Jeromy Anglim's Blog: Psychology and Statistics

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Writing a Concise Introduction to a Psychology Journal Article: An Article Deconstruction

I often talk about article deconstruction as a useful method for extracting principles for writing journal articles. The following is an article deconstruction of the introduction section of Fujita and Diener (2005). The writing principles extracted may be relevant to others writing introductions to journal articles in psychology.

The article

The article analyses longitudinal data on the stability of life satisfaction. Both authors and especially Ed Diener are major figures in well-being research. As I was reading the article, I found the writing style to be particularly engaging. Thus, I thought it would be a good article to deconstruct in order to identify relevant writing principles. Here is a PDF of the article

Fujita, F., & Diener, E. (2005). Life satisfaction set point: stability and change. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88(1), 158.

Paragraph Descriptions

This section analyses each paragraph of the introduction to extract writing principles.

1. Overview of study

  • Description:
    • The opening sentence of the first paragraph states the purpose of the journal article. i.e., "The purpose of this study was ..."
    • The second sentence elaborates briefly on the core concept
    • The third sentence states the empirical method used in the study.
  • Analysis:
    • This structure really gets to the point quickly about what the study is about both theoretically and methodologically.
    • Explicit discussion of the importance of the topic is delayed until Paragraph 2. This differs from some other papers which commence with a more general opening paragraph that eludes to the importance of the problem. It also differs from the hour glass model of lab report writing (which I dislike quite a bit) which often does not get to the point of the paper until the final paragraph.

2. Importance of research question

  • Description:
    • The paragraph is concerned with the importance of the research question.
    • Theoretical argument for importance: essential to understanding relationship between core variables in conceptual space.
    • Applied argument: relevant to societal interventions to improve people's lives
  • Analysis
    • I often think of framing the importance in terms of overcoming a gap in the literature. Instead, this paragraph focuses on the importance of the research question in absolute terms. Importance of the study is reserved for later after a critique of the literature is presented. This approach overcomes some of the challenge of trying to fit too much in the opening few paragraphs (i.e., trying to summarise a complex critique of the literature in order to justify the research).

3. Historical development of set-point theory

  • Description:
    • The first sentence highlights the literature on the broader topic (i.e., SWB) and uses a book length treatment as a general citation.
    • Subsequent sentences present the contributions of several key authors who have discussed the core idea of the paper. "Headley and Wearing ... proposed ...", etc.
    • There are also elaboration sentences.
  • Analysis
    • The paragraph starts with the general research context, and then immediately moves to present historical development of the core idea.
    • One of the challenges of writing a literature review is working out what to cover and how much general introduction should be provided. In this case, only a single sentence is provided to link with the general literature. So, for example, the paper does not provide general definitions of life satisfaction or subjective well-being.

4. The evidence for stability

  • Description

    • It starts with a general claim: "lines of data suggest ...".
    • It then presents two pieces of evidence: I.e., "First, ..."; "Second, ..."
    • In relation to the first point made, there are two sentences. The first sentence states a general empirical relationship (e.g., "X is related to Y"). The second sentence provides an illustrative example of a study that shows the relationship and reports the specific findings. "For example, Eid and Diener (2004) found ..."
  • Analysis

    • This paragraph links closely with the next one. The paper is about stability and change. Thus, devoting a paragraph each to stability and change provides a way of presenting both perspectives. This model would work in many literature reviews where two contrasting ideas are presented.
    • The use of the general claim followed by an illustrative study is useful for making discussion of the literature more concrete.

5. The evidence for change

  • Description:
    • The first sentence links with the previous paragraph and states the topic of the paragraph. E.g., "Despite evidence for {claim in previous paragraph}... there are also indications that {alternative claim elaborated in this paragraph}..."
    • Then a series of findings are presented from the literature. Various transitional words are used to link ideas: "There are ..."; "Also, ..."; "Further, ..."; "Thus, ..."

6. Critique of existing studies

  • Description:
    • The opening paragraph acknowledges that the central claim made in the paper has been made before, but that the literature has not yet "fully explored {the idea}".
    • Then three major critiques are presented using the linking words: "For one thing ..."; "Furthermore, ..."; "Another limitation ..."
  • Analysis
    • This paragraph serves to highlight the gap in the literature and justify the present study.
    • Interestingly, the critique does not cite any particular studies. Rather it just states the limitations of the existing literature.
    • The points made in the critique constitute limitations of previous research and not fundamental flaws.
    • Both not citing specific studies and framing issues as limitations helps to create a positive respectful tone while at the same time justifying the current study.
    • Given that the idea itself is not new, this study provides a good example of showing how the evidence and the methodology can be used to argue for the unique contribution.

