ERIC Identifier: ED435712
Publication Date: 1999-11-00
Author: Rudner, Lawrence M. - Schafer, William D.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation Washington DC.
How To Write a Scholarly Research Report. ERIC/AE Digest.
Researchers communicate their results and help accumulate knowledge through
conference papers, reports, on-line journals and print journals. While there are
many rewards for having research disseminated in a scholarly outlet, the
preparation of a good research report is not a trivial task.
This article discusses the common sections of a research report along with
frequently made mistakes. While the emphasis here is on reports prepared for
scholarly, peer-reviewed publication, these points are applicable to other forms
of research reports. Dissertations and theses, for example, provide more detail
than scholarly publications yet they adhere to the same basic scientific writing
principles. Since all scientific research involves observation, description and
analysis, points made in this article are applicable to historical and
descriptive, as well as to experimental, research.
More detail can be found in the Publication Manual of the American
Psychological Association (APA, 1994), proposed revisions to the manual
(Wilkinson and Task Force on Statistical Inference, 1999), and many research
methods textbooks (cf. Gay and Airasian, 1999).For general suggestions on
publishing research, see Thompson (1995) and some of the articles and books also
FIRST STEPS IN WRITING A RESEARCH REPORT
constantly think about writing your report at every stage of your research
activities. The sections of the research report discussed next in this article
come from the most-cited style source for educational and psychological
literature-the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association
(APA, 1994).The Publication Manual provides detailed information about the
entire process of publication -- from organizing, writing, keying and submitting
your manuscript, to seeing the accepted manuscript through production and
publication. Of special interest in the fourth edition are the updated sections
on reporting statistics, writing without bias, preparing manuscripts with a word
processor for electronic production and publishing research in accordance with
ethical principles of scientific publishing. You should have a copy.
Plan your report to focus on a single important finding or highly related
group of findings. In the process of analyzing your data, you probably uncovered
many relationships and gained numerous insights into the problem. Your journal
article submission, however, should contain only one key point. The point should
be so fundamental that you should be able express it in one sentence or, at
most, in a paragraph. If you have several key points, consider writing multiple
When writing your manuscript, keep in mind that the purpose is to inform the
readers of what you investigated, why and how you conducted your investigation,
the results and your conclusions. As the investigator and writer, your job is
simply to report, not to convince and usually not to advocate. You must provide
enough detail so readers can reach their own conclusions about the quality of
your research and the veracity of your conclusions.
SECTIONS OF YOUR REPORT
"Title" - It is important that the
title be both brief and descriptive of your research. Search engines will use
the title to help locate your article. Readers make quick decisions as to
whether they are going to invest the time to read your article largely based on
the title. Thus, the title should not contain jargon or vernacular. Rather, the
title should be short (generally 15 words or less)and clearly indicate what the
study is about. If in doubt, try to specify the cause and effect relationship in
your key point. Avoid trite and wasteful phrases such as "A study of ..." or "An
investigation to determine ..."
"Abstract" - The abstract serves two major purposes: it helps a person decide
whether to read the paper, and it provides the reader with a framework for
understanding the paper if they decide to read it. Thus, your abstract should
describe the most important aspects of the study within the word-limit provided
by the journal. As appropriate for your research, try to include a statement of
the problem, the people you studied, the dependent and independent variables,
the instruments, the design, major findings, and conclusions. If pressed for
space, concentrate on the problem and, especially, your findings.
"Introduction" - You will usually start your report with a paragraph or two
presenting the investigated problem, the importance of the study, and an
overview of your research strategy. You do not need to label this section. Its
position within the paper makes that obvious.
The introductory paragraphs are usually followed by a review of the
literature. Show how your research builds on prior knowledge by presenting and
evaluating what is already known about your research problem. Assume that the
readers possess a broad knowledge of the field, but not the cited articles,
books and papers. Discuss the findings of works that are pertinent to your
specific issue. You usually will not need to elaborate on methods.
The goal of the introduction and literature review is to demonstrate "the
logical continuity between previous and present work" (APA, 1994, p. 11). This
does not mean you need to provide an exhaustive historical review. Analyze the
relationships among the related studies instead of presenting a series of
seemingly unrelated abstracts or annotations. The introduction should motivate
the study. The reader should understand why the problem was researched and why
the study represents a contribution to existing knowledge. Unless the study is
an evaluation of a program, it is generally inappropriate to attempt to motivate
the study based on its social importance.
"Method" - The method section includes separate descriptions of the sample,
the materials, and the procedures. These are subtitled and may be augmented by
further sections, if needed.
Describe your sample with sufficient detail so that it is clear what
population(s) the sample represents. A discussion of how the sample was formed
is needed for replicability and understanding your study. The APA Task Force on
Statistical Inference points out "how a population is defined affects almost
every conclusion about an article" (Wilkinson, et al., 1999). Convenience
samples are not unusual in scientific inquiry; their use should not discourage
you from seeking a publication outlet for your report.
A description of your instruments, including all surveys, tests,
questionnaires, interview forms, and other tools used to provide data, should
appear in the materials subsection. Evidence of reliability and validity should
be presented. Since reliability is a property of scores from a specific use of a
specific instrument for a specific population, you should provide reliability
estimates based on your data.
The design of the study, whether it is a case study, a survey, a controlled
experiment, a meta-analysis, or some other type of research, is conveyed through
the procedures subsection. It is here that the activities of the researcher are
described, such as what was said to the participants, how groups were formed,
what control mechanisms were employed, etc. The description is sufficient if
enough detail is present for the reader to replicate the essential elements of
the study. It is important for the procedures to conform to ethical criteria for
researchers (APA, 1992).
