Whether you are writing a B.S. Degree Research Paper or completing a research report for a Psychology course, it is highly likely that you will need to organize your research paper in accordance with American Psychological Association (APA) guidelines. Here we discuss the structure of research papers according to APA style.
A complete research paper in APA style that is reporting on experimental research will typically contain a Title page, Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, and References sections.1 Many will also contain Figures and Tables and some will have an Appendix or Appendices. These sections are detailed as follows (for a more in-depth guide, please refer to "How to Write a Research Paper in APA Style”, a comprehensive guide developed by Prof. Emma Geller).2
What is this paper called and who wrote it? – the first page of the paper; this includes the name of the paper, a “running head”, authors, and institutional affiliation of the authors. The institutional affiliation is usually listed in an Author Note that is placed towards the bottom of the title page. In some cases, the Author Note also contains an acknowledgment of any funding support and of any individuals that assisted with the research project.
summary of the entire study – typically no more than 250 words in length (and in many it is well shorter than that), the Abstract provides an overview of the study.
What is the topic and why is it worth studying? – the first major section of text in the paper, the Introduction commonly describes the topic under investigation, summarizes or discusses relevant prior research (for related details, please see the Writing Literature Reviews section of this website), identifies unresolved issues that the current research will address, and provides an overview of the research that is to be described in greater detail in the sections to follow.
What did you do? – a section which details how the research was performed. It typically features a description of the participants/subjects that were involved, the study design, the materials that were used, and the study procedure. If there were multiple experiments, then each experiment may require a separate Methods section. A rule of thumb is that the Methods section should be sufficiently detailed for another researcher to duplicate your research.
What did you find?– a section which describes the data that was collected and the results of any statistical tests that were performed. It may also be prefaced by a description of the analysis procedure that was used. If there were multiple experiments, then each experiment may require a separate Results section.
What is the significance of your results?– the final major section of text in the paper. The Discussion commonly features a summary of the results that were obtained in the study, describes how those results address the topic under investigation and/or the issues that the research was designed to address, and may expand upon the implications of those findings. Limitations and directions for future research are also commonly addressed.
List of articles and any books cited – an alphabetized list of the sources that are cited in the paper (by name of the first author of each source). Each reference should follow specific APA guidelines regarding author names, dates, article titles, journal titles, journal volume numbers, page numbers, book publishers, publisher locations, websites, and so on (for more information, please see the Citing References in APA Style page of this website).
Tables and Figures
Graphs and data (optional in some cases) – depending on the type of research being performed, there may be Tables and/or Figures (however, in some cases, there may be neither). In APA style, each Table and each Figure is placed on a separate page and all Tables and Figures are included after the References. Tables are included first, followed by Figures. However, for some journals and undergraduate research papers (such as the B.S. Research Paper or Honors Thesis), Tables and Figures may be embedded in the text (depending on the instructor’s or editor’s policies; for more details, see "Deviations from APA Style" below).
Supplementary information (optional) – in some cases, additional information that is not critical to understanding the research paper, such as a list of experiment stimuli, details of a secondary analysis, or programming code, is provided. This is often placed in an Appendix.
Although the major sections described above are common to most research papers written in APA style, there are variations on that pattern. These variations include:
In some cases, official APA style might not be followed (however, be sure to check with your editor, instructor, or other sources before deviating from standards of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association). Such deviations may include:
- Placement of Tables and Figures – in some cases, to make reading through the paper easier, Tables and/or Figures are embedded in the text (for example, having a bar graph placed in the relevant Results section). The embedding of Tables and/or Figures in the text is one of the most common deviations from APA style (and is commonly allowed in B.S. Degree Research Papers and Honors Theses; however you should check with your instructor, supervisor, or editor first).
- Incomplete research – sometimes a B.S. Degree Research Paper in this department is written about research that is currently being planned or is in progress. In those circumstances, sometimes only an Introduction and Methods section, followed by References, is included (that is, in cases where the research itself has not formally begun). In other cases, preliminary results are presented and noted as such in the Results section (such as in cases where the study is underway but not complete), and the Discussion section includes caveats about the in-progress nature of the research. Again, you should check with your instructor, supervisor, or editor first.
- Class assignments – in some classes in this department, an assignment must be written in APA style but is not exactly a traditional research paper (for instance, a student asked to write about an article that they and to write that report in APA style). In that case, the structure of the paper might approximate the typical sections of a research paper in APA style, but not entirely. You should check with your instructor for further guidelines.
Workshops and Downloadable Resources
- For discussion of the process of writing research papers, please consider attending this department’s “Writing Research Papers” workshop (for dates and times, please check the undergraduate workshops calendar).
- How to Write APA Style Research Papers (a comprehensive guide) [PDF]
- Tips for Writing APA Style Research Papers (a brief summary) [PDF]
- Example APA Style Research Paper (for B.S. Degree – empirical research) [PDF]
- Example APA Style Research Paper (for B.S. Degree – literature review) [PDF]
APA Journal Article Reporting Guidelines
- Appelbaum, M., Cooper, H., Kline, R. B., Mayo-Wilson, E., Nezu, A. M., & Rao, S. M. (2018). Journal article reporting standards for quantitative research in psychology: The APA Publications and Communications Board task force report. American Psychologist, 73(1), 3.
- Levitt, H. M., Bamberg, M., Creswell, J. W., Frost, D. M., Josselson, R., & Suárez-Orozco, C. (2018). Journal article reporting standards for qualitative primary, qualitative meta-analytic, and mixed methods research in psychology: The APA Publications and Communications Board task force report. American Psychologist, 73(1), 26.
