Courtesy Research Paper

Writing Research Papers

Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. --- Gene Fowler

A major goal of this course is the development of effective technical writing skills. To help you become an accomplished writer, you will prepare several research papers based upon the studies completed in lab. Our research papers are not typical "lab reports." In a teaching lab a lab report might be nothing more than answers to a set of questions. Such an assignment hardly represents the kind of writing you might be doing in your eventual career.

Written and oral communications skills are probably the most universal qualities sought by graduate and professional schools as well as by employers. You alone are responsible for developing such skills to a high level.

Resources for learning technical writing

Before you begin your first writing assignment, please consult all of the following resources, in order to gain the most benefit from the experience.

  • General form of a typical research article
  • Specific guidelines (if any) for the assignment – see the writeups on individual lab studies
  • McMillan, VE. "Writing Papers in the Biological Sciences, Third Ed." New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. ISBN 0-312-25857-7 (REQUIRED for Bioc 211, 311, recommended for other science courses that include writing)
  • Writing portfolio examples (pdf)

As you polish up your writing skills please make use of the following resources

For Biosciences majors the general guidelines apply to future course work, as can be seen by examining the guidelines for the advanced experimental sciences research paper (Bioc 311).

General form of a research paper

An objective of organizing a research paper is to allow people to read your work selectively. When I research a topic, I may be interested in just the methods, a specific result, the interpretation, or perhaps I just want to see a summary of the paper to determine if it is relevant to my study. To this end, many journals require the following sections, submitted in the order listed, each section to start on a new page. There are variations of course. Some journals call for a combined results and discussion, for example, or include materials and methods after the body of the paper. The well known journal Science does away with separate sections altogether, except for the abstract.

Your papers are to adhere to the form and style required for the Journal of Biological Chemistry, requirements that are shared by many journals in the life sciences.

General style

Specific editorial requirements for submission of a manuscript will always supercede instructions in these general guidelines.

To make a paper readable

  • Print or type using a 12 point standard font, such as Times, Geneva, Bookman, Helvetica, etc.
  • Text should be double spaced on 8 1/2" x 11" paper with 1 inch margins, single sided
  • Number pages consecutively
  • Start each new section on a new page
  • Adhere to recommended page limits

Mistakes to avoid

  • Placing a heading at the bottom of a page with the following text on the next page (insert a page break!)
  • Dividing a table or figure - confine each figure/table to a single page
  • Submitting a paper with pages out of order

In all sections of your paper

  • Use normal prose including articles ("a", "the," etc.)
  • Stay focused on the research topic of the paper
  • Use paragraphs to separate each important point (except for the abstract)
  • Indent the first line of each paragraph
  • Present your points in logical order
  • Use present tense to report well accepted facts - for example, 'the grass is green'
  • Use past tense to describe specific results - for example, 'When weed killer was applied, the grass was brown'
  • Avoid informal wording, don't address the reader directly, and don't use jargon, slang terms, or superlatives
  • Avoid use of superfluous pictures - include only those figures necessary to presenting results

Title Page

Select an informative title as illustrated in the examples in your writing portfolio example package. Include the name(s) and address(es) of all authors, and date submitted. "Biology lab #1" would not be an informative title, for example.


The summary should be two hundred words or less. See the examples in the writing portfolio package.

General intent

An abstract is a concise single paragraph summary of completed work or work in progress. In a minute or less a reader can learn the rationale behind the study, general approach to the problem, pertinent results, and important conclusions or new questions.

Writing an abstract

Write your summary after the rest of the paper is completed. After all, how can you summarize something that is not yet written? Economy of words is important throughout any paper, but especially in an abstract. However, use complete sentences and do not sacrifice readability for brevity. You can keep it concise by wording sentences so that they serve more than one purpose. For example, "In order to learn the role of protein synthesis in early development of the sea urchin, newly fertilized embryos were pulse-labeled with tritiated leucine, to provide a time course of changes in synthetic rate, as measured by total counts per minute (cpm)." This sentence provides the overall question, methods, and type of analysis, all in one sentence. The writer can now go directly to summarizing the results.

