Finding, Reading, & Citing Psychology Articles

Also: Information on APA-style formatting for Reference pages

*Revised for 6th Edition APA Manual

Other useful links

Basics Tutorial (w/audio), APA Style 6th Ed.
Annotated Sample Paper, APA Style 6th Ed. (PDF)
Summary Guidelines for Unbiased Language, APA Style 6th Ed. (PDF)
Language Use for Gender,APA Style 6th Ed. (PDF)
Language Use for Sexual Orientation,APA Style 6th Ed. (PDF)
Purchase your own APA Publication Manual
Writing Empirical Papers: Beginners
Writing Empirical Papers: Advanced (PDF) - for use by students who have learned the basics about empirical papers.
General Writing Tips on Writing Psychology Papers
Avoiding Inappropriate Paraphrasing

Finding articles

See the comprehensive Psychology Subject Guide resource available at Trexler Library's website.
General searching tips for PsycInfo:

(1) Limit your search to English language only articles (unless you read another language). 

(2) Students in Introductory psychology courses may want to limit your search to only the types of documents your professor is allowing for the assignment.  For example, your professor may ask that you use exclusively journal articles or chapters, or exclusively peer-reviewed articles. NOTE - this type of limitation is NOT useful to more advanced students.  If you are taking an upper level psychology class, or doing research for an independent study or thesis, you should NOT limit articles by document type. Limiting document types limits the number of resources you will have access to. This may be fine for a person in Intro Psych just learning PSYCHINFO, but could be disastrous for an upper level student seeking out the perfect references.  Note:  DO NOT LIMIT YOUR SEARCH TO FULL-TEXT articles or "AVAILABLE IN THIS LIBRARY" ARTICLES. Unless you attend a large university, the perfect articles for your project might not be found within the holdings of your library. There are over 2400 psychology journals in existence, not to mention numerous books and book chapters. If you find a source that is not available full-text and is not available at your library, you can request that the article or book be sent to you via InterLibrary Loan (I.L.L.). Similarly, do not limit your search to the full-text PSYCArticles database; it only includes about 60 journals.

(3) When searching in PsycINFO, start by checking to see that each of your search terms is a good one. Psychologists may use vocabulary that would not occur to you (e.g., affect = emotion/mood).  So, if one of your search terms results in too few or no hits, you may need to learn what the specialized words are for this database.  One way to do this is to use the "Thesaurus" (available on-line for most versions of PSYCHINFO). Another way is to look at the articles you find when you enter one term at a time. Check out the subjects or keyword fields in a citation for an article that looks particularly relevant.

(4) After you know each individual search term is legitimate, then type in multiple terms to try to specify your search.  It is typically best to start with a smaller number of broader search terms and see what you get. If you need to narrow the search, systematically add keywords and/or try keywords of increasing specificity.  If you are searching for specific articles and/or having a hard time narrowing the search, look for your terms in more specific search fields (e.g., subjects, title, "major descriptors").

(5) Virtually ANY topic you can think has been addressed by at least one article in the millions referenced in PSYCHINFO. Your exact research question may not be addressed, but some component of it (e.g. ,the underlying theory or concept) probably is. So, don't give up on the first try.  Keep looking.  Once you find just one good article, you can use the keywords, subject terms, or references in that article as search terms.

(6) After conducting any given search, you will get a list of article titles.  If your list is shorter than 20, you are likely to be missing a relevant article, so try using fewer terms or broader terms.  If your list is longer than 100, you will have a hard time sifting through all those results, so try using a more restrictive search.  

(7) Conduct several different searches using different strategies.  This will help you find the articles that are most relevant and helpful to you. When you start seeing the same articles over and over again in all your different search strategies, then you can feel more confident that you have seen all the psych literature has to offer on your topic.

I think I found a good source, now what?

To see if an article is relevant, read the title of the article and click on the title to see the abstract.  An abstract is a very short, dense summary of what the article is about.  Most abstracts will be difficult to understand, but read for general "gist" (general theme of the article).  If you can't understand a single word the abstract is saying, move on to another article! If you would like help interpreting any abstracts, let your professor or a librarian know.

