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Writing Research Papers

  • Research Paper Structure

Whether you are writing a B.S. Degree Research Paper or completing a research report for a Psychology course, it is highly likely that you will need to organize your research paper in accordance with American Psychological Association (APA) guidelines.  Here we discuss the structure of research papers according to APA style.

Major Sections of a Research Paper in APA Style

A complete research paper in APA style that is reporting on experimental research will typically contain a Title page, Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, and References sections. 1  Many will also contain Figures and Tables and some will have an Appendix or Appendices.  These sections are detailed as follows (for a more in-depth guide, please refer to " How to Write a Research Paper in APA Style ”, a comprehensive guide developed by Prof. Emma Geller). 2

What is this paper called and who wrote it? – the first page of the paper; this includes the name of the paper, a “running head”, authors, and institutional affiliation of the authors.  The institutional affiliation is usually listed in an Author Note that is placed towards the bottom of the title page.  In some cases, the Author Note also contains an acknowledgment of any funding support and of any individuals that assisted with the research project.

One-paragraph summary of the entire study – typically no more than 250 words in length (and in many cases it is well shorter than that), the Abstract provides an overview of the study.

Introduction

What is the topic and why is it worth studying? – the first major section of text in the paper, the Introduction commonly describes the topic under investigation, summarizes or discusses relevant prior research (for related details, please see the Writing Literature Reviews section of this website), identifies unresolved issues that the current research will address, and provides an overview of the research that is to be described in greater detail in the sections to follow.

What did you do? – a section which details how the research was performed.  It typically features a description of the participants/subjects that were involved, the study design, the materials that were used, and the study procedure.  If there were multiple experiments, then each experiment may require a separate Methods section.  A rule of thumb is that the Methods section should be sufficiently detailed for another researcher to duplicate your research.

What did you find? – a section which describes the data that was collected and the results of any statistical tests that were performed.  It may also be prefaced by a description of the analysis procedure that was used. If there were multiple experiments, then each experiment may require a separate Results section.

What is the significance of your results? – the final major section of text in the paper.  The Discussion commonly features a summary of the results that were obtained in the study, describes how those results address the topic under investigation and/or the issues that the research was designed to address, and may expand upon the implications of those findings.  Limitations and directions for future research are also commonly addressed.

List of articles and any books cited – an alphabetized list of the sources that are cited in the paper (by last name of the first author of each source).  Each reference should follow specific APA guidelines regarding author names, dates, article titles, journal titles, journal volume numbers, page numbers, book publishers, publisher locations, websites, and so on (for more information, please see the Citing References in APA Style page of this website).

Tables and Figures

Graphs and data (optional in some cases) – depending on the type of research being performed, there may be Tables and/or Figures (however, in some cases, there may be neither).  In APA style, each Table and each Figure is placed on a separate page and all Tables and Figures are included after the References.   Tables are included first, followed by Figures.   However, for some journals and undergraduate research papers (such as the B.S. Research Paper or Honors Thesis), Tables and Figures may be embedded in the text (depending on the instructor’s or editor’s policies; for more details, see "Deviations from APA Style" below).

Supplementary information (optional) – in some cases, additional information that is not critical to understanding the research paper, such as a list of experiment stimuli, details of a secondary analysis, or programming code, is provided.  This is often placed in an Appendix.

Variations of Research Papers in APA Style

Although the major sections described above are common to most research papers written in APA style, there are variations on that pattern.  These variations include: 

  • Literature reviews – when a paper is reviewing prior published research and not presenting new empirical research itself (such as in a review article, and particularly a qualitative review), then the authors may forgo any Methods and Results sections. Instead, there is a different structure such as an Introduction section followed by sections for each of the different aspects of the body of research being reviewed, and then perhaps a Discussion section. 
  • Multi-experiment papers – when there are multiple experiments, it is common to follow the Introduction with an Experiment 1 section, itself containing Methods, Results, and Discussion subsections. Then there is an Experiment 2 section with a similar structure, an Experiment 3 section with a similar structure, and so on until all experiments are covered.  Towards the end of the paper there is a General Discussion section followed by References.  Additionally, in multi-experiment papers, it is common for the Results and Discussion subsections for individual experiments to be combined into single “Results and Discussion” sections.

Departures from APA Style

In some cases, official APA style might not be followed (however, be sure to check with your editor, instructor, or other sources before deviating from standards of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association).  Such deviations may include:

  • Placement of Tables and Figures  – in some cases, to make reading through the paper easier, Tables and/or Figures are embedded in the text (for example, having a bar graph placed in the relevant Results section). The embedding of Tables and/or Figures in the text is one of the most common deviations from APA style (and is commonly allowed in B.S. Degree Research Papers and Honors Theses; however you should check with your instructor, supervisor, or editor first). 
  • Incomplete research – sometimes a B.S. Degree Research Paper in this department is written about research that is currently being planned or is in progress. In those circumstances, sometimes only an Introduction and Methods section, followed by References, is included (that is, in cases where the research itself has not formally begun).  In other cases, preliminary results are presented and noted as such in the Results section (such as in cases where the study is underway but not complete), and the Discussion section includes caveats about the in-progress nature of the research.  Again, you should check with your instructor, supervisor, or editor first.
  • Class assignments – in some classes in this department, an assignment must be written in APA style but is not exactly a traditional research paper (for instance, a student asked to write about an article that they read, and to write that report in APA style). In that case, the structure of the paper might approximate the typical sections of a research paper in APA style, but not entirely.  You should check with your instructor for further guidelines.

Workshops and Downloadable Resources

  • For in-person discussion of the process of writing research papers, please consider attending this department’s “Writing Research Papers” workshop (for dates and times, please check the undergraduate workshops calendar).

Downloadable Resources

  • How to Write APA Style Research Papers (a comprehensive guide) [ PDF ]
  • Tips for Writing APA Style Research Papers (a brief summary) [ PDF ]
  • Example APA Style Research Paper (for B.S. Degree – empirical research) [ PDF ]
  • Example APA Style Research Paper (for B.S. Degree – literature review) [ PDF ]

Further Resources

How-To Videos     

  • Writing Research Paper Videos

APA Journal Article Reporting Guidelines

  • Appelbaum, M., Cooper, H., Kline, R. B., Mayo-Wilson, E., Nezu, A. M., & Rao, S. M. (2018). Journal article reporting standards for quantitative research in psychology: The APA Publications and Communications Board task force report . American Psychologist , 73 (1), 3.
  • Levitt, H. M., Bamberg, M., Creswell, J. W., Frost, D. M., Josselson, R., & Suárez-Orozco, C. (2018). Journal article reporting standards for qualitative primary, qualitative meta-analytic, and mixed methods research in psychology: The APA Publications and Communications Board task force report . American Psychologist , 73 (1), 26.  

External Resources

  • Formatting APA Style Papers in Microsoft Word
  • How to Write an APA Style Research Paper from Hamilton University
  • WikiHow Guide to Writing APA Research Papers
  • Sample APA Formatted Paper with Comments
  • Sample APA Formatted Paper
  • Tips for Writing a Paper in APA Style

1 VandenBos, G. R. (Ed). (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.) (pp. 41-60).  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

2 geller, e. (2018).  how to write an apa-style research report . [instructional materials]. , prepared by s. c. pan for ucsd psychology.

Back to top  

  • Formatting Research Papers
  • Using Databases and Finding References
  • What Types of References Are Appropriate?
  • Evaluating References and Taking Notes
  • Citing References
  • Writing a Literature Review
  • Writing Process and Revising
  • Improving Scientific Writing
  • Academic Integrity and Avoiding Plagiarism
  • Writing Research Papers Videos

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Scientific Writing: Sections of a Paper

  • Sections of a Paper
  • Common Grammar Mistakes Explained
  • Citing Sources

Introduction

  • Materials & Methods

Typically scientific journal articles have the following sections:

Materials & Methods

References used:

Kotsis, S.V. and Chung, K.C. (2010) A Guide for Writing in the Scientific Forum. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. 126(5):1763-71. PubMed ID:  21042135

Van Way, C.W. (2007) Writing a Scientific Paper. Nutrition in Clinical Practice. 22: 663-40. PubMed ID:  1804295

What to include:

  • Background/Objectives: include the hypothesis
  • Methods: Briefly explain the type of study, sample/population size and description, the design, and any particular techniques for data collection and analysis
  • Results: Essential data, including statistically significant data (use # & %)
  • Conclusions: Summarize interpretations of results and explain if hypothesis was supported or rejected
  • Be concise!
  • Emphasize the methods and results
  • Do not copy the introduction
  • Only include data that is included in the paper
  • Write the abstract last
  • Avoid jargon and ambiguity
  • Should stand-alone

Additional resources: Fisher, W. E. (2005) Abstract Writing. Journal of Surgical Research. 128(2):162-4. PubMed ID:  16165161 Peh, W.C. and Ng, K.H. (2008) Abstract and keywords. Singapore Medical Journal. 49(9): 664-6. PubMed ID:  18830537

  • How does your study fit into what has been done
  • Explain evidence using limited # of references
  • Why is it important
  • How does it relate to previous research
  • State hypothesis at the end
  • Use present tense
  • Be succinct
  • Clearly state objectives
  • Explain important work done

Additional resources: Annesley, T. M. (2010) "It was a cold and rainy night": set the scene with a good introduction. Clinical Chemistry. 56(5):708-13. PubMed ID:  20207764 Peh, W.C. and Ng, K.H. (2008) Writing the introduction. Singapore Medical Journal. 49(10):756-8. PubMed ID:  18946606  

  • What was done
  • Include characteristics
  • Describe recruitment, participation, withdrawal, etc.
  • Type of study (RCT, cohort, case-controlled, etc.)
  • Equipment used
  • Measurements made
  • Usually the final paragraph
  • Include enough details so others can duplicate study
  • Use past tense
  • Be direct and precise
  • Include any preliminary results
  • Ask for help from a statistician to write description of statistical analysis
  • Be systematic

Additional resources: Lallet, R. H. (2004) How to write the methods section of a research paper. Respiratory Care. 49(10): 1229-32. PubMed ID:  15447808 Ng, K.H. and Peh, W.C. (2008) Writing the materials and methods. Singapore Medical Journal. 49(11): 856-9. PubMed ID:  19037549

  • Describe study sample demographics
  • Include statistical significance and the statistical test used
  • Use tables and figures when appropriate
  • Present in a logical sequence
  • Facts only - no citations or interpretations
  • Should stand alone (not need written descriptions to be understood)
  • Include title, legend, and axes labels
  • Include raw numbers with percentages
  • General phrases (significance, show trend, etc. should be used with caution)
  • Data is plural ("Our data are" is correct, "Our data is" is in-correct)

Additional resources: Ng, K.H and Peh, W.C. (2008) Writing the results. Singapore Medical Journal. 49(12):967-9. PubMed ID:  19122944 Streiner, D.L. (2007) A shortcut to rejection: how not to write the results section of a paper. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 52(6):385-9. PubMed ID:  17696025

  • Did you reject your null hypothesis?
  • Include a focused review of literature in relation to results
  • Explain meaning of statistical findings
  • Explain importance/relevance 
  • Include all possible explanations
  • Discuss possible limitations of study
  • Suggest future work that could be done
  • Use past tense to describe your study and present tense to describe established knowledge from literature
  • Don't criticize other studies, contrast it with your work
  • Don't make conclusions not supported by your results
  • Stay focused and concise
  • Include key, relevant references
  • It is considered good manners to include an acknowledgements section

Additional resources: Annesley, T. M. (2010) The discussion section: your closing argument. Clinical Chemistry. 56(11):1671-4. PubMed ID:  20833779 Ng, K.H. and Peh, W.C. (2009) Writing the discussion. Singapore Medical Journal. 50(5):458-61. PubMed ID:  19495512

Tables & Figures: Durbin, C. G. (2004) Effective use of tables and figures in abstracts, presentations, and papers. Respiratory Care. 49(10): 1233-7. PubMed ID:  15447809 Ng, K. H. and Peh, W.C.G. (2009) Preparing effective tables. Singapore Medical Journal. (50)2: 117-9. PubMed ID:  19296024

Statistics: Ng, K. H. and Peh, W.C.G. (2009) Presenting the statistical results. Singapore Medical Journal. (50)1: 11-4. PubMed ID:  19224078

References: Peh, W.C.G. and Ng, K. H. (2009) Preparing the references. Singapore Medical Journal. (50)7: 11-4. PubMed ID:  19644619

Additional Resources

  • More from Elsevier Elsevier's Research Academy is an online tutorial to help with writing books, journals, and grants. It also includes information on citing sources, peer reviewing, and ethics in publishing
  • Research4Life Training Portal Research4Life provides downloadable instruction materials, including modules on authorship skills as well as other research related skills.
  • Coursera: Science Writing Coursera provides a wide variety of online courses for continuing education. You can search around for various courses on scientific writing or academic writing, and they're available to audit for free.

major sections in a research journal article

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BSCI 1510L Literature and Stats Guide: 3.2 Components of a scientific paper

  • 1 What is a scientific paper?
  • 2 Referencing and accessing papers
  • 2.1 Literature Cited
  • 2.2 Accessing Scientific Papers
  • 2.3 Traversing the web of citations
  • 2.4 Keyword Searches
  • 3 Style of scientific writing
  • 3.1 Specific details regarding scientific writing

3.2 Components of a scientific paper

  • 4 For further information
  • Appendix A: Calculation Final Concentrations
  • 1 Formulas in Excel
  • 2 Basic operations in Excel
  • 3 Measurement and Variation
  • 3.1 Describing Quantities and Their Variation
  • 3.2 Samples Versus Populations
  • 3.3 Calculating Descriptive Statistics using Excel
  • 4 Variation and differences
  • 5 Differences in Experimental Science
  • 5.1 Aside: Commuting to Nashville
  • 5.2 P and Detecting Differences in Variable Quantities
  • 5.3 Statistical significance
  • 5.4 A test for differences of sample means: 95% Confidence Intervals
  • 5.5 Error bars in figures
  • 5.6 Discussing statistics in your scientific writing
  • 6 Scatter plot, trendline, and linear regression
  • 7 The t-test of Means
  • 8 Paired t-test
  • 9 Two-Tailed and One-Tailed Tests
  • 10 Variation on t-tests: ANOVA
  • 11 Reporting the Results of a Statistical Test
  • 12 Summary of statistical tests
  • 1 Objectives
  • 2 Project timeline
  • 3 Background
  • 4 Previous work in the BSCI 111 class
  • 5 General notes about the project
  • 6 About the paper
  • 7 References

Nearly all journal articles are divided into the following major sections: abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and references.  Usually the sections are labeled as such, although often the introduction (and sometimes the abstract) is not labeled.  Sometimes alternative section titles are used.  The abstract is sometimes called the "summary", the methods are sometimes called "materials and methods", and the discussion is sometimes called "conclusions".   Some journals also include the minor sections of "key words" following the abstract, and "acknowledgments" following the discussion.  In some journals, the sections may be divided into subsections that are given descriptive titles.  However, the general division into the six major sections is nearly universal.

3.2.1 Abstract

The abstract is a short summary (150-200 words or less) of the important points of the paper.  It does not generally include background information.  There may be a very brief statement of the rationale for conducting the study.  It describes what was done, but without details.  It also describes the results in a summarized way that usually includes whether or not the statistical tests were significant.  It usually concludes with a brief statement of the importance of the results.  Abstracts do not include references.  When writing a paper, the abstract is always the last part to be written.

The purpose of the abstract is to allow potential readers of a paper to find out the important points of the paper without having to actually read the paper.  It should be a self-contained unit capable of being understood without the benefit of the text of the article . It essentially serves as an "advertisement" for the paper that readers use to determine whether or not they actually want to wade through the entire paper or not.  Abstracts are generally freely available in electronic form and are often presented in the results of an electronic search.  If searchers do not have electronic access to the journal in which the article is published, the abstract is the only means that they have to decide whether to go through the effort (going to the library to look up the paper journal, requesting a reprint from the author, buying a copy of the article from a service, requesting the article by Interlibrary Loan) of acquiring the article.  Therefore it is important that the abstract accurately and succinctly presents the most important information in the article.

3.2.2 Introduction

The introduction provides the background information necessary to understand why the described experiment was conducted.  The introduction should describe previous research on the topic that has led to the unanswered questions being addressed by the experiment and should cite important previous papers that form the background for the experiment.  The introduction should also state in an organized fashion the goals of the research, i.e. the particular, specific questions that will be tested in the experiments.  There should be a one-to-one correspondence between questions raised in the introduction and points discussed in the conclusion section of the paper.  In other words, do not raise questions in the introduction unless you are going to have some kind of answer to the question that you intend to discuss at the end of the paper. 

You may have been told that every paper must have a hypothesis that can be clearly stated.  That is often true, but not always.  If your experiment involves a manipulation which tests a specific hypothesis, then you should clearly state that hypothesis.  On the other hand, if your experiment was primarily exploratory, descriptive, or measurative, then you probably did not have an a priori hypothesis, so don't pretend that you did and make one up.  (See the discussion in the introduction to Experiment 4 for more on this.)  If you state a hypothesis in the introduction, it should be a general hypothesis and not a null or alternative hypothesis for a statistical test.  If it is necessary to explain how a statistical test will help you evaluate your general hypothesis, explain that in the methods section. 

A good introduction should be fairly heavy with citations.  This indicates to the reader that the authors are informed about previous work on the topic and are not working in a vacuum.  Citations also provide jumping-off points to allow the reader to explore other tangents to the subject that are not directly addressed in the paper.  If the paper supports or refutes previous work, readers can look up the citations and make a comparison for themselves. 

"Do not get lost in reviewing background information. Remember that the Introduction is meant to introduce the reader to your research, not summarize and evaluate all past literature on the subject (which is the purpose of a review paper). Many of the other studies you may be tempted to discuss in your Introduction are better saved for the Discussion, where they become a powerful tool for comparing and interpreting your results. Include only enough background information to allow your reader to understand why you are asking the questions you are and why your hyptheses are reasonable ones. Often, a brief explanation of the theory involved is sufficient. …

Write this section in the past or present tense, never in the future. " (Steingraber et al. 1985)

3.2.3 Methods (taken verbatim from Steingraber et al. 1985)

The function of this section is to describe all experimental procedures, including controls. The description should be complete enough to enable someone else to repeat your work. If there is more than one part to the experiment, it is a good idea to describe your methods and present your results in the same order in each section. This may not be the same order in which the experiments were performed -it is up to you to decide what order of presentation will make the most sense to your reader.

1. Explain why each procedure was done, i.e., what variable were you measuring and why? Example:

Difficult to understand : First, I removed the frog muscle and then I poured Ringer’s solution on it. Next, I attached it to the kymograph.

Improved: I removed the frog muscle and poured Ringer’s solution on it to prevent it from drying out. I then attached the muscle to the kymograph in order to determine the minimum voltage required for contraction.

2. Experimental procedures and results are narrated in the past tense (what you did, what you found, etc.) whereas conclusions from your results are given in the present tense.

3. Mathematical equations and statistical tests are considered mathematical methods and should be described in this section along with the actual experimental work.

4. Use active rather than passive voice when possible.  [Note: see Section 3.1.4 for more about this.]  Always use the singular "I" rather than the plural "we" when you are the only author of the paper.  Throughout the paper, avoid contractions, e.g. did not vs. didn’t.

5. If any of your methods is fully described in a previous publication (yours or someone else’s), you can cite that instead of describing the procedure again.

Example: The chromosomes were counted at meiosis in the anthers with the standard acetocarmine technique of Snow (1955).

3.2.4 Results (with excerpts from Steingraber et al. 1985)

The function of this section is to summarize general trends in the data without comment, bias, or interpretation. The results of statistical tests applied to your data are reported in this section although conclusions about your original hypotheses are saved for the Discussion section.

Tables and figures should be used when they are a more efficient way to convey information than verbal description. They must be independent units, accompanied by explanatory captions that allow them to be understood by someone who has not read the text. Do not repeat in the text the information in tables and figures, but do cite them, with a summary statement when that is appropriate.  Example:

Incorrect: The results are given in Figure 1.

Correct: Temperature was directly proportional to metabolic rate (Fig. 1).

Please note that the entire word "Figure" is almost never written in an article.  It is nearly always abbreviated as "Fig." and capitalized.  Tables are cited in the same way, although Table is not abbreviated.

Whenever possible, use a figure instead of a table. Relationships between numbers are more readily grasped when they are presented graphically rather than as columns in a table.

Data may be presented in figures and tables, but this may not substitute for a verbal summary of the findings. The text should be understandable by someone who has not seen your figures and tables.

1. All results should be presented, including those that do not support the hypothesis.

2. Statements made in the text must be supported by the results contained in figures and tables.

3. The results of statistical tests can be presented in parentheses following a verbal description.

Example: Fruit size was significantly greater in trees growing alone (t = 3.65, df = 2, p < 0.05).

Simple results of statistical tests may be reported in the text as shown in the preceding example.  The results of multiple tests may be reported in a table if that increases clarity. (See Section 11 of the Statistics Manual for more details about reporting the results of statistical tests.)  It is not necessary to provide a citation for a simple t-test of means, paired t-test, or linear regression.  If you use other tests, you should cite the text or reference you followed to do the test.  In your materials and methods section, you should report how you did the test (e.g. using the statistical analysis package of Excel). 

It is NEVER appropriate to simply paste the results from statistical software into the results section of your paper.  The output generally reports more information than is required and it is not in an appropriate format for a paper.

3.2.4.1 Tables

  • Do not repeat information in a table that you are depicting in a graph or histogram; include a table only if it presents new information.
  • It is easier to compare numbers by reading down a column rather than across a row. Therefore, list sets of data you want your reader to compare in vertical form.
  • Provide each table with a number (Table 1, Table 2, etc.) and a title. The numbered title is placed above the table .
  • Please see Section 11 of the Excel Reference and Statistics Manual for further information on reporting the results of statistical tests.

3.2.4.2. Figures

  • These comprise graphs, histograms, and illustrations, both drawings and photographs. Provide each figure with a number (Fig. 1, Fig. 2, etc.) and a caption (or "legend") that explains what the figure shows. The numbered caption is placed below the figure .  Figure legend = Figure caption.
  • Figures submitted for publication must be "photo ready," i.e., they will appear just as you submit them, or photographically reduced. Therefore, when you graduate from student papers to publishable manuscripts, you must learn to prepare figures that will not embarrass you. At the present time, virtually all journals require manuscripts to be submitted electronically and it is generally assumed that all graphs and maps will be created using software rather than being created by hand.  Nearly all journals have specific guidelines for the file types, resolution, and physical widths required for figures.  Only in a few cases (e.g. sketched diagrams) would figures still be created by hand using ink and those figures would be scanned and labeled using graphics software.  Proportions must be the same as those of the page in the journal to which the paper will be submitted. 
  • Graphs and Histograms: Both can be used to compare two variables. However, graphs show continuous change, whereas histograms show discrete variables only.  You can compare groups of data by plotting two or even three lines on one graph, but avoid cluttered graphs that are hard to read, and do not plot unrelated trends on the same graph. For both graphs, and histograms, plot the independent variable on the horizontal (x) axis and the dependent variable on the vertical (y) axis. Label both axes, including units of measurement except in the few cases where variables are unitless, such as absorbance.
  • Drawings and Photographs: These are used to illustrate organisms, experimental apparatus, models of structures, cellular and subcellular structure, and results of procedures like electrophoresis. Preparing such figures well is a lot of work and can be very expensive, so each figure must add enough to justify its preparation and publication, but good figures can greatly enhance a professional article, as your reading in biological journals has already shown.

3.2.5 Discussion (taken from Steingraber et al. 1985)

The function of this section is to analyze the data and relate them to other studies. To "analyze" means to evaluate the meaning of your results in terms of the original question or hypothesis and point out their biological significance.

1. The Discussion should contain at least:

  • the relationship between the results and the original hypothesis, i.e., whether they support the hypothesis, or cause it to be rejected or modified
  • an integration of your results with those of previous studies in order to arrive at explanations for the observed phenomena
  • possible explanations for unexpected results and observations, phrased as hypotheses that can be tested by realistic experimental procedures, which you should describe

2. Trends that are not statistically significant can still be discussed if they are suggestive or interesting, but cannot be made the basis for conclusions as if they were significant.

3. Avoid redundancy between the Results and the Discussion section. Do not repeat detailed descriptions of the data and results in the Discussion. In some journals, Results and Discussions are joined in a single section, in order to permit a single integrated treatment with minimal repetition. This is more appropriate for short, simple articles than for longer, more complicated ones.

4. End the Discussion with a summary of the principal points you want the reader to remember. This is also the appropriate place to propose specific further study if that will serve some purpose, but do not end with the tired cliché that "this problem needs more study." All problems in biology need more study. Do not close on what you wish you had done, rather finish stating your conclusions and contributions.

3.2.6 Title

The title of the paper should be the last thing that you write.  That is because it should distill the essence of the paper even more than the abstract (the next to last thing that you write). 

The title should contain three elements:

1. the name of the organism studied;

2. the particular aspect or system studied;

3. the variable(s) manipulated.

Do not be afraid to be grammatically creative. Here are some variations on a theme, all suitable as titles:

THE EFFECT OF TEMPERATURE ON GERMINATION OF ZEA MAYS

DOES TEMPERATURE AFFECT GERMINATION OF ZEA MAYS?

TEMPERATURE AND ZEA MAYS GERMINATION: IMPLICATIONS FOR AGRICULTURE

Sometimes it is possible to include the principal result or conclusion in the title:

HIGH TEMPERATURES REDUCE GERMINATION OF ZEA MAYS

Note for the BSCI 1510L class: to make your paper look more like a real paper, you can list all of the other group members as co-authors.  However, if you do that, you should list you name first so that we know that you wrote it.

3.2.7 Literature Cited

Please refer to section 2.1 of this guide.