Summarize the study, including the following elements in any abstract. Try to keep the first two items to no more than one sentence each.

  • Purpose of the study - hypothesis, overall question, objective
  • Model organism or system and brief description of the experiment
  • Results, including specific data - if the results are quantitative in nature, report quantitative data; results of any statistical analysis shoud be reported
  • Important conclusions or questions that follow from the experiment(s)


  • Single paragraph, and concise
  • As a summary of work done, it is always written in past tense
  • An abstract should stand on its own, and not refer to any other part of the paper such as a figure or table
  • Focus on summarizing results - limit background information to a sentence or two, if absolutely necessary
  • What you report in an abstract must be consistent with what you reported in the paper
  • Corrrect spelling, clarity of sentences and phrases, and proper reporting of quantities (proper units, significant figures) are just as important in an abstract as they are anywhere else


Your introductions should not exceed two pages (double spaced, typed). See the examples in the writing portfolio package.

General intent

The purpose of an introduction is to aquaint the reader with the rationale behind the work, with the intention of defending it. It places your work in a theoretical context, and enables the reader to understand and appreciate your objectives.

Writing an introduction

The abstract is the only text in a research paper to be written without using paragraphs in order to separate major points. Approaches vary widely, however for our studies the following approach can produce an effective introduction.

  • Describe the importance (significance) of the study - why was this worth doing in the first place? Provide a broad context.
  • Defend the model - why did you use this particular organism or system? What are its advantages? You might comment on its suitability from a theoretical point of view as well as indicate practical reasons for using it.
  • Provide a rationale. State your specific hypothesis(es) or objective(s), and describe the reasoning that led you to select them.
  • Very briefy describe the experimental design and how it accomplished the stated objectives.


  • Use past tense except when referring to established facts. After all, the paper will be submitted after all of the work is completed.
  • Organize your ideas, making one major point with each paragraph. If you make the four points listed above, you will need a minimum of four paragraphs.
  • Present background information only as needed in order support a position. The reader does not want to read everything you know about a subject.
  • State the hypothesis/objective precisely - do not oversimplify.
  • As always, pay attention to spelling, clarity and appropriateness of sentences and phrases.

Materials and Methods

There is no specific page limit, but a key concept is to keep this section as concise as you possibly can. People will want to read this material selectively. The reader may only be interested in one formula or part of a procedure. Materials and methods may be reported under separate subheadings within this section or can be incorporated together.

General intent

This should be the easiest section to write, but many students misunderstand the purpose. The objective is to document all specialized materials and general procedures, so that another individual may use some or all of the methods in another study or judge the scientific merit of your work. It is not to be a step by step description of everything you did, nor is a methods section a set of instructions. In particular, it is not supposed to tell a story. By the way, your notebook should contain all of the information that you need for this section.

