Empirical Research - Tutorial

Empirical research is at the core of many fields of study. Empirical research often defines relationships, demonstrates cause and effect and sparks our own minds to begin thinking of other possibilities to be tested and studied. Because empirical research is so important to so many fields, it is essential that researchers have the skills necessary to locate empirical research articles on their topics of study. Here are a few tips that can help in locating empirical research in the literature of your field.

Question 1: What is empirical research?
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines empirical as:

1a. Relying on or derived from observation or experiment
1b. Verifiable or provable by means of observation or experiment
2. Guided by practical experience and not theory, especially in medicine

So what does this tell us about empirical research? This definition tells us that empirical research is research which is based on observed and measured phenomena and it is research that derives knowledge from actual experience rather than from theory or belief. By understanding what empirical research is, we are better able to identify it within our own disciplines.

Question 2: Where can I find empirical research?
Most empirical research is published in books and scholarly journals. Generally, you will not find this type of research published in magazines although you will often find magazine articles which quote empirical research findings. Using the information quoted in these articles can lead you to the research article itself, which is one way to find empirical research. Some researchers will publish their findings on the internet. As with all web materials, you want to be very skeptical about these types of studies as they do not go through any kind of review process, like journals and books do. Be sure that you can verify who the authors of the study are and that they in fact have the authority and the expertise to conduct their research.

Question 3: How do I find empirical research on my topic?

There are three techniques that you can use to find empirical research in your field. Not all techniques will work for every field because some of them rely on having special features within the databases that index the research literature in your discipline. The key to making these techniques work for you is to become familiar with the databases in your field and to experiment with the different techniques and tricks below to see which works best for you.

1. Limits
Most databases allow you to limit your search by date or language, but more and more databases are letting users limit their searches to a particular type of publication. Below are a few example of what these limiting features might look like on the search screen.


 In ERIC, try limiting your searches by
Pub. Type to Reports - Research/Technical 

In PsycINFO, try limiting your searches by Form/Content Type to Empirical Study

In INSPEC, try limiting your searches by Treatment Code to Experimental

2. Adding Terms
When there is not an existing limit built into the database to use, you can try adding some common terms to narrow down the type of material you are looking for. Terms like empirical research, experiment and study are often included in the abstract for empirical research articles as well as being listed as a subject descriptor in some databases. For example, if you want to find empirical research articles about the effectiveness of using journal writing exercises in math classes, you could search

journal writing and math and study

This type of search does not guarantee that the only articles you will see will be empirical research, but it does attempt to narrow it down. The best way to find out which narrowing term works best for your topic is to try them out in the database and review the first few articles returned to see if they are based on empirical research. If you aren't sure how to tell if the article is based on empirical research or not, take a look at Question 4 of this page.

3. Footnote Chasing
Many times when conducting even the best search with limits and added terms, you will still find articles that are not themselves based on empirical research, but instead, are reviewing a particular topic and the research that has been conducted about it. While these articles do not themselves constitute an empirical research article, they do offer the opportunity to find empirical research on your topic. The footnotes and bibliography of these articles can be wonderful starting places to find empirical research articles on your topic. The same is true for magazine articles that cite studies that have been conducted on a particular topic.

When you encounter a citation or bibliography and identify articles that you would like to locate, be sure to get all of the necessary citation information:

author, title of the article, title of the journal, volume, issue, date, page numbers

Once you have this information, you can search the Online Catalog for the title of the journal, to see if the Libraries own the journal and volume that you need. If the Libraries do not own the journal or volume that you need, you can use that same information to request the article through ILLiad Interlibrary Loan.

Question 4: How can I be sure that it is empirical research?

Key characteristics to look for:

  • Statement about the methodology being used
  • Research questions to be answered
  • Definition of the group or phenomena being studied
  • Process used to study this group or phenomena, including any controls or instruments such as tests or surveys
  • Ask yourself: Could I recreate this study and test these results?
If the answer is yes, than chances are you are looking at an empirical research article. When in doubt, contact your professor or a librarian to get a second opinion.

More information
Part of mastering the skills for finding empirical research is understanding the characteristics of empirical research and how it is conducted.. If you would like more information on this process, take a look at these resources.

Denzin, Norman K. and Yvonne S. Lincoln, eds. The Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oak, CA: Sage Publications, 2000.
Call Number: Ref H62 .H2455 2000

Miller, Delbert C. Handbook of Research Design and Social Measurement 4th ed. New York: Longman, 1983.
Call Number: Ref H62 .M44 1983

Created by Beth Ashmore. If you need additional access to information not covered on this page, contact Deborah Lee at (662)-325-0810 or email dlee@library.msstate.edu.