Laboratory Manual for
Department of Psychology
The George Washington University
Dr. John Philbeck
Table of Contents
Goals of a Research Paper in Psychology3
Stages in the Research, Thinking and Drafting Process5
Writing the Abstract9
Writing the Introduction10
Writing the Method Section12
Writing the Result Section13
Writing the Discussion14
Citing Previous Work15
Appendix A:Point Allocation Guidelines19
Appendix B:On-line Database Searches using PsycINFO and MEDLINE22
Appendix C:Resources for Final Project Experiments24
Goals of Research Papers in Psychology
When psychologists write a research paper in “the real world”, our intention is usually to submit the paper to a journal so that it may be evaluated for possible publication in the journal.After we have gone to the trouble of collecting and analyzing our data, we want to tell as many people as possible about it, and ensure that the right people see it.By “the right people”, I mean the people that we know do similar research, and who are the most likely to appreciate the work.Publication in a journal is the primary means of describing our research and distributing it to a wider audience.
Make the paper interesting to the reader.Now, we all know that some people simply don’t have any interest or expertise in your paper topic, and no matter what we do to make it interesting, those people won’t read it.Also, we know that people who do work related to your topic will already be interested in your topic, and those people will read your paper no matter what.The most important group, however, consists of the people who might read your paper if you do a good job of making it interesting, but who might move on to the next paper if you don’t.These are the people that you want to “grab”.If you do a really good job of making the paper interesting, you might even convince people who don’t think they are interested in your work that they should read your paper.
How to generate interest?Ultimately, you need to convince people they should be interested in your paper.One way of doing this is to demonstrate that the work is relevant to them in some way.A time-honored tactic for doing this is to describe how the cognitive or perceptual process you’re studying might get used in the everyday world.Is this something that happens to everybody?If so, when?Is it something that happens only under certain circumstances or to certain people?The conditions that you used in your experiment might occur, for example, when one turns out the lights before going to bed.They might occur to firefighters trying to navigate through a smoky building.They might occur for airline pilots under a high workload situation.They may occur to everybody as they walk from outdoors in sunlight to indoors under fluorescent lights; they might occur as we try to interpret black and white photographs.It may take some creativity on your part to think of a situation in real life that draws upon the cognitive or perceptual process you’re studying, but it’s a crucial part of writing research papers.One way to get some inspiration is to see what other authors write about in the first paragraph of their papers.Many of them will start off with this kind of comment.Another way to get inspiration is to think about how you would describe your topic to your grandparents.
Use proper APA format.Why does APA style have so many nit-picky requirements, and why do you have to learn them?APA style is designed to standardize the format of papers that get submitted for review for possible publication in a journal.Standardization is important for several reasons.
(1) Standardization means that papers won’t get unfairly accepted or rejected for publication simply because they use a more (or less) attractive font size or heading style or whatever.If you’ve ever submitted a resume, you’ve probably wondered whether other people’s resumes might have an edge over yours just because they “look” better visually.APA style is designed to remove that possible factor, and that’s a good thing.
(2)Standardization translates into more efficient reviewing.I get asked by journal editors to review 3 – 4 manuscripts per month sometimes, and this is not at all uncommon.If all the manuscripts have the same format, reviewers will know exactly what to look for at exactly the same place in every manuscript.This can be a HUGE time-saver for people who do a lot of reviewing.
(3)Standardization also translates into more efficient reading and researching.Scientists must read many papers every month to keep up with the latest developments.If all the papers have the same format, it is much easier to digest the information, because you don’t have to hunt for the information you need.Think about going to a familiar grocery store versus going to an unfamiliar grocery store.You’ll get out faster if you know where to find the things you need.
Write for the appropriate audience.In papers for this class, assume that you are writing for an educated audience that is not familiar with your particular topic.This means that you can assume readers are familiar with basic concepts like retinal disparity, response time, independent variable, mean and standard deviation, and so forth.You will need to define more specialized terms like “specific distance tendency”.
Writing for an educated audience that is unfamiliar with your topic is actually a good rule of thumb to follow even if you are writing a paper to submit to a journal, for a couple of reasons:(1) If your paper is understandable even for people who are not familiar with your particular topic, this means it will be easier to understand for people who ARE familiar with your topic.(2) The reviewers or editors who are making decisions about whether or not to accept your paper for publication may not be specialists in your field.If your paper is understandable to non-specialists, this increases the chances that your paper will be accepted.
Present ideas clearly.There should be a clear, logical flow of ideas in each section of a research report in psychology.This is particularly important in the Introduction and Discussion sections.Does the flow of your ideas make sense?Here are some tips for creating clear, logical reports.
