Finding Empirical Research for Psychology
For any kind of classroom assignments, but especially graduate or doctoral level research, it is important to search subject indexes like PsycINFO and PubMed to locate enough logical and empirical resources that would help you establish the merit and importance of your own research.
The goal is to locate empirical research that provides systematic observation about your topic. You want primary resources that provide detailed reports on the methodology used and the findings. You are most likely to locate scholarly resources in refereed (peer-reviewed) journals, dissertations, government reports, books, and conference papers in the professional literature. You should avoid secondary resources such as newspaper or magazine articles, web sites, or digests that simply summarize research in the literature review unless there is a compelling reason to include a resource.
It is very important to remember that each database has its own vocabulary, therefore different subject headings or descriptors. Use the Thesaurus or Subject index for that particular database to guide you to relevant terms.
So what exactly is Empirical Research?
Empirical research is based on observed and measured phenomena and derives knowledge from actual experience rather than from theory or belief.
Key characteristics to look for:
- Statement about the methodology being used
- Research questions to be answered
- Definition of the group or phenomena being studied
- Process used to study this group or phenomena, including any controls or instruments such as tests or surveys
- Question to ask while reading: Could I recreate this study and test these results?
- The abstract of the article should provide a description of the methodology
How do you find empirical research on your topic?
Empirical research is published in books and scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. Gleeson Library has several psychology and sociology databases you can use to locate peer-reviewed articles from scholarly journals.
In PsycINFO, select Empirical Study from the Methodology menu
In other databases, add the phrase (research or study) to your search
Some empirical studies rely on the analysis of data sets collected by other agencies or institutions (e.g. medicaid data, hospitals, state or regional government agencies). This is called secondary data.
If you are looking for original research or studies carried out with a particular population (i.e. human subjects) and do not want to have studies using secondary data, you can add these terms in parentheses . . . (participants or outcomes) . . . to one of the search boxes, along with (research or study).
Finding appropriate search terms
use Indexes (AU) to search by author last name, first initial
use Thesaurus, Relevancy Ranked (PsycINFO) or Subject Terms, Relevancy Ranked (SocINDEX with Full Text) to see what subject terms can be used for your topic
Limiting to studies done in the United States
PsycINFO: Use the drop-down menu in a search box to select PL Location. Enter US in the search box
SocINDEX with Fulltext: enter keywords in parentheses (united states)
PubMed: enter keywords in quotations "united states"
Other types of research articles
There are two other major types of journal articles that discuss research: review articles and theoretical articles.
Review articles are further examinations of research that has already been published.
A research review can describe a phenomenon, review an existing theory or present a new one. One example is a critical evaluation of how one theory accounts for some data as compared to some other theory.
Whatever the kind of review, the goal is to organize, integrate, and evaluate previous research in order to clarify a particular problem or issue. In PsycINFO, both Literature Review and Systematic Review are in this category.
Theoretical articles are written to advance theory and they may include both discussions of empirical research and reviews of research in order to elaborate the theoretical position.
Components of Empirical Research
You should become familiar with the format of an article reporting on original research so that you can recognize an empirical study even if you come across it in your reading (i.e. without using a library database to assist you in limiting to this type of journal article).
There are several different sections of reports of empirical studies relating to the different steps of the scientific method:
- Abstract – A report of an empirical study includes an abstract that provides a very brief summary of the research.
- Introduction – The introduction sets the research in a context, which provides a review of related research and develops the hypotheses for the research.
- Method – The method section is a description of how the research was conducted, including who the participants were, the design of the study, what the participants did, and what measures were used.
- Results – The results section describes the outcomes of the measures of the study.
- Discussion – The discussion section contains the interpretations and implications of the study.
- General Discussion – There may be more than one study in the report; in this case, there are usually separate Method and Results sections for each study followed by a general discussion that ties all the research together.
- References - A references section contains information about the articles and books cited in the report.
The following is an example of an empirical study:
Moretti, F., De Ronchi, D., Bernabei, V., Marchetti, L., Ferrari, B., Forlani, C., & ... Atti, A. R. (2011). Pet therapy in elderly patients with mental illness. Psychogeriatrics, 11(2), 125-129. doi:10.1111/j.1479-8301.2010.00329.x
Click through this LINK to see the record in PsycINFO and access the pdf full text article.
Data Gathering Methodologies
gathers data in numerical form which can be put into categories, in rank order, or measured in units of measurement. This type of data can be used to construct graphs and tables of raw data.
Experiments typically yield quantitative data, as they are concerned with measuring things. However, other research methods, such as observations and questionnaires can produce both quantitative and qualitative information.
For example, a rating scale (e.g. select a number from 1 to 10) or closed questions on a questionnaire (e.g. “yes”, “no” answers) would generate quantitative data as these produce either numerical data or data that can be put into categories.
In contrast, open-ended questions asking for narrative answers would generate qualitative information as they are a descriptive response.
Quantitative (database scope note/definition):
PsycINFO: Form of research methodology in which experimental variables and relationships are assigned numerical value. Used only when the methodology or research itself is the focus of discussion.
