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Learning Portal - Writing : Writing a Research Paper

Writing a Research Paper

The goal of a research paper is to express and contribute knowledge to a particular field. A research paper can be used to share the results of studies and experiments that individuals have done themselves, or to make a new claim about existing research. Check out the tabs on this page to learn more about the possible ways of outlining, structuring, and writing a research paper of your own.

Top Tips

✓ Follow the specific guidelines from your instructor. The content and structure of research papers can vary a lot based on the assignment instructions. Be sure to always carefully read and understand the instructions you have been given before starting to plan and write your research paper.

✓ Create an outline to stay organized. If you know what type of sections you need in the paper, you can create an outline using headings for each section, then fill in that outline as you go. This is a great way to keep your writing organized and make sure you meet all the requirements for your research paper.

✓ Be sure to do your research first.  Research papers are usually based around original research that you have done, as well as support from related sources. Be sure the “research” part of the research paper has been done thoroughly, and that the points in your paper are well supported by your sources and what you have learned during researching.

✓ There is no set number of paragraphs. While five-paragraph essays require only three body paragraphs, a research paper can be much longer, and have any number of body paragraphs based on what you need to explain. Unless your instructor is specifically asking for a five-paragraph essay, do not limit yourself to just five paragraphs.

Writing a Research Paper

Writing a research paper can seem overwhelming at first. What do I write about? How do I know what to say? Where do the sources come into it?

Even when you're a student, the goal of writing a research paper is to add to our knowledge and understanding of something, so the first step is always to learn what we know about it already: read, do research, and get familiar with the topic.

Then, you can figure out an idea of your own to add to the discussion. That is where the writing process starts.

Explore the tabs on this page to learn more about how to write a research paper!

Attribution is provided at the bottom of this page and on some individual tabs where needed.

Writing an Abstract

  • An abstract is a short summary of the main information in your paper.
  • The goal of an abstract is to let the reader know what your topic, thesis statement or hypothesis, major findings, and conclusions are in a concise way. Try to write one or two sentences summing up each of those main points, for a total of about six sentences (around 150 words).
  • It’s recommended to write the abstract last, after you finish writing the rest of the paper; otherwise, any edits you make in the paper will also mean you’ll have to edit your abstract.

Check out some sample abstracts from the following resources:

Abstract Guidelines and Samples from AIDES National Conference

  • Check out the Undergraduate and High School level examples in particular.

Guidelines and Sample Abstracts from the University of Wisconsin - Madison

  • Includes discussions and images that break down the parts of an abstract.

Note: Abstracts are not always required for class assignments, so check with your instructor to see if you need to include one for a certain assignment.

Writing an Introduction

Unlike the abstract, which summarizes the paper, the purpose of the introduction is to tell the reader why your topic/main idea is important and provide enough background information for your readers to understand your thesis statement or hypothesis, which is usually included at the end of the introduction.

What Should the Background Info Include?

  • The background information can briefly explaining the history or current state of the situation you’re discussing, and/or review what previous studies and papers have said about the topic.
  • If there are only one or two simple definitions you need to set up, you can also include those in your introduction; however, if you have a lot of concepts to define, you may want to consider writing a definitions paragraph immediately following your introduction instead.

After the background, you will include your main idea, either in the form of a thesis statement or a hypothesis. See the next tab for more on this.

Writing Your Main Idea: Thesis Statement or Hypothesis

Thesis Statement

If you are writing a paper based on other people’s research/past studies and reviews, your main idea will take the form of a thesis statement: a claim that can be supported by information from those previous studies.

  • Example: It is clear that the current forms of diversity and inclusion training used in this sector exhibit significant gaps in their effectiveness with regard to bias reduction, employee safety and satisfaction, and increased diversity in the workforce.


Hypothesis

If you are writing a paper based on your own original research (like a study or experiment you did), your main idea will take the form of a hypothesis: an educated guess about how the results of the study will turn out.

  • Example: Based on these factors, we predict that the areas with a higher concentration of this chemical in the soil will have higher rates of kidney disease amongst their populations.

