Module 5 Chapter 1: Parts of an Empirical Manuscript or Report

In Module 2 you learned about the different parts of an empirical article from the standpoint of critically reviewing them. The emphasis in this module is from the other side of the coin: how they are composed. The same sections are discussed: the title, abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and references. However, emphasis in this module is placed on writing issues, and how professional reports might differ from empirical manuscripts. In this chapter you will learn:

  • What to include in each section of a manuscript or report;
  • Important writing issues of language use and avoiding (accidental) plagiarism;

What to Include and Where

In this section, writers are coached about what pieces of information belong in each section of an empirical manuscript or professional report. A great deal of this information is available in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association 6thedition (APA, 2009).

Title. A good title conveys to readers what the manuscript or report is about. It is also no more than about 12 words in length. A good title is fairly specific and concrete rather than vague and general. Consider these “good” examples—note that each describes the main topic, methodology, and/or population addressed.

  • Understanding Latino grandparents raising grandchildren through a bioecological lens (Mendoza, Fruhauf, Bundy-Fazioli, & Weil, 2018)
  • Parent, teacher, and school stakeholder perspectives on adolescent pregnancy prevention programming for Latino youth. (Johnson-Motoyama et al., 2016).
  • Innovative ethics: Using animated videos when soliciting informed consent of young people for online surveys (McInroy, 2017).
  • Self-Identified strengths among youth offenders charged with assault against a non-intimate family member (Mengo et al., 2017).
  • Gender differences in pathways from child physical and sexual abuse to adolescent risky sexual behavior (Yoon, Voith, & Kobulsky, 2018).
  • Pathways to age-friendly communities in diverse urban neighborhoods: Do social capital and social cohesion matter? (Parekh, Maleku, Fields, Adomo, Schuman & Felderhoff, 2018).
  • Using social determinants of health to assess psychological distress and suicidal thoughts and behavior among youth on probation (Quinn, Liu, Kothari, Cerulli, & Thurston, in press).
  • The role of family financial socialization and financial management skills on youth saving behavior (Kagotho, Nabunya, Ssewamala, Mwangi, & Njenga, 2017).

Notice that these report titles include details about when or where the information relates:

  • 2015-2016 Ohio State’s LiFE Sports annual review. Columbus, OH: College of Social Work. Ohio State University (Anderson-Butcher, Wade-Mdivanian, Davis, Newman, & Lower, 2016).
  • Connecting Youth in Child Welfare to Behavioral Health Services in Franklin County: Provider Perspectives. Evaluation report written for Franklin County Children Services (OH), (Bunger, Robertson, Hoffman, & Cao, 2015).
  • Evaluation of Marathon County Community Response Program: Report to Marathon County Department of Social Services (Maguire-Jack & Campbell, 2015).

For more information, consult the Publication Manual (APA, 2009) on page 2.

Abstract or Executive SummaryAlthough the abstract or executive summary appears first to readers, it is one of the very last things written by the author(s). This is because it summarizes all the remaining information. For a manuscript (or professional conference presentation), an abstract allows readers to quickly review what the manuscript is about, to see if it is sufficiently relevant for them to continue reading the entire manuscript. A manuscript abstract is usually 150-200 words. Abstracts for professional conference presentation proposals vary in length, depending on the preferences of the conference organizers. Typically, they range from 200 to 500 words in length. The abstract typically follows the format of the manuscript: introduction, methods, results, and discussion. Hitting just the right balance between these sections of the abstract is important: the introduction and discussion each are usually only one or two sentences long, with the bulk of the space devoted to methods and results. In addition to the APA manual (APA, 2009), a useful resource is available on line:

On the other hand, if the written product is a professional report (to a funding agency or board, for example), then the abstract is replaced with an initial summary statement, often called an executive summary. Like the abstract, it highlights key points, especially a project’s process, results, and recommendations/implications. However, it is written in a more “bullet point” style, and less like a journal abstract. The report’s executive summary ideally fits on a single page. If you want to see some examples, search for “executive summary” or “technical report” samples.

For more information, consult the Publication Manual (APA, 2009) pages 25-27.