7. Description of current study

  • Description
    • The paragraph describes the method and sample.
    • It is stated how this sample helps answer the research question. I.e., "By using {aspect of method in current study}, we overcome one of the limitations of past research {state limitation}.
    • It is stated how the method/design helps answer the research question.
  • Analysis
    • The benefits of the method of the current study are summarised and contrasted with the previous literature. Thus, the paragraph also highlights the gap in the previous literature and the importance of the current study.

8. Hypotheses

  • Description
    • Two hypotheses are presented.
    • Assorted justification for hypotheses are interspersed:
      • "on the basis of past findings"
      • "because ..."
      • whole sentences of the form: "people are likely ..."
  • Analysis
    • The words "hypothesized" and "predicted" seem be to used interchangeably.
    • The hypotheses are expressed in a fairly verbal manner, still leaving some scope fo how they will be converted into a numeric test.
    • In contrast to some studies hypotheses are not numbered in any formal way. This creates a more flexible, concise and informal approach to specifying expectations. In many respects I prefer this given that ultimately the analyses are the evidence.

9. Additional questions examined

  • Description
    • This paragraph introduces additional, ancillary research questions.
    • The first sentence links the main research question to the additional research questions: "In addition to {main research question}, we examined some related questions."
    • The remaining sentences are: (2) description of first additional question; (3) basic expectations and justification for first additional question; (4) description of second additional question.
  • Analysis
    • This provides an interesting approach for how to handle additional questions that will be addressed by the analyses in a study. There may not be space to address the full literature on these additional questions. Even if space was available, extensive discussion of the literature on the additional questions may distract the reader from the core research question.
    • In general the paragraph frames and justifies the questions as being related to the primary question, but not much time is spent discussing the specific issues.

General reflection on the introduction:

Focus and length

  • It is a relatively short and focussed introduction. Nine paragraphs is not long. It's about one APA journal page of double column text. Only about three paragraphs represent a literature review with references and the like, plus one more for a critique.
  • In its focus it implies that certain topics don't need to be discussed. It is assumed that the reader is familiar with them or at least assumes that it would be distracting from the goals of the paper to have to address such issues. For example:
    • It does not define SWB or discuss the relationship between SWB and personality.
    • It does not attempt to be a complete review of all studies that have been conducted on the stability or change of SWB.
  • There are no subheadings. This makes sense given the length. However, it could easily have had two subheadings, one for the literature review and one for the current study.

Citation practice

In a previous post I describe the importance of making the link between citations and argument clear. So for example, it should be clear whether any claim made is a proposal, empirical finding, or something else. The paper uses the following strategies:

  • Specific words showing link
    • "{Author} proposed"; "{Author} found"; "{Author} suggested"
    • "Advanced by {one author and colleagues} {insert multiple references}"
  • Implied that the reference provides empirical support for the claim asserted:
    • "research indicates that {finding} {reference}";
    • "There are {finding} {reference}";
  • Illustrative examples with implied empirical citation:
    • "It has been found that {finding} ...such as {one domain} {reference} another domain {reference}"


  • The first person pronoun "we" is used quite a lot. Rather than "it was hypothesized that", the authors write "we hypothezized that". This creates a fairly engaging tone.

Comparison to my previous writing on introductions

I've discussed previously about how to write an introduction in psychology. In that post I present one structure for an introduction roughly as follows:

  • Opening (Aim, Gap, Importance, Method)
  • Literature review
  • Current study (Study description, Expectations)

While fairly similar, this paper differed to that structure in a few ways:

  • Aim and method was placed in the first paragraph. A more fluffy but engaging opening paragraph was omitted.
  • Importance: The second paragraph presents importance.
  • Gap: Gap is presented at the end of the literature review component as a presentation of common limitations with the existing literature. Gap also is addressed when articulating the current study. Design aspects that overcome past limitations are articulated.
  • Study description and expectations are basically as described in the post.

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