Tips for Writing Your Main Idea

  • You will probably have to do some research first to fully develop your main idea. That's normal!
  • When you write out your main idea, be clear, concise, and focused. 
  • Be sure your main idea directly answers the question asked of you, or is a logical conclusion based on your evidence.
  • Make sure your main idea connects to all the other parts of your paper, and vice versa.
  • Try to choose a main idea that matters to you and feels important.

Outline for a Paper Based on Original Research

Research papers can follow different structures. While you should follow whatever format and requirements you have been given by your instructor, a general example for papers based on original research (e.g., a study or experiment that you did yourself) is provided below.

  • Note that anything in italics is either optional or dependent on what your topic is/whether your instructor has asked you to include those sections or not.

Sample Outline

Abstract

  • Summarize the paper as a whole.

Introduction

  • Why is this topic/idea important?
  • What is some general background info about this idea?
  • What is your hypothesis?

Definitions

  • What are some key words or concepts your readers need to understand before reading further?

Review of existing literature

  • What has previous research already established about this topic?
  • Is most earlier research in agreement, or do some studies have different conclusions?

Method

  • How did you design your experiment?
  • Were there participants/test subjects in your experiment? If so, who were they and how did you choose them?
  • What types of measurements or guiding principles did you use?
  • What were the exact steps you used when carrying out the study?

Results

  • What happened in the end?
  • Was your hypothesis correct, or did something unexpected happen?

Discussion/Analysis/Conclusion

  • What do your findings mean?
  • What is important about them?
  • What else could people study to build on your findings or strengthen them?

Outline for a Paper Based on Other People's Research

Research papers can follow different structures. While you should follow whatever format and requirements you have been given by your instructor, a general example for papers based on previous research (e.g., an argumentative paper, or a paper based just on sources you read) is provided below.

  • Note that anything in italics is either optional or dependent on what your topic is/whether your instructor has asked you to include those sections or not.

Sample Outline

Abstract

  • Summarize the paper.

Introduction

  • Why is this topic/idea important?
  • What is some general background info about this idea?
  • What is your thesis statement/claim?

Definitions

  • What are some key words or concepts your readers need to understand before reading further?

Sub-topic 1

  • How does this sub-topic relate to the thesis statement?
  • What has your research shown you about this sub-topic?
  • How do your findings prove that your thesis statement is true?

Sub-topic 2 (same as above, but for a different idea)

Sub-topic 3 (same as above)

Sub-topic n (same as above)

Conclusion

  • Briefly recap all the sub-topics and how they support your thesis.
  • What are the most important takeaways from this research?
  • What is the broader significance of this research? How might future researchers build on the knowledge here?

Literature Review 

A literature review is "an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available or a set of summaries." 

Taylor, D. (n.d.). The literature review: A few tips on conducting it [LibGuide]. University of Toronto. Retrieved September 23, 2020, from http://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/types-of-writing/literature-review/ 

Goals of a Literature Review 

What are the goals of a literature review?

  • To develop a theory or evaluate an existing theory

  • To summarize the historical or existing state of a research topic

  • To identify a problem in a field of research 

When do you need to write a literature review?

  • When writing a prospectus or a thesis/dissertation

  • When writing a research paper

  • When writing a grant proposal

In all these cases, you need to dedicate part of these works to explore what has already been written about your research topic and to point out how your own research will shed new light on the existing scholarship.

Baumeister, R.F. & Leary, M.R. (1997). Writing narrative literature review." Review of General Psychology, 1(3), 311-320.

Literature Review Tips

Synthesize your findings. Your findings are your evaluation of the literature reviewed: what you consider the strengths and weakness of the studies reviewed; the comparison you did between studies; research trends and gaps in the research that you found while researching your topic, and so on.

Across the articles that you read, pay attention to the:

  • Common/contested findings

  • Important trends

  • Influential theories

Identifying these elements as you are reading and taking notes on your sources will help you later when you start writing.

  • Do not over-quote. If you only quote from every single author you found, then you are not showing any original thinking or analysis. Use quotes judiciously. Use quotes to highlight a particular passage or thought that exemplifies the research, theory, or topic you are researching.

