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PSY 3180: Research Methods: Steps in Writing a Research Paper

Steps in Writing a Research Paper

Step one:  Choosing a Topic

Choosing a topic is often difficult for students. In cases where the parameters are well defined or assigned by the professor, the process is easy.  However, in cases where the student can choose anything, it can be overwhelming. For the purpose of this class, we will assume that students can usually pick any psychology related topic. 

For an assignment of this nature, it might be useful for the student to consider a topic that interests them, a topic that may help them build their professional expertise, or a topic in an area that may be related to their potential course work for other classes. For example, if you are in the career track for industrial or organizational  psychology, a topic for a research paper might be useful that discusses the effect of micro-management on employee morale. 

Students who are not sure what to do for their papers should also consider using some of the resources available to them to find a topic. Some of the more popular resources used include:

These are just two resources that can be used. For further information on how to choose a topic, take a look at:

Step two: Performing Background Research

More often than not, the student initially chooses a very broad topic that has too much material to cover. When looking at the initial idea for a topic, there is often more than enough material to write an entire book. The best way to begin narrowing the topic to something more manageable is to perform background research on the topic chosen.

Background research is often used to provide the student with a more complete understanding of the topic. By developing a more comprehensive understanding of the topic, the student becomes more familiar with possible ways to narrow the topic to something specific. As an example, if you have chosen "cognitive testing" as a topic, background research may lead the student to choosing some aspect of this topic to discuss in a paper, such as “what are the best methods for improving SAT scores for high school students?” This topic might also be narrowed by further research, which helps the student limit the paper to the length designated by their professor.

Most background research is performed using resources that provide broad information on various topics, such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauruses, handbooks, and other ready reference materials. Here are a few resources that can be used to begin performing background research:

In addition to these general resources, there are also a number of subject specific resources available that can be used for background research once you have begun to narrow your topic. Some examples of these can be found here:

Finding a dictionary or encyclopedia in a specific subject can be done by searching in the library catalog using a subject term or a keyword from your topic, and then combining it with the keyword “encyclopedia” or “dictionary”. As an example, you could include the term "encyclopedia" in one search box, and then "cognitive" in another search box. 

Step three: Creating a Research Question

After reviewing background information on a topic, students should have a more comprehensive understanding of the subject. The process of reviewing this information should help the student to narrow the focus for their research topic. Once the subject of the research paper has been established, the next step in the process is to create a research question. When creating a research question, it is important to include all the important keywords that have been discovered from the background research that has helped narrow the topic. The keywords should help establish who or what the research is about. If relevant, the keywords should also establish where the topic is applied, if there is a specific time frame involved, and why the subject matters.

Having a research question helps focus the paper's topic in a way that allows the subject to be covered in accordance with the requirements set by the course instructor. When writing for publication, the research question should be developed in a way that allows the writer to express their work in a way that fully covers the topic. A solid research question is also important because it pushes the student to provide the audience with context for the work being presented. Even when there is no question explicitly written into a paper, it should be clear that the information being provided is answering a question. For example, if the student is writing a paper that discusses the best method for working with college students that are suffering from PTSD, then even if there is nothing specifically asking a question, it should be obvious that this paper is providing an answer for this topic. 

Another reason for ensuring that there is a good research question is that it enables the student to communicate the topic with other people in a way that is more precise. There will be occasions when students will be assigned group projects, and having a research question ensures that the entire group is working on a common theme. This is also important for researchers writing for publication with multiple co-authors. The research question also allows the student to effectively communicate any information needs to other people who may provide assistance on the topic.  

Step four: Identifying Resources

Once the student has a more comprehensive overview of the subject area and narrowed down the topic, it is time to start determining the best places to find answers to the research question. To assist with identifying possible resources for researching a topic, the librarians at APSU have set up research subject guides that have links to various databases, books, and journals that may be useful. In many cases, the student can determine the best subject guide by going to the guide that corresponds to the course they are taking. For this class, resources for research papers will often be found using the psychological science or counseling research guides.

