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Writing a Psychology Research Paper: A Complete Guide

A research paper is a scholarly work containing original research or documenting a new invention that is usually supposed to be published in an academic journal and be subjected to peer review. It is the most widespread form in which scientists and researchers show the results of their work to the academic world. If you intend to pursue a career in academia, you have to start learning the specifics of this type of work as early as possible. In this psychology research paper writing guide, you will find a step-by-step instructions you can use to make writing your first research paper much easier.

Before Writing a Psychology Research Paper

Topic

The goal of writing a research paper is to demonstrate your ability to do original, unsupervised research: gather and analyze information, make conclusions and support your point of view with viable evidence. As a result, students are normally free to choose any topic within the scope of their course (although it is still necessary to discuss it with your tutor).

A topic you are comfortable with is a foundation of every good paper, so don’t take this step lightly. Here are some suggestions that can help you make a choice you won’t regret:

  • Start with topics that are personally interesting to you, especially if you know something about them that is beyond the basic psychology course you take.
  • Review the literature on a topic that catches your interest before you commit to writing on it – thus you will know exactly how many sources you will have available.
  • Look for a topic that is simultaneously sufficiently well-researched (to have enough sources to build upon) and leaves enough space for you to work in (so as to avoid unintentional plagiarism if you happen to write something that was covered in a source you’ve missed).
  • Discuss your choice with your tutor. He may suggest some changes or ask you to look for another topic.

In the end, your topic should be sufficiently narrow to do in-depth research, e.g.:

  • The Influence of Narcissistic Mother on Children’s Mental Health;
  • Emotional Effects of Solitary Confinement;
  • The Psychology behind Long-Lasting Marriages;
  • Birth Order Effects on Personality Traits and Achievement;
  • Main Causes of Teenage Suicide;
  • Effects of Overcrowding on Psychological Health;
  • Connection between Physical Illness and Stress.

Thesis Statement Explained by Our Experts

Thesis statement is the main point of your research paper boiled down to one sentence. It is important to differentiate between the topic, the research question and the thesis statement.

  • Topic is a general area of research, e.g., “Bipolar Disorder”;
  • Research question is a question your research paper intends to answer, e.g., “Is there a correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity?”;
  • Thesis statement is the answer to that question, e.g., “Treatment of bipolar disorder often negatively affects the patient’s creativity”.

Thesis statement should be located at the very beginning of the paper (first or second paragraph), with the body paragraphs providing evidence to support this claim. Don’t make it vague – the reader should immediately understand what you want to prove and what the main point of your paper is. Word your thesis statement precisely and make it narrow enough in scope to allow yourself to thoroughly investigate the topic.

Work with Sources

Although a research paper should contain original research and your own findings, no work in psychology exists in isolation from the existing body of research on the subject. You will have to work with many sources of information to prove the credibility of your work and your knowledge of the topic.

The majority of sources you use should come from peer-reviewed psychology journals, although other publications (books, web resources, mass media etc.) are acceptable as well. Just make sure to differentiate between low- and high-value sources and put emphasis on the latter.

If you are unfamiliar with the subject matter of your paper, finding viable sources may be difficult. Here are some suggestions where to start:

  • Look through the bibliography of the relevant section in your psychology textbook. The books and their authors mentioned there will be a good start;
  • Run a search in multidisciplinary and discipline-specific online databases. PsycInfo and PubMed contain the fullest information on most psychology publications. You may also find PubPsych useful, although it is mainly Europocentric and has many sources in German, Spanish and French. Academic Search and Google Scholar are the most prominent multidisciplinary examples;
  • By that time you will already have a good idea of who are the most prominent specialists on your chosen subject, so check databases and libraries for their other books and articles;
  • Look through bibliography sections of the sources you’ve already located.

Most of your information should come from empirical reports from psychology journals. Rely on secondary sources of data (e.g., chapters and books) only if you cannot locate the original source.

Take notice of how many times an article has been cited so far (most scholarly databases provide this information) – usually the more times it was cited, the more important it is considered to be in the field. However, this factor isn’t absolute – if an article is recent, it simply didn’t have enough time to be extensively cited.

Outline

Outline is a plan or a blueprint of your research paper that helps you organize your thoughts and make sure each paragraph serves a specific purpose and is logically connected to the rest of the paper. Depending on the structure of your paper, it may be different, but usually it runs along the following lines:

Tired of all the guides and never-ending instructions?
  1. Introduction
    • Hook (a sentence aimed at attracting the reader’s attention);
    • Thesis statement;
    • Background information.
  2. Body Paragraphs
    • Major Point #1 with supporting evidence;
    • Major Point #2 with supporting evidence;
    • Major Point #3 with supporting evidence;
    • Etc.
  3. Conclusion
    • Restatement of the thesis;
    • Suggestions for the following research.

If you mark what you intend to mention in each part of your section before you start writing it, you will see if there are repetitive ideas that can be merged or eliminated, if some parts don’t logically flow into one another, if some sections are redundant and have to be removed.

An outline can be formal and informal. An informal or working outline is your personal plan that helps you arrange your thoughts. However, sometimes you are asked to submit a formal outline along with your paper. In this case, you should follow one of several accepted formats to organize your ideas (e.g., an alphanumerical system that uses numerals and letters for formatting).

