Writing a Research Paper

Searching for Research Sources

Substance and Style in Writing

Citing Sources

For More Information on Research and Writing

Writing a research paper, whether in psychology or other disciplines, is different than other forms of writing--partly because the content is more technical, and partly there are typically stylistic rules which make the writing more formal. This document is intended to provide some basic guidelines for writing, but is not intended to be complete. If you wish to get further information, links to other on-line sources for information are provided below.

Searching for Research Sources

Sometimes there are situations where one wishes to know more about a topic in psychology--either because of an assignment, a personal concern, or just curiosity. In many cases, a course textbook is not a sufficient source, so one needs to seek information from other sources. Knowing how to find relevant sources is a skill, and like most skills, it is something that only develops with practice. However, the following information may be helpful in starting out.

How do I know if a source is reliable?

Generally, you can trust that the source is reliable if one limits the search to published scholarly journals rather than popular media (newspapers, popular magazines) or the Web. Popular media typically are reporting material second-hand, with the writing done by a non-specialist. As a result, errors and distortions can occur--and because popular media typically don't provide information on a primary source (e.g., a related academic publication) there is usually no way to know if the author of the article "got it right". By comparison, articles in scholarly journals are almost always examined before publication by reviewers and editors who are professionals in the field of research; in addition, the articles themselves will provide references for related prior publications, which lets the reader pursue independent review if desired. As a result of these two elements--professional review and identification of sources--scholarly publications tend to be the highest quality sources. (It's worth noting that even scholarly journals can sometimes be wrong--Science and Nature recently published retractions of more than a dozen papers by a young physicist who had written "brilliant" reports about nanotechnology that were based on falsified data!)

Internet sources are even more problematical than popular media, because the nature of the Web makes it possible for anyone to write almost anything. This is not to say that anything published on the Web is useless (if so, the issue would be simple--just ignore the Web). The reality is that many serious scholars put material on the Web--whether in refereed electronic journals or similar organized sites, pre-publications of print articles, or simply writing because they wish to share their thinking. But how do you decide if an article is by a well-qualified professional or not? Sometimes, the website itself will provide clues, such as indicating the author's professional background (although lying on resumes is not unknown!). Even the URL may be helpful--for example, if the page is part of a university or government website, it is more likely to be reliable than if it is a homepage on a popular webservice like AOL or MSN. And one should consider the content itself: Is it well-written? Is the information consistent with what else you know? Does it document information by providing reference sources? Asking these questions will not guarantee that the information is reliable, but will often help you to discard sources which aren't. (For more information on evaluating sources, see the Ryerson Library's tutorial.)

How do I find sources that are relevant to my interest?

As noted at the beginning of this discussion, searching for information is a skill that only develops with time and practice, and it is impossible to cover all the aspects here (such as the use of Boolean operators to focus a search using multiple keywords). However, hopefully, it provides some guidelines to help you begin. Don't get discouraged; the more you search, the better at it you'll become!

Substance and Style in Writing

In general terms, the substance of a rsearch paper consists of the content--the theories, data, and interpretations which are presented. As with all writing, expressing yourself clearly is important. One way of judging how successful you are is to ask someone else to read a draft of your paper: if the other person can't make sense out of what you write, then you need to work on clarifying what you are trying to say. In general, good organization helps make writing clearer--planning a logical sequence to the presentation of ideas (sometimes making an outline helps), breaking the writing into paragraphs (with each paragraph focussing on a single topic, indicated by the first sentence), and (in longer papers) using section headings. In many cases, the subject matter of the paper will determine the overall structure of the paper. (For example, the take-home assignment for this course specifies a general structure.)

At the same time, the way one presents the content of a paper is influenced by considerations of style--guidelines and rules that may cover both grammar and other matters. For example, most research journals require that writing be done in the third person (e.g., "This paper deals with the role of attention in encoding information in memory.") rather than the first person (e.g., "I want to discuss the role of attention in memory."). This is a stylistic rule that is technically a formalism--after all, it is always a person that writes a paper, even if the paper is expressed in the third person grammatically! In my assignments for introductory psychology, I accept use of either the first or third person. Partly this is because the content of the assignment often makes the first person easier to handle for most students, and partly because I am more concerned with the content itself than with stylistic formalisms. However, whether you choose to use first or third person, you should be consistent within the paper! (Note: other professors may have different expectations--for example, some require that papers follow the style guidelines of the APA Publication Manual, as mentioned below; if in doubt, always ask!)