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How to Read a Scholarly Article

  • Introduction

Article Text

  • References/Works Cited
  • 2. Sections of a Scholarly Article: Humanities Article

Sections of a Scholarly Journal Article About Scientific Research

Let's look at the different parts of a scholarly article that presents scientific research:

  • Brief description of the article
  • You can read this to decide whether you want to read the entire article.

first page of a scholarly article with the abstract highlighted

Introduction:

  • Description of the problem, or the research question, and why this study is being done
  • Sometimes includes a short literature review

First page of scholarly article with the introduction section circled

  • The main part of an article is its body text.
  • This is where the author analyzes the argument, research question, or problem. This section also includes analysis and criticism.
  • The author may use headings to divide this part of the article into sections. 

Scientific research articles may include these sections:

  • Literature review (Discussion of other sources, such as books and articles, that informed the author(s) of this article)
  • Methods (Description of the way the research study was set up and how data was collected)
  • Results (Presentation of the research study results)
  • Discussion (Discussion of whether the results of the study answer the research question)

You may see some of these same sections in articles that present humanities scholarship.

Conclusion:

  • Wraps up the article.
  • This section isn't always labeled. 
  • Description of how this article or research study contributes to or builds on the previous research of other scholars.
  • Also includes ideas for future research others might do on this topic.

Page 7 of a scholarly article with conclusion section highlighted

References/Works Cited:

List of resources (books, articles, etc.) cited in this article.

page of a scholarly article with reference section highlighted

This example uses pages from this article: Sampson, L., Ettman, C., Abdalla, S., Colyer, E., Dukes, K., Lane, K., & Galea, S. (2021). Financial hardship and health risk behavior during COVID-19 in a large US national sample of women. SSM - Population Health, 13, 100734–100734 . https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100734
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Journal Article Basics

  • What, Why, & Where
  • Peer Review

What is an abstract?

Publication, introduction, charts, graphs, etc., article text, methods or methodology.

  • Identification
  • Reading an Article
  • Types of Articles

Knowing about the different sections of a scholarly article and the type of information presented in each section, will make it easier to understand what the article is about. Also, reading specific parts or sections of an article can help save you time as you decide whether an article is relevant.

Anatomy of a Scholarly Article interactive Tutorial

  • Anatomy of a Scholarly Article [NCSU Interactive Tutorial] Excellent interactive tool for learning about the sections of a scholarly article.

The title of a scholarly article is generally (but not always) an extremely brief summary of the article's contents. It will usually contain technical terms related to the research presented.

Authors and their credentials will be provided in a scholarly article. Credentials may appear with the authors' names, as in this example, or they may appear as a footnote or an endnote to the article. The authors' credentials are provided to establish the authority of the authors, and also to provide a point of contact for the research presented in the article. For this reason, authors' e-mail addresses are usually provided in recent articles.

On the first page of an article you will usually find the journal title, volume/issue numbers, if applicable, and page numbers of the article. This information is necessary for you to write a citation of the article for your paper.

The information is not always neatly outlined at the bottom of the first page; it may be spread across the header and footer of the first page, or across the headers or footers of opposite pages, and for some online versions of articles, it may not be present at all.

The abstract is a brief summary of the contents of the article, usually under 250 words. It will contain a description of the problem and problem setting; an outline of the study, experiment, or argument; and a summary of the conclusions or findings. It is provided so that readers examining the article can decide quickly whether the article meets their needs.

The introduction to a scholarly article describes the topic or problem the authors researched. The authors will present the thesis of their argument or the goal of their research. The introduction may also discuss the relevance or importance of the research question.

An overview of related research and findings, called a literature review, may appear in the introduction, though the literature review may be in its own section.

Scholarly articles frequently contain charts, graphs, equations, and statistical data related to the research. Pictures are rare unless they relate directly to the research presented in the article.

The body of an article is usually presented in sections, including an  introduction , a  literature review , one or more sections describing and analyzing the argument, experiment or study.

Scientific research articles typically include separate sections addressing the methods  and results  of the experiment, and a discussion  of the research findings.

Articles typically close with a conclusion  summarizing the findings.

The parts of the article may or may not be labeled, and two or more sections may be combined in a single part of the text. The text itself is typically highly technical, and assumes a familiarity with the topic. Jargon, abbreviations, and technical terms are used without definition.

The methods section of a scholarly article generally outlines the experimental design, the materials, and the methods (procedures) of the experiment. 

The results section of a scholarly article is generally devoted to discussing the type of analysis conducted regarding the data as well as the results. 

A scholarly article will end with a conclusion, where the authors summarize the results of their research. The authors may also discuss how their findings relate to other scholarship, or encourage other researchers to extend or follow up on their work.

The discussion of a scholarly article generally includes a description of how the study contributes to the existing body of research, an analysis of the research questions and hypotheses, and a discussion of the research in connection to the real world. 

Most scholarly articles contain many references to publications by other authors. You will find these references scattered throughout the text of the article, as footnotes at the bottom of the page, or endnotes at the end of the article.

Most papers provide a list of references at the end of the paper. Each reference listed there corresponds to one of the citations provided in the body of the paper. You can use this list of references to find additional scholarly articles and books on your topic.

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Library Instruction

Structure of typical research article.

The basic structure of a typical research paper includes Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Each section addresses a different objective.

  • the problem they intend to address -- in other words, the research question -- in the Introduction ;
  • what they did to answer the question in Methodology ;
  • what they observed in Results ; and
  • what they think the results mean in Discussion .

A substantial study will sometimes include a literature review section which discusses previous works on the topic. The basic structure is outlined below:

  • Author and author's professional affiliation is identified
  • Introduction
  • Literature review section (a discussion about what other scholars have written on the topic)
  • Methodology section (methods of data gathering are explained)
  • Discussion section
  • Conclusions
  • Reference list with citations (sources of information used in the article)

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Chapter 11: Presenting Your Research

Writing a Research Report in American Psychological Association (APA) Style

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the major sections of an APA-style research report and the basic contents of each section.
  • Plan and write an effective APA-style research report.

In this section, we look at how to write an APA-style empirical research report , an article that presents the results of one or more new studies. Recall that the standard sections of an empirical research report provide a kind of outline. Here we consider each of these sections in detail, including what information it contains, how that information is formatted and organized, and tips for writing each section. At the end of this section is a sample APA-style research report that illustrates many of these principles.

Sections of a Research Report

Title page and abstract.

An APA-style research report begins with a  title page . The title is centred in the upper half of the page, with each important word capitalized. The title should clearly and concisely (in about 12 words or fewer) communicate the primary variables and research questions. This sometimes requires a main title followed by a subtitle that elaborates on the main title, in which case the main title and subtitle are separated by a colon. Here are some titles from recent issues of professional journals published by the American Psychological Association.

  • Sex Differences in Coping Styles and Implications for Depressed Mood
  • Effects of Aging and Divided Attention on Memory for Items and Their Contexts
  • Computer-Assisted Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Child Anxiety: Results of a Randomized Clinical Trial
  • Virtual Driving and Risk Taking: Do Racing Games Increase Risk-Taking Cognitions, Affect, and Behaviour?

Below the title are the authors’ names and, on the next line, their institutional affiliation—the university or other institution where the authors worked when they conducted the research. As we have already seen, the authors are listed in an order that reflects their contribution to the research. When multiple authors have made equal contributions to the research, they often list their names alphabetically or in a randomly determined order.

In some areas of psychology, the titles of many empirical research reports are informal in a way that is perhaps best described as “cute.” They usually take the form of a play on words or a well-known expression that relates to the topic under study. Here are some examples from recent issues of the Journal Psychological Science .

  • “Smells Like Clean Spirit: Nonconscious Effects of Scent on Cognition and Behavior”
  • “Time Crawls: The Temporal Resolution of Infants’ Visual Attention”
  • “Scent of a Woman: Men’s Testosterone Responses to Olfactory Ovulation Cues”
  • “Apocalypse Soon?: Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs”
  • “Serial vs. Parallel Processing: Sometimes They Look Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee but They Can (and Should) Be Distinguished”
  • “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words: The Social Effects of Expressive Writing”

Individual researchers differ quite a bit in their preference for such titles. Some use them regularly, while others never use them. What might be some of the pros and cons of using cute article titles?

For articles that are being submitted for publication, the title page also includes an author note that lists the authors’ full institutional affiliations, any acknowledgments the authors wish to make to agencies that funded the research or to colleagues who commented on it, and contact information for the authors. For student papers that are not being submitted for publication—including theses—author notes are generally not necessary.

The  abstract  is a summary of the study. It is the second page of the manuscript and is headed with the word  Abstract . The first line is not indented. The abstract presents the research question, a summary of the method, the basic results, and the most important conclusions. Because the abstract is usually limited to about 200 words, it can be a challenge to write a good one.

Introduction

The  introduction  begins on the third page of the manuscript. The heading at the top of this page is the full title of the manuscript, with each important word capitalized as on the title page. The introduction includes three distinct subsections, although these are typically not identified by separate headings. The opening introduces the research question and explains why it is interesting, the literature review discusses relevant previous research, and the closing restates the research question and comments on the method used to answer it.

The Opening

The  opening , which is usually a paragraph or two in length, introduces the research question and explains why it is interesting. To capture the reader’s attention, researcher Daryl Bem recommends starting with general observations about the topic under study, expressed in ordinary language (not technical jargon)—observations that are about people and their behaviour (not about researchers or their research; Bem, 2003 [1] ). Concrete examples are often very useful here. According to Bem, this would be a poor way to begin a research report:

Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance received a great deal of attention during the latter part of the 20th century (p. 191)

The following would be much better:

The individual who holds two beliefs that are inconsistent with one another may feel uncomfortable. For example, the person who knows that he or she enjoys smoking but believes it to be unhealthy may experience discomfort arising from the inconsistency or disharmony between these two thoughts or cognitions. This feeling of discomfort was called cognitive dissonance by social psychologist Leon Festinger (1957), who suggested that individuals will be motivated to remove this dissonance in whatever way they can (p. 191).

After capturing the reader’s attention, the opening should go on to introduce the research question and explain why it is interesting. Will the answer fill a gap in the literature? Will it provide a test of an important theory? Does it have practical implications? Giving readers a clear sense of what the research is about and why they should care about it will motivate them to continue reading the literature review—and will help them make sense of it.

Breaking the Rules

Researcher Larry Jacoby reported several studies showing that a word that people see or hear repeatedly can seem more familiar even when they do not recall the repetitions—and that this tendency is especially pronounced among older adults. He opened his article with the following humourous anecdote:

A friend whose mother is suffering symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) tells the story of taking her mother to visit a nursing home, preliminary to her mother’s moving there. During an orientation meeting at the nursing home, the rules and regulations were explained, one of which regarded the dining room. The dining room was described as similar to a fine restaurant except that tipping was not required. The absence of tipping was a central theme in the orientation lecture, mentioned frequently to emphasize the quality of care along with the advantages of having paid in advance. At the end of the meeting, the friend’s mother was asked whether she had any questions. She replied that she only had one question: “Should I tip?” (Jacoby, 1999, p. 3)

Although both humour and personal anecdotes are generally discouraged in APA-style writing, this example is a highly effective way to start because it both engages the reader and provides an excellent real-world example of the topic under study.

The Literature Review

Immediately after the opening comes the  literature review , which describes relevant previous research on the topic and can be anywhere from several paragraphs to several pages in length. However, the literature review is not simply a list of past studies. Instead, it constitutes a kind of argument for why the research question is worth addressing. By the end of the literature review, readers should be convinced that the research question makes sense and that the present study is a logical next step in the ongoing research process.

Like any effective argument, the literature review must have some kind of structure. For example, it might begin by describing a phenomenon in a general way along with several studies that demonstrate it, then describing two or more competing theories of the phenomenon, and finally presenting a hypothesis to test one or more of the theories. Or it might describe one phenomenon, then describe another phenomenon that seems inconsistent with the first one, then propose a theory that resolves the inconsistency, and finally present a hypothesis to test that theory. In applied research, it might describe a phenomenon or theory, then describe how that phenomenon or theory applies to some important real-world situation, and finally suggest a way to test whether it does, in fact, apply to that situation.

Looking at the literature review in this way emphasizes a few things. First, it is extremely important to start with an outline of the main points that you want to make, organized in the order that you want to make them. The basic structure of your argument, then, should be apparent from the outline itself. Second, it is important to emphasize the structure of your argument in your writing. One way to do this is to begin the literature review by summarizing your argument even before you begin to make it. “In this article, I will describe two apparently contradictory phenomena, present a new theory that has the potential to resolve the apparent contradiction, and finally present a novel hypothesis to test the theory.” Another way is to open each paragraph with a sentence that summarizes the main point of the paragraph and links it to the preceding points. These opening sentences provide the “transitions” that many beginning researchers have difficulty with. Instead of beginning a paragraph by launching into a description of a previous study, such as “Williams (2004) found that…,” it is better to start by indicating something about why you are describing this particular study. Here are some simple examples:

Another example of this phenomenon comes from the work of Williams (2004).

Williams (2004) offers one explanation of this phenomenon.

An alternative perspective has been provided by Williams (2004).

We used a method based on the one used by Williams (2004).

Finally, remember that your goal is to construct an argument for why your research question is interesting and worth addressing—not necessarily why your favourite answer to it is correct. In other words, your literature review must be balanced. If you want to emphasize the generality of a phenomenon, then of course you should discuss various studies that have demonstrated it. However, if there are other studies that have failed to demonstrate it, you should discuss them too. Or if you are proposing a new theory, then of course you should discuss findings that are consistent with that theory. However, if there are other findings that are inconsistent with it, again, you should discuss them too. It is acceptable to argue that the  balance  of the research supports the existence of a phenomenon or is consistent with a theory (and that is usually the best that researchers in psychology can hope for), but it is not acceptable to  ignore contradictory evidence. Besides, a large part of what makes a research question interesting is uncertainty about its answer.

The Closing

The  closing  of the introduction—typically the final paragraph or two—usually includes two important elements. The first is a clear statement of the main research question or hypothesis. This statement tends to be more formal and precise than in the opening and is often expressed in terms of operational definitions of the key variables. The second is a brief overview of the method and some comment on its appropriateness. Here, for example, is how Darley and Latané (1968) [2] concluded the introduction to their classic article on the bystander effect:

These considerations lead to the hypothesis that the more bystanders to an emergency, the less likely, or the more slowly, any one bystander will intervene to provide aid. To test this proposition it would be necessary to create a situation in which a realistic “emergency” could plausibly occur. Each subject should also be blocked from communicating with others to prevent his getting information about their behaviour during the emergency. Finally, the experimental situation should allow for the assessment of the speed and frequency of the subjects’ reaction to the emergency. The experiment reported below attempted to fulfill these conditions. (p. 378)

Thus the introduction leads smoothly into the next major section of the article—the method section.

The  method section  is where you describe how you conducted your study. An important principle for writing a method section is that it should be clear and detailed enough that other researchers could replicate the study by following your “recipe.” This means that it must describe all the important elements of the study—basic demographic characteristics of the participants, how they were recruited, whether they were randomly assigned, how the variables were manipulated or measured, how counterbalancing was accomplished, and so on. At the same time, it should avoid irrelevant details such as the fact that the study was conducted in Classroom 37B of the Industrial Technology Building or that the questionnaire was double-sided and completed using pencils.

The method section begins immediately after the introduction ends with the heading “Method” (not “Methods”) centred on the page. Immediately after this is the subheading “Participants,” left justified and in italics. The participants subsection indicates how many participants there were, the number of women and men, some indication of their age, other demographics that may be relevant to the study, and how they were recruited, including any incentives given for participation.

Three ways of organizing an APA-style method. Long description available.

After the participants section, the structure can vary a bit. Figure 11.1 shows three common approaches. In the first, the participants section is followed by a design and procedure subsection, which describes the rest of the method. This works well for methods that are relatively simple and can be described adequately in a few paragraphs. In the second approach, the participants section is followed by separate design and procedure subsections. This works well when both the design and the procedure are relatively complicated and each requires multiple paragraphs.

What is the difference between design and procedure? The design of a study is its overall structure. What were the independent and dependent variables? Was the independent variable manipulated, and if so, was it manipulated between or within subjects? How were the variables operationally defined? The procedure is how the study was carried out. It often works well to describe the procedure in terms of what the participants did rather than what the researchers did. For example, the participants gave their informed consent, read a set of instructions, completed a block of four practice trials, completed a block of 20 test trials, completed two questionnaires, and were debriefed and excused.

In the third basic way to organize a method section, the participants subsection is followed by a materials subsection before the design and procedure subsections. This works well when there are complicated materials to describe. This might mean multiple questionnaires, written vignettes that participants read and respond to, perceptual stimuli, and so on. The heading of this subsection can be modified to reflect its content. Instead of “Materials,” it can be “Questionnaires,” “Stimuli,” and so on.

The  results section  is where you present the main results of the study, including the results of the statistical analyses. Although it does not include the raw data—individual participants’ responses or scores—researchers should save their raw data and make them available to other researchers who request them. Several journals now encourage the open sharing of raw data online.

Although there are no standard subsections, it is still important for the results section to be logically organized. Typically it begins with certain preliminary issues. One is whether any participants or responses were excluded from the analyses and why. The rationale for excluding data should be described clearly so that other researchers can decide whether it is appropriate. A second preliminary issue is how multiple responses were combined to produce the primary variables in the analyses. For example, if participants rated the attractiveness of 20 stimulus people, you might have to explain that you began by computing the mean attractiveness rating for each participant. Or if they recalled as many items as they could from study list of 20 words, did you count the number correctly recalled, compute the percentage correctly recalled, or perhaps compute the number correct minus the number incorrect? A third preliminary issue is the reliability of the measures. This is where you would present test-retest correlations, Cronbach’s α, or other statistics to show that the measures are consistent across time and across items. A final preliminary issue is whether the manipulation was successful. This is where you would report the results of any manipulation checks.

The results section should then tackle the primary research questions, one at a time. Again, there should be a clear organization. One approach would be to answer the most general questions and then proceed to answer more specific ones. Another would be to answer the main question first and then to answer secondary ones. Regardless, Bem (2003) [3] suggests the following basic structure for discussing each new result:

  • Remind the reader of the research question.
  • Give the answer to the research question in words.
  • Present the relevant statistics.
  • Qualify the answer if necessary.
  • Summarize the result.

Notice that only Step 3 necessarily involves numbers. The rest of the steps involve presenting the research question and the answer to it in words. In fact, the basic results should be clear even to a reader who skips over the numbers.

The  discussion  is the last major section of the research report. Discussions usually consist of some combination of the following elements:

  • Summary of the research
  • Theoretical implications
  • Practical implications
  • Limitations
  • Suggestions for future research

The discussion typically begins with a summary of the study that provides a clear answer to the research question. In a short report with a single study, this might require no more than a sentence. In a longer report with multiple studies, it might require a paragraph or even two. The summary is often followed by a discussion of the theoretical implications of the research. Do the results provide support for any existing theories? If not, how  can  they be explained? Although you do not have to provide a definitive explanation or detailed theory for your results, you at least need to outline one or more possible explanations. In applied research—and often in basic research—there is also some discussion of the practical implications of the research. How can the results be used, and by whom, to accomplish some real-world goal?

The theoretical and practical implications are often followed by a discussion of the study’s limitations. Perhaps there are problems with its internal or external validity. Perhaps the manipulation was not very effective or the measures not very reliable. Perhaps there is some evidence that participants did not fully understand their task or that they were suspicious of the intent of the researchers. Now is the time to discuss these issues and how they might have affected the results. But do not overdo it. All studies have limitations, and most readers will understand that a different sample or different measures might have produced different results. Unless there is good reason to think they  would have, however, there is no reason to mention these routine issues. Instead, pick two or three limitations that seem like they could have influenced the results, explain how they could have influenced the results, and suggest ways to deal with them.

Most discussions end with some suggestions for future research. If the study did not satisfactorily answer the original research question, what will it take to do so? What  new  research questions has the study raised? This part of the discussion, however, is not just a list of new questions. It is a discussion of two or three of the most important unresolved issues. This means identifying and clarifying each question, suggesting some alternative answers, and even suggesting ways they could be studied.

Finally, some researchers are quite good at ending their articles with a sweeping or thought-provoking conclusion. Darley and Latané (1968) [4] , for example, ended their article on the bystander effect by discussing the idea that whether people help others may depend more on the situation than on their personalities. Their final sentence is, “If people understand the situational forces that can make them hesitate to intervene, they may better overcome them” (p. 383). However, this kind of ending can be difficult to pull off. It can sound overreaching or just banal and end up detracting from the overall impact of the article. It is often better simply to end when you have made your final point (although you should avoid ending on a limitation).

The references section begins on a new page with the heading “References” centred at the top of the page. All references cited in the text are then listed in the format presented earlier. They are listed alphabetically by the last name of the first author. If two sources have the same first author, they are listed alphabetically by the last name of the second author. If all the authors are the same, then they are listed chronologically by the year of publication. Everything in the reference list is double-spaced both within and between references.

Appendices, Tables, and Figures

Appendices, tables, and figures come after the references. An  appendix  is appropriate for supplemental material that would interrupt the flow of the research report if it were presented within any of the major sections. An appendix could be used to present lists of stimulus words, questionnaire items, detailed descriptions of special equipment or unusual statistical analyses, or references to the studies that are included in a meta-analysis. Each appendix begins on a new page. If there is only one, the heading is “Appendix,” centred at the top of the page. If there is more than one, the headings are “Appendix A,” “Appendix B,” and so on, and they appear in the order they were first mentioned in the text of the report.

After any appendices come tables and then figures. Tables and figures are both used to present results. Figures can also be used to illustrate theories (e.g., in the form of a flowchart), display stimuli, outline procedures, and present many other kinds of information. Each table and figure appears on its own page. Tables are numbered in the order that they are first mentioned in the text (“Table 1,” “Table 2,” and so on). Figures are numbered the same way (“Figure 1,” “Figure 2,” and so on). A brief explanatory title, with the important words capitalized, appears above each table. Each figure is given a brief explanatory caption, where (aside from proper nouns or names) only the first word of each sentence is capitalized. More details on preparing APA-style tables and figures are presented later in the book.

Sample APA-Style Research Report

Figures 11.2, 11.3, 11.4, and 11.5 show some sample pages from an APA-style empirical research report originally written by undergraduate student Tomoe Suyama at California State University, Fresno. The main purpose of these figures is to illustrate the basic organization and formatting of an APA-style empirical research report, although many high-level and low-level style conventions can be seen here too.

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Key Takeaways

  • An APA-style empirical research report consists of several standard sections. The main ones are the abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion, and references.
  • The introduction consists of an opening that presents the research question, a literature review that describes previous research on the topic, and a closing that restates the research question and comments on the method. The literature review constitutes an argument for why the current study is worth doing.
  • The method section describes the method in enough detail that another researcher could replicate the study. At a minimum, it consists of a participants subsection and a design and procedure subsection.
  • The results section describes the results in an organized fashion. Each primary result is presented in terms of statistical results but also explained in words.
  • The discussion typically summarizes the study, discusses theoretical and practical implications and limitations of the study, and offers suggestions for further research.
  • Practice: Look through an issue of a general interest professional journal (e.g.,  Psychological Science ). Read the opening of the first five articles and rate the effectiveness of each one from 1 ( very ineffective ) to 5 ( very effective ). Write a sentence or two explaining each rating.
  • Practice: Find a recent article in a professional journal and identify where the opening, literature review, and closing of the introduction begin and end.
  • Practice: Find a recent article in a professional journal and highlight in a different colour each of the following elements in the discussion: summary, theoretical implications, practical implications, limitations, and suggestions for future research.

Long Descriptions

Figure 11.1 long description: Table showing three ways of organizing an APA-style method section.

In the simple method, there are two subheadings: “Participants” (which might begin “The participants were…”) and “Design and procedure” (which might begin “There were three conditions…”).

In the typical method, there are three subheadings: “Participants” (“The participants were…”), “Design” (“There were three conditions…”), and “Procedure” (“Participants viewed each stimulus on the computer screen…”).

In the complex method, there are four subheadings: “Participants” (“The participants were…”), “Materials” (“The stimuli were…”), “Design” (“There were three conditions…”), and “Procedure” (“Participants viewed each stimulus on the computer screen…”). [Return to Figure 11.1]

  • Bem, D. J. (2003). Writing the empirical journal article. In J. M. Darley, M. P. Zanna, & H. R. Roediger III (Eds.),  The compleat academic: A practical guide for the beginning social scientist  (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. ↵
  • Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4 , 377–383. ↵

A type of research article which describes one or more new empirical studies conducted by the authors.

The page at the beginning of an APA-style research report containing the title of the article, the authors’ names, and their institutional affiliation.

A summary of a research study.

The third page of a manuscript containing the research question, the literature review, and comments about how to answer the research question.

An introduction to the research question and explanation for why this question is interesting.

A description of relevant previous research on the topic being discusses and an argument for why the research is worth addressing.

The end of the introduction, where the research question is reiterated and the method is commented upon.

The section of a research report where the method used to conduct the study is described.

The main results of the study, including the results from statistical analyses, are presented in a research article.

Section of a research report that summarizes the study's results and interprets them by referring back to the study's theoretical background.

Part of a research report which contains supplemental material.

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The Sections of a Research Article

If you’ve ever read or written almost any type of academic document, you might have noticed that they start with introductions and end with conclusions. However, research articles – as a genre – have other consistent sections as well. The complete list of sections for research articles include the following:

  • Introduction
  • Discussion/Conclusion

A common acronym for teaching the sections of a research article is IMRD/C. In this book, we will focus heavily on helping you understand each of those IMRD/C sections’ various pieces, including their communicative goals and strategies you can use to achieve those goals. We will also use a visual of an hourglass to demonstrate this IMRD/C organizational structure.

Visual depiction of the sections of a research article in the shape of an hourglass. The beginning (introduction) and end (discussion/conclusion) sections are the broader parts of the hourglass while the Methods and Results constitute the more specific middle sections.

