Writing a Research Paper

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

research paper
Jane E. Simonsen compares writing a research paper to building a house. "The work and design are your own," she says, "but you cannot do it without relying on the efforts and wisdom of others" (Making a Home Work, 2006). Getty Images

A research paper is a form of academic writing, usually between five and fifteen pages long, composed by students in colleges and universities. 

Research in Academic Writing 

A research paper requires students to locate information about a topic (that is, to conduct research), take a stand on that topic, and provide support (or evidence) for that position in an organized report. (See tips and guidelines below.) Also called a term paper, research project, or research report.

 The term research paper may also refer to a scholarly article that contains the results of original research or an evaluation of research conducted by others. Most scholarly articles must undergo a process of peer review before they can be accepted for publication in an academic journal.

Steps in Conducting Research

Reasons for the Research Paper

  • ​"One obvious reason for the research paper is that writing it forces you to learn lots about your chosen subject. . . . Another reason is that writing the paper teaches you the conventions of scholarly writing, among them the accepted styles of documentation and the ethics of research.
  • "A third reason is that you will become familiar with the library through the 'learning by doing' method. . . . Writing a research paper may also mean interviewing experts about your subject and blending their ideas with your own distinct point of view. . . .
  • "There are other benefits as well. Writing the research paper is an exercise in logic, imagination, and common sense. As you chip away at the mass of data and information available on your chosen topic, you learn

    - How to track down information
    - How to organize
    - How to use the Internet in your research
    - How to discriminate between useless and useful opinions
    - How to summarize
    - How to budget your time
    - How to conceive of and manage a research project from start to finish"
    (Anthony C. Winkler and Jo Ray Metherell, Writing the Research Paper: A Handbook, 8th ed.

    Wadsworth Publishing, 2011)

    The Seven Steps of Research
    (Leslie F. Stebbins, Student Guide to Research in the Digital Age. Greenwood, 2006)

    1. Define your research question
    2. Ask for help
    3. Develop a research strategy and locate resources
    4. Use effective search techniques
    5. Read critically, synthesize, and seek meaning
    6. Understand the scholarly communication process and cite sources
    7. Critically evaluate sources

    Defining Your Research Question: Finding and Focusing a Topic

    • "The first step in composing a research paper is finding a subject to write about. If your instructor assigns a topic, this step will take care of itself. More often, however, you will be offered a range of general subjects, one of which you must investigate and then narrow down to a specific topic.

    • "As you begin your investigations, keep these four factors in mind:

    • Don't be troubled if at first you have some difficulty in formulating a precise topic. As you carry out your research, you should find it easier to focus and define the topic more clearly. But don't delay. To meet the deadline for submitting the final paper, you'll have to budget your time carefully. So, if you have questions about a topic, consult with your instructor as soon as possible."

      (Richard Nordquist, Passages: A Writer's Guide, 3rd ed. St. Martin's Press, 1995)

      1. Instructor's guidelines. Make sure your topic falls within the limits of subject, topic, and approach set by your instructor.
      2. Your interests. Find a topic that interests you. You may wish to learn more about a subject you are already familiar with or explore for the first time a subject that promises to be interesting.
      3. Time. Find a topic that you can both research and write about within the time available.
      4. Adequate resources. Be sure that you can find sufficient sources of information on your topic. Surveying your primary and secondary sources will enable you to decide whether the topic is worth pursuing.

      Mapping Out a Research Strategy

      • "A search strategy is a systematic plan for tracking down sources. To create a search strategy appropriate for your research question, consult a reference librarian and . . . take a look at your library's Web site, which will give you an overview of available resources.

        • "Reference librarians are information specialists who can save you time by steering you toward relevant and reliable sources. With the help of an expert, you can make the best use of electronic databases, Web search engines, and other reference tools." (Diana Hacker, The Bedford Handbook, 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002)

        Qualitative and Quantitative Research

        • "Often the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research is framed in terms of using words (qualitative) rather than numbers (quantitative), or using close-ended questions (quantitative hypotheses) rather than open-ended questions (qualitative interview questions). A more complete way to view the gradations of differences between them is in the basic philosophical assumptions researchers bring to the study . . ..

        • "Qualitative research is a means for exploring and understanding the meaning individuals or groups ascribe to a social or human problem. The process of research involves emerging questions and procedures, data typically gathered in the participant's setting, data analysis inductively building from particulars to general themes, and the researcher making interpretations of the meaning of the data. . . .

        • "Quantitative research is a means for testing objective theories by examining the relationship among variables. These variables, in turn, can be measured, typically on instruments, so that numbered data can be analyzed using statistical procedures. . . .

        • "Mixed methods research is an approach to inquiry that combines or associates both qualitative and quantitative forms. It involves philosophical assumptions, the use of qualitative and quantitative approaches, and the mixing of both approaches in a study." (John W. Creswell, Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches, 3rd ed. Sage, 2008)

          Evaluating Sources

          • "You will need to evaluate your sources on two levels. First, is the information reliable? Second, how useful will a source be for your paper? . . .

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          Your Citation
          Nordquist, Richard. "Writing a Research Paper." ThoughtCo, Apr. 24, 2017, thoughtco.com/research-paper-1691912. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 24). Writing a Research Paper. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/research-paper-1691912 Nordquist, Richard. "Writing a Research Paper." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/research-paper-1691912 (accessed February 18, 2018).