Empirical Psychology Papers (for Beginners)
note: The below reviews the commonly accepted practices in
an empirical APA-style paper (6th Ed).
However, it was
originally written for a specific class. Remember to refer
back to your own assignment and your professor for more information.
A Word about APA Style
Overall Shape of the Paper
Daryl Bem (download a PDF of his chapter here) suggests that crafting a well-written empirical article is like "telling a story." Your story has a beginning that sets up the primary problem to be solved (the Introduction). The primary problem is the gap in the existing research, or the question that is unanswered by existing research. You will be explaining that question, and why it is important, to the reader. Your story has a middle (the Method), a climax (the Results) and an end (the Discussion). Although your language will remain formal and you must attend to the proper content required by APA-style, your paper will probably turn out better if you keep this notion of story-telling in mind as you write. Never forget that you are communicating with an audience through your paper.
A well-written article should be shaped like an hourglass. That is, the Introduction begins very broadly by introducing the topic and defining terms, and then begins to narrow to more specifically focus on the variables in your study. At the end of the introduction, the paper is at its most specific (or "narrow") in that the Method and Results both provide extremely focused information about your study. The Discussion begins by reviewing your specific findings, but then starts to slowly broaden out again as the implications are discussed. By the end of the Discussion, the paper has become as broad in focus as it was at the beginning of the Introduction. Thus, an hourglass shape.
the following as a guideline for what to include in the introduction
and how to
Try to capture the reader’s interest right away in the first
few statements. You want to introduce
your topic. One way to do this is by posing an
interesting question. You do not
have to summarize your entire argument in this first paragraph. It is
mostly a stylistic paragraph to orient the reader to the general topic
and your question. It would be easiest to write this
paragraph after you've
finished the rest of the paper. (For more on this, see the section on
"Opening Statements" at: http://dbem.ws/WritingArticle.pdf)
(2) The main goal in the introduction is to
provide a review of the relevant psychological literature, providing
definitions and past research findings that inform the reader on your
topic. Your goal is for the reader to understand the need for more
research in the area (i.e., your proposed study), and to be able to
the reasoning for your hypothesis. You
should organize this section of your paper in such a way that you logically
build to your study. You aren't just citing
research, you are crafting a
line of reasoning which leads to your research question. Avoid simply
summarizing each of the different studies you read in a
this is a paper and
you need to present information in a coherent way that moves from the
the specific, and in a way that leads the reader to the gap or question in the
you’ve noticed. You
can accomplish this goal in many ways (look through multiple published
articles for ideas), but you might try the below as a
INTRODUCING YOUR TOPIC, REVIEWING BACKGROUND
After your opening statement, choose one of the variables that is relevant to your study. If you wish, you can label this section of the paper with the name of that variable.
- Provide a thorough review of relevant past literature.
- You should define the concept, explain "how it works" or what important relationships it has with other variables. And, provide empirical evidence to illustrate the definition, or provide evidence for the relationships. Discuss key studies,
and indicate how the authors support their conclusions
(i.e., briefly discuss methodology).
- As you choose what to include in the paper, remember that your goal is to provide the reader with information about the variable that will help them understand YOUR study. So, try to choose evidence and details that will specifically meet that goal.
Note: this entire section is about the one variable. You do not need to incorporate your other variables, or even mention your hypothesis yet.
Provide a transition to...
Review the next relevant variable
from your hypothesis. If you used a section heading for the previous variable, provide a new heading for this one.
Again, define your terms and then elaborate on
those definitions by providing more information about what is known
about the variable/theory/concept (using empirical study descriptions
Continue this process until you have defined all
relevant terms and reviewed most of the relevant background literature.
|BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER: PRESENTING YOUR RESEARCH QUESTION AND LOGIC FOR HYPOTHESIS
Present the logic for your
conceptual hypothesis. Some papers put this entire section under a heading called "The Present Study." Other papers provide a different section heading for the logic, and use "The Present Study" heading for the information in the box below. This is a stylistic choice.
- Now that the reader knows the relevant
definitions and background, you can bring together the research
evidence reviewed above to formulate your argument.
- Lead the
step-by-step to and through your hypothesis. This may
involve a brief review of some of the ideas presented earlier, and it
may include additional material (for example, you may want to provide
information about a past study that is a "key" study and/or that
closely mirrors your own research question).