Writing a materials and methods section


  • Describe materials separately only if the study is so complicated that it saves space this way.
  • Include specialized chemicals, biological materials, and any equipment or supplies that are not commonly found in laboratories.
  • Do not include commonly found supplies such as test tubes, pipet tips, beakers, etc., or standard lab equipment such as centrifuges, spectrophotometers, pipettors, etc.
  • If use of a specific type of equipment, a specific enzyme, or a culture from a particular supplier is critical to the success of the experiment, then it and the source should be singled out, otherwise no.
  • Materials may be reported in a separate paragraph or else they may be identified along with your procedures.
  • In biosciences we frequently work with solutions - refer to them by name and describe completely, including concentrations of all reagents, and pH of aqueous solutions, solvent if non-aqueous.
  • See the examples in the writing portfolio package
  • Report the methodology (not details of each procedure that employed the same methodology)
  • Describe the mehodology completely, including such specifics as temperatures, incubation times, etc.
  • To be concise, present methods under headings devoted to specific procedures or groups of procedures
  • Generalize - report how procedures were done, not how they were specifically performed on a particular day. For example, report "samples were diluted to a final concentration of 2 mg/ml protein;" don't report that "135 microliters of sample one was diluted with 330 microliters of buffer to make the protein concentration 2 mg/ml." Always think about what would be relevant to an investigator at another institution, working on his/her own project.
  • If well documented procedures were used, report the procedure by name, perhaps with reference, and that's all. For example, the Bradford assay is well known. You need not report the procedure in full - just that you used a Bradford assay to estimate protein concentration, and identify what you used as a standard. The same is true for the SDS-PAGE method, and many other well known procedures in biology and biochemistry.
  • It is awkward or impossible to use active voice when documenting methods without using first person, which would focus the reader's attention on the investigator rather than the work. Therefore when writing up the methods most authors use third person passive voice.
  • Use normal prose in this and in every other section of the paper – avoid informal lists, and use complete sentences.

What to avoid

  • Materials and methods are not a set of instructions.
  • Omit all explanatory information and background - save it for the discussion.
  • Omit information that is irrelevant to a third party, such as what color ice bucket you used, or which individual logged in the data.


The page length of this section is set by the amount and types of data to be reported. Continue to be concise, using figures and tables, if appropriate, to present results most effectively. See recommendations for content, below.

General intent

The purpose of a results section is to present and illustrate your findings. Make this section a completely objective report of the results, and save all interpretation for the discussion.

Writing a results section

IMPORTANT: You must clearly distinguish material that would normally be included in a research article from any raw data or other appendix material that would not be published. In fact, such material should not be submitted at all unless requested by the instructor.


  • Summarize your findings in text and illustrate them, if appropriate, with figures and tables.
  • In text, describe each of your results, pointing the reader to observations that are most relevant.
  • Provide a context, such as by describing the question that was addressed by making a particular observation.
  • Describe results of control experiments and include observations that are not presented in a formal figure or table, if appropriate.
  • Analyze your data, then prepare the analyzed (converted) data in the form of a figure (graph), table, or in text form.

What to avoid

  • Do not discuss or interpret your results, report background information, or attempt to explain anything.
  • Never include raw data or intermediate calculations in a research paper.
  • Do not present the same data more than once.
  • Text should complement any figures or tables, not repeat the same information.
  • Please do not confuse figures with tables - there is a difference.


  • As always, use past tense when you refer to your results, and put everything in a logical order.
  • In text, refer to each figure as "figure 1," "figure 2," etc. ; number your tables as well (see the reference text for details)
  • Place figures and tables, properly numbered, in order at the end of the report (clearly distinguish them from any other material such as raw data, standard curves, etc.)
  • If you prefer, you may place your figures and tables appropriately within the text of your results section.

Figures and tables

  • Either place figures and tables within the text of the result, or include them in the back of the report (following Literature Cited) - do one or the other
  • If you place figures and tables at the end of the report, make sure they are clearly distinguished from any attached appendix materials, such as raw data
  • Regardless of placement, each figure must be numbered consecutively and complete with caption (caption goes under the figure)
  • Regardless of placement, each table must be titled, numbered consecutively and complete with heading (title with description goes above the table)
  • Each figure and table must be sufficiently complete that it could stand on its own, separate from text


Journal guidelines vary. Space is so valuable in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, that authors are asked to restrict discussions to four pages or less, double spaced, typed. That works out to one printed page. While you are learning to write effectively, the limit will be extended to five typed pages. If you practice economy of words, that should be plenty of space within which to say all that you need to say.

General intent

The objective here is to provide an interpretation of your results and support for all of your conclusions, using evidence from your experiment and generally accepted knowledge, if appropriate. The significance of findings should be clearly described.