Introduction. The introduction to a manuscript is usually organized in the following manner:

  • An introduction of the topic or problem addressed—its background and significance (i.e., the problem dimensions, costs, impact on other problems, impact on which populations). This is the “so what” statement—why was it worth the effort to address this problem and why should readers care.
  • Summary of literature and prior research, with a critical review of what has been done, relevant theory, and important knowledge gaps.
  • Research questions and the rationale for them; if a quantitative study, hypotheses are also identified here.

A strong literature review and introduction to an empirical manuscript (adapted from John Elliott, an instructor at Ohio State University):

  • Is clearly organized
  • Flows logically
  • Uses primary literature sources
  • Specifies types of studies reviewed (qualitative, quantitative, mixed methods)
  • Includes recent studies, although classic studies can be included if they help set the stage
  • Provides a balanced appraisal of the material presented, not leaving out sources that might disagree with an author’s point of view and discussion of strengths/weaknesses of reviewed studies is balanced
  • Presents what is relevant for providing context related to the current issue/project, does not include the entire universe of possible materials
  • Provides a framework for what is known and what is not known
  • Leaves the reader aware of what has come before, what is needed, and why it is needed, and leads logically to the specific research questions and hypotheses.

A professional report, on the other hand, might rely less on the literature in the introduction (although the project should be informed by literature), emphasizing instead the background and context of the project’s initiation and development.

For more information, consult the Publication Manual (APA, 2009) pages 27-29.

Methodology. The methodology or methods section is written with the intent of describing for readers what was done to conduct the study so that (1) it could be replicated by another investigator and (2) evaluation of the methods can be performed by a reviewer or potential consumer of the evidence. This section typically begins with a brief introductory paragraph describing the study design and/or sources of data (e.g., if it is secondary or administrative data set, where the original data came from). It should be clear to a reader what “model” is being tested in a quantitative study (e.g., univariate descriptives or bivariate relationships between specified independent and dependent variables).

Next, the study participants are described along with details about their recruitment, including participation rates and sampling strategy where appropriate. The description includes information about numbers, characteristics, how they reflect or differ from the population they represent, and how many fit into each group or category if there were quantitative analyses conducted.

The next subsection of methods describes how data were collected—the measurement tools and procedures. These are described in terms of the variables that they represent (in quantitative projects) or in terms of qualitative methods employed. This section also describes any manipulation of the data that needed to be made (e.g., creating new variables out of measured variables or transcription of qualitative data, for example).

For more information, consult the Publication Manual (APA, 2009) pages 29-32.

Results or Findings. The art of writing the results section is to clearly and succinctly present the findings in an objective manner—this is not the place where the results are analyzed, interpreted, or critiqued (that is in the discussion section). This is the place to tell readers what was observed in the data collected. It is important that all relevant results be reported—those that fail to confirm hypotheses are just as important as those that confirm. The tables, graphs, and charts that you learned about in earlier sections of this course are valuable tools for reporting details; they replace the need to describe the details in the test of the manuscript or report. This section may need to explain HOW findings were generated (what analyses were conducted), in addition to WHAT the finding might have been. In a research manuscript, the label “results” is usually applied; in a professional report, the label might either be “results” or “findings.”

For more information, consult the Publication Manual (APA, 2009) pages 32-35. In addition, the Publication Manual provides a great amount of detailed advice concerning how to report numbers and statistics, as well as how to display results in tables and figures (pages 111-161).

Discussion or Recommendations. The final segment of an empirical manuscript is the author’s discussion of the study’s interpretation or analysis of the study and its results. It usually begins with a brief summary of key results and how they relate to the study aims initially presented in the introduction. Then, the results are discussed in terms of their implications for theory, future research, and/or practice. These conclusions need to be justified by the evidence presented in the study—it is not acceptable to reach far afield of what the data actually support. Included in the Discussion section is an analysis of any potential limitations of the study, such as the sample, the measurement tools, or the data quality. The Discussion section typically concludes with a statement of what the study contributes to knowledge and what more might need to be explored in the future. In a professional report, the focus of the concluding discussion is a bit different: it emphasizes specific recommendations based on the findings.

For more information, consult the Publication Manual (APA, 2009) pages 35-36.

Writing Tips

The APA (2009) Publication Manual discusses writing style for a manuscript that apply to most professional writing: write clearly, write concisely, and organize the content (see pages 61-70). One of the best ways to improve your professional writing is to read others’ manuscripts with an eye to style as well as to content. Several additional tips are worth considering, as well.

