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6 posts from November 2009

November 25, 2009

Books That Provoke Our Thanks

by Jeff Hume-Pratuch

Writers in psychology and the social and behavioral sciences reach for the APA Publication Manual first when they have style and usage questions. But inevitably, some topics are outside its scope, while others are covered in less detail than one might like.

At APA, there are a few resource books we turn to in gratitude on a daily basis. You’ll find them on the desk of almost every editor here, and they just might have the answers you’re looking for.

Grammar, Usage, and Style

The Publication Manual contains valuable basic information on writing clearly and correctly but by no means covers all the bases. When I’ve been wrestling with a thorny sentence for the last half hour and it still looks wrong, I reach for Words Into Type.  If you’re looking for guidance on coordinate conjunctions or collective nouns, this is the place.

Some issues may arise infrequently in psychology and the social sciences (e.g., “In what context should I capitalize Platonic ideas?” “Where can I find a conversion chart from Wade-Giles to Pinyin?”), but they do arise. For questions with a humanities slant, the Chicago Manual of Style can be helpful. It has extensive information on foreign language references, titles of historical persons, and other topics that are beyond APA's purview.

Finally, a lighter approach sometimes helps when you’re trying to get your head around language problems. In The Elephants of Style and Lapsing Into a Comma, Bill Walsh offers tips on contemporary usage in a humorous and thoroughly approachable way. Another classic in this vein is The Careful Writer, by Theodore M. Bernstein.

Spelling and Word Division

For everyday spelling issues, APA uses Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. But when you need to know whether it’s “Alzheimer syndrome” or “Alzheimer’s disease,” we (naturally) recommend the APA Dictionary of Psychology: a thousand pages of terminology specific to the psychological sciences.

Legal References

Appendix 7.1 of the Publication Manual gives a good introduction to the use of legal materials in APA style. For most authors, this is all you’ll ever need. But researchers in some fields, such as forensic psychology, may need a more comprehensive guide. In that case, go straight to the source: The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation. (Then head over to the nearest law school librarian for help, because legal citation is an art unto itself.)

What reference works are you grateful for?

November 19, 2009

The Three Rs of APA Style, Part 3

Chuckby Chuck

[Yesterday and the day before, we looked at the first two Rs of APA style, readability and replicability. Today, our short survey of the Rs concludes.]

Third R: retrievability. Our third R is directly connected to the first, readability, and is thematically similar to the second, replicability. Retrievability refers to the reference list at the end of your manuscript. This list is the repository of your intellectual source material. Chapter 6 of the sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association begins, “Scientific knowledge represents the accomplishments of many researchers over time. A critical part of the writing process is helping readers place your contribution in context by citing the researchers who influenced you” (p. 169). In our discussion of the first R back in Part 1, we saw that APA style improves readability by requiring just author name and year in the main text rather than a complex, heavily bibliographic footnoting apparatus.

Citing author name and year in the main text, however, is just the tip of the citation iceberg. Your reference list is the submerged remainder of that berg—and the majority of it. As you navigate through the sixth edition’s chapters on source crediting and reference examples (Chapters 6 & 7, respectively), you may feel somewhat frustrated both by the variety of references that APA recognizes and by the amount of punctilious detail within each individual reference-list entry.

My counsel? Try not to forget the true goal behind it all: retrievability. Any reference-list entry exists for the primary purpose of escorting an interested reader to a particular item you’ve used in your research and writing.

Just as the Method section makes the practical aspects of your study replicable, so does the reference list make the intellectual backdrop of your work retrievable. As the saying goes, it gives credit where credit is due. And all that information is backloaded into a reference list instead of being located elsewhere in the paper to render the main text, your text, more readable.

In the end, one writes to be understood. The three Rs of APA style I’ve identified here, working through the various parts of your manuscript as set out in the sixth edition of the Publication Manual, can bring maximum clarity to your descriptions of what you thought, what you did, and what you learned. Thereby, APA style can assist in giving your work its widest possible reach.

November 18, 2009

The Three Rs of APA Style, Part 2

Chuckby Chuck

[Yesterday, we looked at the first R of APA style, readability. Today, our short survey of the Rs continues.]

Second R: replicability. The first place where you, as a writer of research articles, will deal with replicability is in the Method section of your manuscript. There, you will explain how your experiments were set up, which hypotheses prompted your inquiry, what equipment you used, who your participants included, what type or types of data you gathered, how those raw data were obtained, and more.

Subsequently, in the Results section, you will detail how you analyzed your data and what was revealed by the analyses. Chapter 2 of the sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association goes into all this at length. It’s worth taking time here, however, to remind ourselves of why all this is necessary.

