Is Psychology A Science Essay Format

APA and Scientific Style

The ultimate guide to APA style is the APA style guide, now in its 6th edition. It’s a thick book covering just about every question regarding formatting a paper that a writer might encounter. Given the advent of the Internet, though, not even the APA can publish changes fast enough, so they provide additional formatting help at APA Style, Not all the rules are provided here, just the most recent changes.

If you need all the rules – or most that you can think of – I’d recommend the site Research and Documentation Online, featuring Diana Hacker – A variety of drop down menus and sample papers provide you with virtually everything you need in terms of formatting. The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue is also really good (just put “owl purdue” in the Google search box). If you don’t like those, a quick web search for “APA style” will bring up a zillion possible other sites to mine for instructions.

Some notes on scientific style

  1. Scientific prose is written in the 3rd person; first person is used occasionally ("I" or "we") and NO second person is used ("you/your").  
  2. Keep your tone objective and vocabulary as straightforward as possible. Use jargon and technical terms as needed.  
  3. Do not quote from the article.  In fact, do not quote at all when writing science. 
  4. Finally, there are no extraneous sentences in scientific writing -- no fancy set-up for the next section, no fluff, no repetition.  Each and every sentence is supposed to add something new that the reader must know to best understand the writer's research.

Understanding how to Cite

You doubtlessly noticed while reading the articles that many of the sentences are followed by in-text citations. In-text citations (hereafter "citations") are how the writer of an article tells the reader where to find the sources the writer used -- citations provide the intellectual history supporting a particular piece of research.  In science writing, the credibility and authority of an article is partly established through the use of citations; if there are no citations, then the article is an editorial (though many of those use citations, too) or is plagiarized.  

The use of citations in science writing -- how they are actually incorporated into text -- is the first cultural convention governing communication to trip up most young scientific writers.  We all know that we are supposed to use sources and to cite them properly, but the humanities-oriented education we received in high school has not prepared us for how to cite correctly in science.  Ideologically, the process is explained as "joining the great scientific conversation" -- this is wonderful, and true, but doesn't help you make the correct choices when having to add citations to text and avoid being accused of plagiarism, intentional or unintentional.  

Here's a more practical means of understanding citation behavior in scientific prose: in science, every sentence has intellectual history. Citation is the behavior that makes the intellectual history explicit/known. 

If every sentence has intellectual history associated with it, then every sentence gets cited.  There are only 2 ways that a sentence can end --> either with or without an explicit citation. The presence or absence of an actual citation is the clue that tells the reader about the source.  So, a sentence either has a citation written after it or does not: 

    If the sentence a has citation written at the end, then the writer is attributing the information to the source/s indicated in the citation. Because intellectual history must be made immediately following the sentence, citations are provided after first mention in a text.

    If a sentence does NOT have a citation written at the end, then one of 3 conditions are true: 1) the sentence is common knowledge and requires no citation; 2) the sentence is a clear and unambiguous continuation of the previous sentence (common when discussing methods and results of studies); 3) the sentence is an original contribution by the writer, and subsquent to publication, all references to this piece of information must be attributed to the writer of the paper.

Only cite what you have read
Frequently, you will come across useful information attributed to another researcher in a paper you are reading – who do you cite? Since citations are a record of what you have actually read, you only cite the papers that you have read yourself. You have two choices at this point. Find the article that is referred to and read it yourself or use a “pointing” strategy to keep the citation clear and honest. For example, if Johnson is the author of the paper you read and Everett the author of the paper cited in the paper you read, then the citation needs to point to Everett in some way. Here are a couple of possibilities: “According to Everett (in Johnson, 2007, 137), blah blah blah” or “Blah, Blah, Blah (Everett, in Johnson, 2007, 137)”. In both cases, explicit mention is made of the fact that you are referring to Johnson’s representation of Everett rather than Everett’s original paper. If you are referring to a quote that you then want to quote, then follow the pattern above, but specify the nature of the quotation: “Johnson (2007) quotes Everett as writing “‘blah blah blah’” (137)”. Note that there are single quotes within the double quotes.