Writing a discussion

Interpret your data in the discussion in appropriate depth. This means that when you explain a phenomenon you must describe mechanisms that may account for the observation. If your results differ from your expectations, explain why that may have happened. If your results agree, then describe the theory that the evidence supported. It is never appropriate to simply state that the data agreed with expectations, and let it drop at that.

  • Decide if each hypothesis is supported, rejected, or if you cannot make a decision with confidence. Do not simply dismiss a study or part of a study as "inconclusive."
  • Research papers are not accepted if the work is incomplete. Draw what conclusions you can based upon the results that you have, and treat the study as a finished work
  • You may suggest future directions, such as how the experiment might be modified to accomplish another objective.
  • Explain all of your observations as much as possible, focusing on mechanisms.
  • Decide if the experimental design adequately addressed the hypothesis, and whether or not it was properly controlled.
  • Try to offer alternative explanations if reasonable alternatives exist.
  • One experiment will not answer an overall question, so keeping the big picture in mind, where do you go next? The best studies open up new avenues of research. What questions remain?
  • Recommendations for specific papers will provide additional suggestions.
  • When you refer to information, distinguish data generated by your own studies from published information or from information obtained from other students (verb tense is an important tool for accomplishing that purpose).
  • Refer to work done by specific individuals (including yourself) in past tense.
  • Refer to generally accepted facts and principles in present tense. For example, "Doofus, in a 1989 survey, found that anemia in basset hounds was correlated with advanced age. Anemia is a condition in which there is insufficient hemoglobin in the blood."

The biggest mistake that students make in discussions is to present a superficial interpretation that more or less re-states the results. It is necessary to suggest why results came out as they did, focusing on the mechanisms behind the observations.

Literature Cited

Please note that in the introductory laboratory course, you will not be required to properly document sources of all of your information. One reason is that your major source of information is this website, and websites are inappropriate as primary sources. Second, it is problematic to provide a hundred students with equal access to potential reference materials. You may nevertheless find outside sources, and you should cite any articles that the instructor provides or that you find for yourself.

List all literature cited in your paper, in alphabetical order, by first author. In a proper research paper, only primary literature is used (original research articles authored by the original investigators). Be cautious about using web sites as references - anyone can put just about anything on a web site, and you have no sure way of knowing if it is truth or fiction. If you are citing an on line journal, use the journal citation (name, volume, year, page numbers). Some of your papers may not require references, and if that is the case simply state that "no references were consulted."

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Unit 2: Writing (or Reading) a Research Paper

Lecture slides
Instructor notes
Learning activities
Web resources


Writing (or reading) a Research Paper

This unit may be thought of as four separate topics:

Components of a research article

Most of the published articles we will read this semester are organized as follow:

  • Introduction, which may contain some of the following:
    • Problem statement. This is often phrased as a question or as a dramatic statement in order to capture the reader's attention. Then a dilemma is elucidated, which of course, the present research study will hope to resolve. Here is an example from Rose, Chassin, Presson, and Sherman (1996)
      Cigarette smoking is the single largest cause of premature and avoidable death and disability in the United States (U. S. Surgeon General, 1989). Although rates of adult smoking have been declining since the publication of the 1964 Surgeon General's Report, epidemological data suggest that these successes have not uniformly been distributed among the population.
    • Objective. Sometimes the introduction omits the problem statement and instead presents a simple statement indicating what the investigators hope to achieve. They may state their purpose and suggest potential benefits that may derive from this research. Some journals, such as the British Journal of Educational Psychology and American medical journals such as Pediatrics place subheadings -- such as, objective, design, methods, results, and conclusion -- in the abstract so that reader can spot them easily.

      When you are thinking about writing a research paper, ask yourself, What, exactly, do I wish to find out? Is it a researchable problem? What do I need to know in order to conduct this research -- What kinds of knowledge? Is the data available? How much time will it take? What kind of monetary outlay is needed?

