Writing a research methods paper in APA style
Writing an APA style paper is an exercise in frustration for most undergraduates taking Research Methods. Besides learning a new language to describe research and how to write in a 'scientific' rather than a 'literary' style, they also are expected to master a very rigid style of formatting the manuscript.
Links from this page include an example article meant to show four concepts: 1) What an APA paper looks like in manuscript form, 2) What it looks like when published, 3) How and why to format it in LaTeX, and 4) How to include references using BibTeX or EndNote. Those who do not want to learn LaTeX, should just look at the format of the paper and the references.
Here you will find four versions of this document: 1) the 'manuscript' or how you should submit a paper, 2) a 'published' version of the paper, or what it would look like in a journal, 3) an alternative 'published' version, or what it would look like in a book, and 4) what the text looks like when marked up in LaTeX. You will also find links to download LaTeX as well as to the apa document class developed by Athanassios Protopapas.
Writing documents in APA style
The most important part of writing a scientific paper is to write to be understandable. Understandable to the intelligent layperson; understandable to the expert in the field. By standardizing on a particular style, it is easier for the writer to focus on content rather than form. The style manual of the American Psychological Association provides one of the more conventional forms. There are others, but for now, it is useful to focus on APA style.
APA style manual and 'cribsheets'
The style manual of the American Psychological Association is the definitive reference. However, for the student, there are a number of very useful web resources that provide the essence of APA style.
LaTeX, apa.cls, and your paper
Because your writing should be more important than the specific technicalities of making the manuscript look 'nice' in printed form, various computer typesetting packages have been developed. The basic principle is that you should focus on the text, and the program should focus on the stylistic requirements. The program LaTeX with the associated apa.cls set of stylistic instructions allows you to do this fairly easily. (Easy is a strange term when it comes to LaTeX, it is easy once you spend the effort to get the program, download the associated class files, and learn how to use them.)
The Latex example document
Associated with this page is a short text file that is 'marked up' in LaTeX. That is, the LaTeX document includes regular text as well as a series of type setting commands. Although understanding the commands is preferred, it is possible, by simply cutting and pasting, to take advantage of these LaTeX commands without a deep understanding of what they do.
The original sample document as a text file may be viewed here.
Not very clear, is it? But when using LaTeX magic happens.
If you have a LaTeX editor (for the Mac, I find that TeXShop works very well), and copy the raw file into it, and run it, you will see a properly formatted document. By changing the first command from
you have magically prepared a pdf file that looks as if it were from a journal.
This is shown when you examine the four example files shown below:
One input format, three output formats
- The LaTex marked up version
- The manuscript version that you would submit to a journal or turn in for a class.
- The type set version as it would like in a journal.
- The type set version as it would like in a book or on a web page.
All three of these output versions were prepared from the same text file with associated graphic and bibliographic files in the same folder (directory). The only difference was how they were told to be formatted.
They were formatted using a modification (LaTeX) developed originally by Leslie Lamport to a type setting language TeX (pronounced "tech") developed by Donald E. Knuth. LaTeX is open source and is in the public domain. That means that you are free to download and use it, and even modify it if you so choose.
The next section of this page discusses how to prepare your manuscript using LaTeX and may be safely ignored if you are going to conscientiously follow the apa crib sheet guidelines and not use any fancy computer typsesetting program.
A basic introduction to LaTeX can be found at the latex-project.org site. A one page introduction gives a few of the details and a much longer "not so short" introduction as well as a wikipedia entry are very helpful.
Instructions for downloading LaTeX are available from the latex-project.org
General and specific questions are probably best found at Cambridge University's Engineering School site.
For the Mac User
To use TeXShop, you first have to download it from the web and install it.
Then you will need to install MacTex
For the PC user
There are at least three different versions are listed at the latex-project. I have heard good things about the proTeXt - MiKLTeX version.
The APA class and APA cite
Once you have downloaded and installed a working version of LaTeX, you need to get the apa.cls folder (directory) from the apa.cls webpage. This folder includes a class description as well as the command set for apa.cite. Keep your manuscript file in this folder.
(The following taken directly from the apa.cls webpage):
"apa.cls is written and maintained by Athanassios Protopapas, who currently works at the Institute for Language & Speech Processing in Athens, Greece. The current version is 1.3.2, released on January 31st, 2006. It can found on CTAN, the LaTeX Catalogue, or it may be downloaded from here. There are no more recent "working" versions at this time.
apa.cls is distributed under the terms of the LaTeX Project Public License (lppl). In short, this means that the software is copyright but you are granted "a license which gives you, the 'user' of the software, legal permission to copy, distribute, and/or modify the software. However, if you modify the software and then distribute it (even just locally) you must change the name of the software to avoid confusion" (quoted from The TeX Catalogue License Definitions)."
"apa.cls is distributed with two files you must read carefully before trying to use it, apacls.txt and examples.txt."
In addition to the free program BibTeX, Northwestern students are able to use a powerful bibliographic tool, EndNote. You can download EndNote as well as a variety of connection files and filters from the NU library. Endnote allows you to format references directly into multiple output styles (APA, Science, Nature, etc.).
If connected to NU with a VPN, or if on campus, you can use Endnote to do bibliographic searches using OVID. References that you select may be saved on your computer. These references will include bibliographic information as well as the abstract. You can then add your own notes to these file.
EndNote will export to BibTex if you want to use LaTeX to type set your manuscript.
If using LaTeX, it is easy to convert bibliographic materials into APA style. First, make sure that you have the files apacite.bst and apacite.sty in the same folder as your manuscript (as well as the apa.cls file). Now, run Latex once, then choose the BibTeX option for your LaTeX program, then run LaTeX again (and perhaps again and then perhaps one more time). At this point, you should have a proper bibliography.
The bibliography file for the sample article can be retrieved here and then should be saved as examplebib.bib.
Advanced topic: Integrating R with LaTeX
Although for most papers, it is possible to use a program like "Word" to do much of the formatting rather than using LaTeX, a very powerful additional feature is when LaTeX is combined with the R statistical environment. Using the Sweave function in R allows one to prepare a report with "reproducible statistics".
The manuscript example shown earlier could have had the figures prepared using R, showing both the commands as well as the output. Examine the markedup version of the file with R commands embedded in the LaTeX file, and then look at the document version of this file. By using Sweave we have been able to show and execute the R code and then place the resulting figures into our LaTeX file. The ability to show the R code along with resulting output allows us to have "reproducible statistics", in that we can tell the reader exactly what we did and what we found. Although not yet used in APA style documents, this is an important feature of scientific data analysis.
LaTeX, R and Sweave
- The basic LaTeX file with embedded R commands
- The resulting "journal" file.
When writing an "APA style" paper for research methods or one of the more advanced courses (e.g., 371: Personality Research), you should focus on what you are saying and being convincing in your introduction, method, results, and discussion. The basic parts of APA style are fairly straight forward to understand if you just pay attention.
Part of a syllabus for Research Methods in Psychology, Northwestern University.
Comments to William Revelle
Slightly updated, October 11, 2015