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Psychology Research Guide

What is Empirical Research?

Empirical research is based on observed and measured phenomena and derives knowledge from actual experience rather than from theory or belief. 

How do you know if a study is empirical? Read the subheadings within the article, book, or report and look for a description of the research "methodology." Ask yourself: Could I recreate this study and test these results?

Key characteristics to look for:

  • Specific research questions to be answered
  • Definition of the population, behavior, or phenomena being studied
  • Description of the process used to study this population or phenomena, including selection criteria, controls, and testing instruments (such as surveys)

Another hint: some scholarly journals use a specific layout, called the "IMRaD" format, to communicate empirical research findings. Such articles typically have 4 components:

  • Introduction: sometimes called "literature review" -- what is currently known about the topic -- usually includes a theoretical framework and/or discussion of previous studies
  • Methodology: sometimes called "research design" -- how to recreate the study -- usually describes the population, research process, and analytical tools
  • Results: sometimes called "findings" -- what was learned through the study -- usually appears as statistical data or as substantial quotations from research participants
  • Discussion: sometimes called "conclusion" or "implications" -- why the study is important -- usually describes how the research results influence professional practices or future studies

Adapted from PennState University Libraries, Empirical Research in the Social Sciences and Education

Finding Empirical Research

Empirical research is published in books and in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. Keep in mind that most library databases do not offer straightforward ways to identifying empirical research.

Finding Empirical Research in PsycINFO

Finding Empirical Research in PubMed

Finding Empirical Research in Library OneSearch & Google Scholar

These tools do not have a method for locating empirical research. Using "empirical" as a keyword will find some studies, but miss many others. Consider using one of the more specialized databases above.

What is Peer Review?

This refers to the process where authors who are doing research submit a paper they have written to a journal. The journal editor then sends the article to the author's peers (researchers and scholars) who are in the same discipline for review. The reviewers determine if the article should be published based on the quality of the research, including the validity of the data, the conclusions the authors' draw and the originality of the research. This process is important because it validates the research and gives it a sort of "seal of approval" from others in the research community.

Identifying a Journal is Peer-Reviewed

One of the best places to find out if a journal is peer-reviewed is to go to the journal website.

Most publishers have a website for a journal that tells you about the journal, how authors can submit an article, and what the process is for getting published.

If you find the journal website, look for the link that says information for authors, instructions for authors, submitting an article or something similar.

Finding Peer-Reviewed Articles

Start in a library database. Look for a peer-review or scholarly filter.