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Writing a Research Paper

From the moment the syllabus is handed out and students see that assignment near the bottom of the page—"Week 10, Research Paper"—the anxiety sets in.  For many students, the college research paper is the biggest project and the longest essay they will have worked on to date.  What exactly is a research paper? What makes one paper deserve an "A" and another a "C"?  The key to writing a good research paper is planning and doing the work in stages over time. Students who try to get a big research project done in a week are the ones who really suffer and typically end up with the lower grades.

In this module, students will learn to organize a research project and complete the tasks for each stage of the project. Specifically, students will learn to

Plan: use brainstorming techniques to define a topic , develop useful research questions, and create a research plan

Research: conduct research using several resources: full length books, articles in periodicals and journals, articles on the internet and in online databases, and interviews.

Shape: organize information gathered during research into meaningful categories, refine essay topics, develop an arguable thesis, and construct a plan for development.



Planning Your Research Paper

What is to be done about global warming? What is the social context for Jack Kerouac's On the Road? What is Attention Deficit Disorder, and why is diagnosis and treatment for the disorder so controversial? These are examples of the kinds of topics students explore in college research papers. Generally, an instructor will give students parameters for a research assignment: for example, in an American History class an instructor may ask students to write about a person or event studied in class; in an English class, students may be encouraged to explore the social or political contexts for a work, or the life of an author.  Whatever your assignment, the starting point, once you have your general topic, is to figure out what you want to do with the topic.

Types of Resarch Papers:


Advocacy, or Taking a Stand:

One common type of research paper is one in which you take a stand on an issue, such as the effectiveness of the "No Child Left Behind Act," or the appropriateness of government detention of illegal immigrants. In this type of paper, you will need to outline the issue or problem, present and refute opposing arguments, and present solid logical explanations showing why your argument makes sense. If your instructor has given you very general categories of topics from which to develop a research topic, you may wish to use the topic search engines provided in the Learning Resources section of this module. For more information on constructing arguments, and topics such as refuting opposing arguments, take a look at our lesson on Argument.


In the analytical research paper, the goal is to create new insight into an issue by analyzing its features or parts.  For example, in an essay on global warming, a student might analyze different types of evidence that global warming is a worsening problem. Or in an analytical research paper on Theodore Drieser's novel Sister Carrie (1900), a student might better interpret the significance of the setting of the novel by comparing images in the novel with historical information about Chicago in the late 19th century.

Note: It is important to choose a work that really interests you, rather than a work you think will impress the teacher (say, Moby Dick), because you will be spending lots of time and energy thinking about this topic.       


Once you have selected your topic, it is time to start getting focused.  One way to get this focus is to gather your thoughts on the topic in writing. Just getting a few thoughts on paper may give you a feeling of confidence about your task; instead of a massive undefined task, smaller, achievable tasks may begin to occur to you. You can write a list of questions that you want to answer in research; you can write down a list of things you already know about the topic and a list of what you would like to know about the topic; you can list different resources you would like to explore, etc. 

Develop a Timeline:

It is very easy to get lost in research on a large research paper project, and then suddenly find yourself with less than a week to actually put the paper together.  Being in this situation can be traumatic; it is likely a large proportion of your grade will be based on your research paper, and when you have already invested so much energy into the project, the prospect of a weak finished product can be frightening. The way to avoid such a crisis is to create a timeline.  Set dates for the completion of each stage of the project.  Typical stages for a research paper are outlined below:

1. planning
2. gathering information
3. analyzing information, developing a thesis
4. developing an outline
5. writing a first draft
6. writing a second (and even third) draft
7. proofreading & polishing

Once you have made your plan, stick to it.  And be sure to leave enough time for revising, editing, and proofreading your work. 


Conducting Research

Gathering information is the fun, low pressure part of a research paper project. It is pleasurable to just let oneself get absorbed in learning about a topic.  However, a little bit of discipline and a few research tricks will help you avoid wasted time so that you end up at the end of your research stage with substantial, relevant information for your paper.

Make sure your topic is narrow enough to learn well.  Learning everything about global warming with the idea that eventually you will narrow down your research and find your focus is a recipe for disaster.  If you begin from "zero," knowing nothing about a topic, go to an encyclopedia for a quick overview of the issues and angles on a topic.

Use topic search engines developed by libraries to quickly locate reputable sources on a topic. For many hot topics, those wonderful librarians have already done a lot of work for you!  Be sure to take advantage of these sites (see Learning Resources page for links). 

Use magazine and newspaper databases provided by your college.  SRJC has wonderful databases that allows students to quickly access information on any topic imaginable.  The sources at these sites as opposed to many sources on the internet, are often scholarly and reputable. A link to the SRJC database page as well as the page to obtain a password is located on the Learning Resources page of this module.

Browse the stacks in your library.  Scholars will tell you that their very best sources are often in books the were next to a book they came to find in the stacks of a library.  Take your time, browse around, and see what kinds of information catches your attention.