·Make an outline.As is discussed below (“Writing the Research Report”), before beginning to write, it is crucial to make a detailed outline first.This will help you organize your ideas before committing anything to paper, and this organization will come through in the words you eventually write.
·Make the structure obvious.One way to help the reader follow the flow of your ideas is to provide some foreshadowing for what topics you are going to cover.For example, after introducing your topic in the Introduction section, you might include several sentences like, “First, this paper will review some of the most relevant findings in the existing literature.Then, it will discuss some limitations of past work, and introduce an experiment designed to address these limitations.”It may initially seem odd to be so explicit about the framework of your paper, but in scientific writing, this kind of technique is a good idea, because it helps the reader follow the logic of your paper.
·Create logical paragraphs.Paragraphs should have a beginning, middle, and end.The beginning of any paragraph should introduce the topic to be discussed in the paragraph.This could include a transitional comment that links the ideas from the previous paragraph with the upcoming material.The middle of the paragraph contains the actual discussion of the topic.Finally, the end of the paragraph should summarize or conclude the discussion.
Stages in the Research, Thinking, and Drafting Process
Conducting research and describing the results follows several distinct stages:(1) Selecting a general topic; (2) Finding previous research related to the topic; (3) Developing a specific research question; (4) Creating an experimental design; (5) Collecting and analyzing data; and finally (6) Writing the research report.Here, we will go into each of these stages in more detail.
1.Selecting a general topic
When you are new to a certain field of research, it can be difficult to come up with a research topic.You know very little about the field, so where to begin?
Lectures:if there has been something in a lecture earlier in the semester that caught your attention, brainstorm about that topic to see if you can turn that interest into an experiment.
Flip through the textbook:Some pictures or demonstrations may catch your eye.You could try going to the library to find other, similar textbooks.There also may be other books near that section that catch your eye.
Newspaper, magazine articles, emails:again, think about things that really “grabbed” you recently.Ask yourself what about the topic grabbed you, and think about what kind of cognitive or perceptual processes might be involved.
Hobbies:if you’re good at music, art, sports, video games, or something else, each of these pursuits requires a wide range of perceptual and cognitive processes.You can potentially get inspiration from thinking about what you like in your hobby, and then thinking of an experiment that might help you understand something about your hobby.
Remember that your topic should be fundamentally about visual perception.It can be a challenge to decide if your topic is really about visual perception, because there are so many things that involve vision.
NOTE:you will get a handout that describes the Final Project assignment in more detail.
NOTE:see Appendix C for a list of resources that are available for Final Project Experiments.
The effect of drugs / alcohol on __________.(obvious reasons!)
The effect of gender on ________ (typically, there aren’t enough men in class to do this)
How much change in the amount of sugar in a drink does it take for people to tell that more sugar has been added?(this does not involve visual perception)
Do children have different contrast sensitivities than young adults?(can’t do research involving people outside of your lab section)
Effect of soothing / loud music on ability to learn words presented on a screen (you are seeing the words, but experiment is more about hearing or attention)
Do people remember words better if are associated with a disgusting / sexy / scary image?(again, you’re seeing words and pictures, but experiment is more about memory than vision)
2.Finding previous research related to your topic
1.Textbooks:First, check to see if the textbook mentions the topic you are interested in.If it does, you may be able to find references to papers published on the topic.Also, you can use textbooks to get ideas about what keywords you could use when doing an on-line search.
2.Perception Handbooks:Another source for general information about topics in visual perception (and potential sources for published research) is to look for a perception handbook.These books have short articles on a wide variety of topics, much like an encyclopedia, but handbooks are a bit more in-depth and scholarly.On the main Gelman Library page (www.gwu.edu/gelman), type in “handbook perception” in the “ALADIN Catalog Quick Search” bar at the top of the screen, and be sure “keyword” is selected under “more search options”.This will yield a lot of handbooks to choose from.You will need to physically go to the library to look at these handbooks, but browsing through them is sure to give you some ideas, and will likely give you some leads on research articles.
3.On-line database searches.Perhaps the most helpful thing for finding articles related to your topic is to do an on-line database search through Gelman Library’s ALADIN site.This is described in detail in Appendix B.One of the biggest challenges in doing this kind of search is knowing what keywords to use.Simply putting in “visual perception” as a keyword search is a complete waste of time, because you will get a kazillion unhelpful hits.You can get inspiration for more specific keywords from textbooks or handbooks.If you have already found at least one article related to your topic, you could try entering words or phrases from the article title or abstract as keywords.Note that some articles actually provide keywords for you.