- Be sure to say what is
unique/original about your research.
- For example, (1) You might find a
contradiction in the literature that leads to your study; (2) You might find a
reason why the conclusions reflected in the reviewed literature might
be wrong; (3)
Perhaps there is a gap in the literature – something you
consider important that has not been studied; (4) or, you might notice a point that, although it is
dealt with in the readings, ought to be extended further in some other
the last paragraph of your Introduction, name
the specific variables you intend to study and generally what you will be asking your
participants to do (e.g. “…we plan to administer a
survey measuring both variables X and Y to determine if there is a
correlation.”). Finally, state your
hypothesis(-es) formally: refer to the specific
variable names and use relevant "statistical" language (e.g., "We
hypothesize that X will have a positive correlation with Y." or We
hypothesize that participants in the experimental condition will score
higher on Y than participants in the control condition.")
Throughout the entire paper,
remember to provide a citation for any information that is not your own
idea (including information from textbooks). Put
the citation at the very first mention of the cited material (not, for
example, at the end of the paragraph). Read and follow the
guidelines on in-text citations found at the web page: Finding, Reading, and Citing Sources and consult the APA Manual.
method sections need three basic categories of information:
– who was in your study and did they volunteer or get some
sort of course
– what were your measured variables (a.k.a. operational
– what exactly did you do (literally during the study session)
may choose to use three different heading for this information (as
the example below), or you might want to combine procedures and
one section. Format the method section however it works best
for you –
but be sure to put participant information first and in its own
in the past tense.
should help provide you with
some commonly used (conventional) ways of writing out this information.
Participants were __N___ college students enrolled in introductory
classes. The students received extra credit in exchange for their
participation. This sample consisted of _N_ women and _N_ men.
Participants were generally college-aged (M = XX, SD = XX), and most
selected "White" (XX%) when asked their race/ethnicity (XX% selected
"Black" and XX% selected "Latino/a").
In the participants section, gender, age (or year in school), and
typical standard demographic statistics to include . You should also
other demographic statistic that relates to your hypothesis.
Contingencies of Self-Worth Scale. Selected
subscales from the contingencies of
worth scale (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001) were used. The subscale of
this study was the school competency scale. The measure of school
a basis of worth consisted of XX# items. An example item is:
Participants indicated the extent to which they endorsed each statement
7-point Likert type scale (1=strongly disagree, 7=strongly agree).
coding the appropriate items, the scale was created by averaging across
The internal consistency of the scale for our sample was
adequate/high/low (alpha = XX).
Sexual Orientation Prime Manipulation.
We designed a PowerPoint slide show in order to prime either
heterosexual or homosexual relationships. Both slide shows consisted of
20 slides, ten of which showed photographs of neutral objects (e.g.,
trees, tables, houses) and ten of which showed photographs of two
people hugging, holding hands, or touching one another's faces with
obvious affection. Participants in the heterosexual condition saw
images of male/female couples. Participants in the homosexual condition
saw five images of male/male couples and five images of female/female
couples. All images were free-use photographs downloaded from various
Another Scale or
Variable. Continue in a new paragraph with a new
heading for any other
scales or manipulations that are relevant to your hypothesis. (If you
are reporting data from a
larger data set collected by several researchers, you do not need to
scales that you are not relevant to your
hypothesis.) Note: For scales/questionnaires, be sure to always
include a reference (unless you wrote all the items), the number of
items on the scale, the
response format, the internal consistency, and an example question.)
In this section, include what participants were initially told about
the intent of study, how they run (e.g., in groups or individually? in
what order were the questionnaires administered?), and also mention
that an informed consent statement was administered and a debriefing
session was conducted. (If there was no informed consent or
debriefing, you should explain why in this section). You’ll
probably want to combine Materials & Procedure for studies with
procedures (like a short survey). For a more complex study (for
example, one which uses a manipulation like the one described above),
you will probably want to keep the Procedure section separate from the
results section is where you tell the reader several things about your
data analysis. First, provide basic descriptive information
scales you used (report the mean and standard deviation for each
If you have more than 3 or 4 variables in your paper, you might want to
descriptive information in a table to keep the text from being too
bogged down (see the APA manual for ideas on creating good
central to the Results section, you tell the reader what statistics you
conducted to test your hypothesis (-es) and what the results
the following, in this order, in your results section:
In some papers, the Results section begins with the descriptive statistics
relevant variables (e.g., mean, standard deviation). The statistics you present in this first
paragraph should be overall means for the entire sample rather than
means broken down by condition. Again, you want a single mean and standard deviation for each (continuous) variable. You do not want a mean for each condition for each variable. You will provide the means by condition later. Also, remember that you cannot claim one number is higher or lower than another without a significance test. Save those types of comparisons for later sections.