Use the internet . . . wisely.  Have you ever noticed that on a typical search, the number of sources that pop up for you is in the thousands?  Certainly the most relevant information, according to the search terms you entered, will pop up first, but who knows, those pages toward the end might actually have just the information you really need.  Try entering a string of several words to find information and narrow your results.  For example, consider the following searches done in Google:

"global warming" results = 65,800,000 items

"global warming hurricanes water levels" results = 994,000 items

Putting in more key words significantly reduces the amount of material one will have to wade through to find what one is looking for.

Some search engines will actually cluster information for you around particular categories. A search for "global warming" in "Clusty.com" for example, produced these categories:

Climate change (52)
Stop (21)
Cause Of Global Warming (16)
Research (15)
Carbon, Dioxide (11)
Clean (10)
Inconvenient Truth (9)
Solutions To Global Warming (9)
Average Temperature Of The Earth (5)
Environmental Defense (6)

How to Keep Track of Your Results:

Notetaking is essential.  The form of your notes is up to you, but it is a good idea to develop one method and stick with it throughout your project to keep information organized. Some common notetaking methods are described below:

Use a notebook to jot down any interesting quotes, information, statistics, or new questions that occur to you based on your reading.  You may wish to try a double entry format: fold the page in half, on the left side jot down the source information and/or any questions or comments that occur you after reading the information.  On the right side write down any particularly interesting quotes, statistics, or important information presented in the text. Be sure to use quotation marks around direct qutoes to remind yourself that these are another person's exact words (it will help you avoid plagiarism!).  The dual entry method will help you distinguish between your own ideas, and the ideas of others.

Notecards: 3 x 5 notecards help you separate source information and quickly sort through data, and rearrange the order of information to help you see connections between subtopics. Some students like to keep the source information on one side, and the important information from the source on the other side.  Be sure to distinguish your own thoughts and words from the author's!

Notes on a computer:  Taking notes on a computer is much the same as taking notes in a notebook, but if you are a good typist, the entry of information can go a lot faster.  And if you are working with electronic sources, all you will need to do is copy and paste quotes and citation information onto your document. But once again, remember to be very careful to distinguish the words and ideas of others from your own words and ideas. Develop a plan for how you will organize your information before you begin your research.  Consistent headings, for example, can be very useful to you in locating information later on.

Note:  Whatever notetaking method you use, it is extremely important to keep track of the author, title, and publisher information for your resources because if you quote, paraphrase, or summarize the work of one of your sources in your own work, you will need to provide citation information for that source (see our module on MLA Format for more information on one type of citing sources). And, once again, remember to be very careful to distinguish the words and ideas of others from your own words and ideas. Plagiarism is an extremely serious offense.  For more information, read our module on Avoiding Plagiarism.


Shaping Your Research Paper

Once you have accumulated enough information on your topic, and start to have a feeling that you have what you need to support an argument or analyze an issue, you are reading to start shaping your material into an essay. The following steps will get you ready to write:

Organize information gathered during research into meaningful categories. You probably have collected lots of interesting information, but it is unlikely that you will be able to fit everything you have gathered into a coherence and unified essay.  To start determining how you might use your information, try organizing information into categories.  For example, information about hurricanes and global warming might fit into one category; information on melting ice caps might be another, theories about causes could be another category, and worldwide reponses to global warming yet another category. From these categories, you can start to think about how they might fit together in an essay.

Refine your topic: Decide how your thinking has evolved over the course of research.  Ask yourself what interests you now, and what you feel strongly about and would like to share with a reader.

Develop an Arguable Thesis:  Remember, a thesis is a topic + what you want to argue about the topic.  Before you begin writing, or even outlining your essay, you need to have at least a working thesis, something along the lines of "In this essay I will argue that . . . " or "In this essay my goal is to . . ."  This statement will help you focus your paragraphs on supporting that thesis and maintain unity throughout the essay. Pay close attention to the actual language you choose, for this language should be closely tied to content.

Construct a Plan for Development: Once you have a working thesis, you are ready to roll!  You should have all the information you need to shape what you have and communicate what is important to your reader. As mentioned above, pay close attention to the language you have chosen for your thesis, then ask yourself what the reader will need based on the thesis.  The answers should determine the content of the essay.  For example, take a look at the following thesis and the way the content plan responds questions the thesis sets up:

Thesis:  We need to stop repeating nonsense about the uncertainty of global warming and start talking seriously about the right approach to address it.

Questions set up by thesis:
Why do you believe global warming is a certainty?
Who is stating nonsense and why?
What is the right way to approach global warming?
Who is qualified to tell us the right approach and why?

Essay Plan:
Part 1: why I believe global warming is a certainty.
Part 2: Why some people refus to believe it
Part 3: How to approach global warming (emphasizing the theories of experts)

If you discover in developing your thesis that a lot of your research information is left out, resist the temptation to just squeeze it in there!  If it does not support the thesis it does not belong in the essay.  You may wish to change your thesis, but you break the unity of your essay if you include material that does not support the thesis.

Drafting Your Paper:  The steps in writing the paper itself are much like the steps in writing any paper.  In a research paper, however, you will need to know how to work with quotes and create a works cited page. Below are direct links to other modules on our site that may help you draft, edit and polish your essay!

Working with Sources
MLA Format
Developing a Thesis
Paragraph Development, Unity, Coherence





Video Lessons

filmreel link to video lesson


1. Plan

2. Research

3. Shape


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