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What Is a Research Paper?

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Are you writing your first big research paper? Are you a bit overwhelmed and intimidated? If so, you are not alone! But you don't have to be afraid. Once you understand the process and get a clear idea of the expectations, you will gain a sense of control and confidence.

It might help to think of this assignment as an investigative news report. When a news reporter receives a tip about a controversial story line, he or she visits the scene and begins asking questions and exploring evidence. The reporter puts the pieces together to create a truthful story.

This is much like the process you'll carry out as you write a research paper. When a student does a thorough job on this type of assignment, he or she collects information about a specific issue or topic, analyzes the information, and presents all the collected information in a report.

Why Do Students Dread These Assignments?

A research paper is not merely a writing assignment; it is an action assignment that must be completed over time. There are many steps to carry out:

  • Going to the library
  • Exploring a topic
  • Narrowing your topic
  • Collecting your research
  • Developing a thesis
  • Writing a paper
  • Editing the paper
  • Proofreading the paper
  • Writing a bibliography or reference list
  • Formatting the paper

What Is a Thesis?

The thesis is a central message that is summed up in a sentence. This thesis tells the purpose of the paper - whether it is answering a question or making a new point. The thesis statement usually goes at the end of the introductory paragraph.

What Does a Thesis Statement Look Like?

A thesis in a history paper might look like this:

In Colonial Georgia, it was not poverty that caused citizens to abandon young settlements and flee to Charleston, but the insecurity that citizens felt from living so close to Spanish Florida.

This is a bold statement that requires some proof. The student would need to provide quotes from early Georgia and other evidence to argue this thesis.

What Does a Research Paper Look Like?

Your finished paper might look like one long essay or it could look different - it could be divided into sections; this all depends on the type of study being conducted. A science paper will look different from a literature paper.

Papers that are written for a science class will often involve reporting on an experiment a student has conducted or a problem the student has solved. For this reason, the paper might contain sections that are divided by headings and subheadings, like Abstract, Method, Materials, and more.

In contrast, a literature paper is more likely to address a theory about a certain author's point of view, or describe a comparison of two pieces of literature. This type of paper would more likely take the form of one long essay and contain a list of references on the last page.

Your instructor will let you know which style of writing you should use.

What Is a Style of Writing?

There are very specific rules for writing and formatting papers, according to standards of research ethics and to the style of paper you're writing. One common style is the Modern Language Association (MLA) Style, which is used for literature and some social sciences.

Another is American Psychological Association (APA) Style, and that style is used in the social and behavioral sciences.

Turabian Style is used for writing history papers, although high school teachers my require MLA for history assignments.

Students may not encounter Turabian or APA style requirements until college.

The Scientific Journal Style is often used for assignments in the natural sciences.

You will find details about writing and formatting your paper in a "style guide." The guide will give details like:

  • How to format your title page (if you need a title page)
  • Where to place the page numbers
  • How to cite your sources
  • How and when to use appendices
  • How and when to use images
  • How to format the list of sources

What Does It Mean to "Cite Sources?"

When you conduct research, you find evidence in books, articles, web sites, and other sources, that you will use to support your thesis. Any time you use a bit of information that you've collected, you must make a visible indication of this in your paper. You will do this with an in-text citation or a footnote. The way that you cite your source will depend on the style of writing you're using, but the citation will contain some combination of the author's name, the title of the source, and a page number.

Do I Always Need a Bibliography?

On the last page of your paper you will provide a list of all the sources you used in putting together your paper. This list can go by many names: it may be called a bibliography, a reference list, a works consulted list, or a works cited list. Your instructor will tell you which style of writing you are to use for your research paper. You will find all the details you need in your style guide for putting all the right pieces in place.
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