Beyond stylistic rules, research papers tend to use formal language, not slang or other forms of casual expression. Since research papers inevitably involve drawing on information from other sources, one must acknowledge these sources. (See below for more information.) Sometimes, this will quoting from of of your sources. If using a quotation, always provide the full source, including page number! (This gives credit where it is due, and allows a reader to readily check the original source to see if the quote is accurate, and to verify that it has not been used out of context.) However, quotes should be used sparingly--typically, they should represent less than 5% of the overall paper. In most cases, it is possible to summarize the ideas in your own words, called a paraphrase; however, you should still acknowledge the source, in terms of giving credit for the information or idea you have used. Students often worry about when using sources becomes plagiarism; in simple terms, the guideline is always to give credit where it is due: cutting and pasting from an on-line source, without acknowledging it, would be plagiarism. Using your own summary of the same content, and citing the source, would not. (If you think about it, the criteria are mostly common sense.)

As noted at the beginning, this document is not meant to provide a complete guide to all aspects of writing a research paper. If you want more information, check some of the sources mentioned below. However, don't get too caught up in worrying about all the details. The reality is that writing research papers is a skill, and it takes most people a great deal of practice to learn to write well. At this stage (an introductory course), I would rather you focus on the content--exploring new information, and thinking about your own learning and experience. Hopefully, expressing your ideas in a paper can be not just challenging, but also exciting!

Citing Sources

       One of the important issues in writing academic papers, whether as a student or a researcher, is the need to document the sources of information used. For students, it is also a frequent source of confusion and anxiety. To avoid such concerns, it helps to understand the purpose of providing source citations. Basically, proper citing references serves two functions: First, it gives appropriate credit to the work of others. Like all scholarly fields, psychological research is a cumulative process, with new research and theories building on the foundation of prior work; failing to give credit to the work of others is nearly equivalent to plagiarism. Second, providing proper citations allows readers to trace the origin of information, and thereby evaluate it for themselves. This is particularly important if the interpretation of data is open to dispute. (For a similar reason, it is undesirable to depend on a second-hand source--e.g., Smith providing a summary of research by Jones--because if you cite Jones instead of Smith, and Smith has incorrectly described Jones's research, then it will appear that you are the one making the error!) In the end, being careful to properly identify one's sources is a protection for both the reader and the writer. When using quotations, this means one must provide the page number along with the overall source information!

         This discussion is not meant to be exhaustive, but to provide some basic guidelines about when and how to identify reference sources. You should note that there are a number of format styles which exist, and while all tend to include similar information, there are minor differences which can vary from discipline to discipline, or even from journal to journal within a discipline. (For example, citing sources in the body of a paper by reference to author, using footnotes, or using endnotes.) The information provided here is basically derived from the American Psychological Association's Publication Manual. For more information on this, or alternative formats (such as MLA), see the links below.

Citing books

      For books, one should list the author(s) or editor(s), date of publication, title, place of publication, and publisher.
      Examples:

      Glassman, W. E. (2000) Approaches to Psychology, 3rd ed. Buckingham, U.K.: Open University Press.

      James, W. & Wundt, W. (Eds.) (1901) Great Moments in Psychology. New York: Everyman Press.

Citing journal articles

       For articles from a journal, magazine, or other periodical, one should provide the author, year of publication, title of the article, publication title, vol. or issue, and page(s) of the article.
       Example:

        Turtle, J. W., & Yuille, J. C. (1994) Lost but not forgotten details: repeated eyewitness recall leads to reminiscence but not hypermnesia, Journal of Applied Psychology, 79, 260-71.

Citing documents retrieved from the Web

       The guideline is similar to that for printed books and articles, except that one should also indicate when the document was retrieved, and the URL where it was found. (Note that if author is not identifiable, it is cited by title alone.)
        Example:

         Electronic reference formats recommended by the American Psychological Association. (1999, November 19). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved October 9, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.apa.org/journals/webref.html

For More Information on Research and Writing

Ryerson Library video tutorials--A variety of short videos on various aspects of doing archival (library) research.

APA Manual website--provides information and examples about using APA format. The APA also has available software designed to help with stylistic issues in writing psychology papers; a free demo is available for download. (However, the software is based on version 5.1, and will not be updated to the current version 6.)

Psychology with Style--a hypertext APA-based writing guide by Dr. M. Plonsky, U. of Wisconsin (current version reflects APA version 5).

Advice on Academic Writing--A variety of resources related to researching and writing academic papers; from the University of Toronto Writing Centre.

Copyright © 2013 William E. Glassman