We hope that this graphic along with the explanations and examples in Chapters 3-6 will allow you to deepen your understanding of research writing and become a more successful author.

Preparing to Publish Copyright © 2023 by Sarah Huffman; Elena Cotos; and Kimberly Becker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

Suggestions for structuring a research article

  • Published: 08 January 2014
  • Volume 26 , pages 22–38, ( 2014 )

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  • Robert A. Reiser 2  

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Researchers often experience difficulty as they attempt to prepare journal articles that describe their work. The purpose of this article is to provide researchers in the field of education with a series of suggestions as to how to clearly structure each section of a research manuscript that they intend to submit for publication in a scholarly journal. Suggestions related to the each of the four major sections of a research article—the introduction, method, results and discussion sections—are offered. Examples of how those suggestions have been applied in published research articles are presented.

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Acknowledgments

We wish to acknowledge our friend and mentor Howard Sullivan. His handout titled “Notes on the Content and Organization of Research Reports” was used with his permission as a foundation for this article.

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Klein, J.D., Reiser, R.A. Suggestions for structuring a research article. J Comput High Educ 26 , 22–38 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12528-013-9075-5

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Empirical Research: Defining, Identifying, & Finding

Identifying empirical research.

  • Defining Empirical Research

Finding the Characteristics of Empirical Research in an Article

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Once you know the characteristics of empirical research , the next question is how to find those characteristics when reading a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal article. Knowing the basic structure of an article will help you identify those characteristics quickly. 

The IMRaD Layout

Many scholarly, peer-reviewed journal articles, especially empirical articles, are structured according to the IMRaD layout. IMRaD stands for "Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion." These are the major sections of the article, and each part has an important role: 

  • Introduction: explains the research project and why it is needed. 
  • Methods: details how the research was conducted. 
  • Results: provides the data from the research.
  • Discussion: explains the importance of the results. 

While an IMRaD article will have these sections, it may use different names for these sections or split them into subsections. 

While just because an article is structured in an IMRaD layout is not enough to say it is empirical, specific characteristics of empirical research are more likely to be in certain sections , so knowing them will help you find the characteristics more quickly. Click the link for each section to learn what empirical research characteristics are in that section and common alternative names for those sections: 

Use this video for a quick overview of the sections of an academic article: 

Journal articles will also have an abstract which summarizes the article. That summary often includes simplified information from different IMRaD sections, which can give you a good sense of whether the research is empirical. Most library databases and other academic search tools will show you the abstract in your search results, making it the first place you can look for evidence that an article is empirical. 

There are two types of abstracts: structured and unstructured. 

Structured Abstracts

Structured abstracts   are organized and labeled in a way that replicates the IMRaD format. If you know what characteristics of empirical research are located in a particular IMRaD section, you can skim that section of the structured abstract to look for them. 

Example of a structured abstract.  Long description available through "Image description" link.

[ Image description ] 

Unstructured Abstracts

Unstructured abstracts   do not label the parts of the summary and are generally a single block paragraph. You will not be able to skim through an unstructured abstract for empirical research characteristics as easily, but some of those characteristics will still be there. Often the unstructured abstract will include some version of the research question and simplified descriptions of the design, methodology, and sample. 

Example of an unstructured abstract. Long description available through "Image description" link.

[ Image description ]

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If you’ve ever read or written almost any type of academic document, you might have noticed that they start with introductions and end with conclusions. However, research articles – as a genre – have other consistent sections as well. The complete list of sections for research articles include the following:

  • Introduction
  • Discussion/Conclusion

A common acronym for teaching the sections of a research article is IMRD/C. In this book, we will focus heavily on helping you understand each of those IMRD/C sections’ various pieces, including their communicative goals and strategies you can use to achieve those goals. We will also use a visual of an hourglass to demonstrate this IMRD/C organizational structure.

major sections in a research journal article

We hope that this graphic along with the explanations and examples in Chapters 3-6 will allow you to deepen your understanding of research writing and become a more successful author.

Next, we’ll investigate each part of a research article from a big-picture perspective, starting with an exploration of the term “research.”

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Types of journal articles

It is helpful to familiarise yourself with the different types of articles published by journals. Although it may appear there are a large number of types of articles published due to the wide variety of names they are published under, most articles published are one of the following types; Original Research, Review Articles, Short reports or Letters, Case Studies, Methodologies.

Original Research:

This is the most common type of journal manuscript used to publish full reports of data from research. It may be called an  Original Article, Research Article, Research, or just  Article, depending on the journal. The Original Research format is suitable for many different fields and different types of studies. It includes full Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion sections.

Short reports or Letters:

These papers communicate brief reports of data from original research that editors believe will be interesting to many researchers, and that will likely stimulate further research in the field. As they are relatively short the format is useful for scientists with results that are time sensitive (for example, those in highly competitive or quickly-changing disciplines). This format often has strict length limits, so some experimental details may not be published until the authors write a full Original Research manuscript. These papers are also sometimes called Brief communications .

Review Articles:

Review Articles provide a comprehensive summary of research on a certain topic, and a perspective on the state of the field and where it is heading. They are often written by leaders in a particular discipline after invitation from the editors of a journal. Reviews are often widely read (for example, by researchers looking for a full introduction to a field) and highly cited. Reviews commonly cite approximately 100 primary research articles.

TIP: If you would like to write a Review but have not been invited by a journal, be sure to check the journal website as some journals to not consider unsolicited Reviews. If the website does not mention whether Reviews are commissioned it is wise to send a pre-submission enquiry letter to the journal editor to propose your Review manuscript before you spend time writing it.  

Case Studies:

These articles report specific instances of interesting phenomena. A goal of Case Studies is to make other researchers aware of the possibility that a specific phenomenon might occur. This type of study is often used in medicine to report the occurrence of previously unknown or emerging pathologies.

Methodologies or Methods

These articles present a new experimental method, test or procedure. The method described may either be completely new, or may offer a better version of an existing method. The article should describe a demonstrable advance on what is currently available.

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Content and form of original research articles in general major medical journals

Nicole heßler.

1 Institut für Medizinische Biometrie und Statistik (IMBS), Universität zu Lübeck, Universitätsklinikum-Schleswig-Holstein, Campus Lübeck, Lübeck, Germany

Andreas Ziegler

2 Cardio-CARE, Medizincampus Davos, Davos, Switzerland

3 School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science, University of KwaZulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

4 Department of Cardiology, University Heart and Vascular Center Hamburg, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany

5 Centre for Population Health Innovation (POINT), University Heart and Vascular Center Hamburg, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany

6 Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, Lausanne, Switzerland

Associated Data

All relevant data are within the paper and its Supporting Information files.

The title of an article is the main entrance for reading the full article. The aim of our work therefore is to examine differences of title content and form between original research articles and its changes over time. Using PubMed we examined title properties of 500 randomly chosen original research articles published in the general major medical journals BMJ, JAMA, Lancet, NEJM and PLOS Medicine between 2011 and 2020. Articles were manually evaluated with two independent raters. To analyze differences between journals and changes over time, we performed random effect meta-analyses and logistic regression models. Mentioning of results, providing any quantitative or semi-quantitative information, using a declarative title, a dash or a question mark were rarely used in the title in all considered journals. The use of a subtitle, methods-related items, such as mentioning of methods, clinical context or treatment increased over time (all p < 0.05), while the use of phrasal tiles decreased over time (p = 0.044). Not a single NEJM title contained a study name, while the Lancet had the highest usage of it (45%). The use of study names increased over time (per year odds ratio: 1.13 (95% CI: [1.03‒1.24]), p = 0.008). Investigating title content and form was time-consuming because some criteria could only be adequately evaluated by hand. Title content changed over time and differed substantially between the five major medical journals. Authors are advised to carefully study titles of journal articles in their target journal prior to manuscript submission.

Introduction

Researchers have the duty to make the results of their research on human subjects publicly available according to the declaration of Helsinki [ 1 ], and many recommendations for the reporting of studies have been developed. An overview on these reporting guidelines is provided by the EQUATOR (Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of health Research) network, which aims to tackle the problems of poor reporting [ 2 ]. One consequence of systematic reporting is that many scientific articles are organized in the same way [ 3 , 4 ], and they generally follow the IMRAD structure, which stands for Introduction, Methods, Results, And Discussion. The IMRAD structure is also standard for the writing of abstracts. It is therefore of interest to researchers how they can individualize their reports to increase the citation counts, which is one important measure for career advancement [ 5 ].

Approximately 30 factors affecting citation frequency have already been identified [ 6 – 9 ]. While journal- and author related factors are generally not modifiable, some article-specific factors are subject to active modification by the authors. Especially the title has been proposed as a modifiable component of a research article [ 9 – 11 ]. Researchers should use titles that accurately reflect the content of their work and allow others easily to find and re-use their research [ 12 ]. Most research has focused on the form of article titles because these analyses could be performed automatically and are not very time-consuming [ 9 , 13 , 14 ].

While the article content has been studied well both in features, such as tense, voice and personal pronouns, and in the IMRAD sections between different research disciplines, title content has received less attention, and the main focus was title length [ 15 , 16 ]. One reason could be the lack of automated internet searches until approximately 25 years ago. For example, PubMed was first released in 1996, Web of Science is online since 1997 and Google Scholar started not earlier than in 2004. With the advent of automated internet-based searches the importance of the title has changed, and it is now the “billboard” of a research article [ 17 ]. Another reason could be that these evaluations have to be made manually, and they are thus time-consuming [ 18 ]. An additional time-consuming factor could be that guidelines such as the Standards for Reporting of Diagnostic Accuracy (STARD) statement [ 19 ] strongly recommend that at least two observers should do an independent evaluation where applicable.

Most articles investigating the form of the title compared whether the title was a full sentence [ 20 ], descriptive, indicative, or a question [ 18 , 21 ], or whether the title included non-alphanumeric characters, such as a colon or dash [ 22 ]. Very few publications looked at other title components of a research article. Specifically, Kerans, Marshall [ 23 ] compared the frequency of Methods mentioning or Results mentioning for the general major medical journals, specifically the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the BMJ, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), and the Lancet by analyzing the first approximately 60 articles published either in 2015 or 2017 in each of the journals. Both articles investigated only a few months from a single publication year per journal. The development of title content over time was thus not considered.

The aim of our work therefore was to examine properties of title content for original research articles published in one of the five major clinical journals (BMJ, JAMA, Lancet, NEJM, and PLOS Medicine (PLOS)) over the 10-year period from 2011 until 2020. Specifically, we aimed at identifying differences between the five journals and changes over time regarding title content and title form. We also compared our findings to those of Kerans et al. [ 15 , 23 ].

Materials and methods

Search in medline and web of science.

The search strategy has been described in detail elsewhere [ 9 ]. In brief, we first extracted all original research articles finally published between 2011 and 2020 in the five major clinical journals BMJ, JAMA, Lancet, NEJM, and PLOS. The restriction to the publication year 2011 allows for proper comparisons between journals because PLOS was reshaped in 2009 [ 24 ].

The variables PubMed identifier (PMID), journal name, article title, author names, publication year, citation, PubMed Central identifier (PMCID) and digital object identifier (DOI) were extracted from the Medline search. From the Web of Science, we reduced available information to journal name, article title, PMID, abstract for the identification of original research articles, DOI and publication date. Both PMID and DOI were used to merge articles identified in Medline (n = 8396) and the Web of Science (n = 10267). Articles being listed with an abstract remained in the data set, while articles only listed in the Web of Science were excluded. Articles being only downloaded in the Medline files were checked whether they were indeed original research articles. If not, they were excluded as well. After data cleaning, a set of 8096 articles was available.

Evaluation of title content and form

To investigate title content and form, we randomly selected 500 original articles from the years 2011 to 2020. The random selection was done with stratification by journal and year so that ten original articles per year (100 articles per journal) were randomly chosen. To avoid a priori information on the specific journal article, only the title and the PMID were presented in the database. In addition, the order of the 500 articles was randomized prior to evaluation. All article titles were evaluated manually by two raters/authors. Both raters performed a training and independently evaluated 25 randomly selected journal articles—five per journal—prior to the evaluation of the 500 articles. These training articles were excluded from the main evaluation. Conflicts in ratings were solved by agreement.

Items for title content and form are displayed in Table 1 and were inspired by other works [ 15 , 25 , 26 ]. One reviewer asked for the discoverability in each of the title items, therefore, we provided two examples of article titles with the result of our evaluation in Table 1 .

The first block of Table 1 reports results on title content. Title content was divided into the topics Methods and Results. The former is concerned with the mentioning of methods in the title, such as the study design or a novel technique used in the paper [ 15 ]. Other elements from the methods concern the mentioning of a patient population, the geography, the clinical context, an intervention, and the use of study names in the title. The latter examines results mentioned in the manuscript. The first question was whether results were stated in the title at all. More detailed were the questions whether quantitative information or semiquantitative or ordinal information was provided [ 26 ]. It was also noted whether the title reported on a relation between two or more variables [ 26 ].

The second block of Table 1 is related to the form of a title divided into the topics Methods, and Conclusion/Discussion. The use of abbreviations, dashes and subtitles was investigated for the Methods. The three single items for Conclusion/Discussion were whether the title was declarative, phrasal, or formulated as a question.

Recently, we performed an analysis after an automatic search for country and city mentioning in the title by the use of the R package maps [ 9 ], and we did not expect substantial differences to our hand search.

Sample size considerations

The main aim of our work was to investigate trends over time by a regression model. In general, regression models have a sufficient sample for a single independent variable, such as time, if n ≈ 50 [ 27 , 28 ]. Specifically, for a weak effect size of R 2 = 0.14 [ 29 ], the required sample size is 51. In case of a weak effect size of Cohen’s f [ 29 ] with f 2 = R 2 / (1 –R 2 ) = 0.14, the required sample size is 403 to achieve a power of 80%. A sample size of 500 as used in our work yields a power of 87.75% at a significance level of 5%.

Descriptive statistics for the specified title properties, i.e., absolute and relative frequencies were reported for each journal over time, refraining of descriptive p-values for investigating journal differences. Fisher’s exact tests were performed at a significance level of 5% to compare the findings of this study with those of Kerans et al. [ 15 , 23 ] regarding methods mentioning, patient population, geography, clinical context, and treatment. Corresponding 95% confidence intervals (CI) were provided. Furthermore, overall tests were performed to compare frequencies of these items between all journals. Bias-corrected Cramérs V effect measures were estimated with corresponding parametric bootstrapped CIs. The DerSimonian and Laird [ 30 ] (DSL) approach was used to perform random effect (RE) meta-analyses, which allows for variability in the variables of interest properties between journals and over time. The logit transformation was used for estimating the pooled proportions [ 31 ], and standard errors were not back-transformed.

The effect of time regarding the specific title properties was investigated by logistic regression models, if appropriate. Post hoc comparisons for the identification of homogeneous subgroups were performed using Tukey’s HSD. Associations between title properties and the journals were analyzed using likelihood ratio tests. Effect estimates, i.e., odds ratios and corresponding 95% CI were reported for all analyses, and the journal BMJ was used as reference category. An odds ratio of x.x being greater than 1 indicates an x.x fold increased chance containing the specific item for an one-year difference adjusted for the variable journal.

Data and R code for all analyses are provided in S1 and S2 Files , respectively.

A total of 500 randomly selected original research articles from 5 medical journals were analyzed regarding the selected title items (see Table 1 ) . In Table 2 , the descriptive statistics, i.e., absolute and relative frequencies for all title properties over the years are shown, respectively for each journal. Results of the meta-analyses are provided in detail in S3 File , sections 4 and 5 .

Absolute and relative frequencies (parenthesis) are shown.

JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, NEJM: The New England Journal of Medicine, PLOS: PLOS Medicine.

Items–Content

In terms of the title content topic methods, the NEJM deviated from the other journals regarding the methods mentioning. While methods were mentioned in at least 93% of the article titles in BMJ, Lancet and PLOS, about the half (47%) was in JAMA and 11% in NEJM article titles. Similar results were reported by Kerans et al. [ 15 , 23 ] for BMJ, JAMA and Lancet, but proportions differed between Lancet titles ( Table 3 ). The mentioning of methods increased over time (OR: 1.12 (95% CI: [1.01‒1.24]), p = 0.025, Fig 1 and S3 File , section 6.1.1 ), i.e., methods were mentioned more frequently in the article titles more recently.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is pone.0287677.g001.jpg

Displayed are odds ratios (square) per increase by one year, corresponding 95% confidence intervals (whisker) and p-values (numbers).

Corresponding 95% confidence intervals (CI) are shown in brackets. Results of PLOS Medicine are missing because Kerans et al. did not examine article titles of this journal.

JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, NEJM: The New England Journal of Medicine. 1 p-values from Fisher exact test; frequencies were compared within a journal for the respective variable. 2 Cramérs V (bias-corrected); CIs calculated by bootstrapping (normal approximation, 100 replications), 3 p-values from Fisher-Freeman-Halton exact test; frequencies were compared between all journals within the respective study

Lowest and highest numbers for the mentioning of the patient population were in the BMJ (62%) and the NEJM (78%), respectively. For the mentioning of the patient population, neither an increase over time (OR: 1.06 (95% CI: [0.99‒1.13]), p = 0.100, Fig 1 ) nor substantial differences between the journals ( S3 File , section 6.1.2 ) could be observed.

About half of the PLOS titles (52%) contained any geographic information, but only 31% of the BMJ titles (see Table 2 ). Frequencies were only 16% and 17% for JAMA and Lancet, respectively, and 9% for NEJM titles. These findings are in line with Kerans et al. [ 15 , 23 ], except for the BMJ, where Kerans et al. observed that 15.8% of the articles mentioned geographic information ( Table 3 ). Mentioning of geographic information varied over time both within each journal ( S3 File , section 4.1.3.1) and over the journals ( S3 File , section 4.1.3.2 ). This is consistent with the results from the logistic regression analysis (OR: 1.07 (95% CI: [0.99‒1.16]), p = 0.072, Fig 1 and S3 File , section 6.1.3 ).

The clinical context was mentioned in 73% of BMJ titles, while it was mentioned at least 80% in the other four journals. This is in line with Kerans et al. [ 15 , 23 ] ( Table 3 ). Additionally, we observed an increase of clinical context mentioning over time (OR: 1.10 (95% CI: [1.01‒1.19]), p = 0.025, Fig 1 and S3 File , section 6.1.4 ).

Only 27% in PLOS and 30% in BMJ provided some treatment information in the title, while for the other three journals at least 50% of the article titles mentioned a treatment. Our results did not show any differences from those of Kerans et al. [ 15 , 23 ] ( Table 3 ). Over time the naming of treatments in the title increased (OR: 1.08 (95% CI: [1.02‒1.16]), p = 0.015, Fig 1 and S3 File , section 6.1.5 ).

There was no NEJM title containing a study name while Lancet had the highest usage of it (45%). The analysis over time showed a trend over time (OR: 1.13 (95% CI: [1.03‒1.24]), p = 0.008) and substantial differences between the journals ( S3 File , section 6.1.6 ).

Regarding the title topic results, only 6 out of the total of 500 articles mentioned results in their titles. This is in line with the findings of Kerans et al. [ 15 , 23 ], who reported that 1.9% of NEJM titles mentioned results. No article provided any quantitative information in its title, and only 4 of 500 articles provided semi-quantitative information in their title. Because of very low numbers, no further analyses were performed for these criteria.

A relation between variables was used least frequently in the NEJM (23%), followed by the Lancet (35%). The other three journals mentioned a relation in more than half of the articles ( Table 2 ). These differences between journals were confirmed in regression analysis ( S3 File , section 6.2.4 ). However, an increase over time could not be observed (p = 0.858, Fig 1 ).

Items–Form

In terms of the title form topic methods, abbreviations were less used in NEJM titles and most used in Lancet titles, 24% and 55 respectively (see Table 2 ). An increase use over time was observed (OR: 1.13 (95% CI: [1.05‒1.20]), p < 0.001, Fig 1 ) as well as differences between journals ( S3 File , section 7.1.1) .

Dashes were rarely used. Only three articles in BMJ and two articles in NEJM used a dash ( Table 2 ). Further analyses were not performed because of these low frequencies.

A subtitle was used in at least 98% of the articles in BMJ, Lancet, and PLOS, while only 41% of JAMA titles and only 2% of NEJM titles used subtitles. These clear differences between the journals were confirmed with the regression analysis ( S3 File , section 7.1.2 ). Moreover, the usage of subtitles increased over time (OR: 1.22 (95% CI: [1.07‒1.38]), p < 0.003 , Fig 1 ).

Finally, regarding the title form topic discussion, not a single article had a declarative title in our analyses ( Table 2 ). Phrasal titles were present in 3% of JAMA, 7% of NEJM, 11% of BMJ, 12% of Lancet, and 15% of PLOS titles. Significant differences between journals could not be observed ( S3 File , section 7.2.2 ). A decrease of phrasal titles over time was observed in the regression analysis (OR: 0.90 (95% CI: [0.81‒1.00]), p < 0.044, Fig 1 and S3 File , section 7.2.2 ).

Only three of 500 article titles were written as a question ( Table 2 ). Kerans et al. [ 15 , 23 ] observed similar low frequencies; and they reported 3.9% for the BMJ and 1.3% for Lancet articles with a question symbol, and none for both JAMA and NEJM ( Table 3 ).

Geographic information–Manual versus automated search with the maps package

The comparison of our hand search on the mentioning of geographic information revealed substantial differences to the automated search with the R package maps [ 9 ].

In detail, respectively, 31% vs. 13% for BMJ, 16% vs. 3% for JAMA, 17% vs. 9% for the Lancet, 9% vs. 3% for the NEJM and 52% vs. 29% for PLOS articles contained any geographical information in their titles for the hand and automatic search. The automated search thus led to fewer titles with any geographic information.

Title content properties varied substantially between original research articles published in the general major medical journals. Furthermore, title content and form changed over time. Differences between journals were specifically observed in the use of subtitles. While almost all articles from the BMJ and PLOS had subtitles, only two of the NEJM articles had a subtitle. Previously, we and others showed that the colon was most used in titles to split a title into multiple parts rather than any other separator [ 9 , 15 , 23 ]. Here, we furthermore showed that the proportion of paper with subtitles increased over time.

Substantial differences between journals were also observed for the mentioning of methods, the patient population, the geography, the interventional treatment, and the use of an abbreviation in the title. In addition, there were substantial differences in the use of a study name in the title. For example, while no article published in the NEJM used a study name, almost half (45%) of the studies in the Lancet used one. Some content criteria were mainly not or rarely used in all considered journals, such as a dash, mentioning of results, using a declarative title, or a question mark. This was in contrast to Paiva, Lima [ 32 ] who showed for PLOS and BMC journals that approximately 40% of the articles mentioned the results, and such articles were more frequently cited than work mentioning methods. In our study, only 6 articles out of 500 mentioned results in the title, while 344 out of the 500 articles mentioned of methods. Our findings are in line with general guidelines that declamatory titles, i.e., titles that give study results should be avoided [ 33 ]; see, e.g., instructions to authors for the Lancet. Authors should thus avoid providing quantitative or semi-quantitative information in the title. In fact, since the title is a one-line summary, the conclusions could be spread out into the world without reading at least the abstract or the full text of the article. Aleixandre-Benavent and colleagues go a step further and provide recommendations what a title should contain, and how it should not be constructed [ 16 ].

Our work focused on the general major medical journals plus the online only journal PLOS. Between the printed journals, there were substantial differences regarding the content of article titles [ 9 ]. One of the reasons could be in the instructions for authors, which differ in the provided information on the construction of a title. Specifically, the NEJM title had the lowest number of frequencies for a couple of criteria, such as the subtitle, methods mentioning, geography, abbreviations, and relation. No NEJM title contained a study name. However, the clinical context and the patient population was most frequently described in NEJM article titles. Differences between printed and online journals were obvious using geographic information in the title or usage of a phrasal title occurring more often in the online journal PLOS.

Subtitles are now more frequently used than a decade ago. Furthermore, the mentioning of methods increased in the 10 years from 2011 to 2020. This change in the title may be caused by the increased use of reporting guidelines, such as the CONSORT statement [ 34 ], which states that a randomized controlled trial should be identifiable as randomized in the title. The instructions for authors of all considered journals state that subtitles should be used for reporting the study design and/or authors should follow the respective reporting guidelines of their study. In fact, authors should look out a copy of the target journal and identify its preferences [ 35 ].

Our results are in line with the recommendations from the journal-specific instructions for authors, except NEJM. The NEJM does not follow the CONSORT statement using subtitles for randomized controlled trials, see also [ 1 ]. For the other four journals, the mentioning of the study design or the type of analysis is almost always done using subtitles as recommended. Furthermore, our results for JAMA using no declarative titles, no results mentioning or using questions in the title match with its recommendations.

Research has so far concentrated on the form of article titles rather than its content. While some authors investigated title content in BMJ, JAMA, Lancet and NEJM for a specific time, generally a single year [ 15 , 23 , 36 ], the development of title content over time has rarely been studied [ 37 ]. A strength of our work thus is the availability of all original articles over a time span of 10 years [ 9 ]. From this database, we randomly selected a subset of articles for manual assessment. These articles were evaluated by two raters according to a pre-specified coding plan with examples and training. Title evaluations were then done blinded by year and journal.

We did not expect different journal-specific frequencies regarding the geographic information in the title compared to our recent work [ 9 ], in which we performed an automatic search for country and city mentioning in the title by the use of the R package maps [ 9 ]. However, frequencies differed substantially. The automated search led to fewer titles with any geographic information. For example, the maps package did not contain countries, such as ‘England’, continents, abbreviation, such as ‘U.S.’, or terms, such as ‘English’. The main reasons for the discrepancies were for the use of country-specific abbreviations and additional country-specific terms. However, other tools or packages might have been more appropriate for the geographical query than the maps package.

