As you read through the large number of published studies, you will likely notice that the reports tend to follow both a topical pattern and a style of writing. Most professional journals require both in order to maintain consistency within the journal and to assure that information is organized in an understandable fashion. Imagine reading an article that begins with the actual experiment but in the middle begins to justify why the experiment was conducted. The article then reviews a limited number of articles and then jumps back to a discussion of how they chose their subjects. In the middle of all of this is a running critique of their methods along with haphazardly placed recommendations. Finally, the report ends with a list of articles but no reference is found as to the importance or use of these articles in the current study.
This type of report is likely to be discarded well before the end. If it had contained important new knowledge this information never made it to its intended destination. The journal would likely not publish it and had it gotten published, would have frustrated the reader to the point of confusion and disregard. Therefore, we follow a specific writing style to avoid this type of mess. And, while following a style may seem time consuming and frustrating in itself, it helps assure that your newfound knowledge makes its way into the world.
The American Psychological Association [APA] has developed what is the most well known and most used manual of publication style in any of the social sciences. The most recent version was published in 2002 and marks the fifth edition. While the text is somewhat daunting at first glance, the style does assure that your knowledge will be disseminated in an organized and understood fashion.
Most research reports follow a specific list a sections as recommended by this manual. These sections include: Title Page, Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, References, Appendices, and Author Note. Each of these areas will be summarized below, but for any serious researcher understanding the specifics of the APA manual is imperative.
The title page of a research report serves two important functions. First, it provides a quick summary of the research, including the title of the article, authors’ names, and affiliation. Second, it provides a means for a blind evaluation. When submitted to a professional journal, a short title is placed on the title page and carried throughout the remainder of the paper. Since the authors’ names and affiliation are only on the title page, removing this page prior to review reduces the chance of bias by the journal reviewers. Once the reviews are complete, the title page is once again attached and the recommendations of the reviewers can be returned to the authors.
The abstract is the second page of the research report. Consider the abstract a short summary of the article. It is typically between 100 and 150 words and includes a summary of the major areas of the paper. Often included in an abstract are the problem or original theory, a one or two sentence explanation of previous research in this area, the characteristics of the present study, the results, and a brief discussion statement. An abstract allows the reader to quickly understand what the article is about and help him or her decide if further reading will be helpful.
The main body of the paper has four sections, with the introduction being the first. The purpose of the introduction is to introduce the reader to the topic and discuss the background of the issue at hand. For instance, in our article on work experience, the introduction would likely include a statement of the problem, for example: “prior work experience may play an important role in student achievement in college.”
The introduction also includes a literature review, which typically follows the introduction of the topic. All of the research you completed while developing your study goes here. It is important to bring the reader up to date and lead them into why you decided to conduct this study. You may cite research related to motivation and success after college and argue that gaining prior work experience may delay college graduation but also helps to improve the college experience and may ultimately further an individual’s career. You may also review research that argues against your theory. The goal of the introduction is to lead the reader into your study so that he has a solid background of the material and an understanding of your rationale.
The methods section is the second part of the body of the article. Methods refers to the actual procedures used to perform the research. Areas discussed will usually include subject recruitment and assignment to groups, subject attributes, and possibly pretest findings. Any surveys or treatments will also be discussed in this section. The main point of the methods section is to allow others to critique your research and replicate it if desired. The methods section is often the most systematic section in that small details are typically included in order to help others critique, evaluate, and/or replicate the research process.
Most experimental studies include a statistical analysis of the results, which is the major focus of the results section. Included here are the procedures and statistical analyses performed, the rationale for choosing specific procedures, and ultimately the results. Charts, tables, and graphs are also often included to better explain the treatment effects or the differences and similarities between groups. Ultimately, the end of the results section reports the acceptance or rejection of the null hypothesis. For example, is there a difference between the grades of students with prior work experience and students without prior work experience?
While the first three sections of the body are specific in terms of what is included, the discussion section can be less formal. This section allows the authors to critique the research, discuss how the results are applicable to real life or even how they don’t support the original theory. Discussion refers to the authors opportunity to discuss in a less formal manner the results and implications of the research and is often used to suggest needs for additional research on specific areas related to the current study.
Throughout the paper and especially in the introduction section, articles from other authors are cited. The references section includes a list of all articles used in the development of the hypothesis that were cited in the literature review section. You many also see a sections that includes recommended readings, referring to important articles related to the topic that were not cited in the actual paper.
Appendices are always included at the end of the paper. Graphs, charts, and tables are also included at the end, in part due to changes that may take place when the paper is formatted for publication. Appendices should include only material that is relevant and assists the reader in understanding the current study. Actual raw data is rarely included in a research paper.
Finally, the authors are permitted to include a short note at the end of the paper. This note is often personal and may be used to thank colleagues who assisted in the research but not to the degree of warranting co-authorship. This section can also be used to inform the reader that the current study is part of a larger study or represents the results of a dissertation. The author note is very short, usually no more than a few sentences.