After choosing articles that you think look promising, you must also actually get the articles. You cannot write a paper based on the abstract alone. Your professor will know if you rely solely on abstracts. You need to obtain and read the entire article.  There are 3 ways to obtain an article.  (1) it may be available on the computer in full-text;  (2) check to see if your library owns a paper-copy of the specific volume of the journal you need; and (3) if you cannot access the article any other way, you can request it via Interlibrary Loan.

Reading Articles

Reading journal articles is not like reading a textbook. Most articles you come across will have these 5 basic sections:

  • Abstract:  This is the small paragraph at the beginning of the article (and what is typed into the database: PSYCHINFO).  It should tell you the “gist” of the article.
  • Introduction:  The first section of the article will give you background information about why this study is being done, what past researchers have found, etc.  It will also fill in some theoretical details about the current study and provide you with an overview of the study’s methods.  If you are looking for references and having trouble, often you can find several additional relevant references in the Introduction section from one article.
  • Method: The very detailed section telling you exactly what the researchers did.
  • Results:  The very detailed section telling you exactly what statistics the researchers used to analyze their data, and their findings.
  • Discussion:  This last section of the article will summarize the main hypotheses and the main results.  Then it will often discuss the implications of the study and ideas for future research. The first paragraph(s) often summarize the intent and basic findings of the entire study.
Exceptions: Some articles may discuss several studies and have several methods, results, and “mini” discussion sections – these will usually have one overall section at the end called the “General Discussion” section.  Other articles won’t talk about the details of any one study, but rather review what lots of other researchers have done.  These are called “literature review” articles and won’t have any methods or results sections, but will probably have a “Conclusions” section. 

To read an empirical journal article, it is a good idea to first skim the entire article with the goal of getting a basic idea of the topic and research findings. For more in-depth information, you generally don't want to read the article in the order it is written in. Many people suggest the following:
  • Read the title and then the abstract first. Then read the abstract again.  It is a dense, but important summary of the major points of the article. 
  • To get more background information on the topic, or a more detailed understanding of the article’s main questions, read the Introduction. The last few paragraphs of the Introduction often provide a summary of the purpose and proposed hypotheses of the study. 
  • To understand the research findings and their implications, carefully read the Discussion section or “General Discussion" section, paying special attention to the beginning few paragraphs.  The author will usually review the main questions of the article and review what the results were. The authors then typically discuss the relevance of their findings.  
  • For clarification on how the researchers conducted their study, read the Method section. 
  • At an introductory psychology level, you can usually skip the Results section altogether unless you have taken statistics classes. If you do read this, focus on the words more than the numbers.
It is unlikely that you will fully understand every word/sentence/paragraph of the article because it is written to an audience already familiar with background research on the topic. Learning to extract useful information from complex text is an important skill to practice.  But, you will not be able to use the article effectively if you cannot understand it at all.  If you feel you have chosen an article that is beyond your grasp completely, choose another one or let your professor know you need help "translating” the article.  Do not write your paper based on the abstracts alone.  The reader will know if you do that. 

Citing sources in the text of a psychology paper

See the Muhlenberg home page for psychology students for several resources, including the comprehensive Online Writing Lab resources from Purdue.


Use Quotes Sparingly, if at All

Avoid direct quotes unless the language of the original author is so special it adds meaning to the content. Quotes should be in quotation marks and you should include the author, year and page number (Wade & Tavris, 2000, p. 344). 
Paraphrasing is Plagiarism

Paraphrasing, even in the sense that you may have learned was acceptable in other classes,  is NOT an appropriate way to use your sources. Read your sources, understand the points you want to use in your paper, then put your sources away and draft that section of your paper.  Use your own words. Read more about this topic at this web page on Proper Use of Sources.

References Page

This section of this page is no longer maintained. See the home page for Students for several resources, including the comprehensive Online Writing Lab resources from Purdue.