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The Empirical Research Paper: A Guide

Guidance and resources on how to read, design, and write an empirical research paper or thesis

Some Good Advice to Get Started

Reading a scholarly article is more challenging than reading a newspaper, magazine, or blog. In order to fully understand the contents, a scholarly article will have to be re-read several times (even experienced researchers have to re-read articles)!

Some of the challenges:

  • Writing is really dense and highly technical
  • Inclusion of references to previous experiments, findings, and techniques often sends readers on a back-and-forth hunt for references
  • Not all researchers are skilled writers (unlike Journalists), who enjoy writing, and are comfortable writing in English. 

Some important tools to have on-hand to make reading an article so much easier:

  • A  dictionary or an encyclopedia will allow you to understand any unclear terms or theories you encounter. 
  • A textbook or an introductory-level book provide some background information written in a way that is easy to understand
  • Access to a database such as Web of Science which will allow you to quickly access relevant and related articles. 
  • Have a notepad and a pen/pencil handy so that you can take notes as you read. This will help you remember what is being discussed and you can write down any questions/concerns you have as you proceed

Anatomy of a Scholarly Article

Exploratorium. (n.d.). Sharing findings: The anatomy of a peer-reviewed paper. Retrieved June 5 2014 from

On your first reading of an empirical article, you can be selective in terms of what sections you want to read. During this first reading you do not want to read the article the novel from cover to back, as this will be inefficient. 

The following order in general should be used the first time you evaluate/read an article:

  1. Title
  2. If in a database, look at the Journal name, and any Subjects or Keywords
  3. Abstract
  4. Introduction - the last paragraph will provide their research question and hypothesis
  5. Discussion -  in the first paragraph the authors will interpret the results of their study

At this point, you can stop and decide if the article suits your needs if yes continue:

      6. Methods

      7. Results

Then re-read the article as a whole from Introduction to Discussion   


A very short concise summary of the main points of the article. Usually contains an explanatory sentence regarding the logic behind the research, the research questions, who/what is being studied and how, and their main findings. 

This is always the first section of an article and may or may not be labeled "Introduction" or "literature review"

As the name implies, this section will introduce and provide the background knowledge and research (literature review and key terminology) behind the research topic in question. This section is critical for understanding the topic, its history, key studies, and the rationale behind the current research

Often in the final paragraphs, the authors will spell out their exact research question and if applicable, the hypotheses being addressed in this paper.

Also known as Materials or Research Design. Contains information on the subjects (participants) and specific enough information about HOW things were studied or manipulated (including specialized tools and techniques) that another researcher would be able to replicate the experiment. 

Although this section is usually found following the introduction, in some journals the Methods and Materials will be provided at the end of the paper before the References or as an Appendix. 

The Results (or Findings) section contains all of the information about the data that was collected during the experiment. This section is often really dense and contains very little in terms of explanatory sentences. To save space, a lot of the results (main and supplementary) will be displayed in the form of Figures or Tables.

Reading this section is essential in understanding exactly what data was collected, the statistics used, if they were appropriate, and the actual results of the tests. 

The Discussion section is where the authors, using the literature, will interpret the results/findings of their study and draw conclusions. 

Often the authors will also acknowledge the known or theoretical limitations of their study and will end by proposing future directions for research on their topic. 

Since the authors' are interpreting their results and providing their own opinion of the findings, not absolute facts, it is essential that you are critical of the conclusions the authors are making. 

Throughout the article, the researchers have provided in-text citations to already published research. In the References section, the full bibliographic information for each citation is provided so that readers can use this information to locate each reference.

This section is very useful in helping one understand the background and history of the research questions and what has been tried in the past or investigated. The References cited are also highly likely to be related or relevant to the topic at hand and is an efficient way to find additional scholarly information on a specific research topic. 

Note: if there is no Reference section (or Works Cited or Bibliography or extensive footnotes with complete citations), then the article would NOT be considered scholarly. 

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