    • Theoretical statements. Research conducted without a guiding theory, though interesting and maybe even fun, is aimless. The phrase "dustbowl empiricism" applies to empirical investigations that are not guided by theory. Theories serve several purposes:
      • Integrate the findings of past empirical research,
      • Reconcile conflicting findings, and
      • Suggest areas for future research.

      When writing a paper, you will want to ask yourself, To which theory or conceptual framework can my problem be linked? After identifying a theory or conceptual framework ask yourself, What are the criticisms of this theory or conceptual framework? In what ways might this particular theory or framework limit the investigatory methods I can use to conduct an empirical study? As always, try to be aware of the researcher's (and your own) usually tacit assumptions.

    • Literature review. For virtually any problem you wish to investigate someone has published a related article. Your task is to determine the how much of the history of the problem your reader needs to know, what (competing) theories/frameworks exist that are relevant to this problem, what empirical facts are generally accepted as being true, and anything else the literature might contain that you think readers should know about the problem you have selected.
    • Variables. The introductory section usually describes variables in abstract, conceptual terms. These variables are the components or attributes of a theory. Consider Stankov and Roberts' (1998) conceptual definiton:
      Emotional intelligence has been defined as "the ability [italics added] to monitor one's own and others' emotions, to discriminate among them, and to used the information to guide one's thinking and actions" (Salovey & Mayer, 1990, p. 189). A number of researchers thus view the capacity to process affective information as a "mental ability" or "aptitude" in the conventional sense.
      Terms such as "emotional intelligence," "mental ability," "aptitude," "emotions," and "thinking" are all abstractions that must be defined operationally before they can be investigated. Note that although the term "variable" may not be mentioned, nonetheless your task as a reader is to identify those attributes that can take on a variety of values. At some point in an empirical research article, the authors should state the exact procedures they will use to measure these abstractions. Also, if the study is experimental, somewhere in the introduction the authors should identify the independent and dependent variables. Other variables that may influence the dependent variable should be mentioned and controlled.
    • Hypothesis. The hypothesis is simply a more concrete and specific statement of a more generally stated topic. The hypothesis should be stated in such a manner that it can be tested. For example, while a problem statement might be phrased as: Does increased spending on education produce increased student performance?, a hypothesis statement might read: No relationship exists between per pupil expenditure and pupil performance in grades 3 through 6 on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

    Later we will distinguish between a research hypothesis, which is like the natural language statement above, and a statistical hypothesis, which might be phrased "The correlation between per pupil expenditure and test performance is zero."

  • Methods. This section usually contain the following
    • Operational definitions. If student performance is the dependent variable in a study, the researchers must specifiy how it will be measured. Some possibilities include performance on a well-know test such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a state level test such as Istep, a test developed by the school district, or a classroom test.

      The researchers may specify some other kind of perfomance assessment that does not require paper and pencil. For example, suppose researchers wanted to determine whether a "new and snazzy" method for teaching directional navagition to third graders was superior to the "same old stuff" approach. The "test" might consist of dropping students trained with both methods into a remote area of the Hoosier National Forest and seeing how quickly each reaches a specified point.

      Independent variable(s), likewise, must be operationally defined.

    • Measurement and Instrumentation. The measurement of cognitive and affective variables is often one of the weakest parts of research studies. If possible, you should select an instrument that already exists. The authors of an existing instrument should report where the reader can find information about the pyschometric properties (i.e., the reliability and validity) of the instrument. If the researchers are using an instrument they specifically constructed for this research, they should report the instrument's reliability and validity.

      In addition, when reading an article, always keep in mind the level of aggregation. If researchers report that the "new and snazzy" method is superior to the "same old stuff," do they base that claim on the performance of individual students? Classrooms of students? Other groupings of students?

    • Research design. What is the author's stated goal? Is it to describe a phenomenon? Do the authors' wish to determine whether or not a relationship exists between and/or among variables? Do they wish to be able to state that a causal relationship exists between variables?