4.Internet searches.Finally, as a last resort, you could try doing a search using an internet search engine like google.com or Wikipedia.org.This kind of search should only be used as a means of thinking of appropriate keywords or getting ideas during the initial stages of selecting a topic.It should not be used as a primary means of researching your topic.
3.Developing a Specific Research Question
Once you have settled on a topic, you should develop a specific research question.A research question is the question your experiment is designed to answer.It should be a single sentence, phrased as a question, that captures the question your experiment is designed to answer.For example, “How do ____ and _____ affect our perception of _____?”Or:“Can this phenomenon be explained by ________?”“Does this phenomenon still occur when we use _____ instead of _______?”One you have your research question ready, you will be ready to move on to the next step.
4.Creating an Experimental Design
This is something that is something that entire semester-long classes are taught on, so we can only provide the bare essentials, here.The “design” specifies exactly what conditions you will be presenting and what kind of task you are asking subjects to perform.Your TA can give you some advice about how to design an experiment to address your research question, but here are some questions you should try to answer on your own first:
·What is your research question?Make it as specific as possible.
·What are your predictions?
·Can you use the same design as a previous experiment?
·Will you need to divide subjects into separate groups, or can each subject be exposed to multiple different conditions?
·What are your independent variables?(what are you manipulating or varying?)In this class, you should have two independent variables (IV); each IV should have 2 to 3 levels.
·How will subjects respond?What is their task?
·How will you record subjects’ responses?
·Will you collect multiple measurements for each condition?
·How many trials will there be for each subject?
5.Collecting and Analyzing the Data
Once you have settled on a design, you will need to make all the necessary preparations for running your experiment.You will then collect your data during one of the two lab sessions set aside for the final project experiments.In this class, we do not use inferential statistics (ANOVA, T tests), but we do use descriptive statistics to help us compare the data.Usually, but not always, your descriptive statistics will include the class mean and standard deviation for each of the conditions you tested.So, for example, if you have 2 IV’s, each with 3 levels, you should report 6 sets of means (2 x 3) and 6 sets of standard deviations.
6.Writing the Research Report
Start Early.People who do a lot of writing agree that time is one of the most important factors in producing a good paper.You must start writing soon enough before the deadline that you have time to organize your thoughts, do a literature review, write the paper, and spend time revising and polishing.At a bare minimum, allow yourself a single day for each one of these steps.Ideally, you would spend more than a single day writing!But the point is that you should leave enough time that you can finish a draft of the paper, sleep on it, and come back to do the revising and polishing the next day.This will dramatically improve your final product, but you must plan ahead.
Make an Outline.Before actually starting on the paper, it is absolutely imperative that you make an outline first.The reason outlines are so important is that they shorten the overall amount of time it takes to complete the paper.Think about it:If you write an outline first, it makes you organize the ideas and logic of your paper and helps you identify and iron out difficult issues before you commit any words to paper.Then when you start writing, most of the hard issues have already been fixed. However, if you start writing without an outline, you run the risk of writing hundreds of words before realizing that what you’ve written will never work.Then you’ll have to start over, and this increases the total time you have to spend writing.So, if you want to minimize the amount of time you spend writing, you must make an outline first.
What should be in the outline?You should lay out the ideas in your first paragraph, in order.Then, you should lay out how you will describe previous research.What topics or theories will you cover?What terms will you need to define, and when will you define them?What specific papers will you discuss?What remains unknown about your topic?After outlining your discussion of previous work, you should lay out how you’ll introduce your own work:what is your research question?What are your hypotheses or predictions?
Get Motivated to Write.If you don’t feel like writing a paper, this can be a significant obstacle to getting it done.Even professional, full-time researchers go through times when they don’t feel like sitting down to write.The trick is NOT to force yourself to write when you don’t want to.Instead, you should think of ways that make you genuinely WANT to write.As you gain experience, you will start to develop a bag of tricks that reliably make you feel like writing.Ideally, your bag of tricks will get so big and so varied that you will always be in control of your motivation to write.If you need to write, you can reliably sit down and get it done.
·Find a time of day:The ability to focus and get work done varies across the day for most people.What times of day are most productive for you?
·Listen to music:Listening to favorite music or watching clips from a movie can help.
·Reward yourself:promising yourself a reward after spending a couple hours of writing can be very effective.
·Think about finishing:If writing feels like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer, think about how good it will feel when you stop!Thinking about getting a project off your plate can be an extremely powerful motivator.
·Think about a hero:We all know people who impress us with their ability to focus and attain their goals.This might be a musician, author, athlete, actor, family member, religious figure, or a professional in your chosen field.For many of us, writing papers is a way to attain our goals—whether it’s passing a class, graduating college, getting a promotion, or whatever.Putting yourself in the shoes of someone you admire can be a very powerful motivator.