One limitation of our study is that we relied on the quality of the data provided by the PubMed database [ 38 ]. Another limitation of our work is that additional variables could have been considered, e.g., more complex title content [ 12 , 16 , 22 ].

A further limitation is the sample size of 500 articles, i.e., 10 articles per journal and year. With a sample size substantially larger than 1000 articles we would have been able to study the association of title characteristics with citation counts. For example, the total sample size of our previous study, which was based on an automated search was 8096 articles [ 9 ]. With 500 articles, 95% confidence intervals are approximately 4 times larger (√8096 / √500 = 4.02), and many results, such as the association between the number of citations would not have been significant. The sample size used in this study is approximately twice that of [ 15 , 23 ], and this study with 500 articles was powered to reliably detect trends over time.

In future research, it would be of interest to analyze the effect of title content properties on citation frequencies. It would also be interesting to compare specific journals with general medical journals.

In conclusion, title content differed substantially between the five major medical journals BMJ, JAMA, Lancet, NEJM and PLOS. Furthermore, title content changed over time. We recommend that authors study titles of articles recently published in their target journal when formulating the manuscript title. Analyses of title content may generally require manual time-consuming inspections.

Supporting information

Funding statement.

The authors received no specific funding for this work.

Data Availability

  • PLoS One. 2023; 18(6): e0287677.

Decision Letter 0

10 Apr 2023

PONE-D-23-07021Title Content and Form of Original Research Articles in High-Ranked Medical JournalsPLOS ONE

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Additional Editor Comments:

The major concerns from the reviewers include the sample size, sample selection, and writing style.

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Reviewers' comments:

Reviewer's Responses to Questions

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Reviewer #2: Yes

Reviewer #3: Partly

Reviewer #4: Yes

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Reviewer #1: This article analyses the titles of articles published in a series of medical journals over time. It is interesting for a consideration of how naming practices affect discoverability and use of research material.

There are, though, a few aspects that need revision:

First, the title of this paper makes reference to “high ranked” medical journals, but there is no definition anywhere of how this ranking is constructed or to what ranking you are referring.

Second, the sample size of 500 is relatively small and limits the general applicability of the findings, as the paper notes. I am unclear as to whether this is too small to be useful/generalizable.

Third, some of the limitations could have been overcome with different computational methods. For example, on page 14 you state that the maps package that you used was not able correctly to identify many locations in article headings. However, other named-entity recognition tools would certainly do a better job of this. For instance, Amazon Comprehend or SageMaker could be appropriate tools here.

Fourth, the language needs careful checking throughout. For instance: “can only adequately [be] measured”; “articles meaning no sentence and no question”; “we did neither observe” → “we observed neither”; “almost the half” → “almost half”.

Fifth, and perhaps most significantly, it would be helpful for the conclusions of this paper to interpret the findings more closely. Why have these changes that you find occurred? What does it mean that subtitles are now more common? How does discoverability work in each of the title types to which you refer?

Finally, you open by stating that the prime driver of picking a good title is so that you can pick up citations and have career progression. This seems a very cynical way of thinking about how to title articles. Scientists and medics should use titles that accurately reflect the content of the work and allow others easily to find and re-use their research. I would suggest amending this opening to incorporate such a stance.

Reviewer #2: The paper titled “Title Content and Form of Original Research Articles in High-Ranked Medical Journals” investigates the differences of title content and form between papers in the medical field and their changes over time. Overall, the paper is well-written and well-argued. The methodology is adequate, and there are an overall coherence and relation to the scope of publication in the Plos One journal. In addition, this manuscript addresses a very interesting issue about the analysis of titles and does so in a very competent technical way. It Is worth mentioning that data and R code are shared.

I do however have a major issue (which in fact, is a minor one). The authors did a huge effort in sharing all the data; however, the results section sometimes it's difficult to follow (the reader should go back and forth checking the tables). I think some (introductory) sentences in some parts of the manuscript will benefit the readability of the text (see my suggestions below).

I will go slightly more into detail with them in the position-specific comments below.

I think the paper would benefit by including some keywords related to the titles (e.g. research article titles or titles). I have reservations about the use of ‘impact’ (I think the authors are not analysing the impact of the papers, e.g. citation impact).

The introduction and background is ok, providing the necessary information leading to the purpose of the study. However, I think the authors could expand a bit more (there are more studies on the topic). See my suggestions below.

P10|Line 56. Indicate that the EQUATOR Network is referred to the reporting health research (e.g. Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of health Research (EQUATOR) Network).

P10|Line 33 (and P11|Line 83). “content has rarely been investigated beyond title length”. I slightly disagree with this statement. From a bibliometric perspective, there are many articles that analyse impact (e.g. effect on citations, downloads), sentence types (e.g. informative), the information the author wants to include, and in which order, among others. I would like to suggest the following papers (not included by the authors):

• Aleixandre-Benavent, R., Montalt-Resurecció, V., & Valderrama-Zurián, J. C. (2014). A descriptive study of inaccuracy in article titles on bibliometrics published in biomedical journals. Scientometrics, 101(1), 781–791. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-014-1296-5 .

• Ball, R. (2009). Scholarly communication in transition: The use of question marks in the titles of scientific articles in medicine, life sciences and physics 1966–2005. Scientometrics, 79(3), 667–679. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-007-1984-5 .

• Busch-Lauer, I.-A. (2000). Titles of English and German research papers in medicine and linguistics theses and research articles. In A. Trosborg (Ed.), Analysing professional genres (pp. 77–94). John Benjamins Publishing Company. https://doi.org/10.1075/pbns.74.08bus

• Buter, R. K., & van Raan, A. F. J. (2011). Non-alphanumeric characters in titles of scientific publications: An analysis of their occurrence and correlation with citation impact. Journal of Informetrics, 5(4), 608–617. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joi.2011.05.008 .

• Haggan, M. (2004). Research paper titles in literature, linguistics and science: Dimensions of attraction. Journal of Pragmatics, 36(2), 293–317. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0378-2166 (03)00090-0

• Nagano, R. L. (2015). Research article titles and disciplinary conventions: A corpus study of eight disciplines. Journal of Academic Writing, 5(1), 133–144. https://doi.org/10.18552/joaw.v5i1.168

• Pearson, W. S. (2021). Quoted speech in linguistics research article titles: patterns of use and effects on citations. Scientometrics, 126(4), 3421-3442.

P10|Line 75. Worth mentioning the Web of Science (1997) which includes the title field tag.

P11|Line 79. Indicate the acronym (Standards for Reporting of Diagnostic Accuracy (STARD)). When the authors mention ‘at least two observers should do an independent evaluation where applicable”. Are referring to the article title? (not clear)

P11|Line 84. Correct typo “(2020)compared”.

P12|106-108. The authors mention “Articles being listed with an abstract remained in the data set, while articles only listed in the Web of Science were excluded.”. I suggest indicating the number of papers. Was the abstract used for any purpose?

P12|111. Indicate in this section that ten original articles per year (100 articles per journal) were randomly chosen.

There is a lot of information in this section (Tables and supplementary material), which allows the reproducibility of the findings. However, I think some introductory sentences will benefit the readability of the text (see my suggestions below).

P14|159-160. Although the information is in the Supplementary Material, I suggest introducing a few words (just one or two sentences) about Table 2 (or Descriptive Statistics).

In Table 3, the Plos Medicine journal information is missing in the table.

P14|159-160 “About half of the PLOS titles (52%) contained any geographic information”: missing this information in Table 3 (or indicate the Supplementary table in which this information is displayed).

P16|203. Correct typo ‘ofKerans’.

P16|207. Here, the authors mention the Results/Relation (and not the previous ones, i.e. Results mention, Quantitative information or Semi-quantitative information). I suggest an introductory sentence indicating that ‘In terms of results, etc’. And also pointing out that the other previous items were rarely used.

P16|214. Regarding this information (24%), indicate in brackets Table 2 (or 3.2. Supplementary Table)

P16|224. Indicate that refers to the discussion/conclusion part.

Discussion/Conclusions

Line 19|278-279. Another aspect that should be considered is the title length allowed by each journal (number maximum of words). Also there is of interest the recommendations from the journals (e.g. in the author guidelines). In some journals there is some criteria such as ‘Specific, descriptive, concise, and comprehensible to readers outside the field’ (Plos One), whereas in others it is suggested to include a subtitle (e.g. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/pages/instructions-for-authors ).

Line 20 |321. Another limitation is the variables considered (e.g. some other studies analyse other non-alphanumeric elements such as exclamations, other criteria for the content, etc.)

Line21|333. A sentence about further research could be included.

Reviewer #3: • There was a desire to look at characteristics within journals over time but use of only 10 articles per year seems subject to selection bias for this research question. What was the power consideration here?

• It is not clear how the titles were evaluated. Was it an automated program or each one manually? The samples size is small enough that manual adjudication is possible.

• Line 115. This is confusing. Results are not given for harmonization of classification of various title attributes.

• Reporting of ORs is confusing. For example on line 170, what is the OR for? The proportion listing method per year? Similar in line 188 – you say the rate varied over time, but you used logistic regression assuming an increase over time?

• The results section includes discussion points (like line 202).

• Were any findings linked back to author instructions for each journal? These often dictate title content.

• Linking the metrics assessed to citation counts would add an important dimension to the significance of this research.

• There is too much repetition of p values in the Discussion. I assume these were not presenting new analyses not shown in the results. It is not appropriate. Line 312 – they do report new analyses. It should be part of the study of not (unless published elsewhere).

• The Discussion is too long.

• The recommendation near the end that authors study titles in their target journals before submission is unfounded. Title is often dictated by author guidelines or changed during peer review. They did not study this particular question – in other words, they did not study title of rejected compared to accepted articles.

Reviewer #4: This study applies what are in my opinion very sound methodologies to analyze the titles of prestigious, general medical journals. The paper is well-written, and its significance lays on going beyond other studies in investigating titles’ form & content and the development of title content over time. To do so, they had to select a representative sample of articles over a period of 10 years. Having two (trained) raters made the methodology strong, as it was the methodology followed in the “Evaluation of title content and form” section. (I have to admit, however, that I lack the expertise to say that the statistical analyses have been performed appropriately and rigorously. So in the following I assume these have been done correctly.) By following this well-crafted methodology, and providing all the relevant data, the code to analyze it, and in detail results in the supplementary materials, the conclusions arrived at are well supported (see some comments below, though) and could be replicated by others.

I do have some specific concerns or comments that I would like the authors to address:

1. I think the authors should stick to the wording “general major medical journals” instead of “highly ranked” as they don’t define which “rank” that is or where it can be found or calculated.

2. Mentioning of guidelines for authors writing the papers in the journals analyzed was not mentioned at all ---even as it is mentioned in the literature they quote. I think this is important as to it may be determining why authors use a particular way to phrase the title. The reader is left to assume that no guidance was provided by the journal that could have biased title wording. I think this to be particularly important for the use or avoidance of abbreviations, dashes, and/or subtitles.

3. The authors recommendation “We recommend that authors study titles of articles recently published in their target journal when formulating the manuscript title” does not seem supported other than by their results implying this is what you find in them already. So, why should you follow the same? Would that make it more likely to be published? The paper’s introduction makes reference to increasing citation frequency in databases, and so does at least one of the authors’ previous papers, yet it’s never mentioned explicitly as a possible outcome of choosing title according to the journal to submit.

4. Regarding their recommendation “In our opinion, authors should avoid providing quantitative or semi-quantitative information in the title. In fact, since the title is a one-line summary, the conclusions could be spread out into the world without reading at least the abstract or the full text of the article. ”I think this argument should expand as to what the consequences are in following this behavior e.g. propagation of misinformation.

5. In their statement “Another limitation of our study is that we relied on the quality of the data provided by the database of PubMed. Specifically, we may have missed some original articles in our database search. And we have previously identified a couple of errors in the database (Heßler and Ziegler, 2022).” One shouldn’t expect the reader to go their paper for finding out what was wrong with those hits/articles.

6. Finally, author AZ declares, in the competing interests field, that he's a "licensed Tim Albert trainer and has held several courses in the past based on Albert’s concept." Please consider adding the statement that (at least some of the) Tim Albert trainings deal with advising people how to write medical papers.

P.S. There are a few typos, like missing words and letters, that need to be corrected throughout the manuscript.

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Reviewer #2: No

Reviewer #4: No

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Title Content and Form of Original Research Articles in General Major Medical Journals

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11.2 Writing a Research Report in American Psychological Association (APA) Style

Learning objectives.

  • Identify the major sections of an APA-style research report and the basic contents of each section.
  • Plan and write an effective APA-style research report.

In this section, we look at how to write an APA-style empirical research report , an article that presents the results of one or more new studies. Recall that the standard sections of an empirical research report provide a kind of outline. Here we consider each of these sections in detail, including what information it contains, how that information is formatted and organized, and tips for writing each section. At the end of this section is a sample APA-style research report that illustrates many of these principles.

Sections of a Research Report

Title page and abstract.

An APA-style research report begins with a  title page . The title is centered in the upper half of the page, with each important word capitalized. The title should clearly and concisely (in about 12 words or fewer) communicate the primary variables and research questions. This sometimes requires a main title followed by a subtitle that elaborates on the main title, in which case the main title and subtitle are separated by a colon. Here are some titles from recent issues of professional journals published by the American Psychological Association.

  • Sex Differences in Coping Styles and Implications for Depressed Mood
  • Effects of Aging and Divided Attention on Memory for Items and Their Contexts
  • Computer-Assisted Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Child Anxiety: Results of a Randomized Clinical Trial
  • Virtual Driving and Risk Taking: Do Racing Games Increase Risk-Taking Cognitions, Affect, and Behavior?

Below the title are the authors’ names and, on the next line, their institutional affiliation—the university or other institution where the authors worked when they conducted the research. As we have already seen, the authors are listed in an order that reflects their contribution to the research. When multiple authors have made equal contributions to the research, they often list their names alphabetically or in a randomly determined order.

It’s  Soooo  Cute!  How Informal Should an Article Title Be?

In some areas of psychology, the titles of many empirical research reports are informal in a way that is perhaps best described as “cute.” They usually take the form of a play on words or a well-known expression that relates to the topic under study. Here are some examples from recent issues of the Journal Psychological Science .

  • “Smells Like Clean Spirit: Nonconscious Effects of Scent on Cognition and Behavior”
  • “Time Crawls: The Temporal Resolution of Infants’ Visual Attention”
  • “Scent of a Woman: Men’s Testosterone Responses to Olfactory Ovulation Cues”
  • “Apocalypse Soon?: Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs”
  • “Serial vs. Parallel Processing: Sometimes They Look Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee but They Can (and Should) Be Distinguished”
  • “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words: The Social Effects of Expressive Writing”

Individual researchers differ quite a bit in their preference for such titles. Some use them regularly, while others never use them. What might be some of the pros and cons of using cute article titles?

For articles that are being submitted for publication, the title page also includes an author note that lists the authors’ full institutional affiliations, any acknowledgments the authors wish to make to agencies that funded the research or to colleagues who commented on it, and contact information for the authors. For student papers that are not being submitted for publication—including theses—author notes are generally not necessary.

The  abstract  is a summary of the study. It is the second page of the manuscript and is headed with the word  Abstract . The first line is not indented. The abstract presents the research question, a summary of the method, the basic results, and the most important conclusions. Because the abstract is usually limited to about 200 words, it can be a challenge to write a good one.

Introduction

The  introduction  begins on the third page of the manuscript. The heading at the top of this page is the full title of the manuscript, with each important word capitalized as on the title page. The introduction includes three distinct subsections, although these are typically not identified by separate headings. The opening introduces the research question and explains why it is interesting, the literature review discusses relevant previous research, and the closing restates the research question and comments on the method used to answer it.

The Opening

The  opening , which is usually a paragraph or two in length, introduces the research question and explains why it is interesting. To capture the reader’s attention, researcher Daryl Bem recommends starting with general observations about the topic under study, expressed in ordinary language (not technical jargon)—observations that are about people and their behavior (not about researchers or their research; Bem, 2003 [1] ). Concrete examples are often very useful here. According to Bem, this would be a poor way to begin a research report:

Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance received a great deal of attention during the latter part of the 20th century (p. 191)

The following would be much better:

The individual who holds two beliefs that are inconsistent with one another may feel uncomfortable. For example, the person who knows that he or she enjoys smoking but believes it to be unhealthy may experience discomfort arising from the inconsistency or disharmony between these two thoughts or cognitions. This feeling of discomfort was called cognitive dissonance by social psychologist Leon Festinger (1957), who suggested that individuals will be motivated to remove this dissonance in whatever way they can (p. 191).

After capturing the reader’s attention, the opening should go on to introduce the research question and explain why it is interesting. Will the answer fill a gap in the literature? Will it provide a test of an important theory? Does it have practical implications? Giving readers a clear sense of what the research is about and why they should care about it will motivate them to continue reading the literature review—and will help them make sense of it.

Breaking the Rules

Researcher Larry Jacoby reported several studies showing that a word that people see or hear repeatedly can seem more familiar even when they do not recall the repetitions—and that this tendency is especially pronounced among older adults. He opened his article with the following humorous anecdote:

A friend whose mother is suffering symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) tells the story of taking her mother to visit a nursing home, preliminary to her mother’s moving there. During an orientation meeting at the nursing home, the rules and regulations were explained, one of which regarded the dining room. The dining room was described as similar to a fine restaurant except that tipping was not required. The absence of tipping was a central theme in the orientation lecture, mentioned frequently to emphasize the quality of care along with the advantages of having paid in advance. At the end of the meeting, the friend’s mother was asked whether she had any questions. She replied that she only had one question: “Should I tip?” (Jacoby, 1999, p. 3)

Although both humor and personal anecdotes are generally discouraged in APA-style writing, this example is a highly effective way to start because it both engages the reader and provides an excellent real-world example of the topic under study.

The Literature Review

Immediately after the opening comes the  literature review , which describes relevant previous research on the topic and can be anywhere from several paragraphs to several pages in length. However, the literature review is not simply a list of past studies. Instead, it constitutes a kind of argument for why the research question is worth addressing. By the end of the literature review, readers should be convinced that the research question makes sense and that the present study is a logical next step in the ongoing research process.

Like any effective argument, the literature review must have some kind of structure. For example, it might begin by describing a phenomenon in a general way along with several studies that demonstrate it, then describing two or more competing theories of the phenomenon, and finally presenting a hypothesis to test one or more of the theories. Or it might describe one phenomenon, then describe another phenomenon that seems inconsistent with the first one, then propose a theory that resolves the inconsistency, and finally present a hypothesis to test that theory. In applied research, it might describe a phenomenon or theory, then describe how that phenomenon or theory applies to some important real-world situation, and finally suggest a way to test whether it does, in fact, apply to that situation.

Looking at the literature review in this way emphasizes a few things. First, it is extremely important to start with an outline of the main points that you want to make, organized in the order that you want to make them. The basic structure of your argument, then, should be apparent from the outline itself. Second, it is important to emphasize the structure of your argument in your writing. One way to do this is to begin the literature review by summarizing your argument even before you begin to make it. “In this article, I will describe two apparently contradictory phenomena, present a new theory that has the potential to resolve the apparent contradiction, and finally present a novel hypothesis to test the theory.” Another way is to open each paragraph with a sentence that summarizes the main point of the paragraph and links it to the preceding points. These opening sentences provide the “transitions” that many beginning researchers have difficulty with. Instead of beginning a paragraph by launching into a description of a previous study, such as “Williams (2004) found that…,” it is better to start by indicating something about why you are describing this particular study. Here are some simple examples:

Another example of this phenomenon comes from the work of Williams (2004).

Williams (2004) offers one explanation of this phenomenon.

An alternative perspective has been provided by Williams (2004).

We used a method based on the one used by Williams (2004).

Finally, remember that your goal is to construct an argument for why your research question is interesting and worth addressing—not necessarily why your favorite answer to it is correct. In other words, your literature review must be balanced. If you want to emphasize the generality of a phenomenon, then of course you should discuss various studies that have demonstrated it. However, if there are other studies that have failed to demonstrate it, you should discuss them too. Or if you are proposing a new theory, then of course you should discuss findings that are consistent with that theory. However, if there are other findings that are inconsistent with it, again, you should discuss them too. It is acceptable to argue that the  balance  of the research supports the existence of a phenomenon or is consistent with a theory (and that is usually the best that researchers in psychology can hope for), but it is not acceptable to  ignore contradictory evidence. Besides, a large part of what makes a research question interesting is uncertainty about its answer.

The Closing

The  closing  of the introduction—typically the final paragraph or two—usually includes two important elements. The first is a clear statement of the main research question and hypothesis. This statement tends to be more formal and precise than in the opening and is often expressed in terms of operational definitions of the key variables. The second is a brief overview of the method and some comment on its appropriateness. Here, for example, is how Darley and Latané (1968) [2] concluded the introduction to their classic article on the bystander effect:

These considerations lead to the hypothesis that the more bystanders to an emergency, the less likely, or the more slowly, any one bystander will intervene to provide aid. To test this proposition it would be necessary to create a situation in which a realistic “emergency” could plausibly occur. Each subject should also be blocked from communicating with others to prevent his getting information about their behavior during the emergency. Finally, the experimental situation should allow for the assessment of the speed and frequency of the subjects’ reaction to the emergency. The experiment reported below attempted to fulfill these conditions. (p. 378)

Thus the introduction leads smoothly into the next major section of the article—the method section.

The  method section  is where you describe how you conducted your study. An important principle for writing a method section is that it should be clear and detailed enough that other researchers could replicate the study by following your “recipe.” This means that it must describe all the important elements of the study—basic demographic characteristics of the participants, how they were recruited, whether they were randomly assigned to conditions, how the variables were manipulated or measured, how counterbalancing was accomplished, and so on. At the same time, it should avoid irrelevant details such as the fact that the study was conducted in Classroom 37B of the Industrial Technology Building or that the questionnaire was double-sided and completed using pencils.

The method section begins immediately after the introduction ends with the heading “Method” (not “Methods”) centered on the page. Immediately after this is the subheading “Participants,” left justified and in italics. The participants subsection indicates how many participants there were, the number of women and men, some indication of their age, other demographics that may be relevant to the study, and how they were recruited, including any incentives given for participation.

Figure 11.1 Three Ways of Organizing an APA-Style Method

Figure 11.1 Three Ways of Organizing an APA-Style Method

After the participants section, the structure can vary a bit. Figure 11.1 shows three common approaches. In the first, the participants section is followed by a design and procedure subsection, which describes the rest of the method. This works well for methods that are relatively simple and can be described adequately in a few paragraphs. In the second approach, the participants section is followed by separate design and procedure subsections. This works well when both the design and the procedure are relatively complicated and each requires multiple paragraphs.

What is the difference between design and procedure? The design of a study is its overall structure. What were the independent and dependent variables? Was the independent variable manipulated, and if so, was it manipulated between or within subjects? How were the variables operationally defined? The procedure is how the study was carried out. It often works well to describe the procedure in terms of what the participants did rather than what the researchers did. For example, the participants gave their informed consent, read a set of instructions, completed a block of four practice trials, completed a block of 20 test trials, completed two questionnaires, and were debriefed and excused.

In the third basic way to organize a method section, the participants subsection is followed by a materials subsection before the design and procedure subsections. This works well when there are complicated materials to describe. This might mean multiple questionnaires, written vignettes that participants read and respond to, perceptual stimuli, and so on. The heading of this subsection can be modified to reflect its content. Instead of “Materials,” it can be “Questionnaires,” “Stimuli,” and so on. The materials subsection is also a good place to refer to the reliability and/or validity of the measures. This is where you would present test-retest correlations, Cronbach’s α, or other statistics to show that the measures are consistent across time and across items and that they accurately measure what they are intended to measure.

The  results section  is where you present the main results of the study, including the results of the statistical analyses. Although it does not include the raw data—individual participants’ responses or scores—researchers should save their raw data and make them available to other researchers who request them. Several journals now encourage the open sharing of raw data online.

Although there are no standard subsections, it is still important for the results section to be logically organized. Typically it begins with certain preliminary issues. One is whether any participants or responses were excluded from the analyses and why. The rationale for excluding data should be described clearly so that other researchers can decide whether it is appropriate. A second preliminary issue is how multiple responses were combined to produce the primary variables in the analyses. For example, if participants rated the attractiveness of 20 stimulus people, you might have to explain that you began by computing the mean attractiveness rating for each participant. Or if they recalled as many items as they could from study list of 20 words, did you count the number correctly recalled, compute the percentage correctly recalled, or perhaps compute the number correct minus the number incorrect? A final preliminary issue is whether the manipulation was successful. This is where you would report the results of any manipulation checks.

The results section should then tackle the primary research questions, one at a time. Again, there should be a clear organization. One approach would be to answer the most general questions and then proceed to answer more specific ones. Another would be to answer the main question first and then to answer secondary ones. Regardless, Bem (2003) [3] suggests the following basic structure for discussing each new result:

  • Remind the reader of the research question.
  • Give the answer to the research question in words.
  • Present the relevant statistics.
  • Qualify the answer if necessary.
  • Summarize the result.

Notice that only Step 3 necessarily involves numbers. The rest of the steps involve presenting the research question and the answer to it in words. In fact, the basic results should be clear even to a reader who skips over the numbers.

The  discussion  is the last major section of the research report. Discussions usually consist of some combination of the following elements:

  • Summary of the research
  • Theoretical implications
  • Practical implications
  • Limitations
  • Suggestions for future research

The discussion typically begins with a summary of the study that provides a clear answer to the research question. In a short report with a single study, this might require no more than a sentence. In a longer report with multiple studies, it might require a paragraph or even two. The summary is often followed by a discussion of the theoretical implications of the research. Do the results provide support for any existing theories? If not, how  can  they be explained? Although you do not have to provide a definitive explanation or detailed theory for your results, you at least need to outline one or more possible explanations. In applied research—and often in basic research—there is also some discussion of the practical implications of the research. How can the results be used, and by whom, to accomplish some real-world goal?

