How the F#%K to Read ABA Research Articles

aba research article

Whether you are an RBT, a BCBA candidate, or a certified BCBA, keeping up with research in the field is extremely important. Not only is it helpful to learn about various interventions and successes, but it is ethically required to stay up to date in ABA practices. You wouldn’t want your surgeon using a method that is 45 years old when there is a newer, more efficient and effective method, would you? Nope, and stakeholders don’t want behavior analysts to either. So you gotta read ABA Research Articles. 

But let’s be honest-these articles can be O V E R W H E L M I N G, to say the least. Some of them are 20+ pages long, include multiple studies, and the graphs can be #confusingAF. I used to HATE reading ABA research articles. I engaged in all of the avoidance behaviors to procrastinate reading for class. I would just look at the graph and try to understand the study from the data and pray that no one spontaneously called on me in class. But then I had a professor (shout out to Dr. Melanie DuBard!!) who broke it down in 10 easy questions to help me understand the articles. I now find reading articles to be reinforcing and I look forward to learning every time! Here are the questions and extra tips that I follow:

how to read a study1. What is the purpose?

This is probably the most important question to ask. Why are the researchers doing what they are doing? What are they trying to accomplish from the study? The purpose is one of the easiest things to find (in my opinion) because it is always stated very clearly: The purpose of this study was to…  and it almost always ends the “introduction” section and is found right before the “subjects” section.

2. Are the subjects appropriate?

So now that you know what the purpose of the study is, you need to determine if the subjects will benefit from the intervention. Not only are the subjects appropriate, but is the setting appropriate? This is an important question to ask when considering environmental factors that may influence the behavior.

3. Dependent Variable- how is it operationally defined?

The dependent variable is the target behavior to increase or decrease; whether the purpose is to increase frequency of mands, decrease duration of noncompliance, or teach a client to tie their shoes, the behavior is the dependent variable. I always pay attention to the operational definition and try to think if I have any current or past clients that had similar behaviors. Once you connect it to real life, it will make SUCH a difference in how you study!!

4. Independent Variable- how is it operationally defined?

The independent variable is the intervention being applied to achieve the goal. Whether it be a vocal prompting program, extinction with Functional Communication Training, DRO/DRA/DRI, or any other intervention you can think of, the independent variable is always what is being implemented.

While studies aim to show a functional relationship between the independent (IV) and dependent variable (DV), the IV is manipulated in order to clarify this relationship. It could be a multiple baseline design, a reversal design, alternating treatments, changing criterion, or any other way to clearly prove that the independent variable is responsible for the results shown.

5. Were differences found?

Sooooo, what did the data show?! This is where you look at the graph to determine if there is a difference in trend, level, or variability

  • Trend- the direction that the data path is going. The trend is either increasing, decreasing, or stable. 
  • Level– where the data points fall on the graph. The level could be high before intervention, and then go to a lower level
  • Variability– the range between the data points. If a behavior is very variable before baseline (ex: 3x, 24x, 17x, 5x, 20x, 9x) but it then brought to a more stable level (3x, 5x, 4x, 3x, 2x) then the variability has decreased and shown an effective intervention. Now is the time when you want to look at the graphs and determine what the data is showing. Changes in trend, level, and variability, along with the ability to manipulate those components within an intervention, shows experimental control. I like to trace over the graphs in my own colors- visualizing it is one thing but tracing it and actually feeling the motion can help you understand the data pattern.Are the differences meaningful?

variability graph             

Now that you have visualized the data and determined what differences were found, it’s time to determine if there is a functional relationship and if experimental control was demonstrated. Do the results actually tell us something about the intervention? Basically, you’re looking to see if the differences are significant enough to show that the intervention was successful.

6. Are there adequate controls for internal validity?

Think of it this way: INternal validity is within the INtervention. Published studies should always include IOA data with an adequate IOA score of 80% or more agreement. Many studies also include treatment integrity data, and 80% or higher is also the expectation. This information is usually found in the Data Collection section.

7. What is the likely scope of external validity?

If internal validity is about the intervention, then what is external validity? Remember that everything that we do is focused on improving the client’s life in a socially significant way. External validity is the degree to which the client or people in the client’s life will find the results of the intervention beneficial. Typically, external validity is measured by interviewing caregivers and teachers or having them rate aspects of the intervention as likeable/easy or not. For example, can 1 teacher with 15 kids in the classroom accurately run the program and collect data while also completing all other responsibilities? Is the error correction process simple enough for parents/caregivers with no ABA experience to do it accurately? Is this behavior something that the client wants to change? Not every study examines external validity, but those involving school personnel and parents often do.

8. Are the questions answered by the ones posed initially?

Now go back to the purpose of the study… was it successful? Did they see the results they wanted to? If not, did they see any results at all? What other questions did this study bring up? This question will help you to determine if the goals have been met or not, and to determine if this could and would be an effective intervention.

9. Are the conclusions justified by the results and methodology?

This is where you think about everything you’ve read in the ABA research article so far. Does the method of the  intervention align with the purpose? Thinking about how it is most appropriate to evaluate the relationship within the participant’s environment, the method needs to make sense as well. For example, it would not be efficient to evaluate using a multiple baseline across settings for a client who hardly leaves the apartment. A reversal design would not be appropriate for dangerous behaviors as this would be unethical. Not only is the intervention itself important, but the method of evaluation and conclusions drawn from such an evaluation should align with the purpose of the study and the goals of the participant.

Here are some other tips I like to use when reading ABA research articles:

  • Use different colors! I like to use one color to highlight the answers to the questions above, one for interesting/cool things, and one for things that I have more questions about.
  • Pair it with something preferred! Sit out in the sun, have your favorite snack, get a delicious iced coffee to sip on while you read. Add anything to the environment that makes the whole task more enjoyable.
  • Premack that shit (as Liat and Casey would say)! Plan to do your most reinforcing activity after you have read the article. If you set this intention in the begging of the day, then you will be more likely to read literature earlier so you can access your reinforcer sooner. I usually follow my articles with a true crime podcast or a glass of wine!
  • Most importantly, enjoy it! Find a topic that is related to a current client or one that really interests you and really try to enjoy the learning process. You may use that article to change someone’s life someday!

Best of luck and happy studying!!

About the Author

Brittany is an RBT with 1 year left in her Master’s in ABA program. Brittany enjoys going to the beach, bowling, yoga, and listening to ALL of the true crime podcasts. Brittany loves to travel the world and try new foods and experiences. She is excited to become a BCBA and hopes to work in a public-school system someday. Follow Brittany on Instagram at @your_behavior_neighbor


Zarcone, J.R., Iwata, B.A., Smith, R.G., Mazaleski, J.L., & Lerman, D.C. (1994). Reemergence and extinction of self-injurious escape behavior during stimulus (instructional) fading. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27(2), 307-316.

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