·Write a few sentences:The first few sentences are always the hardest!Go ahead and write a couple of sentences, without worrying about whether they are any good.Getting over this hurdle can sometimes get the ball rolling.
General Writing Tips and Reminders:
·Effect vs. Affect:These are both real words that are used frequently in psychology, but they have different meanings.It is very easy to use them incorrectly without realizing it, because they sound so similar.This means that every single time you use one of these words, look closely to be sure you are using the word correctly.In most cases, “effect” is a noun; “affect” is a verb.For example:What is the EFFECT of turning off the lights?And:Does during out the lights AFFECT responses?
·“Proves”:Psychologists are very reluctant to use the word “proves” in scientific writing.It suggests there is absolutely no doubt about the results of an experiment.Very few experiments in the history of psychology are completely beyond doubt.This being the case, you should make it a habit to avoid using the word “proves”.Instead, you can say “the results strongly suggest that…” or “the results indicate that…” or “the results show that…”.
·Use IV / DV properly.The Independent Variable (IV) is something the experimenter manipulates, or varies, in an experiment, to see what effect this has on the participant’s responses.The Dependent Variable (DV) is the thing that is measured in a study.In psychology experiments, the DV will often be something like Response Time, number of errors, percentage of correct responses, magnitude estimation, or some kind of matching response.
·Avoid sentence fragments.Every sentence should have a subject and a verb.Do not begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and”, “but” or “yet”.Starting with a conjunction automatically create a sentence fragment even if the fragment has a subject and a verb.
·Use semicolons properly.The phrase after the semicolon should be a complete sentence that could stand on its own as a sentence if you took away the phrase before the semicolon.Avoid using too many semicolons:a good rule of thumb is no more than one semicolon per page.
·Use correct verb tense.Events that have already occurred — history, procedure, results — should be described in the past tense.For example, “Smith and Wesson found …”; “The subjects were instructed …”.This specifically applies to all report sections with the exception of the Discussion.
·Avoid using first person singular.Research reports should be impersonal and objective.Thus, you should avoid using “I” or “we”.Rather than saying “I told the subjects…”, you should say “The experimenter told the subjects…” or “The subjects were told….”
·Write as if report is a professional manuscript being submitted for publication.Therefore, you should speak of an “experimenter and subjects” rather than a “lab instructor and students”.
·“Experimenter” is spelled with “-er”
·It’s / Its:
“It’s” is a contraction and means “it is” or “it has”.EX:It’s lunchtime already.
–You should never use contractions in an APA-Style paper!
“Its” is the possessive form of “It”.EX:Participants turned on the computer and its monitor.
·“Dependent” is spelled with “-ent”
·“Stimulus” is singular; “stimuli” is plural:
“These stimuli were presented twice apiece.”
“This stimulus was presented twice.”
·“Data” is plural:“This data supports our hypothesis”: INCORRECT!
“These data support our hypothesis”:CORRECT
Writing the Abstract
The GOAL of an abstract is to convey why you did your experiment, what general methods you used, what were the results, and how you interpret the results.The challenge, of course, is to do all this in a very small number of words.One strategy is to start off by devoting a single sentence to each of the following sections:
·Why did you do this experiment? (What research question did you attempt to answer?)
·General method (What did you manipulate?What was the subject’s task?)
·Results (Don’t include numbers or statistics; were your predictions supported?)
This will take a lot of condensing and summarizing, obviously.Once you have your four sentences, see how many words they contain.You will probably have some additional words you could add.Take a look at what you have written and decide where it would help to add another sentence of explanation.Often, it will require more than one sentence to summarize adequately why you did the experiment or what methods you used.
You should also be aware that for many people, the quality of your abstract will determine whether or not they read your paper at all.Thus, ideally, the abstract should convey something of the importance of your work and convince readers that they should read the whole paper.You may not have enough space to say much about this, but it should always be in the back of your mind.
Writing the Introduction
The overall GOAL of the introduction is to tell readers why you conducted the experiment, give them enough background information to understand the topic you are studying, and convince them that it’s important.There are three basic parts of a good Introduction section:(1) Introduce the general topic; (2) Describe past research related to your topic; and (3) Describe the experiment you conducted.Here is a closer look at each of these steps:
1.Introduce the general topic:1 – 2 paragraphs
The first paragraph of your paper is important for “grabbing” the reader.(See “How to Generate Interest”, above.)You may want to consider the following:
·Begin with a general observation about the world that relates to your topic.