The theoretical and practical implications are often followed by a discussion of the study’s limitations. Perhaps there are problems with its internal or external validity. Perhaps the manipulation was not very effective or the measures not very reliable. Perhaps there is some evidence that participants did not fully understand their task or that they were suspicious of the intent of the researchers. Now is the time to discuss these issues and how they might have affected the results. But do not overdo it. All studies have limitations, and most readers will understand that a different sample or different measures might have produced different results. Unless there is good reason to think they  would have, however, there is no reason to mention these routine issues. Instead, pick two or three limitations that seem like they could have influenced the results, explain how they could have influenced the results, and suggest ways to deal with them.

Most discussions end with some suggestions for future research. If the study did not satisfactorily answer the original research question, what will it take to do so? What  new  research questions has the study raised? This part of the discussion, however, is not just a list of new questions. It is a discussion of two or three of the most important unresolved issues. This means identifying and clarifying each question, suggesting some alternative answers, and even suggesting ways they could be studied.

Finally, some researchers are quite good at ending their articles with a sweeping or thought-provoking conclusion. Darley and Latané (1968) [4] , for example, ended their article on the bystander effect by discussing the idea that whether people help others may depend more on the situation than on their personalities. Their final sentence is, “If people understand the situational forces that can make them hesitate to intervene, they may better overcome them” (p. 383). However, this kind of ending can be difficult to pull off. It can sound overreaching or just banal and end up detracting from the overall impact of the article. It is often better simply to end by returning to the problem or issue introduced in your opening paragraph and clearly stating how your research has addressed that issue or problem.

The references section begins on a new page with the heading “References” centered at the top of the page. All references cited in the text are then listed in the format presented earlier. They are listed alphabetically by the last name of the first author. If two sources have the same first author, they are listed alphabetically by the last name of the second author. If all the authors are the same, then they are listed chronologically by the year of publication. Everything in the reference list is double-spaced both within and between references.

Appendices, Tables, and Figures

Appendices, tables, and figures come after the references. An  appendix  is appropriate for supplemental material that would interrupt the flow of the research report if it were presented within any of the major sections. An appendix could be used to present lists of stimulus words, questionnaire items, detailed descriptions of special equipment or unusual statistical analyses, or references to the studies that are included in a meta-analysis. Each appendix begins on a new page. If there is only one, the heading is “Appendix,” centered at the top of the page. If there is more than one, the headings are “Appendix A,” “Appendix B,” and so on, and they appear in the order they were first mentioned in the text of the report.

After any appendices come tables and then figures. Tables and figures are both used to present results. Figures can also be used to display graphs, illustrate theories (e.g., in the form of a flowchart), display stimuli, outline procedures, and present many other kinds of information. Each table and figure appears on its own page. Tables are numbered in the order that they are first mentioned in the text (“Table 1,” “Table 2,” and so on). Figures are numbered the same way (“Figure 1,” “Figure 2,” and so on). A brief explanatory title, with the important words capitalized, appears above each table. Each figure is given a brief explanatory caption, where (aside from proper nouns or names) only the first word of each sentence is capitalized. More details on preparing APA-style tables and figures are presented later in the book.

Sample APA-Style Research Report

Figures 11.2, 11.3, 11.4, and 11.5 show some sample pages from an APA-style empirical research report originally written by undergraduate student Tomoe Suyama at California State University, Fresno. The main purpose of these figures is to illustrate the basic organization and formatting of an APA-style empirical research report, although many high-level and low-level style conventions can be seen here too.

Figure 11.2 Title Page and Abstract. This student paper does not include the author note on the title page. The abstract appears on its own page.

Figure 11.2 Title Page and Abstract. This student paper does not include the author note on the title page. The abstract appears on its own page.

Figure 11.3 Introduction and Method. Note that the introduction is headed with the full title, and the method section begins immediately after the introduction ends.

Figure 11.3 Introduction and Method. Note that the introduction is headed with the full title, and the method section begins immediately after the introduction ends.

Figure 11.4 Results and Discussion The discussion begins immediately after the results section ends.

Figure 11.4 Results and Discussion The discussion begins immediately after the results section ends.

Figure 11.5 References and Figure. If there were appendices or tables, they would come before the figure.

Figure 11.5 References and Figure. If there were appendices or tables, they would come before the figure.

Key Takeaways

  • An APA-style empirical research report consists of several standard sections. The main ones are the abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion, and references.
  • The introduction consists of an opening that presents the research question, a literature review that describes previous research on the topic, and a closing that restates the research question and comments on the method. The literature review constitutes an argument for why the current study is worth doing.
  • The method section describes the method in enough detail that another researcher could replicate the study. At a minimum, it consists of a participants subsection and a design and procedure subsection.
  • The results section describes the results in an organized fashion. Each primary result is presented in terms of statistical results but also explained in words.
  • The discussion typically summarizes the study, discusses theoretical and practical implications and limitations of the study, and offers suggestions for further research.
  • Practice: Look through an issue of a general interest professional journal (e.g.,  Psychological Science ). Read the opening of the first five articles and rate the effectiveness of each one from 1 ( very ineffective ) to 5 ( very effective ). Write a sentence or two explaining each rating.
  • Practice: Find a recent article in a professional journal and identify where the opening, literature review, and closing of the introduction begin and end.
  • Practice: Find a recent article in a professional journal and highlight in a different color each of the following elements in the discussion: summary, theoretical implications, practical implications, limitations, and suggestions for future research.
  • Bem, D. J. (2003). Writing the empirical journal article. In J. M. Darley, M. P. Zanna, & H. R. Roediger III (Eds.),  The complete academic: A practical guide for the beginning social scientist  (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. ↵
  • Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4 , 377–383. ↵

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major sections in a research journal article

11.2 Writing a Research Report in American Psychological Association (APA) Style

Learning objectives.

  • Identify the major sections of an APA-style research report and the basic contents of each section.
  • Plan and write an effective APA-style research report.

In this section, we look at how to write an APA-style empirical research report A type of journal article in which the author reports on a new empirical research study. , an article that presents the results of one or more new studies. Recall that the standard sections of an empirical research report provide a kind of outline. Here we consider each of these sections in detail, including what information it contains, how that information is formatted and organized, and tips for writing each section. At the end of this section is a sample APA-style research report that illustrates many of these principles.

Sections of a Research Report

Title page and abstract.

An APA-style research report begins with a title page The first page of an APA-style manuscript, containing the title, author names and affiliations, and author note. . The title is centered in the upper half of the page, with each important word capitalized. The title should clearly and concisely (in about 12 words or fewer) communicate the primary variables and research questions. This sometimes requires a main title followed by a subtitle that elaborates on the main title, in which case the main title and subtitle are separated by a colon. Here are some titles from recent issues of professional journals published by the American Psychological Association.

  • Sex Differences in Coping Styles and Implications for Depressed Mood
  • Effects of Aging and Divided Attention on Memory for Items and Their Contexts
  • Computer-Assisted Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Child Anxiety: Results of a Randomized Clinical Trial
  • Virtual Driving and Risk Taking: Do Racing Games Increase Risk-Taking Cognitions, Affect, and Behavior?

Below the title are the authors’ names and, on the next line, their institutional affiliation—the university or other institution where the authors worked when they conducted the research. As we have already seen, the authors are listed in an order that reflects their contribution to the research. When multiple authors have made equal contributions to the research, they often list their names alphabetically or in a randomly determined order.

It’s Soooo Cute!

How Informal Should an Article Title Be?

In some areas of psychology, the titles of many empirical research reports are informal in a way that is perhaps best described as “cute.” They usually take the form of a play on words or a well-known expression that relates to the topic under study. Here are some examples from recent issues of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology .

  • “Let’s Get Serious: Communicating Commitment in Romantic Relationships”
  • “Through the Looking Glass Clearly: Accuracy and Assumed Similarity in Well-Adjusted Individuals’ First Impressions”
  • “Don’t Hide Your Happiness! Positive Emotion Dissociation, Social Connectedness, and Psychological Functioning”
  • “Forbidden Fruit: Inattention to Attractive Alternatives Provokes Implicit Relationship Reactance”

Individual researchers differ quite a bit in their preference for such titles. Some use them regularly, while others never use them. What might be some of the pros and cons of using cute article titles?

For articles that are being submitted for publication, the title page also includes an author note that lists the authors’ full institutional affiliations, any acknowledgments the authors wish to make to agencies that funded the research or to colleagues who commented on it, and contact information for the authors. For student papers that are not being submitted for publication—including theses—author notes are generally not necessary.

The abstract A short summary (approximately 200 words) of a research article. In an APA-style manuscript, the abstract appears on the second page. is a summary of the study. It is the second page of the manuscript and is headed with the word Abstract . The first line is not indented. The abstract presents the research question, a summary of the method, the basic results, and the most important conclusions. Because the abstract is usually limited to about 200 words, it can be a challenge to write a good one.

Introduction

The introduction The first major section of an APA-style empirical research report. It typically includes an opening, a literature review, and a closing. begins on the third page of the manuscript. The heading at the top of this page is the full title of the manuscript, with each important word capitalized as on the title page. The introduction includes three distinct subsections, although these are typically not identified by separate headings. The opening introduces the research question and explains why it is interesting, the literature review discusses relevant previous research, and the closing restates the research question and comments on the method used to answer it.

The Opening

The opening The first paragraph or two of the introduction of an APA-style empirical report. It introduces the research question and explains why it is interesting. , which is usually a paragraph or two in length, introduces the research question and explains why it is interesting. To capture the reader’s attention, researcher Daryl Bem recommends starting with general observations about the topic under study, expressed in ordinary language (not technical jargon)—observations that are about people and their behavior (not about researchers or their research; Bem, 2003). Bem, D. J. (2003). Writing the empirical journal article. In J. M. Darley, M. P. Zanna, & H. R. Roediger III (Eds.), The compleat academic: A practical guide for the beginning social scientist (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Concrete examples are often very useful here. According to Bem, this would be a poor way to begin a research report:

Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance received a great deal of attention during the latter part of the 20th century (p. 191)

The following would be much better:

The individual who holds two beliefs that are inconsistent with one another may feel uncomfortable. For example, the person who knows that he or she enjoys smoking but believes it to be unhealthy may experience discomfort arising from the inconsistency or disharmony between these two thoughts or cognitions. This feeling of discomfort was called cognitive dissonance by social psychologist Leon Festinger (1957), who suggested that individuals will be motivated to remove this dissonance in whatever way they can (p. 191).

After capturing the reader’s attention, the opening should go on to introduce the research question and explain why it is interesting. Will the answer fill a gap in the literature? Will it provide a test of an important theory? Does it have practical implications? Giving readers a clear sense of what the research is about and why they should care about it will motivate them to continue reading the literature review—and will help them make sense of it.

Breaking the Rules

Researcher Larry Jacoby reported several studies showing that a word that people see or hear repeatedly can seem more familiar even when they do not recall the repetitions—and that this tendency is especially pronounced among older adults. He opened his article with the following humorous anecdote (Jacoby, 1999).

A friend whose mother is suffering symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) tells the story of taking her mother to visit a nursing home, preliminary to her mother’s moving there. During an orientation meeting at the nursing home, the rules and regulations were explained, one of which regarded the dining room. The dining room was described as similar to a fine restaurant except that tipping was not required. The absence of tipping was a central theme in the orientation lecture, mentioned frequently to emphasize the quality of care along with the advantages of having paid in advance. At the end of the meeting, the friend’s mother was asked whether she had any questions. She replied that she only had one question: “Should I tip?” (p. 3).

Although both humor and personal anecdotes are generally discouraged in APA-style writing, this example is a highly effective way to start because it both engages the reader and provides an excellent real-world example of the topic under study.

The Literature Review

Immediately after the opening comes the literature review A written summary of previous research on a topic. It constitutes the bulk of the introduction of an APA-style empirical research report. , which describes relevant previous research on the topic and can be anywhere from several paragraphs to several pages in length. However, the literature review is not simply a list of past studies. Instead, it constitutes a kind of argument for why the research question is worth addressing. By the end of the literature review, readers should be convinced that the research question makes sense and that the present study is a logical next step in the ongoing research process.

Like any effective argument, the literature review must have some kind of structure. For example, it might begin by describing a phenomenon in a general way along with several studies that demonstrate it, then describing two or more competing theories of the phenomenon, and finally presenting a hypothesis to test one or more of the theories. Or it might describe one phenomenon, then describe another phenomenon that seems inconsistent with the first one, then propose a theory that resolves the inconsistency, and finally present a hypothesis to test that theory. In applied research, it might describe a phenomenon or theory, then describe how that phenomenon or theory applies to some important real-world situation, and finally suggest a way to test whether it does, in fact, apply to that situation.

Looking at the literature review in this way emphasizes a few things. First, it is extremely important to start with an outline of the main points that you want to make, organized in the order that you want to make them. The basic structure of your argument, then, should be apparent from the outline itself. Second, it is important to emphasize the structure of your argument in your writing. One way to do this is to begin the literature review by summarizing your argument even before you begin to make it. “In this article, I will describe two apparently contradictory phenomena, present a new theory that has the potential to resolve the apparent contradiction, and finally present a novel hypothesis to test the theory.” Another way is to open each paragraph with a sentence that summarizes the main point of the paragraph and links it to the preceding points. These opening sentences provide the “transitions” that many beginning researchers have difficulty with. Instead of beginning a paragraph by launching into a description of a previous study, such as “Williams (2004) found that…,” it is better to start by indicating something about why you are describing this particular study. Here are some simple examples:

Another example of this phenomenon comes from the work of Williams (2004).

Williams (2004) offers one explanation of this phenomenon.

An alternative perspective has been provided by Williams (2004).

We used a method based on the one used by Williams (2004).

Finally, remember that your goal is to construct an argument for why your research question is interesting and worth addressing—not necessarily why your favorite answer to it is correct. In other words, your literature review must be balanced. If you want to emphasize the generality of a phenomenon, then of course you should discuss various studies that have demonstrated it. However, if there are other studies that have failed to demonstrate it, you should discuss them too. Or if you are proposing a new theory, then of course you should discuss findings that are consistent with that theory. However, if there are other findings that are inconsistent with it, again, you should discuss them too. It is acceptable to argue that the balance of the research supports the existence of a phenomenon or is consistent with a theory (and that is usually the best that researchers in psychology can hope for), but it is not acceptable to ignore contradictory evidence. Besides, a large part of what makes a research question interesting is uncertainty about its answer.

The Closing

The closing The last paragraph or two of the introduction of an APA-style empirical research report. It restates the research question and comments on the method. of the introduction—typically the final paragraph or two—usually includes two important elements. The first is a clear statement of the main research question or hypothesis. This statement tends to be more formal and precise than in the opening and is often expressed in terms of operational definitions of the key variables. The second is a brief overview of the method and some comment on its appropriateness. Here, for example, is how Darley and Latané (1968) Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4 , 377–383. concluded the introduction to their classic article on the bystander effect:

These considerations lead to the hypothesis that the more bystanders to an emergency, the less likely, or the more slowly, any one bystander will intervene to provide aid. To test this proposition it would be necessary to create a situation in which a realistic “emergency” could plausibly occur. Each subject should also be blocked from communicating with others to prevent his getting information about their behavior during the emergency. Finally, the experimental situation should allow for the assessment of the speed and frequency of the subjects’ reaction to the emergency. The experiment reported below attempted to fulfill these conditions (p. 378).

Thus the introduction leads smoothly into the next major section of the article—the method section.

The method section The section of an APA-style empirical research report in which the method is described in detail. At minimum, it includes a participants subsection and a design and procedure subsections. is where you describe how you conducted your study. An important principle for writing a method section is that it should be clear and detailed enough that other researchers could replicate the study by following your “recipe.” This means that it must describe all the important elements of the study—basic demographic characteristics of the participants, how they were recruited, whether they were randomly assigned, how the variables were manipulated or measured, how counterbalancing was accomplished, and so on. At the same time, it should avoid irrelevant details such as the fact that the study was conducted in Classroom 37B of the Industrial Technology Building or that the questionnaire was double-sided and completed using pencils.

The method section begins immediately after the introduction ends with the heading “Method” (not “Methods”) centered on the page. Immediately after this is the subheading “Participants,” left justified and in italics. The participants subsection indicates how many participants there were, the number of women and men, some indication of their age, other demographics that may be relevant to the study, and how they were recruited, including any incentives given for participation.

Figure 11.1 Three Ways of Organizing an APA-Style Method

major sections in a research journal article

After the participants section, the structure can vary a bit. Figure 11.1 "Three Ways of Organizing an APA-Style Method" shows three common approaches. In the first, the participants section is followed by a design and procedure subsection, which describes the rest of the method. This works well for methods that are relatively simple and can be described adequately in a few paragraphs. In the second approach, the participants section is followed by separate design and procedure subsections. This works well when both the design and the procedure are relatively complicated and each requires multiple paragraphs.

What is the difference between design and procedure? The design of a study is its overall structure. What were the independent and dependent variables? Was the independent variable manipulated, and if so, was it manipulated between or within subjects? How were the variables operationally defined? The procedure is how the study was carried out. It often works well to describe the procedure in terms of what the participants did rather than what the researchers did. For example, the participants gave their informed consent, read a set of instructions, completed a block of four practice trials, completed a block of 20 test trials, completed two questionnaires, and were debriefed and excused.

In the third basic way to organize a method section, the participants subsection is followed by a materials subsection before the design and procedure subsections. This works well when there are complicated materials to describe. This might mean multiple questionnaires, written vignettes that participants read and respond to, perceptual stimuli, and so on. The heading of this subsection can be modified to reflect its content. Instead of “Materials,” it can be “Questionnaires,” “Stimuli,” and so on.

The results section The section of an APA-style empirical research report in which the results are described in detail. is where you present the main results of the study, including the results of the statistical analyses. Although it does not include the raw data—individual participants’ responses or scores—researchers should save their raw data and make them available to other researchers who request them. Some journals now make the raw data available online.

Although there are no standard subsections, it is still important for the results section to be logically organized. Typically it begins with certain preliminary issues. One is whether any participants or responses were excluded from the analyses and why. The rationale for excluding data should be described clearly so that other researchers can decide whether it is appropriate. A second preliminary issue is how multiple responses were combined to produce the primary variables in the analyses. For example, if participants rated the attractiveness of 20 stimulus people, you might have to explain that you began by computing the mean attractiveness rating for each participant. Or if they recalled as many items as they could from study list of 20 words, did you count the number correctly recalled, compute the percentage correctly recalled, or perhaps compute the number correct minus the number incorrect? A third preliminary issue is the reliability of the measures. This is where you would present test-retest correlations, Cronbach’s α, or other statistics to show that the measures are consistent across time and across items. A final preliminary issue is whether the manipulation was successful. This is where you would report the results of any manipulation checks.

The results section should then tackle the primary research questions, one at a time. Again, there should be a clear organization. One approach would be to answer the most general questions and then proceed to answer more specific ones. Another would be to answer the main question first and then to answer secondary ones. Regardless, Bem (2003) Bem, D. J. (2003). Writing the empirical journal article. In J. M. Darley, M. P. Zanna, & H. R. Roediger III (Eds.), The compleat academic: A practical guide for the beginning social scientist (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. suggests the following basic structure for discussing each new result:

  • Remind the reader of the research question.
  • Give the answer to the research question in words.
  • Present the relevant statistics.
  • Qualify the answer if necessary.
  • Summarize the result.

Notice that only Step 3 necessarily involves numbers. The rest of the steps involve presenting the research question and the answer to it in words. In fact, the basic results should be clear even to a reader who skips over the numbers.

The discussion The final major section of an APA-style empirical research report. It typically includes a summary of the research, a discussion of theoretical and practical implications of the study, limitations of the study, and suggestions for future research. is the last major section of the research report. Discussions usually consist of some combination of the following elements:

  • Summary of the research
  • Theoretical implications
  • Practical implications
  • Limitations
  • Suggestions for future research

The discussion typically begins with a summary of the study that provides a clear answer to the research question. In a short report with a single study, this might require no more than a sentence. In a longer report with multiple studies, it might require a paragraph or even two. The summary is often followed by a discussion of the theoretical implications of the research. Do the results provide support for any existing theories? If not, how can they be explained? Although you do not have to provide a definitive explanation or detailed theory for your results, you at least need to outline one or more possible explanations. In applied research—and often in basic research—there is also some discussion of the practical implications of the research. How can the results be used, and by whom, to accomplish some real-world goal?

The theoretical and practical implications are often followed by a discussion of the study’s limitations. Perhaps there are problems with its internal or external validity. Perhaps the manipulation was not very effective or the measures not very reliable. Perhaps there is some evidence that participants did not fully understand their task or that they were suspicious of the intent of the researchers. Now is the time to discuss these issues and how they might have affected the results. But do not overdo it. All studies have limitations, and most readers will understand that a different sample or different measures might have produced different results. Unless there is good reason to think they would have, however, there is no reason to mention these routine issues. Instead, pick two or three limitations that seem like they could have influenced the results, explain how they could have influenced the results, and suggest ways to deal with them.

Most discussions end with some suggestions for future research. If the study did not satisfactorily answer the original research question, what will it take to do so? What new research questions has the study raised? This part of the discussion, however, is not just a list of new questions. It is a discussion of two or three of the most important unresolved issues. This means identifying and clarifying each question, suggesting some alternative answers, and even suggesting ways they could be studied.

Finally, some researchers are quite good at ending their articles with a sweeping or thought-provoking conclusion. Darley and Latané (1968), Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4 , 377–383. for example, ended their article on the bystander effect by discussing the idea that whether people help others may depend more on the situation than on their personalities. Their final sentence is, “If people understand the situational forces that can make them hesitate to intervene, they may better overcome them” (p. 383). However, this kind of ending can be difficult to pull off. It can sound overreaching or just banal and end up detracting from the overall impact of the article. It is often better simply to end when you have made your final point (although you should avoid ending on a limitation).

The references section begins on a new page with the heading “References” centered at the top of the page. All references cited in the text are then listed in the format presented earlier. They are listed alphabetically by the last name of the first author. If two sources have the same first author, they are listed alphabetically by the last name of the second author. If all the authors are the same, then they are listed chronologically by the year of publication. Everything in the reference list is double-spaced both within and between references.

Appendixes, Tables, and Figures

Appendixes, tables, and figures come after the references. An appendix An optional section at the end of an APA-style manuscript used to present important supplemental material. is appropriate for supplemental material that would interrupt the flow of the research report if it were presented within any of the major sections. An appendix could be used to present lists of stimulus words, questionnaire items, detailed descriptions of special equipment or unusual statistical analyses, or references to the studies that are included in a meta-analysis. Each appendix begins on a new page. If there is only one, the heading is “Appendix,” centered at the top of the page. If there is more than one, the headings are “Appendix A,” “Appendix B,” and so on, and they appear in the order they were first mentioned in the text of the report.

After any appendixes come tables and then figures. Tables and figures are both used to present results. Figures can also be used to illustrate theories (e.g., in the form of a flowchart), display stimuli, outline procedures, and present many other kinds of information. Each table and figure appears on its own page. Tables are numbered in the order that they are first mentioned in the text (“Table 1,” “Table 2,” and so on). Figures are numbered the same way (“Figure 1,” “Figure 2,” and so on). A brief explanatory title, with the important words capitalized, appears above each table. Each figure is given a brief explanatory caption, where (aside from proper nouns or names) only the first word of each sentence is capitalized. More details on preparing APA-style tables and figures are presented later in the book.

Sample APA-Style Research Report

Figure 11.2 "Title Page and Abstract" , Figure 11.3 "Introduction and Method" , Figure 11.4 "Results and Discussion" , and Figure 11.5 "References and Figure" show some sample pages from an APA-style empirical research report originally written by undergraduate student Tomoe Suyama at California State University, Fresno. The main purpose of these figures is to illustrate the basic organization and formatting of an APA-style empirical research report, although many high-level and low-level style conventions can be seen here too.

Figure 11.2 Title Page and Abstract

major sections in a research journal article

This student paper does not include the author note on the title page. The abstract appears on its own page.

Figure 11.3 Introduction and Method

major sections in a research journal article

Note that the introduction is headed with the full title, and the method section begins immediately after the introduction ends.

Figure 11.4 Results and Discussion

major sections in a research journal article

The discussion begins immediately after the results section ends.

Figure 11.5 References and Figure

major sections in a research journal article

If there were appendixes or tables, they would come before the figure.

Key Takeaways

  • An APA-style empirical research report consists of several standard sections. The main ones are the abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion, and references.
  • The introduction consists of an opening that presents the research question, a literature review that describes previous research on the topic, and a closing that restates the research question and comments on the method. The literature review constitutes an argument for why the current study is worth doing.
  • The method section describes the method in enough detail that another researcher could replicate the study. At a minimum, it consists of a participants subsection and a design and procedure subsection.
  • The results section describes the results in an organized fashion. Each primary result is presented in terms of statistical results but also explained in words.
  • The discussion typically summarizes the study, discusses theoretical and practical implications and limitations of the study, and offers suggestions for further research.
  • Practice: Look through an issue of a general interest professional journal (e.g., Psychological Science ). Read the opening of the first five articles and rate the effectiveness of each one from 1 ( very ineffective ) to 5 ( very effective ). Write a sentence or two explaining each rating.
  • Practice: Find a recent article in a professional journal and identify where the opening, literature review, and closing of the introduction begin and end.
  • Practice: Find a recent article in a professional journal and highlight in a different color each of the following elements in the discussion: summary, theoretical implications, practical implications, limitations, and suggestions for future research.
  • Introduction
  • Conclusions
  • Article Information

a P for Bonferroni correction ≤.005.

