Writing a Reseach Paper

Writing a superior research paper takes time, care and organization. The following guidelines may help you to write the paper you've always dreamed about. Note that these steps suggest a linear process. Writing is rarely linear and you may find a need to double back many times. Before you begin, check the requirements for your writing assignment and make sure you know what is expected of you.

  1. Define a topic

    Choosing an appropriate topic can make your writing much easier. Some topics are just difficult to organize and cover, while others are simple. However, ease of writing is not always associated with simple topics. Sometimes topics that are "small" or don't have entire books written on them will require more sleuthing on your part to research. However, these topics that initially appear challenging will often result in a better paper and grade because the extra synthesis and work makes the paper smoother and more "you".

    Do some simple exploratory searching on the topic. Check and see if enough material is available for use as resources. You might need to expand or narrow your topic at this point. Ask some of the following questions:

  2. Write a short (1 pg) research proposal and brief working outline.

    These will help you focus on your topic and give it some preliminary structure.

  3. Gather initial information

    Before embarking on some serious gathering of information, take some time to learn a little about your topic. Do some exploratory reading. This will help you put some structure into the topic. Use your textbook, encyclopedias, almanacs, or yearbooks to do this. While you may not want to use these sources in your final paper as citations, they will give you a sense of direction before you expend much energy.

  4. Search for specific information

    Now its time to become serious about gathering information. Your primary source of material will be the library. If you are unsure of how to use the library and its resources effectively, ask one of the librarians. They are always happy to show you how to find material. But don't expect them to do your work.

    The library has many resources for researching your topic. These include such electronic indexes or catalogs as WYLD (including the Expanded Academic index), and UWCARL. Many of the indexes include abstracts of papers, while others may contain the full text of journal articles not held at the college library. Paper indexes on scientific subject matters are also available. Ask if you can not locate them.

    Books and journal articles should be your main source of material. Reading these articles is a skill you should develop. For help in learning to read a scientific paper, visit Reading a Scientific Paper.

    However, other sources "may" be appropriate for some topics. Newspapers and magazines are usually secondary sources and less valuable for a research paper. Some encyclopedias do contain basic information on many topics, but are usually of lower desirability as a reference. However, a specialized encyclopedia such as the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology may be appropriate. Always check with your professor if you have any questions.

    The Internet is a great place and an awful place to locate information for your paper. You need to be very cautious about relying on this material, however. If you do use this source, you need to evaluate the quality of the site (not always easy to do), the person or organization presenting the site, and the age level of the material. Too often material that you might expect to find in the children's section of a library gets used in a college paper. Don't fall into this trap. Evaluating Internet Research Sources may help you decide if your resource is adequate.

    Now read the material you've located. Take notes. Don't rely on photocopies of the material, which will need to be read and summarized later anyway, and which often lend themselves to inappropriate, verbatim extrations. Think about how the material fits into your plan for the paper.

  5. Evaluate and organize your material for writing

    Now is the time to get your information into order.

    Write a simple thesis statement for your paper. Develop and write a formal outline for your paper.

    These will help ensure the structure of your paper is clearly organized and will keep you on track as you develop the written portion of the project.

    Look through your notes and gathered information and select the most relevant. You do not have to use everything you gathered. Perhaps you'll find that you need to locate additional information for areas that are weakly supported.

  6. Write the paper

    Using your formal outline, begin writing a rough draft of the paper. Don't be too critical about the writing at this stage. It can be revised later. Just get your ideas down on paper -- but keep referring to the outline as a guide.

    Once you've cranked out the rough draft, relax, take a deep breath, and then slowly read it through. Does it make sense? Do the ideas flow smoothly? Would someone not familiar with the topic be able to understand what you wanted to say? Is the order of the information appropriate? Do the paragraphs have correct structure and do they break the information into the right "packets"?

    Revise your work. Be comfortable with making changes or redoing the organization. Sometimes a paper really does need major modifications before it is well done. Do not be a slave to your formal outline if a different structure reads better.

    Now get out your red pencil and start editting.

    Never turn in a paper that has not been carefully edited.

    Check citations, format, spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. Incorrectly spelled words and incomplete sentences carry the message that you don't care about your work, clearly a message that you do not want to send to someone giving you a grade. Have a friend read the paper to catch your technical errors and to see if the paper reads well. Try reading it from bottom to top -- a technique that often makes spelling errors easier to see.

  7. Document and cite your sources

    Documentation of resources is one of the areas that cause much problem for students. Basically, all information that is not "common knowledge" or that you did not already know beforehand must be documented and credit given as to its source. This means all information, not just that which you used in direct quotes. Direct quotes should be kept to a minimum and only used when the other author has presented information in a unique or especially eloquent form that cannot easily be reworded by you. This documentation will be in two forms. Both types of citations are required in most science research papers.
    1. Citations within the text. As you use information in your writing, you need to indicate your source. These in-text citations will be linked to your Literature Cited section. Ideas as well as direct quotes must be cited.
    2. A "Literature Cited" section at the end of your document. This is a formal, alphabetical listing of material that you used in your paper. If you did not use the material, don't include it here. If you did use it, then you must cite it in the text (see number 1).

    Many methods exist for noting citations in the text and for listing them in a Literature Cited section. Check with your instructor for the appropriate format for your assignment. Method and Format for Literature Citations in science writing demonstrates how to cite a variety of sources. Please look at this section very carefully and follow its guidelines.

  8. A note on plagiarism

    Plagiarism is a very serious offense and will result in you failing this assignment, failing the course, or may even result in you being expelled from the college. Please read the statement on plagiarism in the student handbook.

    Plagiarism occurs anytime you use someone elses ideas and represent them as your own. If you use the phrasing or sentence structure (or paragraph or entire paper) of another person and don't give credit to the source, you have plagiarized. Even if you use your own wording, but still use the ideas of others without citations, you have plagiarized.

    Plagiarism is found in two basic forms in student papers, both serious offenses.

    1. Intentional Plagiarism Purposefully taking another person's work (or ideas) and representing it as your own is a serious ethical and moral issue. You can avoid this type of plagiarism by simply not doing it! Consequences of intentional plagiarism can include expulsion from the college.
    2. Unintentional Plagiarism Plagiarism is still plagiarism, even if you don't understand that you are doing it. Many students believe that they only need to cite material they directly quote in their paper. This is incorrect. Ideas taken from another author are also required to be cited. Always check with your professor if you do not understand how or what to cite. Consequences of unintentional plagiarism can still be very severe. It is assumed that college students know what and how to cite research material. You can avoid this problem by carefully thinking about your information resources as you use them.

    If you do not understand the concept of plagerism, please check with your professor for examples or further explantion.

    Example paper

    Papers can be found that are written in many different styles, many different formats and with differing amounts skill. A good example of a nicely written, formatted and referenced paper is Winter Use in Yellowstone National Park: A Controversial Issue. This paper was written by a student at Northwest College and is used with their permission.


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