Psychology Research Paper Writing Stages

General Principles of Writing a Psychology Paper

  • No good paper is ever written in a single draft. Be prepared to not just revise your work, but to cut huge swathes of it, rewrite whole sections and even the entire paper from scratch.
  • Treat your opposition fairly. Your goal is to show the value of your viewpoint in fair and equal comparison with alternative theories. If you go out of your way to disprove other points of view using unimportant flaws in their methodology to discredit them and fail to treat evidence that supports your point in the same way, you are likely to achieve the effect opposite to intended.
  • Don’t use slang, colloquialisms and jargon. Your language should be precise and scientific.
  • Keep most of your sentences relatively short. Professionals suggest that average sentence length should be around 20-25 words, but you shouldn’t try to make all sentences the same length. Your writing should be a mix of short, medium and relatively long sentences to create a balanced feel.
  • Use no more than one idea/point per paragraph. If you find that a paragraph keeps going and going, check if it contains more than one idea.
  • Don’t use passive voice unless it is necessary. You may think that passive voice makes your writing sound more serious and scientific; in reality it makes it heavy-handed and hard to understand. In most cases there is no need to use passive voice, so don’t (“Jackson found a correlation between these two factors” rather than “A correlation has been found between these two factors”).
  • Check your pronouns. It should always be possible to see what each pronoun refers to. If it isn’t, replace it with a noun or a noun phrase. You are writing a research paper, not a novel, so don’t be afraid of tautology. Your primary concern is information transfer; if you repeat the same word multiple time to avoid confusion, so be it.
  • The same goes about using synonyms. Trying to diversify your writing by referring to one and the same concept using multiple words will confuse the readers. If, for example, you talk about children, use the same word throughout your paper, don’t replace it with “kids” or “youngsters”.
  • Use past or present perfect tenses when describing specific events and research that happened in the past. Present simple should be limited to talking about currently held theories and generalized statements. E.g., use “Barnes reviewed this case in his 1985 study” rather than “Barnes reviews this case in his 1985 study”.
  • Don’t use first person. Keep your writing impersonal and objective, even if you talk about personal experiences (which, as a rule, you shouldn’t). Psychology doesn’t accept personal anecdotal reports as evidence.
  • Don’t use footnotes and endnotes. This point is referred to in APA style guide, but it is important enough to be mentioned individually. Footnotes interrupt the flow of text and disrupt the process of reading. Any external information you deem important enough to be mentioned should be placed into the body of the text. If it isn’t essential, better not mention it at all.
  • Avoid direct quotations. Psychologists prefer not to quote sources word for word, instead extracting the essence of the quotation and expressing it in your own words. It is different from paraphrasing: you don’t simply rearrange the words of the original quote to use them without quotation marks but distill their meaning. E.g., don’t write “Chadston (1996) has said about depression that “it’s influence on society isn’t limited to financial costs and interpersonal relations”” but “According to Chadston (1996), depression has enormous impact beyond economical and social implications”.
  • Only cite the works you’ve actually read. This means that if you encounter a quotation from another source in one of your primary sources you shouldn’t quote it as if you’ve read this source directly. When you refer to it, you should add “as cited in”. Quoting secondary sources as primary ones is very bad form in psychology writing, and even when using them properly you shouldn’t rely on them too much.

After Writing

Referencing and Formatting

Psychology research papers are written using the APA (American Psychology Association) format that covers everything from the use of bias-free language to the way of organizing references and bibliographies. You can find all the necessary information about these aspects in an official style guide, on the APA website or on numerous other online resources dedicated to it. It doesn’t make sense to try and repeat some of the style rules here – the list will by definition will be incomplete. If you ever have any questions concerning it, consult one of the official resources – there you will find information about all the possible situations organized in meticulous detail.

types of referencing

Revisions

Revision shouldn’t come as an afterthought – it is just as important a part of working on a research paper. Some students decide to revise their papers if they have time before submitting it. Don’t repeat this mistake – a couple of hours spend revising a paper can mean the difference between a failing and a passing grade.

Here is how you can improve the quality of your revision:

  1. Take the time necessary for revision into account beforehand. Try to finish the paper a few days before the deadline to give yourself plenty of time;
  2. Set the paper aside for a while (ideally for at least 48 hours). When you reread it afterwards you will notice numerous opportunities of improvement that weren’t obvious immediately after you finished writing;
  3. Have a friend or a trustworthy classmate read it and ask for his opinion. Tell him to pay the most attention not to the beauty of your writing style but to how clear the paper is. If your friend finds a paper or some section of it lacking in clarity, don’t argue or try to explain things. If the reader cannot understand something, it is your fault by definition, and you need to set things right;
  4. Cut without regrets. The most beneficial thing you can do for your paper is to remove what is unnecessary. Reread the entire paper one more time slowly and thinking about every word. The rule of the thumb is simple: if a word, phrase, paragraph or even section isn’t absolutely necessary to move the point of your research paper forward, get rid of it;
  5. Don’t get attached to anything. All writers sometimes produce a phrase, expression or paragraph they are particularly proud of. When time for revision comes, you may be tempted to save this gem no matter what, reorganizing things around it and gradually losing sight of your initial purpose. A good writer, however, should be ready to edit out anything.

In the end, the only way to get good at writing psychology research is to practice doing it. These psychology research paper writing tips, however, can give you enough basic knowledge to prepare your first work.