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Psychology Resource Guide: Primary Empirical Research

How to Recognize a Primary Research Study

Scholarly, peer reviewed articles that report on a primary (empirical) research study often share similar characteristics. The screen shots that follow illustrate how to recognize a research study in Psychology.

For additional details on:

  • recognizing scholarly journals vs. magazines,
  • the peer review process,
  • and what constitutes a primary empirical research study,

see the guide: Peer Review and Primary Literature: An Introduction

Read the Abstract (Summary)

Abstracts (article summaries) are included in almost all scholarly journal articles, (although older articles that you find in JSTOR may not include an abstract.)  The abstract briefly describes what the article is about, and typically it indicates if original research was done or not.  The clues are usually obvious, so read the abstract first.  That will allow you to quickly eliminate articles that don't suit your research needs.

All the below examples are taken from an article from the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.  (And even the title of this journal makes it clear that it publishes research studies!)

Note that the abstract describes both the experiments and very briefly indicates the results.

Look for a Section Termed "Methods" or "Methodology"

Normally, the researcher(s) will describe what kind of research techniques they used and how their research was conducted.  If you see a section termed "Methodology" it SHOULD be a research study. 


The above are only small excerpts from the article.  The description of methodology usually takes several paragraphs and may include additional section headings like "Procedure" (as is the case in this article).  Also, in the case of this article, because the author conducted multiple experiments, there are actually multiple sections that detail Methodology and Procedures.

Look for the Section Heading "Results"

The author needs to present what they found out when they conducted their research.  This findings section is usually called "Results," and it often includes tables, charts, diagrams and other means to present what the researcher discovered.

"Discussion" Provides Concluding Remarks

What is the meaning or significance of the research?  Are there recognized shortcomings or issues?  Is further research required?  How does this research study complement or refute earlier studies?  These are a few of the topics addressed in the "Discussion" section.

Don't Forget the "References," "Bibliography" or "List of Works Cited"

Often, students need to find multiple articles on the topic they have chosen.  If that is the case, then ignoring the bibliography at the end of a research article is exceedingly foolish.  Any respectable researcher does a thorough "literature review" as part of their scholarly process.  That means that they have tracked down, read, and cited all the important articles of a similar nature that came before them.  This can be a treasure trove for students who must find additional readings.  Take advantage of this resource!

Literature Reviews

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