What is empirical research and how do I find it?

What is empirical research?

Empirical research uses experimentation or observation as the source of its information. Empirical research articles report the results of such studies. They are written by the people who performed the studies, making them examples of primary sources.


A short synopsis of the article's main points, located before the article proper. Abstracts are often viewable from a list of search results in a database. If a study or experiment was conducted, that should be mentioned in the abstract.

Sections (IMRaD)

  1. Introduction (and Literature Review): Explains why the study was conducted and how it fits into the existing scholarly conversation about the topic.
  2. Methodology (or Design): Details how the researchers collected and analyzed their data. A well-written methods section allows other researchers to recreate the study to test the results.
  3. Results (or Findings): Presents the data that the study produced using narrative, charts, graphs, tables. etc. The data may be quantitative (numerical), qualitative (nonnumerical), or mixed.
  4. Discussion (and/or Conclusion): Discusses the conclusions to be drawn from the results, the implications of the study.

These sections may be combined, unlabeled, or labeled differently, but any empirical article should contain all of these pieces of information.

References (or Bibliography or Works Cited)

A list of the sources cited in the article. This list should be extensive.

Other Characteristics

  • Length: Empirical research articles will be substantial, usually seven or more pages long.
  • Publication type: Most often you will find empirical research articles that have been published in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals.

Some articles published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals are not empirical research studies, so it is important to be able to distinguish among different article types. When your professor instructs you to limit your search to empirical research articles, avoid these types of articles:

  • Brief descriptions of new research studies that may appear in the news, general and professional magazines, etc.
  • Literature reviews are different from the literature review section of an empirical research article. These articles do not go on to report the results of a single study. Instead, they discuss trends, patterns, and relationships among multiple previous research studies. You may encounter different types of literature reviews, such as systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
  • Book reviews, editorials, and letters: These may be published in some scholarly journals, but they are often grounded in opinion rather than evidence and are not subject to the same stringent review process as scholarly articles.

Strategy 1: Use library databases

Find recommended databases for your academic subject using the menu on the Databases A to Z list, or look for them on the library's research guide for your subject.

Strategy 2: Use keywords

In addition to the keywords that describe your research topic, trying adding a term that describes the type of study you wish to find. For example:

  • A term that indicates a research project, such as study, studies, or "longitudinal study"
  • A term that indicates research subjectsparticipants, or respondents
  • A term that describes a research method, such as qualitative, quantitativesurvey, ethnography, or "clinical trial"

Strategy 3: Look for special limits

Take a look at the Advanced Search screen in any database. Some databases have special search options to help you locate the studies that match your criteria. For example, PsycInfo includes a Methodology option that allows you to select "Empirical Study."


MEDLINE Ultimate includes a Publication Type option that allows you to select general "Research."


In both databases, those options also allow you to select more specific types of studies, such as "Clinical Trial."

Note: You still need to evaluate each article using the guidelines above to determine if it is empirical.

Need more help?

When in doubt about a particular article, share the article's citation and abstract with your professor or Ask Us. We can help you recognize the differences between empirical research and other types of scholarly articles.

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