      Description. If the authors' goal is description, then the design will have few controls and (should) make no definitive statements about relationships among variables. Articles that report the results of surveys often do nothing more than describe.

      Relationship. The authors may state they wish, for example, to determine if a relationship exists between, say, the lexical difficulty of school textbooks and student verbal performance. We would expect such researchers to specify operationally how they plan to measure "lexical difficulty" and "verbal performance." They would need to find some textbooks that are less difficult than other textbooks and see if students who used the easier textbooks also exhibited lower verbal performance. The researchers should not, however, make any statements about causation, for they have not controlled other variables that may contribute to verbal performance. Such designs are often referred to as correlational.

      Experiment. If the authors wish to make a causal statement (e.g., "lexically simple textbooks used over several grades contributes to lower verbal performance"), the researchers must conduct an experiment. They cannot just measure lexical difficulty of texts and student verbal performance. Instead, they must be certain that groups of students are equivalent in all relevant aspects and only then expose one group of students to lexically simple texts and the other group to lexically difficult texts. If, after a period of time, the students who use lexically difficult texts show consistently higher verbal performance, then the researchers might be justified in making a causal statement.

      To summarize: The three major categories of research designs are (a) descriptive (includes much survey research and all qualitative research), (b) correlational (look for relationship between variables), and (c) experimental (the researchers control all variables that may impact the dependent variable and allow only the independent variable to vary). Later, we will add ex post facto and causal-comparative to this discussion.

    • Sampling.Random sampling and random assignment of subjects to groups is generally considered the best way to insure that groups are equivalent at the beginning of an investigation. The authors should state specifically how they selected their sample and provide whatever evidence they can that the sample is representative of the population to which they wish to generalize. When you think about conducting research, some of the critical questions include how you identify the population, how you will draw a random sample, and how you will randomly assign subjects to groups.
    • Data collection. How many times were the data collected? If the study is cross-sectional, the data likely were collected once. If the study is longitudinal, the data were collected repeatly. From how many different groups were the data collected? Was more than one instrument used? If so, how does each relate to the other instruments? If the study involves interviewers, do the authors describe how they were trained? Do they report anything that might lead us tho think that interviewers were consistent across interviewees? If the study involves observers, say of classroom discussions, do the authors describe how the observer were trained? Do they report inter-observer reliability?
    • Ethical considerations. Although it is rare that a research article contains "ethical considerations" as a separate heading, you must be aware of the subjects (aka "participants") and be sure the authors did not treat them in any way that might be considered unethical. You should explore the following web page that describes the procedures used at Indiana University to insure the ethical treatment of subjects: Bloomington Campus Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects.
    • Data analysis. The authors should describe clearly the descriptive and inferential statistics they use and assure the reader that the assumptions required for the inferential procedures were checked and that the data do indeed conform to the assumptions.
  • Results.
    • Descriptive statistics. The authors may provide tables (and maybe graphs) that describe the performance of the groups on the dependent variables. In addition, the authors may present statistics to convince the reader that the data conform to the assumptions required for performing statistical tests. Wilkinson (1999) presents several useful ideas.
    • Inferential statistics. When appropriate, the authors should report not only the statistical test (e.g., z-test, t-test, F-test, etc.), but also the strength of the difference (e.g., the effect size).
  • Conclusions.

    This section may also contain interpretations, recommendations, suggestions, speculation. You should expect the authors to state whether or not their original hypothesis was supported. They also should discuss the implications of the present findings in relationship to the theory discussed in the introduction.

Selecting an Idea

At this point in life each of you have sufficient professional and/or academic experience that certain ideas presumably interest you more than others do. You should identify the broad ideas that interest you, narrow one of them, and think about how this idea is related to student learning. This idea may be suitable for the term paper in this course.