·Or, begin with a real-life situation that is difficult for people because they make the kind of errors you’re interested in.
·Or, begin with a real-life situation in which people use the cognitive or perceptual process you’re studying.
·Next, point out how these general observations relate to a more fundamental cognitive or perceptual process.
·Give some indication of what we still don’t understand about the cognitive or perceptual process you’re studying.In some cases, this will be a good place to state your specific research question.In other cases, you will need to provide more background information before your question will make sense.In either case, be sure to make it clear that your goal in the paper is to investigate either the general topic, or your specific research question.
·If you use any specialized terminology in the first paragraph, provide a brief definition.
·Close the first paragraph with a sentence or two describing why this phenomenon is important.These sentences should be your best argument for why readers should be interested in your topic.For example, if you have already shown that people use this cognitive / perceptual process every day or in important situations, you can point out that studying this process will lead to a better understanding of how people do __________ in their everyday lives.
2.Describe past research related to your topic
In the first paragraph, you introduced your topic in general terms.In the next few paragraphs, you should become very specific about your research question.Include the following information:
·If you have not already stated your research question, do so as soon as possible after the first paragraph.Provide background information as needed.
·Be sure to define all specialized terminology.
·Provide citations for any ideas that are not your own (see “Citing Previous Work”, below); use correct APA citation style.
·What is known about your topic?
·What theories have been suggested to explain your phenomenon?
·What aspects of these theories have been tested before?
·How were these theories tested?(what methods were used?)
·What remains unknown about the topic?
Where should you state your research question?Sometimes, your first paragraph will do a good job introducing your topic, and you can state your research question in the first or second paragraph.After stating your question, you will launch into what is known about your question, what theories have been suggested, etc.Other times, you will need to provide a little more background information about past experiments before your specific research question will make sense.If you need to provide background information first, it’s OK to do that.In general, however, a good rule of thumb is to give your research question in the first or second paragraph.
3.Describe your experiment
After describing past experiments and stating what remains unknown, you are in a good position to describe your own experiment.Consider the following:
·How does your study differ from those that have been done in the past?
·What new knowledge will be gained by using your methods?In Psy 106, our studies will often simply replicate past experiments with different methods.In this case, the new knowledge might be showing that your phenomenon holds true even when different methods are used.
·Based on theories of the topic and past research, what is your hypothesis about what explains your phenomenon?
·BRIEFLY summarize what methods you will use to test your hypothesis.What will you vary?What kind of task will people perform?It is important to keep this summary brief:shoot for 2 – 3 sentences, at most.
·Based on your hypothesis and your design, what results do you expect from your experiment?
Writing the Method Section
The GOAL of the Method section is to provide all the information needed for another researcher to replicate your experiment.The Method section is relatively straightforward.APA Style specifies what sections should be included, so those guidelines should be followed (Participants, Apparatus, Procedure, etc.). Also, this section will include lots of demographic information and measurements, so be sure to check the proper APA format for reporting that information.
If you are new to writing Method sections, one of the most challenging things is to know how much detail to provide.It is important to be complete, but if you include too much detail, the Method section will be wordy and difficult to follow.Your goal, then, is to provide only the important information, without including unnecessary details.In general, more detail is needed for apparatus unique to your experiment; less detail is needed for standard materials your reader will be familiar with.
Information that is necessary:
·Who were the participants?(# of males / females; average age; age range; were they students?)
·What was the participants’ motivation (course credit? monetary payment?)
·If subjects were paid in exchange for participating, how much were they paid?
·The variables you are manipulating (Independent Variables) and how you are measuring participants’ responses (Dependent Variable).
·The crucial pieces of equipment and materials used in your experiment
·The crucial steps involved in actually running the experiment
·What information was given to the participants regarding their task?Use block quotes to include specific instructions if it is important to the experiment.
Information that is typically NOT necessary:
·Name of the university or city where students were enrolled
·Name or number of the specific course in which students were enrolled
·Dimensions of sheets of paper used for responses
·What type of writing utensil was used, if responses involved writing
·Non-crucial procedural details (for example, “Participants were greeted and handed a sheet of paper.”)
Writing the Results Section
The GOAL of the Results section is to report the data you collected.Your top priority should be describing the data clearly, and in a way that is effective in showing your reader why it is important.In this class, we do not use inferential statistics (ANOVA, T tests), but we do use descriptive statistics to help us compare the data.Usually, but not always, the descriptive statistics will include the class mean and standard deviation.Be sure to check the proper APA format for reporting numbers and referring to any tables or figures you are including in your paper.
