How To Write A Research Paper

This guide covers research papers, and provides advice on forming a title for your research paper, how to plan your paper before you start, and filtering material for your research paper.

What is a research paper?

The terms 'research paper' and 'term paper' are frequently used interchangeably. However, the terms do not mean the same thing. 'Term paper' was used in the past exclusively to refer to the project (indeed research based) that was due at the end of a term, semester or quarter whereas 'research paper' had a more specific meaning, i.e. a paper written as a summary of research. Hence 'research papers' may be written at any level (before, during and after attending university), they may be published works in a professional journal and they may represent the results of practical research, which would not ordinarily be conducted for a term paper. This is the context in which we will discuss the term 'research paper' herein.

A research paper is an academic written assignment that is the product of a research project. This may span days, months, weeks or even years.

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Typically, research papers will involve the examination of a particular issue, and discuss:

  • The background or history of that issue
  • Any outstanding questions relating to the issue (the research paper will commonly focus on one particular question and seek to establish evidence to answer this)
  • The current data and statistics relating to the issue
  • The problems relating to the issue as revealed by the data
  • The problems relating to the issue as revealed by practical primary research (i.e. carrying out interviews, tests etc) or secondary research (i.e. looking at other people's research)
  • Proposed solutions to the problems, and the strengths and weaknesses of these
  • Conclusions drawn from the data, research and evidence, as examined
  • Recommendations in relation to these conclusions.

We will look at each of these elements in turn, in order to understand how a student or professional can write a good research paper.

Forming a title for your research paper

Unlike most types of assignment, the research paper title is usually decided upon AFTER you have completed the paper. This is so that the title accurately reflects the contents of the paper. However, your research paper will need a working title. This helps you to focus and helps others to understand what you are doing - for example, your lecturer/instructor or, if working at a higher level, those funding your project.

You should therefore return to this section when you have completed your paper. You then need to pick a concise, accurate title for your research paper that will make readers want to look at your content, help others find your paper in databases, and explain exactly what is covered by the paper with a high degree of accuracy. A research paper will commonly have a title of 15-20 words in length. Every word must be necessary for the title - and so for example, 'Project on...' 'Paper on...' 'Research on...' should be removed as these types of phrases are not necessary.

Example concise research paper titles:

  • Unemployment by Constituency
  • Transport in New York

Research Paper Subtitle

Unlike a research paper or essay, it is very common to give your research paper a subtitle. This explains your title more fully, puts it in context and qualifies the extent, or scope, of the research.

Example subtitles (relating to the above example titles):

  • 2007-2008 trends using constituency maps
  • Transport governance and provision since X was elected in 1999

Researching/gathering information for your research paper

As your research paper needs to show a good depth of reading, good research skills are paramount! But before you start, a key thing to bear in mind is that you MUST reference all material that you use in your paper. So the first thing to do is find out what referencing style is required (either by your university or, if you are writing a research paper for a journal, by that journal) and start to record the location of your sources using that referencing style. If you do this as you perform the research, you'll save yourself hours of time later on.

Here are some research tips to get you started:

RESEARCH STEP 1

  • Form a list of keywords from your research paper's working title
  • Use a thesaurus to find words that mean the same thing as your list of keywords

RESEARCH STEP 2

Most students will begin researching using the Internet and indeed, this is a great way to get ideas for your research paper. So start with Google, type in your keywords and bookmark the most relevant information sites that appear in relation to the issue. Then identify all current matters that relate to your issue from those sites.

Note: Internet websites provide a fast source of up-to-date information but unfortunately they are not a reliable source. Use a search of the web as a starting point but unless the website is hosted and edited by a 'reliable' organization (such as the Government), don't rely on its contents as a source for your research paper. Find another means of verifying the information.

RESEARCH STEP 3

Now you've identified a list of issues and current debates for your research paper, you need to find some quality source material. The first stage is to find the most recent books written about the issue you're researching. Whilst books are not as up-to-date as journals and articles, they will contain valid points-of-view that need to be considered. So where do you find books for your research paper?