Nonetheless, some students still experience difficulty in selecting a idea for the research paper. Keep in mind that the idea you select for the paper in this course is not as important as is the manner in which you develop and write about the idea. That said, a idea must be selected before it can be developed.

If you have already identified a research area that interests you, Mitchell (1999) lists 21 Ways of Generating Research Ideas from Previous Research:

  1. Find gaping omissions.
  2. Repeat studies (but modify some critical aspect).
  3. Do a study suggested by the journal article's author(s).
  4. Repeat the study with a different group of participants.
  5. Look for situational factors that may moderate the effect.
  6. Look for factors that were not controlled.
  7. Reduce the effects of expectancies.
  8. Use more realistic amounts of the treatment factor.
  9. Uncover the functional relationship.
  10. Use more realistic stimulus materials.
  11. See if another factor would have the same effect.
  12. Bridge fields and try to find a practical implication of the research.
  13. Look at the studies from a different level of analysis.
  14. Look for patterns in conflicting studies.
  15. Look for a factor's immediate relationship to other variables.
  16. Look at long term effects.
  17. Look for "down the road" effects.
  18. Repeat the study using a different measure of the same construct.
  19. Repeat the study with a more sensitive way of detecting the effect.
  20. Take advantage of "component" measures.
  21. Take advantage of measures of entirely new concepts.

Mitchell (1999) also lists Six Idea Generation Techniques Applicable to Common Sense, Theory, and Literature Searches:

  1. See if the results would generalize to different participants or settings.
  2. Look for moderating variables that would either strengthen, weaken, or reverse the observed/proposed relationship between the variables. Asking "When does the opposite occur?" may help you think of moderating variables.
  3. See if you can apply it to a practical problem.
  4. Reconcile contradictions between conflicting studies, theories, or cliches.
  5. See if you can more precisely state the relationship between the variables.
  6. Examine variables that may mediate the relationship. What is the physiological or cognitive mechanism that accounts for the relationship? Can we measure those mediating processes to see if they really do occur when the stimulus is introduced? Can we manipulate these processes and see if manipulating with these underlying processes affects the stimulus-response relationship?

Another potentially useful source of idea generation is: McGuire, William J. (1997). Creative hypothesis generating in psychology: Some useful heuristics. Annual Review of Psychology, 48, 1-30. Scanning other articles in secondary sources such as the Annual Reviews may also generate ideas for research.

After you select a general idea, think about writing a hypothesis. The hypothesis is a tentative assertion about a phenomenon. It is a statement to be tested. The hypothesis is a sentence that takes a stand, makes a point, states what variables might be related to other variables in a particular manner. When writing a research paper, you first write the hypothesis and then search for empirically based articles that might provide evidence relevant to your hypothesis. When we speak of evidence, this term include both articles that support your assertion as well as those that refute your assertion. Some examples of general ideas, which I refer to as topics, and hypothesis statements follow.

  • Topic: Television watching by teenagers
  • Hypothesis: Television watching weakens the academic performance of high school students.
  • Topic: Television watching and violence
  • Hypothesis: Limiting the amount of television watching by children reduces their frequency of violent behavior.

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Conducting a Literature Search

The advent of computers and the internet has supplemented, but not fundamentally changed, the way we search for articles. Before computers one had little choice but to trudge to the nearest research library and pour through indices such as Psychological Abstracts, Eric, the paper-based card catalogue, and to look through the past journals stored on library shelves. These methods are still useful -- and recommended -- if you are in physical proximity to a research library. As libraries continue to augment their brick and mortor presence with information through a wire, searching by computer becomes more attractive.

As you all know, indices such as Psych Info (the on-line supplement to the paper-based Psych Abstracts), and Eric are available on-line. You can download and/or print references that appear to be relevant. Since 1996 many Eric documents that are not journal articles can be view on-line. During the past few years an increasing number of academic journals have permitted their contents to be accessed electronically. Some permit access by anyone from their own web page while others permit access only through a library or for a fee. Recently, new "journals" began to appear solely on the internet (e.g., Educational Policy Analysis Archives and Journal of Statistics Education).