Provide a brief rephrasing of
(avoid exact restatement). Then tell the reader what statistical test you used to
test your hypothesis and what you found. If you did more than one test, report each test in its entirety (what you did and the results), one at a time.
- For each test:
Explain which findings were in
the predicted direction, and which were not (if any). Were
differences statistically significant (i.e., p =.05 or
below)? Don't merely give the statistical numbers without a
You cannot use statistics as though
they were parts of speech (i.e., nouns). For example do not write
correlation between private self-consciousness and college adjustment
was r(60) = - .26, p = .01.” Instead,
translate important data for the reader into words and provide the
statistics as evidence for your reported results.
- For example,
negative correlation between private self-consciousness and college
adjustment indicated that increased self-consciousness, predicted poor
adjustment, r(60) = - .26, p =
However, don't try to interpret
why you got the
results you did. Leave that to the Discussion.
You should also include an effect size statistic (if
you know what that is and how to compute it). When comparing means (t-test or ANOVA), the "d" is usually appropriate. When reporting correlations, Pearson's "r" is the effect size.
- Note that for t-test and ANOVA
findings, the "result" consists of the following in the following
order: (1) the t (or F), degrees of freedom, the p value, and the effect size; and, if significant, (2) the
means. In other words, keep the means together with the related
significance tests. In addition, for two or three way ANOVA results,
you should first provide all of the relevant information (including means if significant) for each of the main effects (including indicating
non-significant effects), and then report on interactions (including
indicating non-significant interactions).
Examine this document for more information about how to report statistics in a result section or consult the APA Manual.
your result was non- significant, but p < .10,
it is commonly accepted to still talk about the results. You
might write something like the following text in your paper:
was not significant using the standard alpha level of .05, the p-value
less than .10; r (49) = .23, p = .08.” BUT, you must provide a rationale for why you should still be able to discuss this non-significant
power, effect size issues). You may cautiously interpret such
a correlation. Don’t
make grand conclusions or use strong language based on the existence of
marginally significant finding. Also, you should indicate that a
finding is non-significant in a table; only refer to the statistic as
significance” in the text of the paper.
putting your statistics in the body of your results section seems to
section difficult to read (i.e., if you feel the reader is distracted
results by too many numbers and statistics), consider putting the
a table. For example, with simple bivariate correlations, you
a correlation matrix (see the link below under Tables for an example).
If you include a
table, you should, in the text of the result section, refer readers to
table instead of typing out the statistics for each finding. (See below
need to report the actual statistics in some way in your result
section, but regardless
of whether you use a table or type the statistics in the text, you
should put sentences describing the results in this section.
“As expected, college adjustment was
positively correlated with the amount of contact with friends and
family members (see Table 1).”
significant relationship was found between the importance of one's
life and social adjustment to college, r = -.11, n.s.
- E.g. “As
shown in Table 1, some of my predictions were supported.
There was a significant correlation between extroversion and life
satisfaction. However, life satisfaction was not
significantly related to college adjustment.”
- It is helpful to
write the words of the
results section first, and then go back to insert the numbers and
information. Really -
write the words only first. Then
go back and add numbers.
If you are using
Microsoft Word as your word processor, create the table, then you can adjust the
"borders and shading" for each cell/row/column to get the table
formatted properly. Another tip is to play around with double-spacing
and/or using the "Format" "Paragraph" "Spacing
before/after" features. Other word processors, PowerPoint and
Excel can produce
similar tables. Do not use Figures or Tables produced by SPSS.