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Leiker EK , Riley E , Barb S, et al. Recall of Autobiographical Memories Following Odor vs Verbal Cues Among Adults With Major Depressive Disorder. JAMA Netw Open. 2024;7(2):e2355958. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.55958

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Recall of Autobiographical Memories Following Odor vs Verbal Cues Among Adults With Major Depressive Disorder

  • 1 Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • 2 University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Question   Is the recall of specific autobiographical memories (AMs) improved in individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD) when prompted using odor cues vs word cues?

Findings   In this cross-sectional study of 32 adults with MDD, odor cues were associated with more specific AM recall compared with word cues.

Meaning   These findings suggest that odor cues may mitigate AM recall deficits in MDD compared with verbal cues, highlighting a new potential avenue for strengthening specific AM recall in depression.

Importance   Major depressive disorder (MDD) is associated with deficits in autobiographical memory (AM) recall, which is thought to stem from disruptions in effortful recall. Understanding whether these deficits are mitigated when recall is stimulated more directly, such as by odor cues, could inform therapeutic interventions for MDD.

Objective   To evaluate whether deficits in specific AM recall in MDD are mitigated when odor cues vs word cues are used to prompt memory.

Design, Setting, and Participants   This cross-sectional study assessed recall of specific AMs in response to both odor cues and word cues (in a randomized, counterbalanced order) in a repeated measures design. Data were collected between September 2021 and November 2022. The study took place at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania and included adults with a primary diagnosis of MDD, according to the Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview. Data were analyzed from January to June 2023.

Main Outcomes and Measures   The primary outcome measure was the percentage of specific AMs recalled in response to odor-cued memories vs word-cued memories. Additional outcome measures included ratings of arousal, vividness, repetition, and recall response time for odor-cued memories vs word-cued memories.

Results   Thirty-two adults (mean [SD] age, 30.0 [10.1] years; 26 [81.3%] female; 6 [18.8%] male) with a primary diagnosis of MDD completed the study. Participants recalled more specific AMs for odor cues than word cues (mean [SD], 68.4% [20.4%] vs 52.1% [23.3%]; Cohen d , 0.78; P  < .001). Additionally, odor-cued recall was rated more arousing (mean [SD], 3.0 [0.8] vs 2.6 [0.7]; Cohen d , 1.28; P  < .001) and vivid (mean [SD], 3.3 [0.7] vs 3.0 [0.7]; Cohen d , 0.67; P  < .001), and was slower than word-cued recall (mean [SD], 14.5 [3.6] vs 8.9 [3.4] seconds; Cohen d , 1.18; P  < .001). When compared with the population mean for word cues in healthy controls (80%), participants recalled fewer specific memories in response to words (Cohen d , 1.18; P  < .001), supporting the presence of overgenerality. Notably, the percentage of specific memories recalled in response to odor cues did not differ from the healthy control population mean (Cohen d , 0.26; P  = .15).

Conclusions and Relevance   In this cross-sectional study, adults with MDD recalled more specific AMs in response to odor cues compared with word cues. This study suggests that AM deficits may only be observed when verbal cues are used and provides a potential new method for increasing specific AM recall in patients with MDD.

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a pervasive and common illness that severely limits and diminishes individuals’ quality of life. 1 Deficits recalling specific autobiographical memories (AMs) represent a cognitive feature associated with MDD, with patients reporting fewer specific and more categorical memories when presented with emotionally valanced cue words, relative to healthy controls. 2 A specific memory refers to a memory for a single event that occurred at an identified place within a 24-hour period, whereas a categorical memory refers to a generalized memory for a category of events encompassing several distinct episodes rather than 1 specific event. 2 This cognitive deficit persists despite the remission of depressive symptoms, raising the possibility that overgeneral AM recall may reflect a trait-like marker of MDD 3 , 4 with a potentially causal role in the development of this disorder. 3 , 5

AM is believed to be organized hierarchically, where abstract descriptions of general self-knowledge lead to the recall of specific episodic memories. 6 Theories of overgeneral AM in MDD suggest patients get stuck in a conceptually based retrieval search, biasing recall toward overgeneralized self-knowledge statements like “I am a failure” or “I fight with my friends a lot,” and reducing access to specific event memories. 7 Notably, studies examining AM overgenerality in patients with MDD have all used words or pictures to cue memory retrieval. 8 Such modalities may favor a verbally mediated hierarchical search process over direct episodic recall. Odor cues, by contrast, have been found to elicit AM recall in healthy participants even when the odor involved cannot be verbally identified, suggesting that odor cues may facilitate a more direct and less verbally mediated retrieval process. 9 To our knowledge, no study has examined whether the overgeneral AM phenomenon in MDD exists when odor cues, which may trigger specific episodic recall more directly, are used.

Memories triggered by odors typically differ from memories triggered by words in several recall characteristics. 10 Odor cues are consistently found to evoke memories that are more emotionally arousing and associated with stronger feelings of reliving than memories evoked by words. 10 , 11 This characteristic is referred to as the Proust phenomenon, which ascribes odors the ability to cue highly vivid AMs. 12 However, the recall characteristics of odor-cued AMs have yet to be studied in a patient population, such as patients with MDD, which this study aims to investigate.

Odor-evoked memories may be unique relative to other stimuli, such as auditory and visual stimuli, and contain such emotionality due to the unique neuroanatomy of olfactory processing in the brain. The olfactory bulb is responsible for processing odor information critical for individuals’ assessments of their environment. 13 The olfactory bulb directly projects to several structures in the brain implicated in memory and emotion, including the amygdala and hippocampus, allowing olfactory information to enter the limbic system directly (instead of relayed through the thalamus like other sensory information). Some have suggested that the efficacy of odor cues for retrieving rich AMs is due in part to the link between arousal and affective reactions mediated by the amygdala. 14 Indeed, relative to verbal cues, odor cues engage a more direct retrieval route, evoking more activity in medial temporal regions, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, compared with the widespread prefrontal activity elicited for verbally cued memories. 15 , 16 Thus, despite some suggestions that patients with MDD show reduced olfactory sensitivity and olfactory bulb volume, 17 our primary interest in this investigation is odor-cued activation of other limbic regions, such as the amygdala in this population, rather than deficits in the olfactory bulb itself. Given that patients with MDD tend to have prefrontal dysfunction, 18 we hypothesize the direct link of olfaction to limbic regions will result in more specific AMs recalled for odor cues than verbal cues.

We have recently found that increasing amygdala activity during positive AM recall in patients with MDD increases their ability to recall specific AMs. 19 This suggests that the amygdala may be a core component underlying the AM deficit in MDD. By using odor cues that will directly stimulate the amygdala and the hippocampus, we hypothesize that the overgenerality bias typically found in MDD will be reduced.

This cross-sectional study followed the Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology ( STROBE ) reporting guideline. 20 The research protocol was approved by the University of Pittsburgh institutional review board. Participants gave written informed consent to participate in the study after receiving a complete description, and they received financial compensation.

Participants included 32 individuals aged 18 to 55 years with a primary diagnosis of MDD. Participants were recruited from the community via online advertisements. Diagnostic screening evaluations were performed virtually by the study clinician using secure video conferencing software. The Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II) 21 and Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview (MINI) 22 were administered virtually to participants on the day of the study visit. Exclusion criteria included current or history of psychosis; bipolar I or bipolar II; major medical or neurological disorders; drug or alcohol abuse within the previous year or lifetime alcohol or drug dependence (expect nicotine); and current allergies, cold, COVID-19, or other medical issues altering the sense of smell. Current antidepressant medications were not an exclusion, but participants had to be stable on their medication, which was defined as maintaining the same dose for at least 3 weeks or 6 weeks for fluoxetine. Data were collected between September 2021 and November 2022. Demographic information regarding race, ethnicity, and sex was assessed via participant self-report based on classifications from the PhenX toolkit. 23 Race and ethnicity were assessed to determine the representativeness and generalizability of our sample.

Participants were presented with a series of cues and asked to recall a specific memory from their life in response to each cue. Prior to the task, participants were instructed and presented with the following example of a specific memory: “If the word bold made you think of the fact that you tend to go to your local coffee shop every morning that would not be a specific memory because it’s not a single event. Instead, you would want to think of a particular morning that you went to your local coffee shop.” The response time (RT) to recall a memory for each cue, defined as the latency from cue presentation to the first word of each response, 19 was recorded by the experimenter with a stopwatch. If a participant did not recall a memory within 30 seconds of being presented a cue or began to repeat a memory previously recalled for a different cue, it was recorded as a no memory trial. The experimenter recorded participant memories verbatim to allow for later coding of memory specificity.

A total of 24 items that could be presented as either odor or word cues were selected from Chu et al 24 ( Table 1 ). For each participant, half the cues were presented as odors and the other half as words in separate blocks. Block order and cue modality were counterbalanced between participants, with half of participants receiving odor cues first (and vice versa) and each cue presented as either a word or odor evenly across participants. Odor samples of each stimulus were stored and presented in small opaque glass jars with screw-top airtight lids and were regularly replaced to maintain freshness. Depending on viscosity of the stimulus, some were placed on cotton balls within the jars to maintain a concentrated odor. In the word condition, the labels for each odor were verbally presented by the experimenter.

Memories were coded by the experimenter according to their level of specificity using conventional definitions for coding AMs. 24 Depression severity was calculated using scores from the BDI-II. 21 The cutoff score ranges are as follows: 0 to 13, minimal; 14 to 19, mild; 20 to 28, moderate; and 29 to 63, severe. Minimal scores were not observed because the study included only individuals with a current diagnosis of MDD.

Participants were asked to refrain from smoking for at least 1 hour before the experiment and to avoid wearing any perfumes or colognes to the experiment. They were also asked not to eat any strong-smelling foods at least 2 hours prior to the experiment. In this within-participants design, participants were presented with 12 odors and 12 words and asked to recall a memory from their lives for each cue. When presented with odors, participants were instructed to keep their eyes closed when smelling the odor to eliminate any visual biases. The experimenter recorded then memories verbatim and then later coded for memory specificity. Participants were asked to rate each of their retrieved memories on valence (positive, negative, no memory), arousal (5-point scale from very low to very high), vividness (5-point scale from not at all vivid to perfectly clear and vivid), and repetition (“How often do you think about this memory?” rated on a 5-point scale with the options: never thought of it until now, rarely [1 to 5 times], sometimes [6 to 25 times], often [25 to 100 times], or all the time [100 times or more]). The ratings were obtained directly following memory recall, and participants were prompted by the experimenter to give their rating before proceeding to the next cue. Participants were also asked to identify each odor presented to them to assess for any influence of odor recognition accuracy but were reminded that correct identification was not essential to the experiment.

All statistical analyses were performed in SPSS Statistics version 28 (IBM). We conducted repeated measures analysis of the variance (ANOVAs) to examine within-participants associations of cue type (odors or words) on the following dependent variables: mean percentage of memories recalled with each specificity level (specific, categorical, extended, semantic, none) and valence (positive, negative). A third repeated measures ANOVA examined the associations of cue type on the properties of the recalled memories (ie, arousal, vividness, repetition, RT). Significant within-participant tests were followed up using 2-tailed paired sample t tests for the relevant post hoc pairwise comparisons. Alpha level was set to .05 for all analyses, with Bonferroni correction ( P ≤.005) applied to all follow-up t tests to correct for multiple comparisons. Data were collected from September 2021 to November 2022 and analyzed from January to June 2023.

This study included 32 adults with MDD (mean [SD] age, 30.0 [10.1] years; 26 females [81.3%]; 6 males [18.8%]; 4 Black participants [12.5%]; 7 Asian Indian participants [21.8%]; and 21 White participants [65.6%]). Additional demographic information regarding the sample is shown in Table 2 . Odors were correctly identified a mean (SD) of 29% (16%) of the time. For the specificity repeated measures ANOVA, there was a significant cue-by-specificity level interaction (mean [SD], 68.4% [20.4%] vs 52.1% [23.3%]; F 4,28  = 9.60; η p 2  = 0.23; P  < .001) ( Figure ). Follow-up paired t tests revealed that odor cues resulted in more specific memories ( t 31  = 4.43; Cohen d , 0.78; P  < .001) relative to word cues, while word cues resulted in more categorical ( t 31  = 3.00; Cohen d , 0.49; P  = .005) and no memory responses ( t 31  = 3.84; Cohen d , 0.68; P  < .001) relative to odor cues. Differences between extended and semantic memories failed to reach statistical significance ( t 31  < 2.16; Cohen d , <0.39; P = .12).

For the valence repeated measures ANOVA, there was a cue-by-valence interaction ( F 1,30  = 4.46; η p 2  = 0.13; P  = .04). While participants nominally recalled more positive and fewer negative memories for odor cues than word cues, this difference did not survive correction for multiple comparisons ( t 31  < 2.16; Cohen d , <0.38; P >.038).

The final repeated measures ANOVA examined the associations of cue type with the properties of recalled memories. There was a main association of cue type on arousal ( F 1,31  = 52.28; η p 2  = 0.63; P  < .001), vividness ( F 1,31  = 14.34, η p 2  = 0.32; P  < .001), and RT ( F 1,31  = 44.86; η p 2  = 0.59; P  < .001) but not repetition ( F 1,31  = 3.58; η p 2  = 0.10; P  = .07). Odor-cued memories were significantly more arousing (mean [SD], 3.0 [0.8] vs 2.6 [0.7]; t 31  = 7.23; Cohen d  = 1.28; P  < .001), vivid (mean [SD], 3.3 [0.7] vs 3.0 [0.7]; t 31  = 3.79; Cohen d  = 0.67; P  = .001), and slower to recall (mean [SD], 14.5 [3.6] vs 8.9 [3.4] seconds; t 31  = 6.70; Cohen d  = 1.18; P  < .001) than word-cued memories ( Table 3 ). We also assessed the association of cue presentation order on specific or positive memory retrieval, comparing participants who encountered odor vs word cue presentations first. Independent sample t tests revealed no significant associations of cue presentation order on either the number of specific memories or positive memories recalled. No variable was associated with BDI-II score.

For a within-participants t test with a 2-tailed P  = .05 and an observed effect size of 0.78 for our main hypothesis regarding specific AM recall, we had an observed power of 0.99 with our sample size 32 participants. However, for the smaller effect sizes observed (d = 0.38) for other properties of the recalled memories, such as valence, our observed power for a 2-tailed P  < .05 was only 0.55 and a sample size of 90 participants would be needed to achieve 0.80 power.

While much research has been done to examine the properties of odor-cued memories in healthy participants, to our knowledge, this is the first study to examine AM recall using odor cues in participants with MDD. Participants with MDD recalled more specific AMs when cued with odors than with words, which supports our primary hypothesis. This increased specificity occurred despite participants’ difficulty identifying the odors presented. Indeed, odors were correctly identified only 29% of the time, similar to previous findings of odor recognition accuracy of approximately 30% in participants with MDD. 25 This suggests that whether an individual is able to accurately identify an odor is independent from its ability to trigger AM recall. Despite relatively poor odor recognition performance, odor cues in our study elicited such high rates of AM recall that it supports the hypothesis that odor cues may activate a direct route to recall rather than a verbally mediated one. This may represent a unique strength of odor cues, making them better suited for translation to improving memory in depression than word cues, given that word cues are subject to constraints stemming from verbally and prefrontally mediated processing deficits in depression.

Odor-cued memories were rated overall as more vivid and more arousing than memories cued with words, consistent with findings in previous studies using healthy controls. 10 , 11 We also note that no order association was found using this within-participant design, meaning the percentage of memories recalled for both specific and positive memories did not differ based on whether the participant was presented odor or word cues first. Furthermore, stimuli used as odors and words were counterbalanced. Thus, the potential confounds of presentation order and differences in properties, such as arousal or frequency of use, for the 2 cue modalities were controlled.

We did not find an association between memory performance and depression severity as measured using the BDI. This is consistent with studies using words to cue AMs that have not found such an association 26 and supports the conclusion that AM overgenerality is a trait marker of depression. 27

These preliminary results could have implications for furthering management options for MDD. Several interventions targeting increasing memory specificity in patients with MDD have shown positive results, 28 , 29 suggesting that improving autobiographical specificity may lead to reduced depressive symptoms. Here, we provide a method to directly increase memory specificity in a single session using simple, easily accessible odor cues that could be readily found at a grocery store. Whether this could be used to develop a novel memory-specificity training intervention is a direction for future research. Future work is also needed to understand the neural mechanisms of odor-cued AMs vs word-cued AMs, particularly to test the hypothesis that amygdala and hippocampal activity are increased in response to odor cues. If such an association is found, it could also highlight a potential mechanistic account for how neurofeedback training to increase the amygdala response to positive specific memory recall results in clinical improvements and improved memory specificity. 19 Because odors are thought to directly target the amygdala, odor-cued memory-specificity training could be a more affordable and accessible alternative to the neurofeedback component from this intervention for ensuring the amygdala is activated during positive memory recall. It should be noted that the gustatory cortex also has direct projections to the amygdala. 30 Therefore, taste cues could also conceivably increase AM specificity and should be the subject of future research. However, there are more barriers to implementation for taste cues, including participants’ willingness to engage with such a protocol and participant allergies, than for odor cues.

This study has limitations. The main limitation is that we did not include a healthy control group. This limits our ability to draw firm conclusions regarding whether the overgeneral memory phenomenon occurred in our sample. However, in the verbal cue condition, 52% of memories were specific, while in the odor cue condition, 68% of memories were specific. A 1 sample t test comparison with the healthy population mean of 80% specific memories suggests that our verbal cues produced fewer specific memories, consistent with the presence of an overgenerality, but that specific recall was no different from the healthy population mean when odor cues were used. However, without the addition of a healthy control sample, it cannot be ruled out that the conditions may have been somewhat different. Another limitation of our study is the relatively small sample size. While we had sufficient power to detect and can be confident in our primary outcome, larger sample studies are needed to further understand the associations of other properties of the recalled memories, including valence. A final limitation of this study is the sample of primarily White female participants; however, this is generally representative of the population of patients with a primary diagnosis of MDD. 31

These findings suggest that participants with MDD recall more specific AMs in response to odor cues than word cues. Additionally, we found that these AMs are rated more arousing and vivid upon recall, suggesting further support for the Proust phenomenon. 12 This study suggests the potential for increasing AM specificity in individuals with MDD with the future goal of reducing depression symptoms for this population and informing a better understanding of the neural mechanisms influencing odor-based AM recall. We hope this initial study spurs larger studies in more diverse samples that include healthy control participants to further investigate and explain these associations.

Accepted for Publication: December 20, 2023.

Published: February 13, 2024. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.55958

Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License . © 2024 Leiker EK et al. JAMA Network Open .

Corresponding Author: Kymberly D. Young, PhD, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, 3811 O’Hara St, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 ( [email protected] ).

Author Contributions: Dr Young had full access to all of the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Concept and design: Compère, Young.

Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: Barb, Canovali, Lazzaro, Leiker, Riley, Webb, Young.

Drafting of the manuscript: Leiker, Riley, Young.

Critical review of the manuscript for important intellectual content: Barb, Canovali, Compère, Lazzaro, Leiker, Webb, Young.

Statistical analysis: Compère, Leiker, Riley, Young.

Obtained funding: Young.

Administrative, technical, or material support: Barb, Canovali, Lazzaro, Leiker, Webb.

Supervision: Barb, Young.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Funding/Support: This research was funded internally by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Role of the Funder/Sponsor: The funder had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

Data Sharing Statement: See the Supplement .

Additional Information: This work was completed at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, Pittsburgh PA.

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  • Published: 14 February 2024

Critical transitions in the Amazon forest system

  • Bernardo M. Flores   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-4555-5598 1 ,
  • Encarni Montoya   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-4690-190X 2 ,
  • Boris Sakschewski   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-7230-9723 3 ,
  • Nathália Nascimento   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-4819-0811 4 ,
  • Arie Staal   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-5409-1436 5 ,
  • Richard A. Betts   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-4929-0307 6 , 7 ,
  • Carolina Levis   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-8425-9479 1 ,
  • David M. Lapola 8 ,
  • Adriane Esquível-Muelbert   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-5335-1259 9 , 10 ,
  • Catarina Jakovac   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-8130-852X 11 ,
  • Carlos A. Nobre 4 ,
  • Rafael S. Oliveira   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-6392-2526 12 ,
  • Laura S. Borma 13 ,
  • Da Nian   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-2320-5223 3 ,
  • Niklas Boers   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-1239-9034 3 , 14 ,
  • Susanna B. Hecht 15 ,
  • Hans ter Steege   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-8738-2659 16 , 17 ,
  • Julia Arieira 18 ,
  • Isabella L. Lucas 19 ,
  • Erika Berenguer   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-8157-8792 20 ,
  • José A. Marengo 21 , 22 , 23 ,
  • Luciana V. Gatti 13 ,
  • Caio R. C. Mattos   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-8635-3901 24 &
  • Marina Hirota   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-1958-3651 1 , 12 , 25  

Nature volume  626 ,  pages 555–564 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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  • Climate and Earth system modelling
  • Ecosystem ecology
  • Ecosystem services
  • Sustainability

The possibility that the Amazon forest system could soon reach a tipping point, inducing large-scale collapse, has raised global concern 1 , 2 , 3 . For 65 million years, Amazonian forests remained relatively resilient to climatic variability. Now, the region is increasingly exposed to unprecedented stress from warming temperatures, extreme droughts, deforestation and fires, even in central and remote parts of the system 1 . Long existing feedbacks between the forest and environmental conditions are being replaced by novel feedbacks that modify ecosystem resilience, increasing the risk of critical transition. Here we analyse existing evidence for five major drivers of water stress on Amazonian forests, as well as potential critical thresholds of those drivers that, if crossed, could trigger local, regional or even biome-wide forest collapse. By combining spatial information on various disturbances, we estimate that by 2050, 10% to 47% of Amazonian forests will be exposed to compounding disturbances that may trigger unexpected ecosystem transitions and potentially exacerbate regional climate change. Using examples of disturbed forests across the Amazon, we identify the three most plausible ecosystem trajectories, involving different feedbacks and environmental conditions. We discuss how the inherent complexity of the Amazon adds uncertainty about future dynamics, but also reveals opportunities for action. Keeping the Amazon forest resilient in the Anthropocene will depend on a combination of local efforts to end deforestation and degradation and to expand restoration, with global efforts to stop greenhouse gas emissions.

The Amazon forest is a complex system of interconnected species, ecosystems and human cultures that contributes to the well-being of people globally 1 . The Amazon forest holds more than 10% of Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity, stores an amount of carbon equivalent to 15–20 years of global CO 2 emissions (150–200 Pg C), and has a net cooling effect (from evapotranspiration) that helps to stabilize the Earth’s climate 1 , 2 , 3 . The forest contributes up to 50% of rainfall in the region and is crucial for moisture supply across South America 4 , allowing other biomes and economic activities to thrive in regions that would otherwise be more arid, such as the Pantanal wetlands and the La Plata river basin 1 . Large parts of the Amazon forest, however, are projected to experience mass mortality events due to climatic and land use-related disturbances in the coming decades 5 , 6 , potentially accelerating climate change through carbon emissions and feedbacks with the climate system 2 , 3 . These impacts would also involve irreversible loss of biodiversity, socioeconomic and cultural values 1 , 7 , 8 , 9 . The Amazon is home to more than 40 million people, including 2.2 million Indigenous peoples of more than 300 ethnicities, as well as afrodescendent and local traditional communities 1 . Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) would be harmed by forest loss in terms of their livelihoods, lifeways and knowledge systems that inspire societies globally 1 , 7 , 9 .

Understanding the risk of such catastrophic behaviour requires addressing complex factors that shape ecosystem resilience 10 . A major question is whether a large-scale collapse of the Amazon forest system could actually happen within the twenty-first century, and if this would be associated with a particular tipping point. Here we synthesize evidence from paleorecords, observational data and modelling studies of critical drivers of stress on the system. We assess potential thresholds of those drivers and the main feedbacks that could push the Amazon forest towards a tipping point. From examples of disturbed forests across the Amazon, we analyse the most plausible ecosystem trajectories that may lead to alternative stable states 10 . Moreover, inspired by the framework of ‘planetary boundaries’ 11 , we identify climatic and land use boundaries that reveal a safe operating space for the Amazon forest system in the Anthropocene epoch 12 .

Theory and concepts

Over time, environmental conditions fluctuate and may cause stress on ecosystems (for example, lack of water for plants). When stressing conditions intensify, some ecosystems may change their equilibrium state gradually, whereas others may shift abruptly between alternative stable states 10 . A ‘tipping point’ is the critical threshold value of an environmental stressing condition at which a small disturbance may cause an abrupt shift in the ecosystem state 2 , 3 , 13 , 14 , accelerated by positive feedbacks 15 (see Extended Data Table 1 ). This type of behaviour in which the system gets into a phase of self-reinforcing (runaway) change is often referred to as ‘critical transition’ 16 . As ecosystems approach a tipping point, they often lose resilience while still remaining close to equilibrium 17 . Thus, monitoring changes in ecosystem resilience and in key environmental conditions may enable societies to manage and avoid critical transitions. We adopt the concept of ‘ecological resilience’ 18 (hereafter ‘resilience’), which refers to the ability of an ecosystem to persist with similar structure, functioning and interactions, despite disturbances that push it to an alternative stable state. The possibility that alternative stable states (or bistability) may exist in a system has important implications, because the crossing of tipping points may be irreversible for the time scales that matter to societies 10 . Tropical terrestrial ecosystems are a well-known case in which critical transitions between alternative stable states may occur (Extended Data Fig. 1 ).

Past dynamics

The Amazon system has been mostly covered by forest throughout the Cenozoic era 19 (for 65 million years). Seven million years ago, the Amazon river began to drain the massive wetlands that covered most of the western Amazon, allowing forests to expand over grasslands in that region. More recently, during the drier and cooler conditions of the Last Glacial Maximum 20 (LGM) (around 21,000 years ago) and of the mid-Holocene epoch 21 (around 6,000 years ago), forests persisted even when humans were already present in the landscape 22 . Nonetheless, savannas expanded in peripheral parts of the southern Amazon basin during the LGM and mid-Holocene 23 , as well as in the northeastern Amazon during the early Holocene (around 11,000 years ago), probably influenced by drier climatic conditions and fires ignited by humans 24 , 25 . Throughout the core of the Amazon forest biome, patches of white-sand savanna also expanded in the past 20,000–7,000 years, driven by sediment deposition along ancient rivers 26 , and more recently (around 800 years ago) owing to Indigenous fires 27 . However, during the past 3,000 years, forests have been mostly expanding over savanna in the southern Amazon driven by increasingly wet conditions 28 .

