How to Write a Research Paper

Synopsis of Some Important Aspects of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (4th ed.) 1994

Papers in psychology classes must be written using American Psychological Association (APA) format (Check with the professor if you have any questions). Although you should refer to the APA Publication Manual (4th edition) itself for more detailed information, a synopsis of several critical areas of concern is presented here.

The following section describes the major components of the format for research articles as set forth by the American Psychological Association. You should also use published research articles as a model for what information needs to be covered in each section.


For published research, the title often determines whether a person chooses to read an article. Therefore, the title should be concise and specific. Typically, titles should be fifteen words or less. Avoid phrases such as "An experimental investigation," "An experiment," "A study of," and "The effect of," since these are already assumed. Avoid using abbreviations in a title as well. Titles often express the dependent or independent variables investigated in the research or the theoretical question. For example, "Music is detrimental to short-term memory." Titles should be informational and brief and should summarize the main idea of the paper.


The abstract is usually written after the rest of the report is completed. It should be about 150 words or less. Similar to the title, abstracts are often used by individuals to decide whether to read the entire report. The abstract should indicate the purpose of the study and summarize the main findings. Abstracts should be concise and specific. Avoid abbreviations. Do not repeat the title. Begin with the most important information and indicate the purpose of the study, main findings, and implications. In short, abstracts should be nonevaluative, coherent, concise and self-contained.


This section should begin with a statement of the problem or concept being investigated. Since the introduction is always the first part of the report (after the abstract), it does not need a heading. It should include some background information about your subject and review the results of previous studies. Typically, the literature review should be comprehensive but need not be exhaustive. Cite only articles that are relevant to your present research. Make sure that you clearly indicate the continuity between previous research and what you are currently proposing or reporting. Indicate any inconsistent findings or important unanswered questions. The introduction should clearly state the hypotheses under investigation and the variables that will be manipulated. It should also include the logic underlying your study and expected outcomes.


The purpose of the method section is to adequately describe your study so that anyone who wants to replicate it can do so. It indicates what procedures you used. It usually includes subsections for subjects and procedure. The subject subdivision should indicate the number of individuals used in the study, how they were selected and assigned to treatment conditions, and general characteristics (age, gender, ethnic group). Avoid open-ended descriptions such as "under 18" or "over 65." Be specific. Be sure to describe any information about your subjects that is relevant to the study (e.g. educational level, diagnosis). Indicate how the subjects were assigned to different groups, what payments were made (if any), the nature of informed consent agreements and similar information.


The apparatus section should describe any equipment or materials (e.g., tests, scales ) used in the study and their purpose. Standard equipment such as stop watches need only brief mention. Indicate how the equipment can be obtained (including model number or other distinguishing information and supplier). Custom-made equipment should be adequately described. At times, drawings or photographs can be used. Complex descriptions can also be included in an appendix when appropriate. Indicate coding or other scoring procedures. If the materials used are custom-made (such as a questionnaire), indicate how it was constructed and other pertinent information (e.g., validity, reliability).


The procedure section summarizes the research methodology and research design. This section should include relevant information about the experimenter or observers (e.g., education, training). It should describe the setting of the study and any relevant information (e.g., lighting, sound). Indicate any control features of the study such as randomization or counterbalancing. Indicate the instructions given to the participants and the testing procedures (you need not repeat standard testing procedures). Indicate the specific experimental manipulations. Indicate the number of sessions and duration. Indicate what responses the subjects are required to make. In short, indicate exactly what you did so that the reader can replicate the procedures.


This section summarizes the data that were collected and their statistical analysis. Begin with the main results or findings and then describe all of the other relevant results and provide necessary descriptive statistics (means, standard deviations). Do not discuss the implications of the results in this section or give any opinions.

Present your data in a way that is clear and concise. Tables and figures should be labeled in such a way that they can be understood without turning to the text. However, when you use any tables or figures, make sure that you allude to them in the text and indicate what the reader should look for in them. Each table and figure should include a descriptive title. Tables refer to any tabular information that can be typeset. These would include lists of terms, columns of numbers or percentages, and other quantitative information. In the text, refer to tables by their numbers. For example. "Table 8 shows the mean number of. . ." rather than "the table above shows". Number all tables with Arabic numerals in the order in which they are mentioned in the text.

Publishers usually prefer tables to figures because they are less expensive to reproduce. However, figures can convey a lot of information in a quick glance and are often very useful. Any type of illustration other than a table is called a figure. These include graphs, charts, drawings, or photographs. As with tables, figures should be numbered consecutively with Arabic numbers throughout the article.

When reporting any statistical information in your report, make sure to indicate the value of the test (for example t = 1.8), the probability level (p =.07) and degrees of freedom (df = 107). If you say that statistically significant differences were found, make sure that you indicate the alpha level. The most commonly used alpha levels are .05 and .01. When reporting a mean, you should also indicate the standard deviation or the standard error of the mean (s.e.m.). Do not overwhelm the reader with raw data. Make sure that you summarize all the data in a way that is easily read and understood.


The Discussion section gives you an opportunity to discuss your findings and to present and interpret their implications. Your discussion should generally refer to your original hypothesis or purpose of the study. In general, you should begin with a statement that indicates whether your hypotheses were supported or rejected. However, you need not repeat everything that was presented in the Results section. You should indicate how your results compare with what other researchers have found (i.e. you should cite previous literature in the discussion section). What conclusions and implications can you draw? What problems were encountered in your study? What are some flaws or limitations? What would you have done differently if you were starting again? What new questions does this study raise? What are some ideas for future research?

The discussion section need not be wordy or long-winded but it should convey to the reader exactly what you found and what it contributes to the literature. Avoid being defensive and avoid excessive speculation.


The purpose of an Appendix is to provide information that would be too large or distracting to put in the main body of the paper. Examples would be an unpublished questionnaire that you developed and used in a study; a detailed description of a piece of equipment; a computer program; list of words; a complex formula, informed consent forms, and in some cases, raw data.

If you only have one appendix, simply label it "Appendix". If you have more than one, label each with a capital letter (e.g. Appendix A, Appendix B) in the order that it is mentioned in the text. Each appendix should also have a title, but in the text, refer to each by its label (e.g., Appendix A, B). Start each new Appendix on a separate page.


The reference list appears after the Discussion section. Remember that a reference list includes only the articles used in the paper. A bibliography, on the other hand, may include works for further reading. APA style in general does not make use of bibliographies. A complete description of the APA style that is used in preparing the reference section appears in the next section. Note that citations in the text must appear in the reference list and each entry in the reference list must appear in the text. Each work in the reference list appears in alphabetical order by the first author's last name (see Using APA Style section for examples). In order to save time, make sure that you write down pertinent information about each reference as you are writing your report. If you wait until the end, you may find it difficult to locate the information that you need. Be careful about spelling names correctly and making sure that all other information is accurate.