Click on this link to see 2
See the APA Manual for
more specific instructions for certain kinds of tables.
your discussion section, relate the results back to your initial
Do they support or disconfirm them? Remember: Results do not prove
hypotheses right or wrong, they support
fail to provide support for them.
following information in (roughly) the following order:
a very brief summary of the most important parts of the introduction
the results sections. In doing so, you should relate the results to the
you introduced in the Introduction. Your findings are just one piece
-- resist the tendency to make your results the final story about
phenomenon or theory of interest. Integrate the results and
try to make
sense of the pattern of the findings.
the case of a correlational project, be careful to not use causal
discuss your results – unless you did an experiment you
causality. However, it would be impossible to fully discuss the
your results without making reference to causality. That is fine. Just
claim that your results themselves are demonstrating causality.
about any limitations relevant to the interpretation of your findings
(all studies have
If your results
did support your hypothesis, the limitations
section often includes a discussion of possible "third variable"
explanations, unmeasured mediators, and/or issues with the
generalizability of your results.
If your results
did not support your hypothesis, the section
on limitations often includes discussion of various features of the
study which might be responsible (e.g., operational definitions,
self-report biases, unmeasured moderator variables, the size or
composition of the sample). Where possible, support your speculation
BE SPECIFIC when
discussing limitations. For example, if you claim that a
might affect your correlation, tell the reader what that third variable
is and how it
affect the results. If you think that the use of a
convenience sample (and thus, a non-representative/random sample) is a
limitation, you must explain what segment of the population might
respond differently than did the participants in your sample and why.
about future directions that research could take to further investigate
question. This might relate back to any weaknesses you’ve
mentioned above (or
reasons why the results didn’t turn out as
expected). Future directions
may also include interesting next steps in the research.
discussion section is about “what we have learned so
far”; and “where we
should go next”; Your final conclusion should talk
briefly about the
broader significance of your findings. What do they imply
nature or some aspect of it? (Don't wildly speculate, however!) Leave
feeling like this is an important topic. You will likely refer back
opening paragraph of the introduction here and have partial answers or
specific responses to the questions you posed.
Parts of the Paper
page - Try to write a title that maximally informs
the reader about
the topic, without being ridiculously long; 10-12 words is the maximum
recommended by APA. Use titles of articles you've read
as examples of form. Also provide the RUNNING HEAD (an abbreviated
appears in the header of each page along with the page number). Provide
and institutional affiliation (e.g., Muhlenberg College). Format as per APA style.
Write the abstract LAST. An abstract is a super-short summary and is
In 250 words
or less your abstract should describe:
--the topic of research (an
"introduction" type sentence)
--the specific question and method of doing so (a
"method" type sentence)
--the results (no numbers, just words)
--a hint about the general direction the discussion section takes
Use APA style. See your APA manual, textbook and/or a sample
examples of how to cite and how to make a reference list.
Make sure that
all references mentioned in the text are also mentioned in the
and vice versa. Also see Finding,
Reading and Citing psychology sources for information.
and/or Figures: Use APA style. Tables go at the
very end of your
paper. Make sure you refer to the table or figure in the text
APA Style Guidelines
The American Psychological Association publishes a book containing the standards and rules all psychologists typically follow when writing a manuscript. There are many guidelines and some are more obscure than others. Check with your professor to see which APA Guidelines he or she would like you to learn and follow.
Below is a list of the guidelines most commonly required for undergraduates learning APA style. The numbers refer to the relevant section in the 6th Edition of the manual.
Headings (3.02, 3.03)
Clarity of Expression (3.05 - 3.11)
Reducing Biased Language (pp. 72-73, and sections 3.12 - 3.17)
Basic Grammar (3.18 - 3.23; see Chapter 4 for more on mechanics)
Numerals vs. Words (4.31 - 4.32)
Proper Statistical Notation (4.44 - 4.46)
Tables and Figures (5.01 - 5.25)
Tables - basic information (5.05, 5.08, 5.10, 5.13, 5.16)
Figures - basic information (5.05, 5.20 - 5.23)
Using Quotes (6.03)
Citing References in the text (6.11 - 6.21; see Chapter 7 for examples)
Reference list (6.25; 6.27 - 6.31)
Typing your manuscript: spacing, margins, font, and so forth (8.03)
Finding, Reading and Citing
Psychology Articles- help with PSYCHINFO, reference pages and
other citation issues
Empirical Papers: Advanced (PDF)
General Writing Tips on Writing
Avoiding Inappropriate Paraphrasing
More Writing and APA Style Links
Information about purchasing an APA Manual
maintained (such as it is) by