1VandenBos, G. R. (Ed). (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.) (pp. 41-60). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
2Geller, E. (2018). How to write an APA-style research report. [Instructional Materials].
Prepared by S. C. Pan for UCSD Psychology
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Throughout the course of our studies, we have all read a lot of literature reviews or scientific papers, those whose methodological standard we could have learned from and improved and others that make us wonder how they ever made it through the peer- review process of the journal. Nevertheless, we have to admit that we all still make mistakes and sometimes submit manuscripts that do not match APA guidelines. In order to improve our general knowledge about how to format papers in our beloved APA style or to refresh our previous knowledge related to it, this post intends to give a brief overview over the structure of a scientific paper and some other crucial APA features your paper should contain.
Main sections of your research paper
Whereas a literature review summarizes the most important experimental and qualitative studies that have been conducted in a specific are of interest, the experimental report is the most common form, one that you will employ when reporting the results of your own thesis or study. Its structure reflects the scientific method and the steps relate to the course your research project follows. It helps interested readers to quickly find the section they are looking for and as it is universally determined by the APA guidelines, it is easy to memorize since you will always have to follow the same structure. Thus, your paper should cover the following areas of interest:
- why is the topic so important and what the research question and problem is (covered in your introduction)
- what you did in order to approach and solve the problem/research question (covered in your method section
- your findings that will help make the academic world a little bit brighter (result section)
- such as the interpretation of your findings and posterior work should investigate in the future (covered in your discussion section)
Your paper should be typed, double-spaced on standard-sized paper (8.5″ x 11″) with 1″ margins on all sides. APA recommends you to use 12 pt Times New Roman as your font, since it is well readable. Nevertheless, make sure to check the guidelines for paper submission every journal has in order to prepare and structure your research work according to their wishes. If you refer to them, it might help you speeding up the reviewing process a little bit, since they will not have to make a large amount of technical corrections. In the following paragraph, the sections of a scientific paper are listed chronologically from the beginning of the paper to its end providing some short ideas on the core features that those sections should contain. Normally an experimental report consists of the following sections:
- The title page
The title page should contain the following important parameter: title of the paper, the author’s name, and the institutional affiliation. Type your title in upper and lowercase letters centered in the upper half of the page. APA recommends that your title be no more than 12 words in length and that it should not contain abbreviations or words that serve no purpose. Your title may take up one or two lines. All text on the title page, and throughout your paper, should be double-spaced.
All subsequent pages of your article should contain a running head that indicates the title of your paper in the left column of the page, like this:
TITLE OF YOUR PAPER
[Text you want to write on this page]
Beginning a new page after the first one introducing your research, your abstract page should already contain the above mentioned running head. On the first line of the abstract page, center the word “Abstract” (no bold, no formatting, italics, underlining, or quotation marks).
Beginning with the next line, write a concise summary of the key points of your research. (Do not indent.) Your abstract should contain at least your research topic, research questions, participants, methods, results, data analysis, and conclusions. Moreover, it should be a single paragraph double-spaced with a normal lenght of somewhat between 150 and 250 words.
You may also want to list keywords from your paper in your abstract. To do this, indent as you would if you were starting a new paragraph, type Keywords: (italicized), and then list your keywords. Listing your keywords will help researchers find your work in databases.
After having briefly described your entire research conducted in your paper, you can now focus on a more detailed presentation of the theoretical background of your research topic. Never forget to refer to the authors you received the theoretical information from and to enlist them later on in the reference list.
4. The method
This section will contain information about the participants of your experimental study, the research design you have employed, the procedure underlying your experiment (or whatever it is you did to collect some qualitative or quantitative data) such as a brief information about the analysis method (for instance: a two- factor ANOVA) you have used to analyze the data collected. Materials or questionnaires that you have presented the participants should be referred to briefly and added to the Appendix section at the end of your paper, because it would interrupt the flow of reading if you inserted it here.
5. The results
A description of the results you have obtained from your research is destined to be presented here. Sometimes, it is useful to present your results in a table or a figure, but they should simply be additional to the results you have mentioned in the text, not replacing it. Focus on a rather descriptive information about your results, since its discussion will follow in the next part.
6. The discussion
Since the result section is rather descriptive and you have suffered from not being able to reveal the brilliant interpretations, this is where you can impress the world out there or your supervisor with the conclusions you have drawn from your data analysis. Nevertheless, do not forget to include limitations and future research ideas in this section.
7. The reference list
Sometimes, you feel like the reference list and those thousands of different citation rules you have to stick to need an entire study programme on its own. It really is crazy, but those previous posts about referencing software and ideas could help you manage it.
8. Appendices (if you have any)
9.Tables and/or figures (if you have any that have been too large to insert already in the result section)
If all of those guidelines seem familiar to you, you have known already and frequently design the papers you write according to it, then you seem to be an APA genius. If this post helped you sort the diffuse ideas you had in your mind, you are more than welcome. But if there are some questions that remain unanswered, discuss them with us here or in our APA Questions and Answers tool here.
American Psychological Association. (2009). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington DC: Author.
As being part of EFPSA’s JEPS team, Sina Scherer works as JEPS Bulletin’s editor and is currently enrolled in the last year of her Master programme in Work and Organizational Psychology at the Westfälische Wilhelmsuniversität Münster. Her fields of interest cover the areas of Intercultural Psychology, Personality and Organizational Psychology such as Health Psychology.
Sina Scherer, studying at University of Münster, Germany, and University of Padova, Italy. I have previously worked as JEPS Bulletin Editor and am active in a NMUN project simulating the political work of the United Nations as voluntary work. I am interested in cognitive neuroscience and intercultural psychology, anthropology and organizational psychology (aspects of work-life balance, expatriation).