Simply put, your manuscript has to depict your work in enough detail so that any reader could, if he or she were minded to, replicate your study exactly. APA has no monopoly on this approach. Rather, the discipline of psychology shares it with all other sciences. Replicability allows for falsifiability.

I’m not calling your research into question or impugning your honor. Falsifiability is one of the cornerstones of the scientific method. Any experimental science involves it. It’s also referred to as refutability (hey, hey, hey, another R).

As Karl Popper, the noted philosopher of science, said, “The criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability” (Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 1963, p. 36). He meant not that all scientific knowledge is false but that, to be scientific, knowledge must be testable so if it is false, this can be demonstrated and recognized. Built into the scientific method, then, is the belief that experiments must be repeatable, if only to show that their results are not flukes or errors.

And this is why you want to explain what you’ve done sufficiently well so that another person can replicate it.

[Tomorrow, “The 3 Rs of APA Style” will conclude with the third R.]

November 17, 2009

The Three Rs of APA Style, Part 1


by Chuck

No, not those three Rs. Readin’, ’ritin’, and ’rithmetic are important and all. But the three Rs I’m talking about are those especially pertinent to APA style.

First R: readability. One of the goals of APA style is to make an article more readable.

Consider the use of footnotes. Essentially, you’re encouraged not to use them, or, if you have to use them, not to use them much. The sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association says of what it calls content footnotes, “Because they can be distracting to readers, [they] should be included only if they strengthen the discussion. . . . In most cases, an author integrates an article best by presenting important information in the text, not in a footnote” (pp. 37–38). This isn’t a new stance. As far back as 1929, in the first iteration of the Publication Manual, authors were being advised, “Footnotes should be avoided when the material can be suitably incorporated in the text” (“Instructions in Regard to Preparation of Manuscript,” 1929, Psychological Bulletin, 26, p. 60).

Now there’s nothing academically shameful about footnoting. If you don’t believe me, take a gander at any legal or historical journal. You’re more than likely to see not merely pages thick with footnotes but even—and often—pages with only a handful of lines of actual text resting on a massive foundation of footnotes.

In APA style, however, a choice has been made not to head in this direction, which improves the basic readability of the text. With footnotes, the reader must interrupt perusal of the narrative, drop eyes to the bottom of the page or the back of the article, absorb and interpret the noted material, return to the original spot in the text and recapture the original train of thought—and then, at the next footnote, repeat the process. With APA style, there is instead a quick in-text nod to the supporting authority or crucial source material—surname(s) and year—and then it’s right back to the narrative. The reader has little time to grow distracted from the writer’s point.

I suspect that this valuation of the main text is rooted in psychology’s literary side. The profession has a great written tradition running in parallel with its scientific one. To name but two psychologists also famed for their literary accomplishments, think of Sigmund Freud and William James (incidentally, APA Past-President, 1894 & 1904), both of whose works are still in print today, perused not just by members of the profession and historians of science but also by literary scholars and even that rarest of birds, the common reader.

[Tomorrow, “The 3 Rs of APA Style” will continue with the second R.]

November 12, 2009

Table Tips

Daisies by Stefanie

Tables are a terrific way to share, compare, and contrast data. Strongholds of information, display cases for results, tables are a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to reporting important methods or findings of your work.

APA Style can help you create clean and clear tables. An unbreakable rule in table formatting is to make it as easy as possible for readers to understand at a glance the nature of the information you are presenting. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when starting your table:

  1. In general, use 12-point type, double-spacing, and 1-inch margins. If these specifications need to be adjusted for clarity, for example, to keep the table on one page, then do so rather than forcing readers to flip back and forth to a new page for a single column or the final two rows of data. However, if small adjustments do not work, do not be afraid to use extra pages for extra data. Single-spaced six-point type is not reader friendly.
  2. Portrait or landscape orientation is fine—use what is appropriate for your presentation.
  3. Label every row and column, even if what is in that row or column seems obvious or the label is repeated in the table title. Do not forget a heading for the stub (first) column!
  4. Position table entries that are to be compared next to each other.
  5. Consider how the order in which you present data conveys your meaning. For example, if you are creating a table to report the results of the battery of tests you gave your participants, will you present the test results in the order in which you gave the tests to show the progress, if any, the participants made from test to test, or will you present the test results in the order of highest average score to lowest average score to show which tests were more effective at isolating the variable you were testing?
  6. In general, different indices should be put in separate parts or lines of tables, even means and standard deviations when possible.
  7. Keep tables lean. That is, include only essential data in your table. A cluttered table does not convey as much as a streamlined one does, despite its extra bulk.
  8. Ensure that your table can be understood apart from the text. Define every abbreviation and explain any quirks in the table note, not the narrative.