·Report all statistics in a way that makes it clear how each group performed.For example:“The Reversal Group had a mean errors-to-criterion score of 13.2 with a standard deviation of 1.4.The Standard Group had a mean errors-to-criterion score of 8.5 with a standard deviation of 0.6.”This format may appear repetitive, but in the Results section, clarity is more important than elegance when presenting data.
·Include comparisons of all the data that you report and any trends you find.For example:“There was a difference of 4.7 errors between groups, with the Reversal Group having more errors than the Standard Group.”
·DO NOT include any interpretations in the Results section.The Discussion section is where you interpret what your data mean and how your findings relate to your predictions.
·Prepare any figures and tables so that they are understandable without accompanying explanations.This means that for most reports, your data will appear both in the text of your Results section and in an accompanying figure.Tip:before finalizing your figure or table, try thinking of several alternative ways of presenting the data, and then choose style of presentation that you think will be most striking, most clear, or most compelling.
·Always refer to your figure or table in the Results section.For example:“Mean responses and standard deviations were calculated for both groups to aid comparisons (see Figure 1)”.
Writing the Discussion Section
The GOAL of the Discussion section is to interpret the data presented in the Results section and examine whether or not the hypotheses stated in the Introduction were supported.
How to write a research report in psychologyJ. Baron, 1991 (with help from R. Rescorla and an appendix by M. Seligman)
Sections of the reportTitle. This should say as much as possible about the content of the paper, in as few words as possible. For example, if you are writing about the psychological causes of teenage pregnancy, a good title is ``Psychological causes of teenage pregnancy.'' A bad title is ``A study of thinking.'' Titles with colons are currently in vogue (``A study of thinking: Psychological causes of teenage pregnancy'') but usually they are not as cute as you think they are when you first think of them.
Abstract. This is a brief (usually one paragraph) summary of the whole paper, including the problem, the method for solving it (when not obvious), the results, and the conclusions suggested or drawn. Do not write the abstract as a hasty afterthought. Look at it as a real exercise in cramming the most information in one paragraph. The reader should not have to read any of the rest of the paper in order to understand the abstract fully. Its purpose is to allow the reader to decide whether to read the paper or not. A reader who does not want to read the paper should be able to read the abstract instead. When you write an abstract, remember Strunk & White's admonition, ``Omit needless words.''
Introduction. Tell the reader what the problem is, what question you will try to answer, and why it is important. It might be important for practical reasons or for theoretical (or methodological) reasons having to do with the development of a scholarly discipline. Don't neglect either type of reason.
If the problem is a very basic one, you may state the problem first and then review what has already been found out about it. If the problem is one that grows out of past literature, review the history of how it arose. But do not forget to mention the basic issues behind the research tradition in question, the practical or theoretical concerns that inspired it. (Sometimes there don't seem to be any. In this case, you have probably chosen the wrong topic.)
Your literature review should be appropriate to the kind of paper you are writing. If it is a thesis, you should strive for completeness, both in reviewing all the relevant literature and in making the main arguments clear to a reader who is unfamiliar with that literature. For a course paper or journal article, it is sufficient to review the main papers that are directly relevant. Again, you should assume that your reader has not read them, but you need not go into detail. You should review only those points that are relevant to the arguments you will make. Do not say that ``X found Y'' or ``demonstrated'' if X's conclusions don't follow from X's results. You can use words like ``X claimed to show that Y'' or ``suggested that'' when you are not sure. If you see a flaw, you can add, ``However ...''. Try to avoid expressions like ``Unfortunately, Smith and Jones neglected to examine [precisely what you are examining].'' It might have been unfortunate for them or for the field, but it is fortunate for you, and everyone knows it.
The introduction should lead up to, and conclude with, a statement of how you intend to approach your question and why your approach is an improvement on past efforts (or why it is worth undertaking even if it isn't). This is essentially what is new about your approach, your particular contribution. It need not be anything great. Something like ``applying X's method to test Y's theory'' is good enough.
Method. This section gives the details of how you went about your project. It is usually divided into subsections such as subjects, materials, and procedure. These subheadings are standard ones, but they are not always appropriate, and other subheadings are acceptable. The point of subheadings is that the reader may want to skip this section entirely and return to it later in the paper. The subheadings should make it easy to find relevant details.
Results. This is a summary of what you actually found. It is not a dump of your unanalyzed data, nor merely a report of whether your statistical tests were significant, but somewhere in between. It should contain whatever summary statistics will help readers see for themselves what happened, such as means and standard deviations of various conditions, and raw correlations, when these are relevant. It should also contain the results of statistical tests. Make sure to do and report just those tests that are relevant to the question that inspired your project. If you must include your raw data (and sometimes there is good reason to do this), put them in an appendix. (Notice that the word ``data'' is a plural noun meaning, roughly, facts.)