"Results" - Present a summary of what you found in the results section. Here
you should describe the techniques that you used, each analysis and the results
of each analysis.
Start with a description of any complications, such as protocol violations
and missing data that may have occurred. Examine your data for anomalies, such
as outliers, points of high influence, miscoded data, and illogical responses.
Use your common sense to evaluate the quality of your data and make adjustments
if need be. Describe the process that you used in order to assure your readers
that your editing was appropriate and purified rather than skewed your results.
With today's availability of statistical packages, it is fairly easy to use
very sophisticated techniques to analyze your data. Understand the techniques
you are using and the statistics that you are reporting. Try to use the
simplest, appropriate technique for which you can meet the underlying
If you are going to use inferential statistics, you should determine the
power a priori based on your anticipated distribution, design, and definition of
practical significance. This information must stem from your related literature
and not the data that you collected. If you fail to reach statistical
significance, then this analysis can be used to show that the finding does not
stem from low power.
Where appropriate, compute and report effect sizes or, at a minimum, be sure
you provide enough information so effect sizes can be computed. Effect sizes
provide a common metric for evaluating results across studies and aid in the
design of future studies. They will be needed by anyone who attempts a
quantitative synthesis of your study along with the others in your area of
For most research reports, the results should provide the summary details
about what you found rather than an exhaustive listing of every possible
analysis and every data point. Use carefully planned tables and graphs. While
tables and graphs should be self-explanatory, do not include a table or graph
unless it is discussed in the report. Limit them to those that help the reader
understand your data as they relate to the investigated problem.
"Discussion" - At this point, you are the expert on your data set and an
authority on the problem you addressed. In this section, discuss and interpret
your data for the reader, tell the reader of the implications of your findings
and make recommendations. Do not be afraid to state your opinions.
Many authors chose to begin the discussion section by highlighting key
results. Return to the specific problem you investigated and tell the reader
what you now think and why. Relate your findings to those of previous studies,
by explaining relationships and supporting or disagreeing with what others have
found. Describe your logic and draw your conclusions. Be careful, however, not
to over generalize your results. Your conclusions should be warranted by your
study and your data.
Be sure to recognize the limitations of your study. Try to anticipate the
questions a reader will have and suggest what problems should be researched next
in order to extend your findings into new areas.
"References" - There should be a one-to-one match between the references
cited in the report and the references listed in the reference section.
PUBLISHING YOUR REPORT
In the process of reviewing the
literature, you will have learned which journals publish articles on your topic.
If you intend to publish in a journal, these journals will be the most likely
candidates. Review the target audience and publication guidelines for these
journals to decide which is best suited to your research. Regardless of
scholarly quality, a key question in any editor's mind will be whether your
manuscript is suited to the journal's purpose and audience. When considering
where to submit, note the style of the articles in the journal. For example, if
the journal typically publishes articles developing theories based on extensive
reviews of the literature and your article is more empirical, then perhaps you
should look elsewhere.
Remember that the review process is conducted by human staff, and so is a
fallible process. Peters and Ceci (1982) made this point abundantly clear. They
retyped just-published articles from prominent journals, and resubmitted them.
All of these articles were rejected without it being noticed that they had just
been published by the same journals.
Because of high rejection rates and the usual long length of time journals
need to make a selection decision, it is tempting to submit a manuscript
simultaneously to more than one journal. This, however, is clearly unethical.
Most journals appropriately specify that manuscripts under consideration cannot
be submitted elsewhere. The editors and reviewers will be taking a considerable
amount of time examining your manuscript, usually as volunteers.
You should expect your manuscript to be rejected when it is submitted for the
first time. If a manuscript is rejected, you should evaluate the comments and
then decide whether to revise, resubmit, or submit it elsewhere. In order to
facilitate both your revision and its subsequent evaluation, a resubmission
should be accompanied by a description of the issues raised in the review
process and your manuscript modifications and other substantive reactions to
While very little has been written about ethical standards for authors in the
education field, the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to
Biomedical Journals, which have been adopted by more than 500 scientific and
biomedical journals, address criteria for authorship, acknowledgments, redundant
publication, competing manuscripts, and conflict of interest. A concise summary
of the Uniform Requirements can be found in Syrett and Rudner (1996).
A key concept in the Uniform Requirements is that individuals identified as
authors should have made significant contributions to the conception and design,
or analysis and interpretation of data, or both; to drafting of the manuscript
of revising it critically for intellectual content; and on final approval of the
version of the manuscript to be considered for publication. Being an advisor or
head of a research group, does not, in itself, warrant authorship credit.
American Psychological Association
(1992). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American
Psychologist, 47, 1597-1611.
American Psychological Association (1994). Publication Manual of the American
Psychological Association (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Gay, L.R. & P.W. Airasian (1999). Educational Research: Competencies for
Analysis and Application. 6th edition. New York: Prentice Hall.
Peters, D.C., & Ceci, S.J. (1982). Peer review practices of psychological
journals: The fate of published articles, submitted again. The Behavioral and
Brain Sciences, 5, 187-255.
Syrett, Kristen L. & Rudner, Lawrence M. (1996). Authorship Ethics.
Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 5(1). Thompson, B. (1995).
Publishing your research results: Some suggestions and counsel. Journal of
Counseling and Development, 73, 342-345.
Wilkinson, L. and Task Force on Statistical Inference (1999). Statistical
Methods in Psychology Journals: Guidelines and Explanations. American
Psychologist, 54 (8), 594B604.