4. Research design and methodology
  5. Researcher (in)experience and bias

If you need a hand identifying and mitigating the limitations within your study, check out our 1:1 private coaching service.

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