Graphs, charts, and tables are often useful in this section (and elsewhere, but less often). They should be labeled consecutively either as Figures or Tables, depending on whether a typesetter could be expected to set them, (yes for tables, no for figures), e.g., Figure 1, Figure 2, Table 1, etc. Each one should have a caption explaining clearly what it is, if possible without relying on anything in the text. (Figure captions are on a separate sheet so that the typesetter can set them, but for course papers, this is not necessary.) The text should tell the reader when to look at the figures and tables (``As shown in Figure 1 ...''), and it should point out the important points, but it should not simply repeat in writing what they say.
Figures and tables are supposed to go at the end of the paper, but this is for the benefit of the typesetter. Most professors (except nitpickers) prefer the tables and figures close to where they are needed.
Discussion. It is a good idea to begin the discussion with a summary of the results, for the benefit of the reader who wants to skip the results section (and to remind the reader who didn't skip it but got interrupted by a phone call and forgot it).
In the rest of this section, you return to your original question and tell the reader what your results have to say about it (``The results indicate that ...'') and what they do not have to say (``However, the results are inconclusive concerning ...'' or ``do not speak to the question of''). In each case, tell why. Try to think of objections that someone might make to the conclusions that you draw (whether the objections are correct or not) and either answer them or qualify your conclusions to take them into account (``Of course, these conclusions assume that the subjects were telling the truth, which might not be the case''). You may also say why you think the objections are weak even if they are possible (``On the other hand, there was no reason for the subjects to lie''). Your task here is not to do a sales pitch for some idea but rather to help the reader understand exactly what can and cannot be concluded.
The discussion section may be combined with the results. The advantage of this is that it puts the results in the context of the issues that generate them. The disadvantage is that the flow of the discussion gets interrupted with a lot of statistics, etc.
The discussion section is also the place to say anything else you want to say that does not go anywhere else. You may reflect on the implications of your results, or your methods, or whatever, for other issues that were not the main point of the paper. You can talk about how your project should have been done, and why. Or you can make a more general argument, for which your results are only a part.
Note that some of these things may be quite creative, but none of them amounts to simply reporting ``your own ideas'' without support. You should report your own ideas -- when you can support them with arguments and reply to potential arguments against them. If you can't do this, maybe your ideas need to be changed. You can also make suggestions that might be true, labeled as such, but then try to state the alternative too.
It is often a good idea to end the paper with a general statement of main message. More generally, one type of well-constructed paper will reveal its main ideas to a reader who actually reads only the first and last paragraph and the first and last sentence of every intervening paragraph, and this principle applies especially to the discussion section by itself.
References. This is a list of the articles cited. Usually, articles are mentioned in the text by author and date, e.g., Baron (1988), and the references at the end are listed alphabetically by author. Each discipline and each journal has its own conventions about references. These usually insure uniformity, but they don't even help the typesetter. The important thing is that you give the reader what she needs to find the articles you have cited. For journals, both the volume and the year are usually needed as well as the page numbers, because mistakes are common. If you really want to do it ``right'' pick a journal and imitate the style.
Footnotes. Sometimes you want to say something that isn't quite necessary. This is the time to use a footnote. If you can get away without using them, it saves the reader's eyes. But sometimes it's hard to resist making rather extensive, but rather tangential remarks. These go in footnotes, not the text. The really eager reader will read them. Others will not.
General adviceThe "reader". Although it may sometimes seem that your reader is a typesetter, you should write as if your reader were a scholar, that is, a professor, graduate student, or advanced undergraduate, doing what you are doing, trying to get to the bottom of some issue by reading what other people have done. You may assume that this person is familiar with the discipline you are writing in (e.g., she got an A in Psychology 1) but not with the specific topic. Thus, you need to explain anything not covered in Psychology 1. (For some audiences, you need to explain even more, but then you are doing journalism or textbook writing, not scholarship. However, journalism is not a bad thing to learn to do, and scholars are unlikely to object if you explain too much, as long as you do it concisely.) Take the attitude that you are part of a giant enterprise of many people seeking the truth about the subject you are discussing. It's often true. (Someday you may be surprised to find your professor handing out copies of your paper to other students.)