  • Google Books - this is a good place to start as it has several thousand books that have been scanned in, together with details and snippet views of those which haven't been scanned in.
  • Amazon.com - Amazon is a good source because you can see which books are being released, and their release date, as well as using 'search inside' to look through the contents of many books (this latter service only works if you have placed an order before)
  • Questia - Questia has thousands of books scanned in although you have to pay a small subscription fee.

Your university may also provide you with access to a library and you can then search through their databases to find the most relevant and recent books for your research paper. The best way to scan whether a book is relevant to what you're writing about is to look through the index. You'll quickly see if there's anything useful in the book for your research paper.

RESEARCH STEP 4

Now you have the latest books for your research paper, you need to start looking for journals. These really should be your main type of source material. Open University Web Resources is an excellent list of such journal databases, although you'll need an ATHENS password to use some of them.

Our favorite journal databases for consistently excellent and up-to-date content are:

  • ScienceDirect - 2,000 peer-reviewed journals, books, handbooks etc
  • EBSCO- thousands of journals, millions of articles
  • Emerald- thousands of journals in management and library and information services, engineering, applied science and technology
  • Ingenta - 4,500+ journals in all fields and a further 20,000 abstracts

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The latter source, Ingenta, gives you FREE access to the bibliography which is useful for your research paper even if you don't have an athens login. Locate articles relating to your subject and check out the bibliography for further reading which you might be able to locate online without passwords.

You can sometimes obtain a free trial of these databases giving you temporary access. Also, the four websites also have a good number of journals that you do not need a subscription to view. These are often indicated by a special icon. For example (from Ingenta):

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RESEARCH STEP 5

There is one final type of source material you need to consider, and that is the news. If you're lucky enough to have an athens password, your first stop will be Lexis Professional (formerly known as LexisNexis Executive) which contains the full text of newspapers and other news sources worldwide; as well as company data, annual reports and business directory information from Disclosure, Extel, ICC, and Worldscope.

If you don't have an athens password, any good news site will suffice - US News, CNN etc. Of course, if you are researching an issue which affects another country, you should be looking at that country's main news website.

What you are looking for is any current developments that may affect the research for your paper. This may be statistics released by the Government, consultation papers, proposed changes in legislation, current developments or debates etc. Don't forget, newspapers are NOT a reliable source of information. You are using them to find information for your research paper but you should substantiate this information once you have found it. If it is reported that the Government has released some statistics, go and find those on the Government website. If a consultation paper has been released, go and find the paper and read it.

Filtering the material for your research paper

The five step research process reveals a lot of information for your research paper and you'll need to filter it down, or you'll have too much to analyses. This does, however, beg the question - how many sources should you use? The answer to this depends on the level of your research paper. If it is an assignment for your degree, you should look at using roughly 9 quality sources per 2,500 words. If it is for some post-graduate course, you can easily double that. A professional research paper (for publication) might use 30-40 sources per 2,500 words. The emphasis in all cases, however, should be on quality and not on quantity. A good selection of research material from a variety of quality sources (i.e. not just books, not just journals, not just the internet and not just the news) is far better than a huge selection of research material from poor quality, unreliable sources of a similar type.

To help filter the information you have found for your research paper, you are going to need to evaluate its quality. This involves a consideration of whether:

  • The source is a quality source - it's reliable, dependable and highly likely to be accurate.
  • The source is unbiased - watch newspapers which may have political views. Ask yourself if the writer has presented a balance argument, or has deliberately played down one side of the argument to prove his own personal views.
  • The source is relevant to your research - does it specifically tie in with your working title?
  • You haven't already got enough material to prove what this source proves - if you aim to back up each of your arguments in your research paper with 2-3 pieces of evidence (for a very high quality paper) or at least 2 for a student paper, then you can filter out any material that is excessive of this.

Creating an outline for your research paper

A basic outline will look something like this:

  • Working title (as discussed previously)

  • Purpose - this is a short statement to say what the paper is for. It helps people who are looking for research papers themselves to assess the relevancy of your research paper to their studies. Example purpose statement:

    This paper shows the number of people claiming benefits recorded as resident in each constituency in the United States in July 2008, together with comparisons with the levels in July 2007 and July 1997. This paper also presents residence-based unemployment rates for all constituencies in the United States.