Although it will often be easy to use the subject guides to look for resources, there will be times when the topic of a paper might include other subject areas that are not exactly aligned with one specific subject. In these instances, it is important for the student to think critically about the work they are doing when determining the resources they will use. A good example of a research question that may include multiple subject areas would be "what is the most effective way to treat teenage hospital patients that are coping with depression?" In this case, the research may be found in both the counseling and psychological science research guides. However, it might be useful to look at the resources that are listed in some of the health science research guides, as well.

Step five: Collecting Your Data and Examining Your Results

After finding background information on the topic and creating a research question, there should be plenty of terms and phrases in mind to use when searching for information on a focused topic. Using these terms to search through the identified resources should provide the student with information that helps answer the research question. 

To help students use the resources to collect information, the APSU librarians have developed several How-to Guides that explain some techniques that can be used for searching the scholarly literature. These guides cover topics such as:

how to use basic boolean operators to expand or narrow a search

how to maximize search results by using truncation on certain words

After searching the available resources, it is important to evaluate any information discovered. The resources listed in the library research guides, as well as many other university websites, have been vetted to ensure they provide access to the best academic information resources. However, if you are finding information using other resources such as Google, it is important to perform a rigorous evaluation of the information you find. To help students learn some methods for evaluating information, please review the library’s “How to Guide" on evaluating websites.

Even using the resources provided by APSU, it is important to corroborate information found when searching for information on a topic. One way to help ensure that the information is good is to find information that comes from scholarly sources. For research papers at APSU, most faculty expect the students to use scholarly resources for the papers assigned in classes. For more detailed information on understanding the difference between popular and scholarly resources, please review the How-to Guide provided by the APSU librarians.

Another valuable method for verifying the credibility of information found in the search, is to ensure that information is peer-reviewed. Peer-reviewed journal articles are written by experts, then submitted to a journal on a topic. The editors of the journal then send this article to other experts in the field to determine if the research is valid. Peer-reviewed articles are more likely to be credible sources because of this process. Many of the resources provided by APSU for searching for journal articles have a way to limit the search to peer-reviewed information.

Step six: Re-evaluating Your Research Question

For this step in the process of writing a research paper, it is important to review all the discovered information. Was there enough information available to feel confident in creating an answer to the research question? Does the information answer the research question? Is there too much information to review to allow the student to focus on the research question? The answer to these questions will determine whether the research question needs to be revised. 

When there is too little information to support the answer to a research question, the student will need to either look for other variations of the terms used in the search process, or if the topic is too obscure, the student may need to try a broader question. Conversely, if there is too much information available, the student may want to examine the results to determine if there is a need to focus the question further.  

Step seven: Collecting More Research

This step is important if re-evaluating the research question has shown that the amount of information discovered is inappropriate for supporting the research needs of the topic. This step is also important if a new question has been proposed as a result of what was discovered in the collecting data phase of the research process. At this point, it is also useful to explore any opposing research that may be found in order to be sure that any questions about the topic are able to be addressed in the research. Adding and discussing contradictory information can ensure a stronger paper that address questions the audience may have. 

Step eight: Synthesizing the Research

Synthesizing the research is the step in the process of writing a paper where the student reviews all the information discovered and then begins to piece it all together. Reading over the results from the background research, and the information found when looking for information discussing the research question takes time. Most people need a little time to think about the information, and it is good practice to spend time mentally processing the details before attempting to write about it. As a way to help formulate the research into a logical sequence, it also may be useful to create an outline that covers the information that will be covered in the final product. While working on an outline, it may be tweaked a few times to make sure the sequence has the flow wanted for the final product. Another good practice for the researcher when creating an outline is to add citation notes to each part of the outline. This will help the researcher find the resources they want to use to discuss the points listed in the outline.

For more information about synthesizing information, watch this video.