Verb Tenses.  For the most part, an empirical manuscript or professional report is written in the past tense. This is because the work has been completed. Even in summarizing the literature, past tense is preferable. For example, in their review of literature concerning integrative body, mind, and spirit practices in social work, the authors (Lee, Wang, Liu, Raheim, & Tebb, 2018) generated past-tense statements such as:

  • “Studies were identified through electronic databases…” (p. 252)
  • “The review process consisted of …” (p. 252), and
  • “The review process involved two independent reviewers rating each study” (p. 253).

Here is an example of confused verb tense (see underlined verbs), along with a reasonable repair:

Begun, Early and Hodge (2016) reported that 82.5% of women preparing for release from jail engagedin pre-incarceration substance misuse that placed them at risk of a substance use disorder; 64% areat very high risk.

Begun, Early and Hodge (2016) reported that 82.5% of women preparing for release from jail engagedin pre-incarceration substance misuse that placed them at risk of a substance use disorder; 64% wereat very high risk.

Regardless of your choice of verb tense, it is critically important that the tense be applied consistently.

Parallel construction. The concept of parallel construction applies at two different levels. First, it applies to the different sections of a manuscript or report. For example, if you describe three research questions or hypotheses in the introduction (1, 2, and 3), then it is important to maintain that structure in that order in the methods, results, and discussion sections, as well (i.e., 1, 2, 3 throughout). That structure becomes the skeleton on which the rest of the manuscript or report is built.

Second, parallel construction also applies to sentences. For example, if a sentence begins with a singular subject (e.g., a person) then the verb and other parts of the sentence need to be in the singular, as well (e.g., was, not were). Likewise, if a sentence begins with a plural subject (e.g., adolescents), the verb and other parts of the sentence need to be plural, too (are, not is). One more example of parallel construction: notice that the last two sentences are similarly constructed—the “bridge” word came first (i.e., For example and Likewise), followed by the “if” clause which was followed by a “then” clause.

Language use. In its most recent editions, the Publication Manual emphasized the importance of using language that is respectful, free from bias, and non-stigmatizing (APA, 2009, pp. 70-77). Reviewers, editors, and audiences are increasingly sensitive to the need for using language that reflects an appreciation for diversity, particularly as related to being inclusive around gender, age, race, ethnic group, national origin, religion/spirituality, sexual orientation, and residence, as well as other social, health, functional, and personal circumstances, conditions, or diversity (Begun, 2016; Broyles et al., 2014). For example, strong efforts are made to move away from stigmatizing terms like “mental retardation” and labels that identify people by diagnosis: mentally retarded, schizophrenic, addict, and epileptic. Instead, a predominating theme is to “put people first” by using terms such as “persons experiencing addiction” or “individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia.” In this way, we avoid making the diagnosis “be the person,” and instead make it a part of the person’s experience. In addition to avoiding the use of labels, the APA (2009) guidelines recommend avoiding describing groups in stigmatizing comparisons. The example they offered relates to comparing one group to a “normal” group, such as comparing lesbians to “normal women” or “the general public” is inappropriate.

This awareness of language use in social work professional writing extends beyond diagnosis. Reducing bias, stigma, and microaggression that stems from careless use of language is an important goal. One strategy recommended in the APA (2009) Publication Manual is to ask persons from the groups represented in a manuscript or report what terms are preferred and to have them review what is written for the presence of inadvertent bias. For example, staff in an Africentric program may wish to avoid the term Afrocentric, believing the latter relates to a hairstyle and the former describes a program grounded in African cultural traditions (i.e., the seven core principles of Kwanzaa being Umoja, Kujichagulia Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani). Others may prefer the term Afrocentric, believing that there is no such word as Africentric. Both groups may prefer these terms to being described as an African American program. As another example, in reference to designated parking, many individuals prefer the term “accessible parking” rather than “handicapped parking” because the emphasis is on the accommodation rather than the disability.

The APA (2009) guidelines also suggest describing compared groups using parallel terms. They gave the example of unparalleled nouns: man and wife. This is considered problematic because the woman is described only in terms of her relationship to the man; preferable is the use of parallel terms, such as man and woman or husband and wife. Or, a non-gendered term like “spouse” might be appropriate.

