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
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
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,
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
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
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.