  • Instead, use paraphrasing. Restate the main ideas of a paragraph or section to highlight, in your own words, the important points made by the author.

  • Summarize findings, important sections, a whole article or book: This is different from paraphrasing since you are not rephrasing a small part of the author's words, but summarizing the overall main point of what you are reading in a concise manner.

Note: In all cases, do not forget to give credit to these sources since they are not your original ideas, but came from someone else. Check the specific citation style you are using for the appropriate in-text citation format.

Literature Review Poster Template

Template by Kat Ormay, 2021

Extra Resources

The majority of these sites focus on literature reviews in the social sciences unless otherwise noted. 

The content of this guide was modeled after a guide originally created by the University of Connecticut Library and has been adapted for the GPRC Learning Commons in September 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 International License.

Annotated Bibliographies

An annotated bibliography is a "list of citations to books, articles, and documents. Each citation is followed by a brief (usually about 150 words) descriptive and evaluative paragraph, the annotation. The purpose of the annotation is to inform the reader of the relevance, accuracy, and quality of the sources cited.”

Cornell University Library. (n.d.). How to prepare an annotated bibliography: The annotated bibliography [LibGuide]. Cornell University Library. Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://guides.library.cornell.edu/annotatedbibliography 

Writing a Good Annotated Bibliography 

To write a good annotated bibliography you need to be: 

  • Concise: Get to the point of what the book/article is about, summarize as briefly and clearly as you can.

  • Evaluative: Determine the author's identity, expertise/relationship to the topic, and how reliable the information presented is.

  • Critical: Reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the work, what is missing, what could be explored further, etc.

  • Comparative: Describe how the source compares to other similar works.

Questions to Consider 

Keep these in mind while you are writing your annotated bibliography: 

  • Did the author refer to other scholars' research?

  • Does the source show any intended or accidental bias?

  • What was the thesis of the research, the opinion of the book, or the conclusion of the study?

  • Was there a hypothesis, method, and/or conclusion?

  • Does the source suggest areas for further research?

  • Finally, how will this source relate to your topic?

Examples

APA Style 

Meier, E.S., Lischke, H., Schmatz, D.R., & Zimmermann, N.E. (2012). Climate, competition and connectivity affect future migration and ranges of European trees. Global Ecology & Biogeography, 21(2), 164-178. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1466-8238.2011.00669.x

Plant species have adapted to altering climate conditions, but it remains unclear if species will be able to keep pace with recent and future climate change. The goal of the study is to assess the influence of changing macroclimate, competition and habitat connectivity on the migration rates of 14 tree species. To predict future species ranges from the models, researchers applied three migration scenarios: no migration, unlimited migration and realistic migration. The study concludes that Migration rates depend on species traits, competition, spatial habitat configuration and climatic conditions. As a result, re-adjustments of species ranges to climate and land-use change are complex and very individualistic, yet still quite predictable.

MLA Style

Bergeron, Yves et al. "Response of Northeastern North American Forests to Climate Change: Will Soil Conditions Constrain Tree Species Migration?" Environmental Reviews 18.1 (2010): 279-289.

At the continental scale, climate plays a major role in determining plant distribution, while at the local and regional scales vegetation patterns are more strongly related to edaphic and topographic factors. Considering the broad tolerance of most tree species to variations in soil factors, soils should not represent a major constraint for the northward shift of tree species.  Locally or regionally, soil properties may constrain species migration.

Extra Resources 

Check out these resources for more information on how to write an annotated bibliography: 

The content of this guide was modeled after a guide originally created by the University of Connecticut Library and has been adapted for the GPRC Learning Commons in September 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 International License.

Citations

Research papers can be written in any style of formatting and citation. The three most common styles used at GPRC are APA, MLA, and Chicago. Guides on those styles can be found below:

APA Guide

MLA Guide

Chicago Guide

Attribution

Unless otherwise stated, the materials in the "Writing a Research Paper" guide were developed and compiled by Claire Pienaar for the GPRC Learning Commons in 2021.

All icons on these pages are from The Noun Project. See individual icons for creator attribution. 

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