It may be argued that knowledge is only useful if it’s shared. After all, what good would science be to the human race if discoveries made by using it were never communicated? This is the job of scientific studies: to record and report findings made by researchers. It’s for this reason that research papers make conducting science not only possible, but also worth doing.
More likely than not, if one ever finds oneself arguing with a stranger over the internet, someone will eventually declare for their opponent to “cite their sources”. In other words, they are demanding that their opponent produces reputable, scientific evidence for their position on a topic. For the novice, this may be a feat too large to continue the debate; for the fool, a delineation into ad hominem attacks to compensate for their inability to.
The declaration to “cite one’s sources” doesn’t have to be — and shouldn’t be — a scare tactic meant to end a debate. Rather, it should be an opportunity to enrich the conversation by taking it further. Therefore the purpose of this article is to aid the non-academic’s confidence in navigating scientific studies.
What is Science?
Before any further discussion into what constitutes a scientific study, it should be noted what science is beyond the Scientific Method (i.e. observation, hypothesization, and experimentation). Arguably, how one uses scientific research is almost just as important as what the research is about.
Take a look at these two YouTube videos. Both are about natural science: one being about light, and the other about the shape of our planet. Between the two, can you spot which video is more problematic?
The subject matter may be deceiving. While one may appear more blatantly problematic than the other, in actuality, they both are, and it all comes down to the use of the word “prove”.
Contrary to popular belief (a belief often unintentionally propagated by some journalists attempting to communicate a scientific subject), there is no such thing as anything “proving” another. However, something may provide evidence for or against another.
More scientifically accurate titles for the above videos may be “How an Eclipse Provided Evidence For Einstein’s Theory”, and “Evidence For a Flat Earth by Independent Research”. However, if you haven’t noticed, those titles aren’t as attention-grabbing as the originals — and this is exactly the reason why scientifically incorrect language is even a problem: sensational journalism.
At this point, perhaps “mathematical proofs” and “scientific laws” may have crossed one’s mind. Both sound pretty deterministic, but the terminology shouldn’t mislead one to believe so. Mathematically or empirically drawn conclusions are those that hold true under certain known conditions. In other words, a “law”, is in essence, may be defined by the known conditions it holds true for. Obviously, not everything about the universe is known. Therefore scientifically correct language omits the word “proven” because that suggests that every variable in the universe has been solved for already.
Scientific research may be likened to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Because experiments are meant to add to a body of knowledge by ruling out potential variables, just like a puzzle, it becomes easier to put one together once you understand its edges, or boundaries/limits. From there, one can work their way inwards by whittling down potential options, or variables. While life has infinitely more variables than a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, one may find it to be a helpful analogy for illustrating the purpose of scientific research. Overall, the purpose of research is to continue conversations, not end them.
Types of Citation Styles Used for Research Papers
Citation styles are formal sets of rules on how to cite sources used in academic writing. Typically these rules are determined by an organization of experts in a given field of study. The following are some examples of citation styles:
- APA (American Psychological Association) is used by Education, Psychology, and Sciences
- Chicago/Turabian style is generally used by Business, History, and the Fine Arts
- MLA (Modern Language Association) style is used by the Humanities
Other styles include IEEE (The Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers), AMA (American Medical Association), AIP (American Institute of Physics), ACS (American Chemical Society), etc.
What is APA?
The APA research paper is probably the most well-known type of research paper. More often than not, it’s the one introduced to high school students as an example of what academic writing looks like. Understanding its format may be helpful for understanding other types of research papers, since all research papers possess similar formatting themes.
Two Types of APA Research Papers
There are two types of APA papers: the literature review and the research report. The literature review is a culmination of the most current scientific knowledge (in the form of research reports) amassed on a particular topic. The research report is a scientific study (meaning, it contains an experiment) conducted by the author(s) of the report. Here, we will focus on navigating a single research report.
The Research Report
A research report has several parts: the abstract, the introduction, method, results, discussion, and references.
- The Abstract works like a synopsis, but with spoilers. It’s meant to summarize the entire sections previously listed in only a single paragraph.
- The Introduction announces what the study is about and why it’s needed.
- The Method section discusses the participants and the experimental procedures for the study.
- The Result section reports the test results of the study.
- The Discussion section elaborates upon the results of the study and why they are important to the study.
- Lastly, the References contain all the citations noted in the paper.
Finding the Main Points of a Study
Statistics is the math of probability. It’s used when one is trying to arrive at the best possible solution amongst a multitude of other possible solutions where absolute certainty cannot be had. While knowing statistics is very helpful for fully understanding a study, it isn’t entirely necessary if one knows what to look for within one.
There may be a lot of foreign terminology in a study that can make it feel really daunting to read. Some of that terminology includes, but certainly isn’t limited to, mediation, moderation, third-variable, confounding, correlation, reactivity, modality, “statistically (in)significant”, etc. In this instance, Dr. Google is one’s best friend, as well as The APA Dictionary of Psychology. But when it comes to simply getting through the paper and understanding what one is reading, it may help to break it up into pieces.
Highlighting each topic sentence in every paragraph can keep one on track with where the study’s going. Additionally, highlighting the hypothesis (why the researchers are studying what they’re studying), the dependent and independent variables, and the conclusion(s) of the experiment(s) can separate the point of the study from the background story. The hypothesis is often found in the Introduction section of the paper, but may often be reiterated in the Discussion section as well. The dependent and independent variables may also be found in those sections. (The dependent variable is the thing that an experiment is measuring; the independent variable is the change being made to see how it affects that variable.)
Often, the Results section can be the toughest part of a study to understand, especially if one isn’t familiar with statistics. However, the inclusion of graph(s) and table(s) are a requirement for writing an APA research paper, so if one has trouble understanding the Results section, the graph(s) and table(s) can often provide a more straight-forward illustration of the study’s results, if needed. Skipping this section may likely be inevitable for some, but typically the results are better explained in the Discussion section anyway where they’re written in plain English.
How to Know if a Study Is a Good One
Overall, a study should ideally come from a reputable, peer-reviewed journal, not claim to prove anything or have a cure-all, be conducted by researchers that are qualified to, and state any potential conflicts of interest. But while there are many ways to identify if a study’s a valid one, there are some universe, tell-tale signs that can easily be spotted without much digging.
- Sample size of participants
Is the sample size of participants only twelve people? Twelve people may not provide enough variation to accurately represent the population of people that they should. A sample size of fifty participants is better, and even more so when that number has triple digits.
- The presence of a control group
Is there a group of participants that aren’t being manipulated at all? For instance, if there’s a group of participants who are memorizing a list of items while listening to music to see how music affects one’s learning, is there a group of participants memorizing that same list without music? By having one group that isn’t being manipulated, you have something to compare your experimental group against to see if there are any significant differences between the two.
Are the participants blind to (or in other words, unaware of) what is being tested? Better yet, are those that are measuring what the participants are doing blind too (otherwise known as a double-blind)? Concealing what is being measured may prevent bias from distorting the results of the experiment(s).
- Random sampling and assignment
Random sampling means the participants were all selected at random. Random assignment means they were assigned to either the experimental group or control group at random. By doing so, one is replicating nature more than if one had purposefully selected participants according to who one thinks should participate or how one thinks they should be assigned.
Where to Find Scholarly Sources
Thanks to the internet, scholarly sources are a lot more accessible than they once were without it. Search engines such as Google Scholar, ScienceDirect, and JSTOR, are all great places to start looking for research papers. They’re open-source, meaning one doesn’t have to pay for access to the journals, and they cover a wide range of academic disciplines. More can be found by checking out the Wikipedia page, List of academic databases and search engines.