You may assume your reader is intelligent, but he reads only your paper, not your mind. Therefore, when you use any terms that are not obvious, you must make sure to define them so as to remove any relevant ambiguity. A good way to do this is with both an abstract definition and an example: ``I use the word 'dyslexia' to refer to seriously impaired reading despite normal instruction, vision, hearing, and language ability. By this definition, a retardate could be called dyslexic if his reading is far behind his speech.'' There are practically no ``standard definitions'' in fields like psychology, so you must choose your terms and your definitions of them so as to capture what you want to say without flying the face of other people's definitions of the same terms. Because terms are so important in academic discourse, do not use more than one term for the same idea (no matter what you learned in 9th grade English).
Style. Academic writing may seem pompous and convoluted to you. A lot of it is, but the best is not. Do not use words just because they sound academic (especially when you aren't sure what they really mean).
The major rule of syntax is this: write so that a reader could parse your sentences -- that is, figure out what modifies what, what is the object of what, and so on -- without understanding what they mean. The syntax should help the reader figure out the meaning; the reader should not need the meaning to decipher the syntax. For example, put ``only'' just before what it modifies (``Smith suggested that only men are susceptible to this effect,'' not ``Smith only suggested that men ...'') to avoid ambiguity of syntax, even if you think the meaning is clear from context. Of course, pay attention to correct usage as well. Make sure you know the rules for using commas; many people do not. (Strunk and White, "The elements of style," provide an excellent review of the roles, as well as many fine suggestions for elegance as well as clarity.)
When you read, pay attention to the different ways that people indicate the relationship of their work to the truth. Words such as indicate, demonstrate, prove (not used outside of mathematics), test (a hypothesis), hypothesize, suggest, assert, question, claim, conclude, argue, discover, define, and assume do have very specific meanings in academic discourse.
Appendix on Good Scientific WritingMartin E. P. Seligman
I've been correcting graduate student papers and editing journal articles for more than twenty-five years. I see the same errors of writing over and over. Here are some to avoid:
Vacant Lead Sentences. The first sentences of each section, and the first sentences of each paragraph as well, are the most important sentences. They should state, in plain English, your main points. Then the details can follow.
Right:Qualifiers and Caveats. Don't squander the opportunity to write forcefully by beginning with secondary points and caveats. They belong in the body of the paragraph or section, but not as openers.
Results. Cognitive therapy prevented relapse better than drug therapy. Drug therapy did better than no therapy at all. Analysis of covariance...
Results. We performed four analyses of covariance on our data, first transforming them to z scores. We then did paired comparisons using a Bonferroni correction...
Distinguish between strong and weak statements. Good scientific writing uses qualifiers and caveats sparingly. Qualifiers apply to marginal results, arguable statements, speculations, and potential artifacts. They do not apply to strong findings, well-confirmed statements, or bedrock theory. "Seem", "appear", "indicate", "may", "suggest" and the like are meaningful verbs. They are not to be used reflexively.
Right:Big words and long sentences. Most readers are busy. Many readers are lazy. Many readers just scan. Help these readers by using short sentences and plain words. Whenever a big word tempts you, look hard for a plain word. Whenever a long sentence tempts you, find a way to break it up. The big word and the long sentence must increase accuracy a lot to make up for impeding reading.
Because volume was barely significant, water-deprivation may lower hunger. Electric shock, however, increased hunger two-fold.
Our findings suggest that electric shock may increase hunger. It also appears that water-deprivation seems to lower hunger.
Wrong:Overwriting. Omit words and ideas that the reader already knows. Overwriting slows the reader down and does not increase accuracy at all.
Thus, by assigning this group to the wait-list condition, treatment effects would not be artificially inflated by including the higher income group with a better prognosis in the initial treatment phase.
Richer people have less depression. So we biassed against our hypothesis by putting more of them in the wait-list control.
Wrong:The Royal "We" and the Passive Voice. Poor writers turn to the awkward passive voice to avoid saying "I did such and such". The first person, used sparingly, is fine. Write forcefully and use the active voice whenever you can.
The wait list control group, when compared to the attention control group, the drug treatment group and the psychotherapy treament group did worse than the attention control group, and much worse than the experimental drug treatment group and the psychotherapy treatment group.
Psychotherapy and drugs did better than attention alone and much better than no treatment.
Right:Citations in the middle. Don't break up sentences with citations. This small increase in accuracy slows the reader to a crawl. If you can manage it, group all your citations at the end of the paragraph.
I propose that animals can learn about noncontingency and, when they do, they become helpless.
It is suggested that animals can learn about noncontingency. When noncontingency is learned by an animal, helplessness results.
Direction of statistical effects. Always state the direction along with its significance.
The interaction between drug and weight was highly significant (F (2,31)=14.56, p<.001).
Small doses of the drug put small rats to sleep right away, while big rats stayed awake even with very large doses (F weightXdose (2,31)=14.56, p<.001).
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