How to write a research paper – researchpaper.PRO

How to write a research paper


First of all, make sure you understand your assignment.  This seems pretty simple, right?  But it’s important to take the time to carefully read over what you have been asked to do.  Look for words such as discuss, analyze, evaluate and compare.  Have you been asked to use specific types of information?  How long should your paper be?  What writing style are you expected to use?
If something isn’t clear to you, ask your instructor.
And…you’ve heard this before…plan ahead and start well before the paper is due!

Research is a commitment of your time and energy, so it’s important to have a clear idea of what you are looking for before you start!
Has your instructor provided a list of suggested topics?  Can you choose your own?  Where do you begin?
It’s helpful to do a little background reading.  Try your course textbook.  Look for something that interests you.  Consider different aspects of the topic.  Then select a specific question or statement and use this as the focus for your paper.
Keep in mind that if your topic is too specific, you might have trouble finding enough information.  On the other hand, if your topic is too broad, you might become overwhelmed by too much information!  Try to find a good balance.


Do you need books?  Articles?  Newspapers?  Statistics?
Have you been asked to use primary sources?  Primary sources are documents or other original sources created at the time of an event, and include official records, correspondence, memoirs, diaries, speeches, newspaper articles, photographs and more.  Secondary sources synthesize the information provided by primary sources and include interpretations, criticisms, evaluations, and summaries.  Textbooks, edited books, biographies and review articles are examples of secondary sources.

First of all, identify the main ideas or concepts of your topic.  Simplify each idea to one word or a short phrase, and make a list.  These are the keywords that you will use to search for information.  Next, brainstorm related words or synonyms for each keyword.  Think of various forms of your keywords.  Add these words to your list.
Now you can design your search.  Most of the time you will be searching electronic databases, such as the Library’s Catalogue and E-Resources.  The best strategy is to keep it simple!  Start your search with one keyword, two keywords joined by “AND”, or a short phrase.  You will probably need to do a few searches to find what you need.  Refine your search by adding or removing search terms, or trying alternate keywords.

If you want the most current information on your topic, you need to look for articles.  Search the Web and choose a subject related to your topic, or “general”, to access a list of suitable databases.  Each database provides access to many journals, magazines, newspapers and similar publications.  You can search these databases with your keywords to find articles.
Are you required to use peer-reviewed journal articles?  These are journal articles that have been critically reviewed by subject experts before being accepted for publication.  If so, you cannot use articles from popular magazines or newspapers.  Most databases allow you limit your results to peer-reviewed articles.

Remember to keep records of all your research.  This will help you if you want to find a source again.  You will also need this information when you prepare the bibliography for your paper.

Evaluating the information you’ve found is an important step in producing a good research paper.  No matter where your information comes from, you should look at it critically and consider the following:

  • Is the author qualified to write on the topic?
  • Is the information scholarly?
  • Is it current?
  • Is the information accurate?  Has it been edited by other experts?  Has the author provided references?
  • Is the information objective or is there an obvious bias? 
  • Is the information relevant to your topic?
  • Do you have enough information to cover all aspects of your topic?

Prepare a tentative outline of your paper and organize your information according to this outline.  Write a first draft.  If you find that you don’t have enough information, you will need to do further research and revise your paper as necessary.
Format your paper according to the writing style required by your instructor.  The Library has guides for many of the commonly used styles, including:

Academic honesty requires that you acknowledge all the sources you use for information by preparing a list of references, or bibliography. Not doing so constitutes plagiarism.