  • Methodology - this is a statement of how you will carry out your research. You have already done some 'secondary research' but you may also wish to carry out 'primary research' for your paper.

    Primary research (sometimes called 'empirical research') is research you carry out yourself and data that is produced as a result of this, which has never been published before. Primary research may be carried out through face-to-face interviews, telephone interviews, postal surveys, website surveys or focus/discussion groups. Be careful before carrying out research over the phone or through the post though - some states allow people to restrict how they are contacted.

    Secondary research is the study of data that exists already such as books, journals, statistics, other research papers, websites, news reports, magazine articles etc. You have already carried out secondary research through the five step research process.

    So which research method is best for your research paper? Instinctively you may think that the primary data will provide the most interesting results. However, if your time and budget are both limited, do not be tempted to embark on a study. You will do far better analyzing existing studies than producing a low-quality study that is limited in its value due to the amount of time and finance you can devote to it.

  • Scope of research - all research is going to be limited to certain factors. A paper on 'crime' cannot investigate all types of crime, committed by all sexes, all ages, globally. So how are you going to limit your paper? What areas of the issue will you look at and which will you discard? Your statement of scope will be about 150-300 words long and explain exactly what you are going to cover in your research, and what you are going to leave out (usually with brief reasons). If you are carrying out primary research, you may want to set out the limitations of this here too.

  • Introduction - this is where you set the scene for your reader. You explain what you are researching and why. You identify the issues you will be looking into and you say what you are going to prove. It is therefore a good idea to write this last, along with your final title!

  • Background/history - this section of your research paper isn't essential but might be appropriate. You might want to explain the development of the issue and how particular matters have arisen. Don't bother unless it is necessary, to put the matter in context.

  • Body - this section of your research paper will be broken up into sub-sections, each dealing with a particular sub-matter. Aim to present balanced evidence in each section on the points you wish to raise, and try not to reach any conclusions at this stage. The 'body' is the body of your research, not the analysis.

  • Findings/Discussion - here's where you analyze the research you have conducted and say how your findings are relevant to the issue. It's a very important section, without which you will have merely stated other people's findings and opinions without contributing anything yourself.

  • Conclusion - this section of your research paper returns to the introduction and stated aims, and spells out very clearly how you achieved them, referring to the points you have proved and the evidence you have used to prove it. It should not be repetitive but instead, it should summarize the results of your research. You should also ensure no new material is introduced at this stage - if you have new material for your research paper, put it in the body and findings sections.

  • Recommendations - this section of your research paper is very much optional and will depend on whether such a section would be appropriate for the subject you are studying. Law research papers almost always will include recommendations. What sort of recommendations should you make? These might include:

    • How policies/the law/practice should be changed, based on your findings
    • What further research must be carried out before making any sensible recommendations.

Your recommendations must actually relate to what you have established in your research paper. You cannot randomly introduce things at this stage that you think might be useful. They must be logical recommendations, based on your research and analysis, and they should follow on from the conclusion.

Now you have written out an outline for your research paper, you will literally be able to 'fill in the blanks' and your paper should evolve and progress naturally, following the headings you have chosen. Keep referring back to your working title as you write, as well as to your methodology and scope. This should limit you to material that is most relevant and ensure you don't include excessive, unnecessary points.

Finishing your research paper

Now you've written up your research paper, you'll need to do a little editing and proofreading to ensure the finished product achieves the grade you're looking for. This includes:

  • Weeding out any unnecessary material. Evaluate what you have written and whether it is needed, keeping the methodology, scope and working title in mind
  • Proofreading your research paper. Read it out loud, have someone else read it for you, run a spell check, run a grammar check - go over the paper several times and make sure you haven't made any errors. There are often extra marks for students in respect of presentation.
  • Checking your referencing. Every source should be properly referenced. Quotations should be in "quotation marks". Your work should contain a full list of references and a bibliography. References are sources you actually cite in your work whereas the bibliography includes sources which you may have read, and may have influenced your writing, but you haven't specifically cited.
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