Paraphrasing and citing. It is always important to avoid plagiarism. Period. Always. Knowing how to paraphrase and cite your sources are two skills to help avoid accidental plagiarism. Here is an example of paraphrasing with the use of citation. In the original article, the authors (Mengo & Black, 2015, p. 244) wrote:

Sexual victimization appears to have a stronger negative impact on students’ academic performance than physical/verbal victimization.

A first choice for applying this information in your own writing is to use it as a direct quote with an appropriate citation. For example:

Mengo and Black (2015) concluded that, “Sexual victimization appears to have a stronger negative impact on students’ academic performance than physical/verbal victimization” (p. 244).

Because it is a direct quotation, the page number is also cited. However, the APA (2009) publication manual discourages over-use of direct quotes. Used too often, they create a choppy, poorly integrated result. Sometimes a previous author has stated something so perfectly that a direct quote is desirable. Most of the time, you will need to convert your references to others’ work by paraphrasing. Here is the example paraphrased and accompanied by the proper citation:

Students’ academic performance is more negatively affected by sexual victimization than by victimization through acts of physical or verbal violence (Mengo & Black, 2015).

Formatting citations. In the APA style, citations are either “in text” or “parenthetical” in nature. The first example shows how an “in text” citation is formatted. The authors’ names are connected using the word “and” since you are reading it as part of sentence, and the publication date appears in parentheses (2015). The second example shows how a “parenthetical” citation is formatted. Notice here that the authors’ names are combined with the “&” sign, not the work “and”’ also, their names appear in the set of parentheses along with the publication date of their article. The paraphrased statement ends with a period afterthe reference citation in parentheses. Many students believe that formatting citations is the main contribution of the APA (2009) style guidelines. While this is covered (p. 169-192), there are many other important style tips and formatting guidelines presented in the manual.

References. The full reference for any citation appears in the reference list at the end of your manuscript or report. References are placed in alphabetical order by the first author; initials are used rather than full first names. Here is the reference listing for our example’s citation:

Mengo, C., & Black, B.M. (2015). Violence victimization on a college campus: Impact on GPA and school dropout. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 18(2), 234-248.

If you check the reference list at the end of this module, you will see this reference is placed ahead of the next entry authored by the same first author, Mengo, Lee, Bolton, Lehmann, & Jordan (2017). Similarly, you will see that the reference for Begun, Early, and Hodge (2016) comes after the reference for Begun (2016) but before the reference for Begun and Rose (2007). This is because the second author’s names are the next step in alphabetizing the references.

The format requirements for articles, books, book chapters, websites, news or magazine articles, and other sources are presented in the APA (2009) publication manual (see pages 193-216). On line resources are also available to help with formatting references, one of the most commonly used is called Purdue Owl, distributed by Purdue University through the website _format.html.

Stop and Think

For each item identify if the paraphrasing is appropriate for writing your own manuscript or report (True) or not (False). The paraphrasing is based on the following material published in an article by Doogan and Warren (2017, p. 1430). The article reports findings from a social network analysis into the dynamics of communication exchanges between group members participating in therapeutic community (TC) sessions as part of residential treatment while incarcerated.

These findings support the TC use of the community of peers as the method of treatment (De Leon, 2000). They suggest that the best way for TC clinical staff to foster an active unit is to encourage residents to intervene with each other. The increased likelihood of residents to correct peers after receiving a peer affirmation supports De Leon’s (2000) claim that affirmations serve to energize residents and increase program participation. Finally, this pattern fits the definition of generalized reciprocity; residents who have received help from peers show a tendency to pass it along (Molm, Collett & Schafer, 2007, Stanca, 2009), perhaps because they feel an increase in their own positive feelings (Isen & Levin, 1972). There is evidence that generalized reciprocity increases feelings of self-competence (Alvarez & van Leeuwen, 2015). Generalized reciprocity in response to peer affirmations may therefore promote positive clinical outcomes.

Chapter Summary

This chapter identified what content belongs in which sections of an empirical manuscript or professional report. Additionally, important tips about writing professionally were presented, with specific attention to using language free of bias and stigma. Writers were repeatedly referred to the information presented in the APA (2009) Publication Manual since the guidelines for writing in APA style are applied prevalently in social work.


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Social Work 3401 Coursebook Copyright © by Dr. Audrey Begun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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