What Is a Research Paper?

Student writing a research paper.
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A research paper is a common form of academic writing. Research papers require writers 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.

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.

Defining Your Research Question

The first step in writing a research paper is defining your research question. Has your instructor assigned a specific topic? If so, great – you've got this step covered. If not, review the guidelines of the assignment. Your instructor has likely provided several general subjects for your consideration. Your research paper should focus on a specific angle on one of these subjects. Spend some time mulling over your options before deciding which one you'd like to explore more deeply.

Try to choose a research question that interests you. The research process is time-consuming, and you'll be significantly more motivated if you have a genuine desire to learn more about the topic.  You should also consider whether you have access to the resources necessary (such as primary and secondary sources) to conduct thorough research on your topic.

 

Creating a Research Strategy 

Approach the research process systematically by creating a research strategy. First, review your library's website. What resources are available? Where will you find them? Do any resources require a special process to gain access? Start gathering those resources – especially those that may not be easy to access – as soon as possible.

 

Second, make an appointment with a reference librarian. A reference librarian is nothing short of a research superhero. He or she will listen to your research question, offer suggestions for how to focus your research, and direct you towards valuable sources that directly relate to your topic. 

Evaluating Sources

Now that you've gathered a wide array of sources, it's time to evaluate them. First, consider the reliability of the information. Where is the information coming from? What is the origin of the source? Second, assess the relevance of the information. How does this information relate to your research question? Does it support, refute, or add context to your position? How does it relate to the other sources you'll be using in your paper? Once you have determined that your sources are both reliable and relevant, you can proceed confidently to the writing phase. 

Why Write Research Papers? 

The research process is one of the most taxing academic tasks you'll be asked to complete. Luckily, the value of writing a research paper goes beyond that A+ you hope to receive. Here are just some of the benefits of research papers. 

  1. Learning Scholarly Conventions. Writing a research paper is a crash course in the stylistic conventions of scholarly writing. During the research and writing process, you'll learn how to document your research, how to cite sources appropriately, how to format an academic paper, how to maintain an academic tone, and more.
  1. Organizing Information.  In a way, research is nothing more than a massive organizational project. The information available to you is near-infinite, and it's your job to review that information, narrow it down, categorize it, and present it in a clear, relevant format. This process requires attention to detail and major brain power.
  2. Managing Time. Research papers put your time management skills to the test. Every step of the research and writing process takes time, and it's up to you to set aside the time you'll need to complete the task. Maximize your efficiency by creating a research schedule and inserting blocks of "research time" into your calendar as soon as you receive the assignment. 
  3. Exploring Your Chosen Subject. We couldn't forget the best part of research papers – learning about something that truly excites you. No matter what topic you choose, you're bound to come away from the research process with new ideas and countless nuggets of fascinating information. 

    The best research papers are the result of genuine interest and a thorough research process. With these ideas in mind, go forth and research. Welcome to the scholarly conversation!