Quoting is discouraged in scientific writing
Another curious cultural ideal in the science writing world is the covert belief that language is just another tool to be used for the scientific enterprise. If there were a more efficient, clear, precise communicative process at our disposal, we’d use it, but since language is all we have, words are what we use. Thus, in the sciences in general, quotes are used sparingly. In fact, avoid quoting except for very specific rhetorical purposes: quote when you very much want to argue for something or against something. These are the cases where the exact language of the original source is important. The use of original language because you cannot figure out how to paraphrase it and the author/s said it so well is not an acceptable reason to quote. If you cannot imagine a paraphrase, you have 2 jobs to do. First, you must find simpler sources – often secondary ones – and study the idea again until you better understand it. Second, you must synthesize sources so that you are not relying so much on a single paper to get an idea across.

Cite after first mention
Unlike other traditions, in science, cite immediately after the first sentence from a source, even if the next few sentences will be from the same source. Remember, to the reader of science, each and every sentence should have intellectual history attached to it. If there is no citation at the end of the sentence, the assumption is that the idea belongs to the writer (you are the beginning of the intellectual history of the idea). Every sentence—every idea – belonging to another source should include a citation. If after the first citation, the following sentence obviously belongs to the same source because there is a clear, logical connection (chronological, process, test-result, etc), then you do not have to cite again. If an entire paragraph is from a single source, cite after the first sentence, somewhere in the middle, and at the end, so it is utterly clear where the information comes from. Generally, you should not be writing whole paragraphs from a single source, but if you are explaining the history of an idea or a particular methodology, then it may happen.

Only include page numbers for quotes or very specific information
Generally speaking, the only time in APA style that you need to provide a page number is if you are quoting directly. Sometimes, though, you might reference a piece of very specific information – a result or particular claim, for instance – in which case it is a courtesy to provide the reader with the page number so they can find it for themselves quickly.

Every writing culture that you learn feels weird at first. Science is no different. Poets write in iambic pentameter, but talk over cups of coffee in regular conversations. When you write in iambic pentameter, you participate in the culture of the poet, however briefly. Scientists write according to the conventions of scientific writing, in formats that have evolved over many generations of discovery. When you write a research report, you participate in the culture of the discipline to which you have contributed, and become part of the long history that is science.


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Writing in Psychology Overview


Written for undergraduate students and new graduate students in psychology (experimental), this handout provides information on writing in psychology and on experimental report and experimental article writing.

Contributors:Dana Lynn Driscoll, Aleksandra Kasztalska
Last Edited: 2013-03-12 09:53:54

Psychology is based on the study of human behaviors. As a social science, experimental psychology uses empirical inquiry to help understand human behavior. According to Thrass and Sanford (2000), psychology writing has three elements: describing, explaining, and understanding concepts from a standpoint of empirical investigation.

Discipline-specific writing, such as writing done in psychology, can be similar to other types of writing you have done in the use of the writing process, writing techniques, and in locating and integrating sources. However, the field of psychology also has its own rules and expectations for writing; not everything that you have learned in about writing in the past works for the field of psychology.

Writing in psychology includes the following principles:

  • Using plain language: Psychology writing is formal scientific writing that is plain and straightforward. Literary devices such as metaphors, alliteration, or anecdotes are not appropriate for writing in psychology.
  • Conciseness and clarity of language: The field of psychology stresses clear, concise prose. You should be able to make connections between empirical evidence, theories, and conclusions. See our OWL handout on conciseness for more information.
  • Evidence-based reasoning: Psychology bases its arguments on empirical evidence. Personal examples, narratives, or opinions are not appropriate for psychology.
  • Use of APA format: Psychologists use the American Psychological Association (APA) format for publications. While most student writing follows this format, some instructors may provide you with specific formatting requirements that differ from APA format.

Types of writing

Most major writing assignments in psychology courses consists of one of the following two types.

Experimental reports: Experimental reports detail the results of experimental research projects and are most often written in experimental psychology (lab) courses. Experimental reports are write-ups of your results after you have conducted research with participants. This handout provides a description of how to write an experimental report .

Critical analyses or reviews of research: Often called "term papers," a critical analysis of research narrowly examines and draws conclusions from existing literature on a topic of interest. These are frequently written in upper-division survey courses. Our research paper handouts provide a detailed overview of how to write these types of research papers.

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