Step nine: Expressing the Findings

Every step in the process of writing a research paper has led to this point: expressing the findings. Any paper the student writes will need to answer a question that is backed up with the evidence discovered. At this point in the process, creating an outline becomes an essential tool for enuring a logical flow to the paper. When writing, the outline can be used to flesh out the points that will be discussed. The outline can be used to create headers for paragraphs that cover the points listed in the paper. The guidelines for how to write papers, such as the length, line spacing, citation style, or number and types of references, will be provided by the professor in each class. 

When writing, it is important to cite the information that inspired the ideas. Not only is it important for giving credit to the person that originated these thoughts, but it is also important for providing an information trail that shows the professor how students formed their ideas and opinions. Not providing references that give credit to the original authors is plagiarism. Plagiarizing can have serious consequences, even if it occurs unintentionally.

To learn more about plagiarism, please watch the following video.

 

At APSU, the librarians have created a “How to Guide" on citing sources. This webpage has links to various guides for citation styles such as APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, and more. These guides provide further information and examples for citing in each particular style. The library also provides everyone at the university with access to the reference management program called RefWorks. This program can be used to not only keep track of the information reviewed by the student, but also to create citations for these resources. Students who spend time learning how to use this program will find that it saves them a lot of time when they are trying to cite for the numerous papers that will be assigned over the course of their academic career.  

Anyone that needs further assistance with citing or other parts of the process for writing a research paper can ask for help at the Research Assistance Desk. To get help, click on the Ask A Librarian page to find out how to contact someone for assistance. There is also a Writing Center available in the library, if further assistance is needed on any papers or presentations.

When the researcher is working on an original research process, the set up process is the same as the first seven steps for writing a secondary research paper. After choosing a topic, and performing background research to develop a strong familiarity with the research, the researcher should be able to create a research question/hypothesis. With the research question in place, the researcher should identify potential resources and then collect data. Look at the information to determine if research has already been done on the topic or if there is a need for this research, and then refine the question as needed. Following this process should lead the researcher to a solid research question that can be tested with an experimental research project.

Based on the hypothesis created, the research will need to determine the best research design for the experiment. The research design is the plan for putting together the various elements of the experiment in a way that ensures there is a logical sequence that addresses the hypothesis. Setting up the right design for the experiment is important for ensuring that the researcher can find a cause for any change made due to the research, that there is a proper control factor that any changes can be measured against, and reduces the potential variables that may create confusion in the results. There are three main experimental designs that are most frequently used by researchers: pre-experimental designs, true experimental designs, and quasi experimental designs. For more information about these design types, there are a number online resources as well as a number of books on the topic available in the library, such as The Encyclopedia of Research Design.

Once the researcher has set up a research design, they will then determine the best research method to use when implementing the plan. Most research methods are determined by the nature of the study and fall into two main categories:

  • Quantitative: Used with analytical studies, which primarily focus on using numerical data.
  • Qualitative. Used with descriptive research and the information from this method compiles data from thoughts, words, feelings, senses, or other non-quantifiable data. 

After the researcher has set up the design of the project and determined the methods to use, they need to submit this proposal to an Institutional Review Board (IRB). IRBs review research plans to ensure that any research performed is ethical and safe. Upon approval of the project, it is time to conduct the research. At this point, the researcher will follow the research design and methodology to perform the experiment and then collect the results. Properly follow the research design and plan to avoid adding any elements that may distort the results. If the results are distorted, they may complicate the final step of analyzing the data. 

When analyzing the data, review the data without any preconceived expectations. The researcher should perform the appropriate evaluative calculations in a consistent way. These calculations provide the necessary information for interpreting the outcome of the experiment. At this point, the steps follow the process of writing a research paper. Re-examine the literature that was found and combine it with the discoveries during the analysis the results of the experiment. As you review the information, take the time to let the pieces fit together in a way that creates a logical sequence for your paper. During this time, the researcher should create an outline to help determine the flow of the paper. Once the sequence has been determined, it is time to write the results. 

For more information on how to perform original research, please see see the Original Research LibGuide.

Key Books

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association / Reference collection BF76.7 .P83 2010

Subject Guide

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