Although palaeorecords suggest that a large-scale Amazon forest collapse did not occur within the past 65 million years 19 , they indicate that savannas expanded locally, particularly in the more seasonal peripheral regions when fires ignited by humans were frequent 23 , 24 . Patches of white-sand savanna also expanded within the Amazon forest owing to geomorphological dynamics and fires 26 , 27 . Past drought periods were usually associated with much lower atmospheric CO 2 concentrations, which may have reduced water-use efficiency of trees 29 (that is, trees assimilated less carbon during transpiration). However, these periods also coincided with cooler temperatures 20 , 21 , which probably reduced water demand by trees 30 . Past drier climatic conditions were therefore very different from the current climatic conditions, in which observed warming trends may exacerbate drought impacts on the forest by exposing trees to unprecedented levels of water stress 31 , 32 .

Global change impacts on forest resilience

Satellite observations from across the Amazon suggest that forest resilience has been decreasing since the early 2000s 33 , possibly as a result of global changes. In this section, we synthesize three global change impacts that vary spatially and temporally across the Amazon system, affecting forest resilience and the risk of critical transitions.

Regional climatic conditions

Within the twenty-first century, global warming may cause long-term changes in Amazonian climatic conditions 2 . Human greenhouse gas emissions continue to intensify global warming, but the warming rate also depends on feedbacks in the climate system that remain uncertain 2 , 3 . Recent climate models of the 6th phase of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP6) agree that in the coming decades, rainfall conditions will become more seasonal in the eastern and southern Amazonian regions, and temperatures will become higher across the entire Amazon 1 , 2 . By 2050, models project that a significant increase in the number of consecutive dry days by 10−30 days and in annual maximum temperatures by 2–4 °C, depending on the greenhouse gas emission scenario 2 . These climatic conditions could expose the forest to unprecedented levels of vapour pressure deficit 31 and consequently water stress 30 .

Satellite observations of climatic variability 31 confirm model projections 2 , showing that since the early 1980s, the Amazonian region has been warming significantly at an average rate of 0.27 °C per decade during the dry season, with the highest rates of up to 0.6 °C per decade in the centre and southeast of the biome (Fig. 1a ). Only a few small areas in the west of the biome are significantly cooling by around 0.1 °C per decade (Fig. 1a ). Dry season mean temperature is now more than 2 °C higher than it was 40 years ago in large parts of the central and southeastern Amazon. If trends continue, these areas could potentially warm by over 4 °C by 2050. Maximum temperatures during the dry season follow a similar trend, rising across most of the biome (Extended Data Fig. 2 ), exposing the forest 34 and local peoples 35 to potentially unbearable heat. Rising temperatures will increase thermal stress, potentially reducing forest productivity and carbon storage capacity 36 and causing widespread leaf damage 34 .

figure 1

a , Changes in the dry season (July–October) mean temperature reveal widespread warming, estimated using simple regressions between time and temperature observed between 1981 and 2020 (with P  < 0.1). b , Potential ecosystem stability classes estimated for year 2050, adapted from current stability classes (Extended Data Fig. 1b ) by considering only areas with significant regression slopes between time and annual rainfall observed from 1981 through 2020 (with P  < 0.1) (see Extended Data Fig. 3 for areas with significant changes). c , Repeated extreme drought events between 2001–2018 (adapted from ref. 39 ). d , Road network from where illegal deforestation and degradation may spread. e , Protected areas and Indigenous territories reduce deforestation and fire disturbances. f , Ecosystem transition potential (the possibility of forest shifting into an alternative structural or compositional state) across the Amazon biome by year 2050 inferred from compounding disturbances ( a – d ) and high-governance areas ( e ). We excluded accumulated deforestation until 2020 and savannas. Transition potential rises with compounding disturbances and varies as follows: less than 0 (in blue) as low; between 1 and 2 as moderate (in yellow); more than 2 as high (orange–red). Transition potential represents the sum of: (1) slopes of dry season mean temperature (as in a , multiplied by 10); (2) ecosystem stability classes estimated for year 2050 (as in b ), with 0 for stable forest, 1 for bistable and 2 for stable savanna; (3) accumulated impacts from extreme drought events, with 0.2 for each event; (4) road proximity as proxy for degrading activities, with 1 for pixels within 10 km from a road; (5) areas with higher governance within protected areas and Indigenous territories, with −1 for pixels inside these areas. For more details, see  Methods .

Since the early 1980s, rainfall conditions have also changed 31 . Peripheral and central parts of the Amazon forest are drying significantly, such as in the southern Bolivian Amazon, where annual rainfall reduced by up to 20 mm yr −1 (Extended Data Fig. 3a ). By contrast, parts of the western and eastern Amazon forest are becoming wetter, with annual rainfall increasing by up to 20 mm yr −1 . If these trends continue, ecosystem stability (as in Extended Data Fig. 1 ) will probably change in parts of the Amazon by 2050, reshaping forest resilience to disturbances (Fig. 1b and Extended Data Fig. 3b ). For example, 6% of the biome may change from stable forest to a bistable regime in parts of the southern and central Amazon. Another 3% of the biome may pass the critical threshold in annual rainfall into stable savanna in the southern Bolivian Amazon. Bistable areas covering 8% of the biome may turn into stable forest in the western Amazon (Peru and Bolivia), thus becoming more resilient to disturbances. For comparison with satellite observations, we used projections of ecosystem stability by 2050 based on CMIP6 model ensembles for a low (SSP2–4.5) and a high (SSP5–8.5) greenhouse gas emission scenario (Extended Data Fig. 4 and Supplementary Table 1 ). An ensemble with the 5 coupled models that include a dynamic vegetation module indicates that 18–27% of the biome may transition from stable forest to bistable and that 2–6% may transition to stable savanna (depending on the scenario), mostly in the northeastern Amazon. However, an ensemble with all 33 models suggests that 35–41% of the biome could become bistable, including large areas of the southern Amazon. The difference between both ensembles is possibly related to the forest–rainfall feedback included in the five coupled models, which increases total annual rainfall and therefore the stable forest area along the southern Amazon, but only when deforestation is not included in the simulations 4 , 37 . Nonetheless, both model ensembles agree that bistable regions will expand deeper into the Amazon, increasing the risk of critical transitions due to disturbances (as implied by the existence of alternative stable states; Extended Data Fig. 1 ).

Disturbance regimes

Within the remaining Amazon forest area, 17% has been degraded by human disturbances 38 , such as logging, edge effects and understory fires, but if we consider also the impacts from repeated extreme drought events in the past decades, 38% of the Amazon could be degraded 39 . Increasing rainfall variability is causing extreme drought events to become more widespread and frequent across the Amazon (Fig. 1c ), together with extreme wet events and convective storms that result in more windthrow disturbances 40 . Drought regimes are intensifying across the region 41 , possibly due to deforestation 42 that continues to expand within the system (Extended Data Fig. 5 ). As a result, new fire regimes are burning larger forest areas 43 , emitting more carbon to the atmosphere 44 and forcing IPLCs to readapt 45 . Road networks (Fig. 1d ) facilitate illegal activities, promoting more deforestation, logging and fire spread throughout the core of the Amazon forest 38 , 39 . The impacts of these pervasive disturbances on biodiversity and on IPLCs will probably affect ecosystem adaptability (Box 1 ), and consequently forest resilience to global changes.

Currently, 86% of the Amazon biome may be in a stable forest state (Extended Data Fig. 1b ), but some of these stable forests are showing signs of fragility 33 . For instance, field evidence from long-term monitoring sites across the Amazon shows that tree mortality rates are increasing in most sites, reducing carbon storage 46 , while favouring the replacement by drought-affiliated species 47 . Aircraft measurements of vertical carbon flux between the forest and atmosphere reveal how southeastern forests are already emitting more carbon than they absorb, probably because of deforestation and fire 48 .

As bistable forests expand deeper into the system (Fig. 1b and Extended Data Fig. 4 ), the distribution of compounding disturbances may indicate where ecosystem transitions are more likely to occur in the coming decades (Fig. 1f ). For this, we combined spatial information on warming and drying trends, repeated extreme drought events, together with road networks, as proxy for future deforestation and degradation 38 , 39 . We also included protected areas and Indigenous territories as areas with high forest governance, where deforestation and fire regimes are among the lowest within the Amazon 49 (Fig. 1e ). This simple additive approach does not consider synergies between compounding disturbances that could trigger unexpected ecosystem transitions. However, by exploring only these factors affecting forest resilience and simplifying the enormous Amazonian complexity, we aimed to produce a simple and comprehensive map that can be useful for guiding future governance. We found that 10% of the Amazon forest biome has a relatively high transition potential (more than 2 disturbance types; Fig. 1f ), including bistable forests that could transition into a low tree cover state near savannas of Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia and Peru, as well as stable forests that could transition into alternative compositional states within the central Amazon, such as along the BR319 and Trans-Amazonian highways. Smaller areas with high transition potential were found scattered within deforestation frontiers, where most forests have been carved by roads 50 , 51 . Moreover, 47% of the biome has a moderate transition potential (more than 1 disturbance type; Fig. 1f ), including relatively remote parts of the central Amazon where warming trends and repeated extreme drought events overlap (Fig. 1a,c ). By contrast, large remote areas covering 53% of the biome have low transition potential, mostly reflecting the distribution of protected areas and Indigenous territories (Fig. 1e ). If these estimates, however, considered projections from CMIP6 models and their relatively broader areas of bistability (Extended Data Fig. 4 ), the proportion of the Amazon forest that could transition into a low tree cover state would be much larger.

Box 1 Ecosystem adaptability

We define ‘ecosystem adaptability’ as the capacity of an ecosystem to reorganize and persist in the face of environmental changes. In the past, many internal mechanisms have probably contributed to ecosystem adaptability, allowing Amazonian forests to persist during times of climate change. In this section we synthesize two of these internal mechanisms, which are now being undermined by global change.

Biodiversity

Amazonian forests are home to more than 15,000 tree species, of which 1% are dominant and the other 99% are mostly rare 107 . A single forest hectare in the central and northwestern Amazon can contain more than 300 tree species (Extended Data Fig. 7a ). Such tremendous tree species diversity can increase forest resilience by different mechanisms. Tree species complementarity increases carbon storage, accelerating forest recovery after disturbances 108 . Tree functional diversity increases forest adaptability to climate chance by offering various possibilities of functioning 99 . Rare species provide ‘ecological redundancy’, increasing opportunities for replacement of lost functions when dominant species disappear 109 . Diverse forests are also more likely to resist severe disturbances owing to ‘response diversity’ 110 —that is, some species may die, while others persist. For instance, in the rainy western Amazon, drought-resistant species are rare but present within tree communities 111 , implying that they could replace the dominant drought-sensitive species in a drier future. Diversity of other organisms, such as frugivores and pollinators, also increases forest resilience by stabilizing ecological networks 15 , 112 . Considering that half of Amazonian tree species are estimated to become threatened (IUCN Red list) by 2050 owing to climate change, deforestation and degradation 8 , biodiversity losses could contribute to further reducing forest resilience.

Indigenous peoples and local communities

Globally, Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) have a key role in maintaining ecosystems resilient to global change 113 . Humans have been present in the Amazon for at least 12,000 years 114 and extensively managing landscapes for 6,000 years 22 . Through diverse ecosystem management practices, humans built thousands of earthworks and ‘Amazon Dark Earth’ sites, and domesticated plants and landscapes across the Amazon forest 115 , 116 . By creating new cultural niches, humans partly modified the Amazonian flora 117 , 118 , increasing their food security even during times of past climate change 119 , 120 without the need for large-scale deforestation 117 . Today, IPLCs have diverse ecological knowledge about Amazonian plants, animals and landscapes, which allows them to quickly identify and respond to environmental changes with mitigation and adaptation practices 68 , 69 . IPLCs defend their territories against illegal deforestation and land use disturbances 49 , 113 , and they also promote forest restoration by expanding diverse agroforestry systems 121 , 122 . Amazonian regions with the highest linguistic diversity (a proxy for ecological knowledge diversity 123 ) are found in peripheral parts of the system, particularly in the north-west (Extended Data Fig. 7b ). However, consistent loss of Amazonian languages is causing an irreversible disruption of ecological knowledge systems, mostly driven by road construction 7 . Continued loss of ecological knowledge will undermine the capacity of IPLCs to manage and protect Amazonian forests, further reducing their resilience to global changes 9 .

CO 2 fertilization

Rising atmospheric CO 2 concentrations are expected to increase the photosynthetic rates of trees, accelerating forest growth and biomass accumulation on a global scale 52 . In addition, CO 2 may reduce water stress by increasing tree water-use efficiency 29 . As result, a ‘CO 2 fertilization effect’ could increase forest resilience to climatic variability 53 , 54 . However, observations from across the Amazon 46 suggest that CO 2 -driven accelerations of tree growth may have contributed to increasing tree mortality rates (trees grow faster but also die earlier), which could eventually neutralize the forest carbon sink in the coming decades 55 . Moreover, increases in tree water-use efficiency may reduce forest transpiration and consequently atmospheric moisture flow across the Amazon 53 , 56 , potentially reducing forest resilience in the southwest of the biome 4 , 37 . Experimental evidence suggests that CO 2 fertilization also depends on soil nutrient availability, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus 57 , 58 . Thus, it is possible that in the fertile soils of the western Amazon and Várzea floodplains, forests may gain resilience from increasing atmospheric CO 2 (depending on how it affects tree mortality rates), whereas on the weathered (nutrient-poor) soils across most of the Amazon basin 59 , forests might not respond to atmospheric CO 2 increase, particularly on eroded soils within deforestation frontiers 60 . In sum, owing to multiple interacting factors, potential responses of Amazonian forests to CO 2 fertilization are still poorly understood. Forest responses depend on scale, with resilience possibly increasing at the local scale on relatively more fertile soils, but decreasing at the regional scale due to reduced atmospheric moisture flow.

Local versus systemic transition

Environmental heterogeneity.

Environmental heterogeneity can reduce the risk of systemic transition (large-scale forest collapse) because when stressing conditions intensify (for example, rainfall declines), heterogeneous forests may transition gradually (first the less resilient forest patches, followed by the more resilient ones), compared to homogeneous forests that may transition more abruptly 17 (all forests transition in synchrony). Amazonian forests are heterogeneous in their resilience to disturbances, which may have contributed to buffering large-scale transitions in the past 37 , 61 , 62 . At the regional scale, a fundamental heterogeneity factor is rainfall and how it translates into water stress. Northwestern forests rarely experience water stress, which makes them relatively more resilient than southeastern forests that may experience water stress in the dry season, and therefore are more likely to shift into a low tree cover state. As a result of low exposure to water deficit, most northwestern forests have trees with low drought resistance and could suffer massive mortality if suddenly exposed to severe water stress 32 . However, this scenario seems unlikely to occur in the near future (Fig. 1 ). By contrast, most seasonal forest trees have various strategies to cope with water deficit owing to evolutionary and adaptive responses to historical drought events 32 , 63 . These strategies may allow seasonal forests to resist current levels of rainfall fluctuations 32 , but seasonal forests are also closer to the critical rainfall thresholds (Extended Data Fig. 1 ) and may experience unprecedented water stress in the coming decades (Fig. 1 ).

Other key heterogeneity factors (Extended Data Fig. 6 ) include topography, which determines plant access to groundwater 64 , and seasonal flooding, which increases forest vulnerability to wildfires 65 . Future changes in rainfall regimes will probably affect hydrological regimes 66 , exposing plateau (hilltop) forests to unprecedented water stress, and floodplain forests to extended floods, droughts and wildfires. Soil fertility is another heterogeneity factor that may affect forest resilience 59 , and which may be undermined by disturbances that cause topsoil erosion 60 . Moreover, as human disturbances intensify throughout the Amazon (Fig. 1 ), the spread of invasive grasses and fires can make the system increasingly homogeneous. Effects of heterogeneity on Amazon forest resilience have been poorly investigated so far (but see refs. 37 , 61 , 62 ) and many questions remain open, such as how much heterogeneity exists in the system and whether it can mitigate a systemic transition.

Sources of connectivity

Connectivity across Amazonian landscapes and regions can contribute to synchronize forest dynamics, causing different forests to behave more similarly 17 . Depending on the processes involved, connectivity can either increase or decrease the risk of systemic transition 17 . For instance, connectivity may facilitate forest recovery after disturbances through seed dispersal, but also it may spread disturbances, such as fire. In the Amazon, an important source of connectivity enhancing forest resilience is atmospheric moisture flow westward (Fig. 2 ), partly maintained by forest evapotranspiration 4 , 37 , 67 . Another example of connectivity that may increase social-ecological resilience is knowledge exchange among IPLCs about how to adapt to global change 68 , 69 (see Box 1 ). However, complex systems such as the Amazon can be particularly vulnerable to sources of connectivity that spread disturbances and increase the risk of systemic transition 70 . For instance, roads carving through the forest are well-known sources of illegal activities, such as logging and burning, which increase forest flammability 38 , 39 .

figure 2

Brazil holds 60% of the Amazon forest biome and has a major responsibility towards its neighbouring countries in the west. Brazil is the largest supplier of rainfall to western Amazonian countries. Up to one-third of the total annual rainfall in Amazonian territories of Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador depends on water originating from Brazil’s portion of the Amazon forest. This international connectivity illustrates how policies related to deforestation, especially in the Brazilian Amazon, will affect the climate in other countries. Arrow widths are proportional to the percentage of the annual rainfall received by each country within their Amazonian areas. We only show flows with percentages higher than 10% (see  Methods for details).

Five critical drivers of water stress

Global warming.

Most CMIP6 models agree that a large-scale dieback of the Amazon is unlikely in response to global warming above pre-industrial levels 2 , but this ecosystem response is based on certain assumptions, such as a large CO 2 -fertilization effect 53 . Forests across the Amazon are already responding with increasing tree mortality rates that are not simulated by these models 46 , possibly because of compounding disturbance regimes (Fig. 1 ). Nonetheless, a few global climate models 3 , 14 , 71 , 72 , 73 , 74 indicate a broad range for a potential critical threshold in global warming between 2 and 6 °C (Fig. 3a ). These contrasting results can be explained by general differences between numerical models and their representation of the complex Amazonian system. While some models with dynamic vegetation indicate local-scale tipping events in peripheral parts of the Amazon 5 , 6 , other models suggest an increase in biomass and forest cover (for example, in refs. 53 , 54 ). For instance, a study found that when considering only climatic variability, a large-scale Amazon forest dieback is unlikely, even under a high greenhouse gas emission scenario 75 . However, most updated CMIP6 models agree that droughts in the Amazon region will increase in length and intensity, and that exceptionally hot droughts will become more common 2 , creating conditions that will probably boost other types of disturbances, such as large and destructive forest fires 76 , 77 . To avoid broad-scale ecosystem transitions due to synergies between climatic and land use disturbances (Fig. 3b ), we suggest a safe boundary for the Amazon forest at 1.5 °C for global warming above pre-industrial levels, in concert with the Paris Agreement goals.

figure 3

a , Five critical drivers of water stress on Amazonian forests affect (directly or indirectly) the underlying tipping point of the system. For each driver, we indicate potential critical thresholds and safe boundaries that define a safe operating space for keeping the Amazon forest resilient 11 , 12 . We followed the precautionary principle and considered the most conservative thresholds within the ranges, when confidence was low. b , Conceptual model showing how the five drivers may interact (arrows indicate positive effects) and how these interactions may strengthen a positive feedback between water stress and forest loss. These emerging positive feedback loops could accelerate a systemic transition of the Amazon forest 15 . At global scales, driver 1 (global warming) intensifies with greenhouse gas emissions, including emissions from deforestation. At local scales, driver 5 (accumulated deforestation) intensifies with land use changes. Drivers 2 to 4 (regional rainfall conditions) intensify in response to drivers 1 and 5. The intensification of these drivers may cause widespread tree mortality for instance because of extreme droughts and fires 76 . Water stress affects vegetation resilience globally 79 , 104 , but other stressors, such as heat stress 34 , 36 , may also have a role. In the coming decades, these five drivers could change at different rates, with some approaching a critical threshold faster than others. Therefore, monitoring them separately can provide vital information to guide mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Annual rainfall

Satellite observations of tree cover distributions across tropical South America suggest a critical threshold between 1,000 and 1,250 mm of annual rainfall 78 , 79 . On the basis of our reanalysis using tree cover data from the Amazon basin (Extended Data Fig. 1a ), we confirm a potential threshold at 1,000 mm of annual rainfall (Fig. 3a ), below which forests become rare and unstable. Between 1,000 and 1,800 mm of annual rainfall, high and low tree cover ecosystems exist in the Amazon as two alternative stable states (see Extended Data Table 2 for uncertainty ranges). Within the bistability range in annual rainfall conditions, forests are relatively more likely to collapse when severely disturbed, when compared to forests in areas with annual rainfall above 1,800 mm (Extended Data Fig. 1a ). For floodplain ecosystems covering 14% of the forest biome, a different critical threshold has been estimated at 1,500 mm of annual rainfall 65 , implying that floodplain forests may be the first to collapse in a drier future. To avoid local-scale ecosystem transitions due to compounding disturbances, we suggest a safe boundary in annual rainfall conditions at 1,800 mm.

Rainfall seasonality intensity

Satellite observations of tree cover distributions across tropical South America suggest a critical threshold in rainfall seasonality intensity at −400 mm of the maximum cumulative water deficit 37 , 80 (MCWD). Our reanalysis of the Amazon basin (Extended Data Fig. 1c ) confirms the critical threshold at approximately −450 mm in the MCWD (Fig. 3a ), and suggests a bistability range between approximately −350 and −450 mm (see Extended Data Table 2 for uncertainty ranges), in which forests are more likely to collapse when severely disturbed than forests in areas with MCWD below −350 mm. To avoid local-scale ecosystem transitions due to compounding disturbances, we suggest a safe boundary of MCWD at −350 mm.

Dry season length

Satellite observations of tree cover distributions across tropical South America suggest a critical threshold at 7 months of dry season length 79 (DSL). Our reanalysis of the Amazon basin (Extended Data Fig. 1d ) suggests a critical threshold at eight months of DSL (Fig. 3a ), with a bistability range between approximately five and eight months (see Extended Data Table 2 for uncertainty ranges), in which forests are more likely to collapse when severely disturbed than forests in areas with DSL below five months. To avoid local-scale ecosystem transitions due to compounding disturbances, we suggest a safe boundary of DSL at five months.

Accumulated deforestation

A potential vegetation model 81 found a critical threshold at 20% of accumulated deforestation (Fig. 3a ) by simulating Amazon forest responses to different scenarios of accumulated deforestation (with associated fire events) and of greenhouse gas emissions, and by considering a CO 2 fertilization effect of 25% of the maximum photosynthetic assimilation rate. Beyond 20% deforestation, forest mortality accelerated, causing large reductions in regional rainfall and consequently an ecosystem transition of 50−60% of the Amazon, depending on the emissions scenario. Another study using a climate-vegetation model found that with accumulated deforestation of 30−50%, rainfall in non-deforested areas downwind would decline 67 by 40% (ref.  67 ), potentially causing more forest loss 4 , 37 . Other more recent models incorporating fire disturbances support a potential broad-scale transition of the Amazon forest, simulating a biomass loss of 30–40% under a high-emission scenario 5 , 82 (SSP5–8.5 at 4 °C). The Amazon biome has already lost 13% of its original forest area due to deforestation 83 (or 15% of the biome if we consider also young secondary forests 83 that provide limited contribution to moisture flow 84 ). Among the remaining old-growth forests, at least 38% have been degraded by land use disturbances and repeated extreme droughts 39 , with impacts on moisture recycling that are still uncertain. Therefore, to avoid broad-scale ecosystem transitions due to runaway forest loss (Fig. 3b ), we suggest a safe boundary of accumulated deforestation of 10% of the original forest biome cover, which requires ending large-scale deforestation and restoring at least 5% of the biome.

Three alternative ecosystem trajectories

Degraded forest.

