Methods Corner Cracking the code: How to Read a Research Paper

Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 9.24.30 AMby Adar Ben-Eliyahu, PhD

For many of us, reading an academic research paper can be overwhelming. We open the document and can become easily overwhelmed by the arcane language and complicated statistics. But, with a little guidance, reading it can be fairly straightforward. This is because almost all academic papers (especially in Psychology and Education) are organized into four sections: 1. Introduction 2. Method 3. Results 4. Discussion Academic papers are fairly formulaic and structured, so that once you are familiar with this structure, any academic paper should seem user-friendly to you!

Introduction The first section of an academic paper consists of the theoretical background and justification for the study. This section is often thought about as an upside down bottle as it starts broadly describing the issue and narrows to a particular question by the end of the section. In general, by the end of this section the reader should know:

  • Why the reader should care about this topic
  • What is already known about it
  • How the current study/research is building on what we know to ask a new question
  • What the researcher(s) expects (i.e., hypothesizes) for the results in the study

Method  The Method section is probably the most formulaic and consistent across research papers. The beginning of this section describes the participants and should include information about the gender and racial composition as well as how the data was collected. Next, a measures section describes the survey (which is usually a collection of questionnaires) that was used in the study. The name of each questionnaires (also called a “variable”) is followed by a very brief (usually 1-2 sentences) description, a sample item, and any analytics that may be reported such as how reliable or valid the questionnaire is.

Results The findings are presented in the Results section. Unlike the Method section, there is no prescribed organization for the Results section. Most papers will organize the results according to the hypotheses or research question that were presented in the Introduction to the paper. In addition to answering the research questions, basic descriptive statistics will be presented here, such as the mean and standard deviation or correlations between variables. Most of the interpretation of the results is done in the Discussion section, however, some authors and journals prefer to include a brief summary of whether particular results aligned with the predicted hypotheses outlined in the Introduction.

Discussion This final section of the paper includes a general overview of the results and how well the findings aligned with those predicted in the Introduction. The main findings and unexpected results are highlighted and interpreted. Authors are expected to explain how the findings relate to prior work and outline future directions for building on these findings. This is the section to emphasize the strengths and recognize the weaknesses. The downfall of the study may actually be a spring board for new studies, elaborating and building on the reported findings. In many cases, a Conclusion is included in which authors summarize the main findings, strengths, and future directions all in one paragraph! Happy Reading!!