What Are Scope and Limitations in Research?

In research, the scope defines the problem or subject that a researcher plans to study. Limitations are factors that the researcher encounters that inadvertently narrow the scope of the study.

When researching a topic, people often encounter limitations that may affect the results of the research. Time constraints and budget are two common limitations. Depending on the study, people might have limited access to resources or encounter language barriers and travel difficulties that restrict their ability to gather the requisite data. Limitations are factors that researchers did not foresee or predict at the start of the study. Limitations are different from delimitations, which are known parameters that a researcher identifies prior to the study to narrow down the topic. Delimitations explain why a researcher has chosen to do or not do something. When studying the effects of smoking on an aging population, for instance, the researcher might narrow the scope of research by choosing to study the population only in select countries.

Sources of Limitations

Researchers should note that limitations can occur in any part of the study. When analyzing the study, they should be aware of possible limitations in several parts of the research process. Limitations might arise in the analysis itself or with the size or type of the sample size. Researchers can face limitations in the types of tools and equipment they use to carry out the research. Limitations can also arise through the process of self reporting. During qualitative research studies, individuals might not be able to extrapolate results to a larger segment of the population.

Effects of Limitations

Even though limitations can produce a different outcome than what the researcher hoped for or anticipated, it is still important to note all limitations in the research paper. Researchers should list the limitations that they encountered and explain how they affected the study's results. In addition to providing clarity for the audience, researchers may discover additional opportunities for follow-up studies after doing the initial study. A researcher might find, for example, that lung cancer rates were higher than average among non-smokers in certain U.S. states. He or she could do a follow-up study exploring other possible reasons for higher lung cancer rates besides smoking. Acknowledging limitations also shows that the researcher understands the problem at hand and can think critically about it. In this part of the paper, researchers can also discuss literature used and works cited for the study to show the audience that he or she is aware of the research that has already been done on the topic. Sometimes, subject areas have little or no prior research, which can itself be a limitation. In summary, researchers should acknowledge what the limitations were and to what extent they affected the study's end results.

It is important to keep in mind that all studies have limitations. However, researchers should note that limitations are only problems that they encounter in their specific scope. If limitations were encountered that were not part of the original scope, they are not considered relevant limitations. When adding limitations to the paper, researchers should mention them at the beginning of the discussion section or put them at the end of the discussion section as a way to indicate the potential for a follow-up study.