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Empirical Research: Definition

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Empirical Research Definition

Empirical research is where you conduct “hands on” experimentation. In other words, you get your results from actual experience rather than from a theory or belief. This type of research has four major characteristics:

  1. A research question is posed.
  2. The target behavior, population, or phenomena is defined.
  3. The process is described in detail so that the research can be verified and duplicated. For example, a researcher might include information about any use of instruments and control groups.

Examples of Empirical Research:

1. Pavlov’s Dog Experiments
Pavlov, most famous for his “Salivating Dogs,” actually won more acclaim for his empirical research involving the digestive system. Until Pavlov’s experiments, little was known about the digestive system. His carefully carried out and documented experiments on dogs resulted in him receiving the Nobel prize in physiology of Medicine in 1904.
2. Discovery of the DNA Double Helix
Watson and Crick discovered the double helix in 19531. Until their discovery, nothing was known about the structure of the smallest unit of genetic information known at the time–the gene. After many failed model-building attempts, they finally built a model that matched the known information about the gene’s structure. The actual proof of Watson and Crick’s work came much later when laboratory experiments by several researchers (including Arthur Kornberg, Matthew Meselson, Franklin Stahl and others) confirmed their findings.

The Empirical Research Cycle

empirical research

A visual representation of A.D. de Groot’s empirical cycle. Image: TesseundDaan|Wikimedia.

This representation of DeGroot’s empirical cycle starts with observation. We notice something, and have a question about that “something” or want to change it. That leads to induction — forming a hypothesis statement. Next is deduction, where testable consequences of the hypothesis are formulated. The actual empirical (experimental) portion of the cycle comes next, followed by evaluation of the experimental results, which leads to more questions and the beginning of the cycle.

Writing the Empirical Research paper…

The IMRaD Format
Many papers (usually scientific ones) that feature empirical research have a layout called “IMRaD,” which stands for:

  • Introduction: background information such as similar studies, reasons for conducting the research and any additional information necessary to understand the paper’s contents.
  • Methods: details about how the experiment was conducted.
  • Results: presents the results along with any statistics or analysis performed on the results.
  • and
  • Discussion: discusses the implications of the results.

This is the same as the APA format’ the American Psychological Association uses IMRaD headings (see the Purdue OWL website for more information on formatting in APA style).

Papers that are written for empirical research should also (no brainer here) have a title. They should also have an abstract after the title, which is a summary of the paper’s contents.

Tinsley Davis, Meselson and Stahl: The art of DNA replication. Available here.


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Statistical concepts explained visually - Includes many concepts such as sample size, hypothesis tests, or logistic regression, explained by Stephanie Glen, founder of StatisticsHowTo.

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