In stable forest regions of the Amazon with annual rainfall above 1,800 mm (Extended Data Fig. 1b ), forest cover usually recovers within a few years or decades after disturbances, yet forest composition and functioning may remain degraded for decades or centuries 84 , 85 , 86 , 87 . Estimates from across the Amazon indicate that approximately 30% of areas previously deforested are in a secondary forest state 83 (covering 4% of the biome). An additional 38% of the forest biome has been damaged by extreme droughts, fires, logging and edge effects 38 , 39 . These forests may naturally regrow through forest succession, yet because of feedbacks 15 , succession can become arrested, keeping forests persistently degraded (Fig. 4 ). Different types of degraded forests have been identified in the Amazon, each one associated with a particular group of dominant opportunistic plants. For instance, Vismia forests are common in old abandoned pastures managed with fire 85 , and are relatively stable, because Vismia trees favour recruitment of Vismia seedlings in detriment of other tree species 88 , 89 . Liana forests can also be relatively stable, because lianas self-perpetuate by causing physical damage to trees, allowing lianas to remain at high density 90 , 91 . Liana forests are expected to expand with increasing aridity, disturbance regimes and CO 2 fertilization 90 . Guadua bamboo forests are common in the southwestern Amazon 92 , 93 . Similar to lianas, bamboos self-perpetuate by causing physical damage to trees and have been expanding over burnt forests in the region 92 . Degraded forests are usually dominated by native opportunistic species, and their increasing expansion over disturbed forests could affect Amazonian functioning and resilience in the future.

figure 4

From examples of disturbed forests across the Amazon, we identify the three most plausible ecosystem trajectories related to the types of disturbances, feedbacks and local environmental conditions. These alternative trajectories may be irreversible or transient depending on the strength of the novel interactions 15 . Particular combinations of interactions (arrows show positive effects described in the literature) may form feedback loops 15 that propel the ecosystem through these trajectories. In the ‘degraded forest’ trajectory, feedbacks often involve competition between trees and other opportunistic plants 85 , 90 , 92 , as well as interactions between deforestation, fire and seed limitation 84 , 87 , 105 . At the landscape scale, secondary forests are more likely to be cleared than mature forests, thus keeping forests persistently young and landscapes fragmented 83 . In the ‘degraded open-canopy ecosystem’ trajectory, feedbacks involve interactions among low tree cover and fire 97 , soil erosion 60 , seed limitation 105 , invasive grasses and opportunistic plants 96 . At the regional scale, a self-reinforcing feedback between forest loss and reduced atmospheric moisture flow may increase the resilience of these open-canopy degraded ecosystems 42 . In the ‘white-sand savanna’ trajectory, the main feedbacks result from interactions among low tree cover and fire, soil erosion, and seed limitation 106 . Bottom left, floodplain forest transition to white-sand savanna after repeated fires (photo credit: Bernardo Flores); bottom centre, forest transition to degraded open-canopy ecosystem after repeated fires (photo credit: Paulo Brando); bottom right, forest transition to Vismia degraded forest after slash-and-burn agriculture (photo credit: Catarina Jakovac).

White-sand savanna

White-sand savannas are ancient ecosystems that occur in patches within the Amazon forest biome, particularly in seasonally waterlogged or flooded areas 94 . Their origin has been attributed to geomorphological dynamics and past Indigenous fires 26 , 27 , 94 . In a remote landscape far from large agricultural frontiers, within a stable forest region of the Amazon (Extended Data Fig. 1b ), satellite and field evidence revealed that white-sand savannas are expanding where floodplain forests were repeatedly disturbed by fires 95 . After fire, the topsoil of burnt forests changes from clayey to sandy, favouring the establishment of savanna trees and native herbaceous plants 95 . Shifts from forest to white-sand savanna (Fig. 4 ) are probably stable (that is, the ecosystem is unlikely to recover back to forest within centuries), based on the relatively long persistence of these savannas in the landscape 94 . Although these ecosystem transitions have been confirmed only in the Negro river basin (central Amazon), floodplain forests in other parts of the Amazon were shown to be particularly vulnerable to collapse 45 , 64 , 65 .

Degraded open-canopy ecosystem

In bistable regions of the Amazon forest with annual rainfall below 1,800 mm (Extended Data Fig. 1b ), shifts to degraded open-canopy ecosystems are relatively common after repeated disturbances by fire 45 , 96 . The ecosystem often becomes dominated by fire-tolerant tree and palm species, together with alien invasive grasses and opportunistic herbaceous plants 96 , 97 , such as vines and ferns. Estimates from the southern Amazon indicate that 5−6% of the landscape has already shifted into degraded open-canopy ecosystems due to deforestation and fires 45 , 96 . It is still unclear, however, whether degraded open-canopy ecosystems are stable or transient (Fig. 4 ). Palaeorecords from the northern Amazon 98 show that burnt forests may spend centuries in a degraded open-canopy state before they eventually shift into a savanna. Today, invasion by alien flammable grasses is a novel stabilizing mechanism 96 , 97 , but the long-term persistence of these grasses in the ecosystem is also uncertain.

Prospects for modelling Amazon forest dynamics

Several aspects of the Amazon forest system may help improve earth system models (ESMs) to more accurately simulate ecosystem dynamics and feedbacks with the climate system. Simulating individual trees can improve the representation of growth and mortality dynamics, which ultimately affect forest dynamics (for example, refs. 61 , 62 , 99 ). Significant effects on simulation results may emerge from increasing plant functional diversity, representation of key physiological trade-offs and other features that determine water stress on plants, and also allowing for community adjustment to environmental heterogeneity and global change 32 , 55 , 62 , 99 . For now, most ESMs do not simulate a dynamic vegetation cover (Supplementary Table 1 ) and biomes are represented based on few plant functional types, basically simulating monocultures on the biome level. In reality, tree community adaptation to a heterogenous and dynamic environment feeds into the whole-system dynamics, and not covering such aspects makes a true Amazon tipping assessment more challenging.

Our findings also indicate that Amazon forest resilience is affected by compounding disturbances (Fig. 1 ). ESMs need to include different disturbance scenarios and potential synergies for creating more realistic patterns of disturbance regimes. For instance, logging and edge effects can make a forest patch more flammable 39 , but these disturbances are often not captured by ESMs. Improvements in the ability of ESMs to predict future climatic conditions are also required. One way is to identify emergent constraints 100 , lowering ESMs variations in their projections of the Amazonian climate. Also, fully coupled ESMs simulations are needed to allow estimates of land-atmosphere feedbacks, which may adjust climatic and ecosystem responses. Another way to improve our understanding of the critical thresholds for Amazonian resilience and how these link to climatic conditions and to greenhouse gas concentrations is through factorial simulations with ESMs. In sum, although our study may not deliver a set of reliable and comprehensive equations to parameterize processes impacting Amazon forest dynamics, required for implementation in ESMs, we highlight many of the missing modelled processes.

Implications for governance

Forest resilience is changing across the Amazon as disturbance regimes intensify (Fig. 1 ). Although most recent models agree that a large-scale collapse of the Amazon forest is unlikely within the twenty-first century 2 , our findings suggest that interactions and synergies among different disturbances (for example, frequent extreme hot droughts and forest fires) could trigger unexpected ecosystem transitions even in remote and central parts of the system 101 . In 2012, Davidson et al. 102 demonstrated how the Amazon basin was experiencing a transition to a ‘disturbance-dominated regime’ related to climatic and land use changes, even though at the time, annual deforestation rates were declining owing to new forms of governance 103 . Recent policy and approaches to Amazon development, however, accelerated deforestation that reached 13,000 km 2 in the Brazilian Amazon in 2021 ( http://terrabrasilis.dpi.inpe.br ). The southeastern region has already turned into a source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere 48 . The consequences of losing the Amazon forest, or even parts of it, imply that we must follow a precautionary approach—that is, we must take actions that contribute to maintain the Amazon forest within safe boundaries 12 . Keeping the Amazon forest resilient depends firstly on humanity’s ability to stop greenhouse gas emissions, mitigating the impacts of global warming on regional climatic conditions 2 . At the local scale, two practical and effective actions need to be addressed to reinforce forest–rainfall feedbacks that are crucial for the resilience of the Amazon forest 4 , 37 : (1) ending deforestation and forest degradation; and (2) promoting forest restoration in degraded areas. Expanding protected areas and Indigenous territories can largely contribute to these actions. Our findings suggest a list of thresholds, disturbances and feedbacks that, if well managed, can help maintain the Amazon forest within a safe operating space for future generations.

Our study site was the area of the Amazon basin, considering large areas of tropical savanna biome along the northern portion of the Brazilian Cerrado, the Gran Savana in Venezuela and the Llanos de Moxos in Bolivia, as well as the Orinoco basin to the north, and eastern parts of the Andes to the west. The area includes also high Andean landscapes with puna and paramo ecosystems. We chose this contour to allow better communication with the MapBiomas Amazonian Project (2022; https://amazonia.mapbiomas.org ). For specific interpretation of our results, we considered the contour of the current extension of the Amazon forest biome, which excludes surrounding tropical savanna biomes.

We used the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Vegetation Continuous Fields (VCF) data (MOD44B version 6; https://lpdaac.usgs.gov/products/mod44bv006/ ) for the year 2001 at 250-m resolution 124 to reanalyse tree cover distributions within the Amazon basin, refining estimates of bistability ranges and critical thresholds in rainfall conditions from previous studies. Although MODIS VCF can contain errors within lower tree cover ranges and should not be used to test for bistability between grasslands and savannas 125 , the dataset is relatively robust for assessing bistability within the tree cover range of forests and savannas 126 , as also shown by low uncertainty (standard deviation of tree cover estimates) across the Amazon (Extended Data Fig. 8 ).

We used the Climate Hazards Group InfraRed Precipitation with Station data (CHIRPS; https://www.chc.ucsb.edu/data/chirps ) 127 to estimate mean annual rainfall and rainfall seasonality for the present across the Amazon basin, based on monthly means from 1981 to 2020, at a 0.05° spatial resolution.

We used the Climatic Research Unit (CRU; https://www.uea.ac.uk/groups-and-centres/climatic-research-unit ) 128 to estimate mean annual temperature for the present across the Amazon basin, based on monthly means from 1981 to 2020, at a 0.5° spatial resolution.

To mask deforested areas until 2020, we used information from the MapBiomas Amazonia Project (2022), collection 3, of Amazonian Annual Land Cover and Land Use Map Series ( https://amazonia.mapbiomas.org ).

To assess forest fire distribution across the Amazon forest biome and in relation to road networks, we used burnt area fire data obtained from the AQUA sensor onboard the MODIS satellite. Only active fires with a confidence level of 80% or higher were selected. The data are derived from MODIS MCD14ML (collection 6) 129 , available in Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS). The data were adjusted to a spatial resolution of 1 km.

Potential analysis

Using potential analysis 130 , an empirical stability landscape was constructed based on spatial distributions of tree cover (excluding areas deforested until 2020; https://amazonia.mapbiomas.org ) against mean annual precipitation, MCWD and DSL. Here we followed the methodology of Hirota et al. 104 . For bins of each of the variables, the probability density of tree cover was determined using the MATLAB function ksdensity. Local maxima of the resulting probability density function are considered to be stable equilibria, in which local maxima below a threshold value of 0.005 were ignored. Based on sensitivity tests (see below), we chose the intermediate values of the sensitivity parameter for each analysis, which resulted in the critical thresholds most similar to the ones previously published in the literature.

Sensitivity tests of the potential analysis

We smoothed the densities of tree cover with the MATLAB kernel smoothing function ksdensity. Following Hirota et al. 104 , we used a flexible bandwidth ( h ) according to Silverman’s rule of thumb 131 : h  = 1.06 σn 1/5 , where σ is the standard deviation of the tree cover distribution and n is the number of points. To ignore small bumps in the frequency distributions, we used a dimensionless sensitivity parameter. This parameter filters out weak modes in the distributions such that a higher value implies a stricter criterion to detect a significant mode. In the manuscript, we used a value of 0.005. For different values of this sensitivity parameter, we here test the estimated critical thresholds and bistability ranges (Extended Data Table 2 ). We inferred stable and unstable states of tree cover (minima and maxima in the potentials) for moving windows of the climatic variables. For mean annual precipitation, we used increments of 10 mm yr −1 between 0 and 3500 mm yr −1 . For dry season length, we used increments of 0.1 months between 0 and 12 months. For MCWD, we used increments of 10 mm between −800 mm and 0 mm.

Transition potential

We quantified a relative ecosystem transition potential across the Amazon forest biome (excluding accumulated deforestation; https://amazonia.mapbiomas.org ) to produce a simple spatial measure that can be useful for governance. For this, we combined information per pixel, at 5 km resolution, about different disturbances related to climatic and human disturbances, as well as high-governance areas within protected areas and Indigenous territories. We used values of significant slopes of the dry season (July–October) mean temperature between 1981 and 2020 ( P  < 0.1), estimated using simple linear regressions (at 0.5° resolution from CRU) (Fig. 1a ). Ecosystem stability classes (stable forest, bistable and stable savanna as in Extended Data Fig. 1 ) were estimated using simple linear regression slopes of annual rainfall between 1981 and 2020 ( P  < 0.1) (at 0.05° resolution from CHIRPS), which we extrapolated to 2050 (Fig. 1b and Extended Data Fig. 3 ). Distribution of areas affected by repeated extreme drought events (Fig. 1c ) were defined when the time series (2001–2018) of the MCWD reached two standard deviation anomalies from historical mean. Extreme droughts were obtained from Lapola et al. 39 , based on Climatic Research Unit gridded Time Series (CRU TS 4.0) datasets for precipitation and evapotranspiration. The network of roads (paved and unpaved) across the Amazon forest biome (Fig. 1d ) was obtained from the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG; https://geo2.socioambiental.org/raisg ). Protected areas (PAs) and Indigenous territories (Fig. 1e ) were also obtained from RAISG, and include both sustainable-use and restricted-use protected areas managed by national or sub-national governments, together with officially recognized and proposed Indigenous territories. We combined these different disturbance layers by adding a value for each layer in the following way: (1) slopes of dry season temperature change (as in Fig. 1a , multiplied by 10, thus between −0.1 and +0.6); (2) ecosystem stability classes estimated for year 2050 (as in Fig. 1b ), with 0 for stable forest, +1 for bistable and +2 for stable savanna; (3) accumulated impacts from repeated extreme drought events (from 0 to 5 events), with +0.2 for each event; (4) road-related human impacts, with +1 for pixels within 10 km from a road; and (5) protected areas and Indigenous territories as areas with lower exposure to human (land use) disturbances, such as deforestation and forest fires, with −1 for pixels inside these areas. The sum of these layers revealed relative spatial variation in ecosystem transition potential by 2050 across the Amazon (Fig. 1f ), ranging from −1 (low potential) to 4 (very high potential).

Atmospheric moisture tracking

To determine the atmospheric moisture flows between the Amazonian countries, we use the Lagrangian atmospheric moisture tracking model UTrack 132 . The model tracks the atmospheric trajectories of parcels of moisture, updates their coordinates at each time step of 0.1 h and allocates moisture to a target location in case of precipitation. For each millimetre of evapotranspiration, 100 parcels are released into the atmosphere. Their trajectories are forced with evaporation, precipitation, and wind speed estimates from the ERA5 reanalysis product at 0.25° horizontal resolution for 25 atmospheric layers 133 . Here we use the runs from Tuinenburg et al. 134 , who published monthly climatological mean (2008–2017) moisture flows between each pair of 0.5° grid cells on Earth. We aggregated these monthly flows, resulting in mean annual moisture flows between all Amazonian countries during 2008–2017. For more details of the model runs, we refer to Tuinenburg and Staal 132 and Tuinenburg et al. 134 .

Reporting summary

Further information on research design is available in the  Nature Portfolio Reporting Summary linked to this article.

Data availability

All data supporting the findings of this study are openly available and their sources are presented in the Methods.

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Acknowledgements

This work was inspired by the Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA) initiative ( https://www.theamazonwewant.org/ ) that produced the first Amazon Assessment Report (2021). The authors thank C. Smith for providing deforestation rates data used in Extended Data Fig. 5b . B.M.F. and M.H. were supported by Instituto Serrapilheira (Serra-1709-18983) and C.J. (R-2111-40341). A.S. acknowledges funding from the Dutch Research Council (NWO) under the Talent Program Grant VI.Veni.202.170. R.A.B. and D.M.L. were supported by the AmazonFACE programme funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI). R.A.B. was additionally supported by the Met Office Climate Science for Service Partnership (CSSP) Brazil project funded by the UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), and D.M.L. was additionally supported by FAPESP (grant no. 2020/08940-6) and CNPq (grant no. 309074/2021-5). C.L. thanks CNPq (proc. 159440/2018-1 and 400369/2021-4) and Brazil LAB (Princeton University) for postdoctoral fellowships. A.E.-M. is supported by the UKRI TreeScapes MEMBRA (NE/V021346/1), the Royal Society (RGS\R1\221115), the ERC TreeMort project (758873) and the CESAB Syntreesys project. R.S.O. received a CNPq productivity scholarship and funding from NERC-FAPESP 2019/07773-1. S.B.H. is supported by the Geneva Graduate Institute research funds, and UCLA’s committee on research. J.A.M. is supported by the National Institute of Science and Technology for Climate Change Phase 2 under CNPq grant 465501/2014-1; FAPESP grants 2014/50848-9, the National Coordination for Higher Education and Training (CAPES) grant 88887.136402-00INCT. L.S.B. received FAPESP grant 2013/50531-0. D.N. and N.B. acknowledge funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 820970. N.B. has received further funding from the Volkswagen foundation, the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 956170, as well as from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research under grant no. 01LS2001A.

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Graduate Program in Ecology, Federal University of Santa Catarina, Florianopolis, Brazil

Bernardo M. Flores, Carolina Levis & Marina Hirota

Geosciences Barcelona, Spanish National Research Council, Barcelona, Spain

Encarni Montoya

Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Member of the Leibniz Association, Potsdam, Germany

Boris Sakschewski, Da Nian & Niklas Boers

Institute of Advanced Studies, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil

Nathália Nascimento & Carlos A. Nobre

Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Met Office Hadley Centre, Exeter, UK

Richard A. Betts

Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

Center for Meteorological and Climatic Research Applied to Agriculture, University of Campinas, Campinas, Brazil

David M. Lapola

School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK

Adriane Esquível-Muelbert

Birmingham Institute of Forest Research, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK

Department of Plant Sciences, Federal University of Santa Catarina, Florianopolis, Brazil

Catarina Jakovac

Department of Plant Biology, University of Campinas, Campinas, Brazil

Rafael S. Oliveira & Marina Hirota

Division of Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerabilities (DIIAV), National Institute for Space Research, São José dos Campos, Brazil

Laura S. Borma & Luciana V. Gatti

Earth System Modelling, School of Engineering and Design, Technical University of Munich, Munich, Germany

Niklas Boers

Luskin School for Public Affairs and Institute of the Environment, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA

Susanna B. Hecht

Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, The Netherlands

Hans ter Steege

Quantitative Biodiversity Dynamics, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA), São José dos Campos, Brazil

Julia Arieira

Sustainable Development Solutions Network, New York, NY, USA

Isabella L. Lucas

Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

Erika Berenguer

Centro Nacional de Monitoramento e Alerta de Desastres Naturais, São José dos Campos, Brazil

José A. Marengo

Graduate Program in Natural Disasters, UNESP/CEMADEN, São José dos Campos, Brazil

Graduate School of International Studies, Korea University, Seoul, Korea

Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

Caio R. C. Mattos

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Contributions

B.M.F. and M.H. conceived the study. B.M.F. reviewed the literature, with inputs from all authors. B.M.F., M.H., N.N., A.S., C.L., D.N, H.t.S. and C.R.C.M. assembled datasets. M.H. analysed temperature and rainfall trends. B.M.F. and N.N. produced the maps in main figures and calculated transition potential. A.S. performed potential analysis and atmospheric moisture tracking. B.M.F. produced the figures and wrote the manuscript, with substantial inputs from all authors. B.S. wrote the first version of the ‘Prospects for modelling Amazon forest dynamics’ section, with inputs from B.M.F and M.H.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Bernardo M. Flores or Marina Hirota .

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Competing interests.

The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature thanks Chris Huntingford and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer review reports are available.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended data fig. 1 alternative stable states in amazonian tree cover relative to rainfall conditions..

Potential analysis of tree cover distributions across rainfall gradients in the Amazon basin suggest the existence of critical thresholds and alternative stable states in the system. For this, we excluded accumulated deforestation until 2020 and included large areas of tropical savanna biome in the periphery of the Amazon basin (see  Methods ). Solid black lines indicate two stable equilibria. Small grey arrows indicate the direction towards equilibrium. (a) The overlap between ~ 1,000 and 1,800 mm of annual rainfall suggests that two alternative stable states may exist (bistability): a high tree cover state ~ 80 % (forests), and a low tree cover state ~ 20% (savannas). Tree cover around 50 % is rare, indicating an unstable state. Below 1,000 mm of annual rainfall, forests are rare, indicating a potential critical threshold for abrupt forest transition into a low tree cover state 79 , 104 (arrow 1). Between 1,000 and 1,800 mm of annual rainfall, the existence of alternative stable states implies that forests can shift to a low tree cover stable state in response to disturbances (arrow 2). Above 1,800 mm of annual rainfall, low tree cover becomes rare, indicating a potential critical threshold for an abrupt transition into a high tree cover state. In this stable forest state, forests are expected to always recover after disturbances (arrow 3), although composition may change 47 , 85 . (b) Currently, the stable savanna state covers 1 % of the Amazon forest biome, bistable areas cover 13 % of the biome (less than previous analysis using broader geographical ranges 78 ) and the stable forest state covers 86 % of the biome. Similar analyses using the maximum cumulative water deficit (c) and the dry season length (d) also suggest the existence of critical thresholds and alternative stable states. When combined, these critical thresholds in rainfall conditions could result in a tipping point of the Amazon forest in terms of water stress, but other factors may play a role, such as groundwater availability 64 . MODIS VCF may contain some level of uncertainty for low tree cover values, as shown by the standard deviation of tree cover estimates across the Amazon (Extended Data Fig. 8 ). However, the dataset is relatively robust for assessing bistability within the tree cover range between forest and savanna 126 .

Extended Data Fig. 2 Changes in dry-season temperatures across the Amazon basin.

(a) Dry season temperature averaged from mean annual data observed between 1981 and 2010. (b) Changes in dry season mean temperature based on the difference between the projected future (2021−2050) and observed historical (1981−2010) climatologies. Future climatology was obtained from the estimated slopes using historical CRU data 128 (shown in Fig. 1a ). (c, d) Changes in the distributions of dry season mean and maximum temperatures for the Amazon basin. (e) Correlation between dry-season mean and maximum temperatures observed (1981–2010) across the Amazon basin ( r  = 0.95).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Changes in annual precipitation and ecosystem stability across the Amazon forest biome.

(a) Slopes of annual rainfall change between 1981 and 2020 estimated using simple regressions (only areas with significant slopes, p  < 0.1). (b) Changes in ecosystem stability classes projected for year 2050, based on significant slopes in (a) and critical thresholds in annual rainfall conditions estimated in Extended Data Fig. 1 . Data obtained from Climate Hazards Group InfraRed Precipitation with Station data (CHIRPS), at 0.05° spatial resolution 127 .

Extended Data Fig. 4 Changes in ecosystem stability by 2050 across the Amazon based on annual rainfall projected by CMIP6 models.

(a) Changes in stability classes estimated using an ensemble with the five CMIP6 models that include vegetation modules (coupled for climate-vegetation feedbacks) for two emission scenarios (Shared Socio-economic Pathways - SSPs). (b) Changes in stability classes estimated using an ensemble with all 33 CMIP6 models for the same emission scenarios. Stability changes may occur between stable forest (F), stable savanna (S) and bistable (B) classes, based on the bistability range of 1,000 – 1,800 mm in annual rainfall, estimated from current rainfall conditions (see Extended Data Fig. 1 ). Projections are based on climate models from the 6 th Phase of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP6). SSP2-4.5 is a low-emission scenario of future global warming and SSP5-8.5 is a high-emission scenario. The five coupled models analysed separately in (a) were: EC-Earth3-Veg, GFDL-ESM4, MPI-ESM1-2-LR, TaiESM1 and UKESM1-0-LL (Supplementary Information Table 1 ).

Extended Data Fig. 5 Deforestation continues to expand within the Amazon forest system.

(a) Map highlighting deforestation and fire activity between 2012 and 2021, a period when environmental governance began to weaken again, as indicated by increasing rates of annual deforestation in (b). In (b), annual deforestation rates for the entire Amazon biome were adapted with permission from Smith et al. 83 .

Extended Data Fig. 6 Environmental heterogeneity in the Amazon forest system.

Heterogeneity involves myriad factors, but two in particular, related to water availability, were shown to contribute to landscape-scale heterogeneity in forest resilience; topography shapes fine-scale variations of forest drought-tolerance 135 , 136 , and floodplains may reduce forest resilience by increasing vulnerability to wildfires 65 . Datasets: topography is shown by the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM; https://earthexplorer.usgs.gov/ ) 137 at 90 m resolution; floodplains and uplands are separated with the Amazon wetlands mask 138 at 90 m resolution.

Extended Data Fig. 7 The Amazon is biologically and culturally diverse.

(a) Tree species richness and (b) language richness illustrate how biological and cultural diversity varies across the Amazon. Diverse tree communities and human cultures contribute to increasing forest resilience in various ways that are being undermined by land-use and climatic changes. Datasets: (a) Amazon Tree Diversity Network (ATDN, https://atdn.myspecies.info ). (b) World Language Mapping System (WLMS) obtained under license from Ethnologue 139 .

Extended Data Fig. 8 Uncertainty of the MODIS VCF dataset across the Amazon basin.

Map shows standard deviation (SD) of tree cover estimates from MODIS VCF 124 . We masked deforested areas until 2020 using the MapBiomas Amazonia Project (2022; https://amazonia.mapbiomas.org ).

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Flores, B.M., Montoya, E., Sakschewski, B. et al. Critical transitions in the Amazon forest system. Nature 626 , 555–564 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06970-0

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Systematic review of scales for measuring infectious disease–related stigma.

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Frequency of inclusion of domains of stigma in a systematic review of scales for measuring infectious disease–related stigma. Graph displays existing scales from framework synthesis. Action-oriented stigma domains included the following: social, stigmatization by friends and family; public, stigmatization by broader community and strangers; occupational, stigmatization by colleagues and employers; provider-related, stigmatization by service providers; structural, stigmatization by institutions; self, internalized stigma; anticipated, disclosure concerns or avoidance due to fear of stigma; nonspecific actor, item does not specify who is enacting stigma.

Figure 3 . Frequency of inclusion of domains of stigma in a systematic review of scales for measuring infectious disease–related stigma. Graph displays existing scales from framework synthesis. Action-oriented stigma domains included the following: social, stigmatization by friends and family; public, stigmatization by broader community and strangers; occupational, stigmatization by colleagues and employers; provider-related, stigmatization by service providers; structural, stigmatization by institutions; self, internalized stigma; anticipated, disclosure concerns or avoidance due to fear of stigma; nonspecific actor, item does not specify who is enacting stigma.

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  1. Research Paper Structure

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