The starting points for accessing this information at Indiana University is the library home page. Sometimes you may prefer to use one of the general purpose search engines, such as Google. The Learning Activities section contains some (optional) exercises for those of you who would like to try searching for articles via the internet.

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Writing Style, Grammar, Stylebooks

In his book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams writes:

The ability to write clear, crisp sentences that never go beyond twenty or so words is a considerable achievement. You'll never confuse your reader with sprawl, wordiness, or muddy abstraction. But if you never write a sentence longer than twenty words, you'll be like a pianist who uses only the middle octave: You can carry the tune but not with much richness or variation.

Every competent writer has to know how to write a concise sentence and how to edit a long one down to comprehensible length. But a writer also has to know how to manage a long sentence gracefully, how to make it as clear and as vigorous as a series of short ones.

Chapter 2 (37 pages) of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is devoted to writing style and grammar. Although we do not have the time to concentrate on style and clarity and grace, you should be aware of the importance of written expression and edit your text and polish your prose before submitting your papers. The Learning Activities section has some links that may be informative.

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Lecture slides

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Instructor notes

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Fraenkel & Wallen, Chapter 2.

Fraenkel & Wallen, Chapter 5.

  Robinson, Ann (1988). Thinking straight and writing that way: Publishing in Gifted Child Quarterly, Gifted Child Quarterly, 32, 367-369.

Robinson asks provocative questions such as "What's the Point?" "Is this author killing flies with an elephant gun?" and "Would George Orwell approve?"


  Wilkinson, Leland (1999). Statistical Methods in Psychology Journals: Guidelines and Explanations. American Psychologist,Vol 54, No 8, 594-604.

-- or --

  Wilkinson, Leland (1999). Statistical Methods in Psychology Journals: Guidelines and Explanations. American Psychologist, Vol 54, No 8, 594-604. <

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Learning Activities

  1. Use to find the url for the American Education Research Association and browse through the latest issue of Educational Researcher.
  2. The instructor at this site has started a piece about writing the quantitative paper. Garson. You may find his ideas useful even though navigation becomes tiresome.
  3. See if you can find the full text version of the following article through Eric. We will look at this piece later in the semester when we consider qualitative methodology. (
    Judith C. Lapadat, Judith C., & Lindsay, Anne C. (1998). Examining Transcription: A Theory-Laden Methodology. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA, April 13-17, 1998.
  4. Which libraries in the Big Ten have the following book? Hint: Go to the library page and look for CIC or "Big Ten Virtual Library." (
    Gilovich, Thomas (1991). How we know what isn't so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. New York: Free Press.
    If you are associated with Indiana University and have your network ID updated, you can checkout books via the internet from other Big Ten libraries if the title you need is not owned by the IU libraries.
  5. Use the full text links available through the Indiana University library to view the McGuire article (Heuristics for idea generation). (A starting point is
  6. Recently I read the following in a more or less popular magazine:
    [A] ...bit of recent evidence comes from a study in Pediatrics, conducted by five family physicians in Pittsburgh and Illinois. The doctors compared tens of thousands of local pediatric records, stretching from 1979 to 1996, and found evidence of grave increases in "psychosocial problems" among children 4-15.

    Your task is to tell me if I were able to see the full text of this article on the screen and if I were able to print the article.

First Critique: Due February 2

Read the following article and write a critique. Send your document to me as an e-mail attachment.

  Rosenthal, Robert, & Jacobson, Lenore (1966). Teachers' expectancies: Determinants of pupils' IQ gain. Psychological Reports, 19, pp. 115-118.

  This is a critique of the Helm & Burkett (1989) article. It was written by a student in a previous Y520 class and may be used as a model for writing the Rosenthal critique.

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Web resources

See the Virtual Library/Research Tools

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Last Updated: 01/01/19

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