How do I write a good psychology article critique?
October 11, 2010 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Can you give me advice on how to write a critique of a Psychology journal article? This is supposed to be a logical essay that analyzes scientific research.

(Note: I'm not the same person who posted earlier today about being stressed about school, though I can definitely relate!)

I get that I need to find the strengths and weaknesses of the article and analyze how the research that was done, but I'm having a hell of a time figuring out how to word it into a thesis and a 3 page long essay. (I've been out of school for 10+ years, maybe that's part of why I feel like such a dolt?)

I've found articles online telling me how to write one, but they don't have specific examples of thesis statements and critiques. (Maybe they're not supposed to be online because of plagiarism? I have no idea.) I'm the type of person that needs to see an example of something before I know exactly what I'm expected to do. I'm worried that my thesis statement and article will be really lame and nothing like my prof is looking for.

It's the eve of the due date, so it's too late to ask the prof for help. I know, I know: I should have started on it sooner so I could have talked to him about it. Unfortunately, I haven't figured out yet how to manage my course load that well.

So, I turn to you. Can anyone who's had to write one of these give me some direction or examples?

posted by oceanview to Education (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, your thesis is either that the authors' data back up their conclusions, or that it doesn't. The latter is far easier to write, because you can point to specific confounds, flaws in the methods, or other papers that draw different conclusions from similar data (or similar conclusions from dissimilar data). You can examine at leaps in logic that the authors take from data to conclusions.

Think about it like the authors of the paper would/did. You have a theory about how X works, so you conduct experiments to try to prove that theory. All research is based on intellectual momentum, so no matter how the experiment turns out, the authors are likely going to somehow turn it into a defense of their existing theory. In doing so, they will gloss over certain results that throw a wrench into the machine, so to speak. Your job in writing a critique is to pick apart those glossings-over.

(This is a gross oversimplification/generalization, but for your purposes, it's exactly what you want.)

What area of psychology is it? I'm in experimental psychology (memory research) myself, which is the point of view that the above is based on.
posted by supercres at 2:09 PM on October 11, 2010

I'm in the hard sciences, but at the core the logic should be similar. Your task is to figure out if the conclusions of the paper have merit. Do the experiments show what the authors say they show with the confidence that they state? Do they dismiss results that seem to suggest something else? Did they fail to control for something that is important and dismiss the possibility out of hand? Or did they come up with a clever technique for measuring something no one else has done before, or contribute a novel way to think about a well studied system? Basically, does the paper tell a story that holds up to scrutiny of its methods and its logic?

To do this, you first really have to understand why the authors make the conclusions they do, and how they use their experiments. Think hard about the assumptions. Try to figure out what the most important points are, and focus on how they showed them. Then start asking yourself if you agree and what you feel was done well and what was done sloppily.

What I would suggest is to not worry so much about coming up with a thesis beforehand. Once you figure out the meat of your analysis, your thesis will basically be a quick summary of that. Nor, in this case, is a clever thesis nearly as important as the detailed analysis. Having graded these things in the hard sciences, one other thing I would suggest is to avoid criticism of the work for not doing more. Unless the work is very slight indeed, a solid result is a solid result. More experiments tend to make a paper less focused and thus less understandable, not stronger.
posted by Schismatic at 2:09 PM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

The format your prof wants is likely idiosyncratic. Journal article critiques typically go like this
a) $threat_to_validity was answered by $method_x and $analysis_y, but that does not address the concern because of $weakness_of_method. To clarify, $example_in_which_method_obviously_fails.
b) the key concept, $psych_concept was operationalized by $assessment, but the reliability of that has only been established in $other_context and may not apply. It may also not capture $important_subtlety, which is the key to the larger claims of $grandiose_psych_claims.
c) It is not clear if the result generalizes to $more_important_case or if it holds in $larger_population. In particular, the population described is highly selected in terms of $probably_being_undergrads who differ in $respect from the median person.

In conclusion, this research paper only weakly established $grandiose_psych_claims and requires $validation_the_authors_suggest to address $big_threat_to_validity.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 2:10 PM on October 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree that your main task is to figure out if the research was good (i.e., the data back up the conclusions). So, before writing anything, first do that. Ask yourself things like: are there alternate explanations for the data? Are they missing anything obvious? Did they interpret the statistics correctly?

Then, if you're looking for a suggested format, here's one:

Paragraph 1: In a few sentences explain what the point of their study was, and how they did it (e.g., Authors investigated the relationship between confidence and speed of response by presenting subjects with a standard categorisation task and asking them to answer as quickly as possible, then rate their confidence.") Then summarise your conclusions briefly ("Although the study was comprehensive, the absence of a critical control means that a specific alternative explanation cannot be ruled out: namely, that smarter participants are both faster and more likely to be confident in their judgment.")

Paragraph 2: Go back and explain the experiment in a lot more detail. Include any details that would be necessary to understand (a) what the point is; (b) any of the critiques you are going to bring up later.

Paragraphs 3-n: Describe your critiques. As someone said above, if they did something wrong this is easier, because you can point to specific problems. But if they did it right, you can still talk about it, by saying things like "With this kind of study, XXX is often a problem. However, Authors avoided this by doing YYY." NB: if you find yourself stuck for things to say and/or it seems appropriate, you could also suggest what sort of approach might resolve this problem - i.e., how to fix it.

Paragraph n+1 (final): Wrap it up. This should have similar information as in your first paragraph, but with more emphasis on the conclusions. These are the things you want the person grading your paper to have as their main take-home message.
posted by forza at 2:56 PM on October 11, 2010

Response by poster: Excellent, thanks to everyone who's posted! I'm starting to bang out a new draft based on your comments. Feeling much better about it.

supercres--This is for an intro to research methods class, and the article I'm critiquing is about procrastination (ha ha).
posted by oceanview at 3:18 PM on October 11, 2010

FYI, but next time, consider making use of your campus' academic support/writing center. Most places have one, and the tutors working there can give you much more effective advice and feedback than this place - not that's anything wrong with what's above - but the conventions of these sorts of academic/classroom genres are highly flexible and even idiosyncratic to the given instructor. (One of my graduate student tutors last week worked with an undergrad writer on this very task, writing a critique of an article, and found the instructor's expectations quite different than either she or the undergrad had anticipated, which required several rounds of back and forth between the student, the prof, and the tutor.)

In any case, approaching your professor directly can seem intimidating, especially if you've been out of school for a while, but you need to get in the habit, especially because you've been out of school for a while. Too many times, I see students dig themselves a hole over issues that, had they followed up with the prof for clarification, would otherwise have been resolvable. Moreover, with half-way decent assignments, instructors should be able to offer some concrete examples to illustrate the kind of writing they're looking for, whether published pieces or successful work by students from previous semesters. Again, many college instructors are only too glad to help out a student who's sincerely interested in understanding the assignment, if you get up the nerve to ask. Hope things turn out for the best. ;-)
posted by 5Q7 at 5:15 PM on October 11, 2010

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