Finding & Using Journal Articles

  • By Dr. Janet Waters

    Academic or Scholarly Sources

    Before writing a paper on a topic in Psychology, you will have to know how to find acceptable scholarly sources of information. Because popularized reports of scientific research are often abbreviated, inaccurate or sensationalized, you must know how to find and read the original source material. It is important to know the difference between a popularized report that is not acceptable as a reference for a psychology paper, and an academic or "cite-able" source. For example, if you want to write a paper on stress, academic sources include psychology journal articles, or a scholarly review of research on stress factors, written or edited by a psychologists. You will find these sources in your university library and its database. On the web, sites published by academic institutions or professional organizations (like APA) or journal publishers usually are acceptable academic sources.

    Unacceptable Sources for a Psychology paper

    Unless specifically required by your instructor, self-help books found in your local public library, and magazine or newspaper articles are not usually acceptable sources, as they are often written by non-psychologists for the general public. This is also true of web sites published by an organization or individual who does not have a psychology background. Even journal articles from non-psychology scientific sources may not be acceptable for a psychology paper. Some instructors will accept Discover or Scientific American Mind magazines. Do check with your instructor for both these sources, as some do not accept them for a paper in psychology. If in doubt about the credibility of your source, check with your instructor.

    Researching your paper topic

    Let's say you have chosen your topic - for example, the concept of "hardiness" in the topic of stress management. You might occasionally be able to find a textbook on your topic in your university library. However, that is unlikely for specific topics like this. Fortunately, you are not limited to texts. Our library database includes PsycINFO and PsycARTICLES which you can search for journal articles, the original published peer-reviewed reports of empirical studies. Many of these journal articles are accessible as a full text, or available through interlibrary loan, or occasionally on the journal's web site.

    Journal Articles:

    As a science, psychology bases its theories and assertions on empirical research. These are published in journals, which are peer-reviewed. This ensures that unfounded or poorly conducted studies will not be included, a safeguard that is missing when you read "non-citable" sources like newspapers or magazines, or non-professional web sites. In those cases, there is nothing to prevent the publication of what is essentially a S.S.O.P (someone's stupid opinion).

    Trying to find a few articles on your topic of hardiness, among the thousands of journal articles published yearly, would be an impossible task without the help of computerized databases like PsycINFO, which includes the "Abstracts", or summaries, of every published psychology journal article. Any topic, subject, or author can be tracked down virtually instantly through a computerized search of PsycINFO. Learning how to use PsycINFO is therefore an essential skill for Psychology students.

    Journal Article Search:

    This tutorial is therefore designed to guide you to finding and accessing journal articles in psychology.

    To practice accessing the PsycINFO database (a database of abstracts of psychological research, which you search by author, subject or keywords), do a search for the topic hardiness. On the Capilano Library web site, click on the Databases link. Then on that web page type PsycInfo in the "Find databases" window. 

    1. a) In PsycINFO, do a basic search for the topic of hardiness. How many hits did you obtain?

    b) Narrow your search criteria by scrolling down and clicking "Subject" in the left column. Check the box for the keyword stress. How many hits did you obtain once the program updates? Notice how you decreased the number of hits by becoming more specific about your topic. 

    c) If you know the researcher's name, you can access their research more quickly through an author search. Click "Advanced Search" and do an author search for the hardiness researcher, Suzanne Kobasa. (Hink: select "AU Author" from the drop-down list).

    d) In your hardiness and stress search results, in the Limit To list in the left column, click on Scholarly (Peer-Reviewed) Journals to limit your search to a peer-reviewed journal, not a book or dissertation, and limit the year range from 1975 to current.

    e) Then pick one of the articles listed, access and read the abstract.  

     2. Write out the full APA reference citation for this abstract. Then, from reading this abstract, summarize the following:

    a) What was the purpose of this study? What were the principal variables?
    b) What kind of study was it? Correlational, experimental, etc.?
    c) What statistic was used to analyze the results?
    d) In one sentence, what did the study find?

    3. From any of your searches, pick out 2 other references that are all journal articles (not books or dissertations). List these 2 references in correct APA reference citation style. If the article is not available as a Full Text (either HTML or as a pdf), it might be available through an Interlibrary Loan. 

    Make sure your references are academic psychology references (hint: the publication would be a psychology journal, not a medical journal, or magazine).

    Reading Psychology Journal Articles:

    As you may have already noticed, journal articles can be quite technical, as they are written for other psychologists and assume a background in the language and concepts of psychology. Many of these will become more understandable as you continue to take courses in psychology. However, don't despair; you don't necessarily need a graduate degree to understand the basic hypothesis, the variables and method, and the important findings presented in the journal article. This tutorial will give you practice in reading and understanding the main points of interest in a journal article of empirical research.

    Access and read one of the journal articles of research you found in the previous tutorial.

    Questions to analyze your article: Summarize briefly - about 1-2 sentences at most for each question.

    Introduction: a) Read the Introduction section. Summarize in one paragraph the findings of past research that is the foundation for the present study.
    b) At the end of the Introduction, the researchers will provide the rationale for their study. Summarize their research question(s) or hypothesis.

    Method: a) Participants: Overall, what participants comprised the sample of the study? What effect might sample bias (from participant characteristics) have had on the research?
    b) Materials: What measures were used to assess the variables?
    c) Procedure: What were the variables? What research method was used (eg correlation vs experiment?) What statistics were used to analyze the data?

    Results: a) Briefly, what did the researchers find regarding their hypothesis or research question(s)? What was their most important finding?
    b) State the difference, means, t-test or correlation (eg r=....) & the alpha level (p< ....) and summarize the finding in your own words.
    c) What is meant when they say a relationship is significant at p<.01?

    Discussion: a) Summarize the researchers' conclusions presented in the Discussion section, in which they interpret their findings in light of past research and theory (reviewed in the Introduction).
    b) Identify two of the limitations of the study raised by the researchers that suggests the need for future research.
    c) What ethical concerns might one have about this study?

    ©Janet Waters