Why read journal articles? Journal articles are where you will find the most recent, most relevant information to any topic you decide to research. While books can give you broad overviews and excellent summaries of information, they also become outdated as new research is being conducted (which is why textbooks have a new edition every two years or so). The majority of scientific journals (including counseling journals) are written in APA format, which has very distinct sections, each with a unique purpose. These sections are always in the same order, so once you know how to read them, you will always be able to find your way.
This guide follows the guidelines for an APA paper as set out in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), 6th edition. If your article is not in APA style, don’t worry! Many articles and abstracts in the social sciences have similar sections. Read on to learn how to effectively sort through your research!
Sections of a Research Article
Knowing what kind of information is put into each section of an APA paper is vital to consuming research efficiently. You can sort which articles will be helpful and which will not just by knowing where to start.
Always start by reading an article’s abstract. This is a summary of the research conducted and important results found. Look for key words repeated in the abstract – this will give you a general idea of the themes of the article. If the abstract does not give information relevant to your research topic, move on to the next article.
The introduction is the first section of the main body of an APA paper. Unlike the other sections, it does not have a heading, but is indicated by its position in the paper. The introduction serves two primary purposes: to introduce the research topic (and present hypotheses if it is an empirical study) and to provide a brief literature review. The introduction should answer the following questions:
- Why is this topic/problem important?
- How does this study relate to previous work in the area?
- What are the hypotheses and objectives of the study?
- What are the theoretical and practical implications of the study?
The literature review should also indicate how the article you are currently reading fits into the current body of research. This is an excellent place to look for background theoretical information and research already conducted, without having to go to the original theories/articles themselves.
If you want to learn more about a study mentioned in the literature review, you can use the citation provided to look it up and read it in its entirety. This is an excellent way of finding additional sources for your own papers.
The method section describes in detail how the study was conducted and defines any variables used in the study. If you are looking for a specific methodology or experimental design, this is the place to look. The method section is often broken into subsections to efficiently describe specific aspects of the study like participant selection and demographics or procedures used. You will also find information on the assessments used in this section of the paper.
Note: the method section is one of the most detailed parts of an APA paper. This is so that other researchers can replicate the study, to test its reliability.
The results section summarizes the data collected, and the analyses used. It is common to see graphs, charts, and tables in this section of the article. Even if you do not have any background in statistics, you should still read this section. While the numbers may be confusing, pay attention to the words used. Is there a strong or weak relationship found? Was any of the data thrown out, and why? Who scored highest on what assessments? Thoroughly reading the results section is helpful for understanding the specifics of the findings, and the importance of the study.
What to do with the statistical information? If you don’t know what a t-test or an ANOVA is, that’s okay! As mentioned earlier, you can still learn a lot about the study by reading the words, and skimming over the numbers. However, one thing you should pay attention to is statistical significance. Say you see a statistic like this:
F (4, 184) = 4.77, p = 0.001
The important number to pay attention to is the p value. You want p to be very small, usually less than 0.05—this means that the data is significant, or important. It means that whatever aspect of the study that statistic describes is important. So it might be worth going back and reading that paragraph again. Some studies will provide tables, listing the variables measured and their p values; these are also good tools in determining which information is important.
The discussion section provides an interpretation of the results. It is not as specific as the results section; rather, it draws generalizations and overall patterns from the significant data. This section also connects the article back to the introduction, positioning it within the existing literature. Finally, the discussion section always lists ideas for future research, as well as limitations of the study. These are both worth paying attention to.
The discussion section may prove to be the most helpful part of the article, because it ties everything together and shows the reader why it’s important. However, it is often difficult to understand this section without first reading the prior 3 sections, so skipping to the end of an article just to read this section is not helpful in the long-run.
The references section is simply a list of all of the sources the researchers studied before writing their article. This is actually an extremely helpful section of the paper. Say you find an interesting fact in the introduction of the article. By tracing the citation to the reference section, you can then look up the original source of the information. Similarly, if you are in need of additional sources for a research paper, looking to see what references an article’s authors used is a helpful place to find relevant information to your topic.
Want to Learn More?
If you would like more information on APA style, statistics, or psychological writing, the following sources are available:
- Concise rules of APA style. American Psychological Association. (American Psychological Association, 2010).
- APA style simplified: Writing in psychology, education, nursing, and sociology. Beins, B. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
- Effective writing in psychology: Papers, posters, and presentations. Beins, B. C., & Beins, A. M. (Wiley & Sons Canada, 2008).
- APA handbook of research methods in psychology. Cooper, H., ed. (American Psychological Association, 2012).
- Editorial: Effective use of APA style in manuscript preparation. Daniel, L. G., & Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (2007). Research in the Schools, 14(1), i–x.
- Applied social research: A tool for the human services. Monette, D. R. (Brooks/Cole, 2014).
- Real world research: A resource for users of social research methods in applied settings. Robson, C. (Wiley, 2011).
- Experiment, design and statistics in psychology. Robson, C. (Penguin Books, 1973).
- Social sciences research: Research, writing, and presentation strategies for students. Staines, G. M. (Scarecrow Press, 2008).
- Introductory statistics for the behavioral sciences. Welkowitz, J., Cohen, B. H., & Lea, R. B. (Wiley, 2012).
- Clinician’s thesaurus: The guide to conducting interviews and writing psychological reports. Zuckerman, E. L. (Guilford Press, 2010).