In our most general use of the term, a research report is defined here as a written document that gives the history of a research study from start to finish. The particular characteristics of the history provided in a report vary with the kind of inquiry involved and with the conventions for writing that have evolved for investigators working in that area of scholarship.

A research report must give a statement of the question pursued by the investigator, as well as its provenance within the research literature. In addition, it must provide a reasonably complete description of all operations performed to gather, organize, and analyze data. An account must be made of the findings in a manner that clearly reveals how the outcomes of analysis respond to the research question and, in turn, how they form the substantive basis for any conclusions, assertions, or recommendations that are made.

All of this sounds quite pedantic and stuffy. A shorter version certainly sounds less ponderous and will be easier to remember as you read. Here it is.

A research report gives the history of a study, including what the researcher wanted to find out and why it seemed worth discovering, how he or she gathered the information, and what he or she thought it all meant.

What Has to Be in a Report?

The characteristics present in most research reports are as follows:

  1. Research reports contain a clear statement of the question or problem that the investigator addressed and that guided decisions about method of inquiry throughout the study. Most commonly, the question or problem was defined prior to data collection. However, when the question or problem was defined during the course of the study, its source and development are fully explicated.
  2. To the extent possible, research reports situate the purpose of the study, and the research questions employed in designing the study, in the existing body of knowledge.
  3. In many reports (though not all), the investigator explains the set of theoretical assumptions with which the research question and consequent data were framed (and understood) and upon which the analysis and conclusions were based.
  4. Research reports describe data collection procedures that were planned in advance (although, in some cases, they might have been modified in the course of the study).
  5. Research reports offer detailed evidence that the observations and recording of data were executed with a concern for accuracy and that the level of precision was appropriate to the demands of the research question.
  6. Research reports demonstrate that the quality of data was a central concern during the study. Such reports confirm the quality of data by providing information about the reliability and validity of measurement procedures or about other qualitative indexes related to the particular type of research involved.
  7. Research reports discuss how data were organized and specify the means of analysis.
  8. The results of data analysis are explicitly related to the research question or problem.
  9. Conclusions concerning the findings are reported as tentative and contingent upon further investigation.
  10. Conclusions, assertions, and recommendations are stated in ways that make the limitations of the study clear and that identify rival ways of accounting for the findings.
  11. Research reports are made available for review by competent peers who have experience and expertise in the area of the study. (This final characteristic is not found in the reports themselves but in the processing of them by the journal’s editorial staff and their protocols for review).

These 11 elements provide an overview of the characteristics of most of the reports that we have defined as research. One of the objectives of this text is to help you learn how to quickly identify whether or not all 11 characteristics are present in a document—that is, whether or not you are reading a genuine research report.

The skill of identifying a genuine research report is important because, as you can imagine, there is a great deal of published material about research studies, research findings, research as an enterprise, practical implications of research-based knowledge, and even research that does not qualify as a research report. Included among those materials are most articles in newspapers and popular magazines, the majority of articles in professional journals, and even the content of most research-based college textbooks.