Once you have finished your table, where it goes in the manuscript depends on what sort of manuscript you have written. If you have completed an article to be submitted for publication, put the table at the end after the references and author note but before the figures, and make sure the table is mentioned at least once in the text (so the editors and reviewers know when to look for it). If you have written a dissertation or report for class, check with your dissertation committee or professor. Many educators prefer to have tables placed in text at approximately the place the tables are mentioned, and they certainly get the final say on table placement when they are doing the grading!

More information is available on pages 127–150 of Chapter 5 of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, sixth edition.

November 05, 2009

The Generic Reference


by Chuck

Whether you’re proofreading a finished reference list or trying to cobble together a citation for a new or nonroutine communications format, understanding what information any reference should contain will help you in your task. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is intended to be both explanatory and fairly comprehensive. Nonetheless, there is no way on earth it could set out examples for every possible type of reference. It does, however, offer an approach for the construction of new sorts of references beyond the various types it catalogues. That approach has been specifically illustrated in this blog already, by earlier postings about manufacturing reference entries for Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia. Now I’d like to teach you how to fish, as it were, by taking a more general look.

What is that approach? You just need to know the basic building blocks—namely, the generic elements that nearly all references in APA style contain—and then you can adapt them to your particular needs.

The sixth edition of the Publication Manual lays the requirements out pretty bluntly. “Each entry usually contains the following elements: author, year of publication, title, and publishing data—all the information necessary for unique identification and library search” (p. 180). Another way to think of these building blocks, a mnemonic to use in your own construction and review of references, is to remember four interrogatories: Who? When? What? Where?

To be less cryptic and more lengthy, the quartet of queries can be expanded thus: Who created this reference? When was this reference created? What is this reference called? Where does this reference come from (or, Where can my reader find this reference)? Let’s look at these four questions one at a time.

Who created this reference? 

The author component is pretty straightforward: the writer(s) of the article, anthology chapter, or book entire; the editor of a compilation; the producer and director of a motion picture; the writer of a letter, an e-mail, or a blog posting; and so on. On the rare occasion when no authorship is attributed and, per APA style, you revert to a title entry (e.g., Publication Manual, p. 200, example 9; p. 205, example 30), this initial whodunnit is still answered. The title entry implicitly tells your reader, “Authorship was checked for but despite the best efforts of the citer, no such information was either given or obtainable.”

When was this reference created? 

In most cases, a year will suffice to answer this question. A few reference types require more: for instance, year followed by month for papers and poster sessions presented at conferences (Publication Manual, pp. 206–207), or year followed by month and day for newspaper articles (pp. 200–201) and e-mails and blog posts (pp. 214–215). When no year is available or can be ascertained by hook or by crook, this element is maintained by using the abbreviation n.d., for “no date” (p. 185; p. 203, example 20; p. 205, example 30).

What is this reference called? 

Note that here I am referring to the title of the thing referenced itself, not to any larger “container” in which the specific thing referenced may reside. (Information about that container will be part of the fourth generic-reference element, discussed further on.) For instance, as regards a journal article, all of the “what” element is the title of the article, not the name of the journal in which that article appears. (As said above, that journal name will be used later on.) So, too, with a chapter in an edited book: The “what” is the title of the chapter only. The name of the edited book in which the chapter resides is not the “what” described here.

If the item you are referencing does not have a formal title, APA style requires you to provide something to fill out this part of the reference. If no title exists, you must fill in the blank yourself. To indicate that this is your invention, not a formal title, your coined title should be enclosed in square brackets (Publication Manual, p. 209, example 47; p. 212, example 60).

Where does this reference come from (or, Where can my reader find this reference)? 

Once you’ve given the author name(s), the year, and the name of the thing being referred to, anything and everything else in the reference entry constitutes the answer to this final question of “where.” References come in more varieties than Baskin-Robbins has ice creams, though, so this portion of a reference has the most permutations. It ranges from the basic journal name, volume, and page span for journal articles to the online versions where that information is supplemented with a DOI or URL. A book chapter’s “where” can be quite involved, what with listing editor name(s), the book’s overall title, a page span, and publisher location and name. References to books available online may dispense with the publisher information, replacing it with a DOI or URL. And books and journals are just the tip of the reference iceberg. There’s a host of new formats (podcasts, tweets, etc.) and a world of nonroutine formats that aren’t necessarily bleeding-edge new (e.g., cuneiform tablets in the British Museum).

All this may sound like a fair amount of ground to cover. Still, it's worth remembering that nearly always, regardless of what sort of reference you're trying to cite, or create, it will rest sturdily on the four-legged framework of who, when, what, and where.

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