SocINDEX: Works on research methods that examine phenomenon through the numerical representation of observations and statistical analysis. [see: Qualitative research for works on research methods that seek insights through loosely structured data, written or spoken, rather than specific measurements, resulting in analysis that is interpretative, subjective, impressionistic and diagnostic.]
gathers information that is not in numerical form. For example, diary accounts, open-ended questionnaires, unstructured interviews and unstructured observations. Qualitative data is typically descriptive data and as such is harder to analyze than quantitative data.
Qualitative research is useful for studies at the individual level, and to find out, in depth, the ways in which people think, feel or respond (e.g. case studies).
Analysis of qualitative data can be difficult and requires accurate description of participant responses -- for example, sorting responses to open questions and interviews into broad themes. Quotations from diaries or interviews might be used to illustrate points of analysis.
Expert knowledge of an area is necessary to try to interpret qualitative data and great care must be taken when doing so, for example, if looking for symptoms of mental illness.
A good example of a qualitative research method would be unstructured and group interviews which generate qualitative data through the use of open questions. This allows the respondent to talk in some depth, choosing their own words. This helps the researcher develop a real sense of a person’s understanding of a situation. However, it can be time consuming to conduct the unstructured interview and analyze the qualitative data.
Qualitative (database scope note/definition):
PsycINFO: A type of research methodology that produces descriptive data, with little emphasis given to numerical quantification. Used only when the methodology or research itself is the focus of discussion.
SocINDEX: Works on research methods that seek insights through loosely structured data, written or spoken, rather than specific or numerical measurements, resulting in analysis that is interpretative, subjective, impressionistic and diagnostic. Works on specific strategies used in service of qualitative research are entered under such narrower terms as "Conversation analysis" or "Interviews." [see: Quantitative research for works on research methods that examine phenomenon through the numerical representation of observations and statistical analysis.]
Types of Data
Primary and Secondary Data
Primary data is data that one collects through different methods, including direct observation, surveys, interviews, experiments, and logs. Primary data is more reliable than secondary data because a person knows the source it is coming from -- the researcher is the primary data collection instrument.
Secondary data is data from an external source, that someone else has already collected. Research using this type of data is usually described as a retrospective review or retrospective study. The data utilized can be administrative datasets; survey information or demographic information from sources such as the annual census; a company’s health and safety records such as their injury rates; or other government statistical information such as the number of workers in different sectors across the country. The main issue with secondary data is, because it was gathered for other purposes, you may need to tease out the information to find what you’re looking for.
Robinson, J., & Tian, Y. (2014). Secondary Data Analysis. In T. L. Thompson (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Health Communication (Vol. 3, pp. 1220-1222). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference. To read, go here
Schutt, Russell K. "Secondary Data Analysis." Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Blackwell Reference Online. To read, go here
For further descriptions of primary and secondary data, see:
National EMSC Data Analysis Resource Center [EMSC = Emergency Medical Services for Children]
An example of a study using secondary data can be found through this record in PsycINFO; use the Full Text Finder link to locate the article:
Liljegren, M., Naasan, G., Temlett, J., Perry, D. C., Rankin, K. P., Merrilees, J., & ... Miller, B. L. (2015). Criminal behavior in frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer disease. JAMA Neurology, 72(3), 295-300. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2014.3781
Or, the article is freely available on the JAMA Neurology website here
Note: primary and secondary data is different than primary and secondary sources. See the Psychology Research home page for a discussion of sources.
Empirical research and evidence-based treatment (or practice)
Empirical research in psychology and social psychology aim primarily to measure the efficacy (i.e., under carefully controlled conditions) or effectiveness (i.e., under more generalizable conditions) of therapeutic treatments and/or interventions.
Evidence-based treatment (EBT) or Evidence-based practice in psychology (EBPP) is the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture, and preferences. The purpose of EBPP is to promote effective psychological practice and enhance public health by applying empirically supported principles of psychological assessment, case formulation, therapeutic relationship, and intervention. [see: APA Evidence-based Practice in Psychology and APA Policy statement on evidence-based practice in psychology]
An example of an empirically based psychological intervention is ACT or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a unique and creative model for both therapy and coaching, based on the innovative use of mindfulness and values.The aim of ACT is to maximize human potential for a rich, full and meaningful life; to cultivate health, vitality and well-being through mindful values-based living. The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) website has more information on the empirical evidence on which it is based.
See documents pertaining to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that include measures on the Tests and Measures page.
A Word about Literature Reviews
Sometimes a class assignment will be to “do a literature review.” Lit reviews are also part of research reports, usually in the introduction where a discussion of previous research is included.
When carrying out this assignment, students usually want to know how many articles they need to review and how many resources should be included in the literature review.
Whether it is part of an essay, thesis or dissertation or you are preparing a literature review as a separate project, what you should ask yourself is, “Why am I including this study or reference?”
The resources you select will help build an argument for the methods and interpretations you employ in your research paper. It is important to remember that you be comprehensive and that the reviews you use are up to date. The literature review should also demonstrate that you have a thorough command of your field.
But, remember, showing that you have a command of the literature in your area of interest does not mean that you need to provide a catalog of every article ever written on your topic. Consider what aspects of the topic you are specifically focusing on so that you can select the appropriate database, and can narrow your search down to a manageable 50-100 resources that you will want to start taking a look at (you won’t necessarily be including all 50-100). The literature review is meant to provide a coherent argument that justifies the value, importance, and need for your study.
Gleeson Library has a help guide on How to Write a Literature Review