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Empirical Research: Defining, Identifying, & Finding

What is empirical research, how do you recognize it, and how can you improve your searches to find it?

Identifying Empirical Research

Finding the Characteristics of Empirical Research in an Article

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: 

The Abstract

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.

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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.

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