Few things strike more fear in academics than the accursed research paper, a term synonymous with long hours and hard work. Luckily there’s a secret to help you get through them. As long as you know how to write a research paper properly, you’ll find they’re not so bad . . . or at least less painful.
In this guide we concisely explain how to write an academic research paper step by step. We’ll cover areas like how to start a research paper, how to write a research paper outline, how to use citations and evidence, and how to write a conclusion for a research paper.
But before we get into the details, let’s take a look at what a research paper is and how it’s different from otherwriting.
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What is a research paper?
A research paper is a type ofacademic writing that provides an in-depth analysis, evaluation, or interpretation of a single topic, based on empirical evidence. Research papers are similar to analytical essays, except that research papers emphasize the use of statistical data and preexisting research, along with a strict code for citations.
Research papers are a bedrock of modern science and the most effective way to share information across a wide network. However, most people are familiar with research papers from school; college courses often use them to test a student’s knowledge of a particular area or their research skills in general.
Considering their gravity, research papers favor formal, even bland language that strips the writing of any bias. Researchers state their findings plainly and with corresponding evidence so that other researchers can consequently use the paper in their own research.
Keep in mind that writing a research paper is different fromwriting a research proposal. Essentially, research proposals are to acquire the funding needed to get the data to write a research paper.
How long should a research paper be?
The length of a research paper depends on the topic or assignment. Typically, research papers run around 4,000–6,000 words, but it’s common to see short papers around 2,000 words or long papers over 10,000 words.
If you’re writing a paper for school, the recommended length should be provided in the assignment. Otherwise, let your topic dictate the length: Complicated topics or extensive research will require more explanation.
How to write a research paper in 9 steps
Below is a step-by-step guide to writing a research paper, catered specifically for students rather than professional researchers. While some steps may not apply to your particular assignment, think of this as more of a general guideline to keep you on track.
1Understand the assignment
For some of you this goes without saying, but you might be surprised at how many students start a research paper without even reading the assignment guidelines.
So your first step should be to review the assignment and carefully read the writing prompt. Specifically, look for technical requirements such as length, formatting requirements (single- vs. double-spacing, indentations, etc.) and citation style. Also pay attention to the particulars, such as whether or not you need towrite an abstract or include a cover page.
Once you understand the assignment, the next steps in how to write a research paper follow the usualwriting process, more or less. There are some extra steps involved because research papers have extra rules, but the gist of the writing process is the same.
2Choose your topic
In open-ended assignments, the student must choose their own topic. While it may seem simple enough, choosing a topic is actually the most important decision you’ll make in writing a research paper, since it determines everything that follows.
Your top priority in how to choose a research paper topic is whether it will provide enough content and substance for an entire research paper. You’ll want to choose a topic with enough data and complexity to enable a rich discussion. However, you also want to avoid general topics and instead stick with topics specific enough that you can cover all the relevant information without cutting too much.
Try not to be robotic about choosing your topic, though; it’s still best to pick something that you’re personally interested in. Ideally, you’ll find a topic that satisfies both requirements, something that provides a suitable amount of content and also keeps you engaged.
3Gather preliminary research
The sooner you start researching, the better—after all, it’s called a research paper for a reason.
To refine your topic and prepare your thesis statement, find out what research is available for your topic as soon as possible. Early research can help dispel any misconceptions you have about the topic and reveal the best paths and approaches to find more material.
Typically, you can find sources either online or in a library. If you’re searching online, make sure you use credible sources like science journals or academic papers. Some search engines—mentioned below in the Tools and resources section—allow you to browse only accredited sources and academic databases.
Keep in mind thedifference between primary and secondary sources as you search. Primary sources are firsthand accounts, like published articles or autobiographies; secondary sources are more removed, like critical reviews or secondhand biographies.
When gathering your research, it’s better to skim sources instead of reading each potential source fully. If a source seems useful, set it aside to give it a full read later. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck poring over sources that you ultimately won’t use, and that time could be better spent finding a worthwhile source.
Sometimes you’re required to submit aliterature review, which explains your sources and presents them to an authority for confirmation. Even if no literature review is required, it’s still helpful to compile an early list of potential sources—you’ll be glad you did later.
4Write a thesis statement
Using what you found in your preliminary research, write athesis statement that succinctly summarizes what your research paper will be about. This is usually the first sentence in your paper, making it your reader’s introduction to the topic.
A thesis statement is the best answer for how to start a research paper. Aside from preparing your reader, the thesis statement also makes it easier for other researchers to assess whether or not your paper is useful to them for their own research. Likewise, you should read the thesis statements of other research papers to decide how useful they are to you.
A good thesis statement mentions all the important parts of the discussion without disclosing too many of the details. If you’re having trouble putting it into words, try to phrase your topic as a question and then answer it.
For example, if your research paper topic is about separating students with ADHD from other students, you’d first ask yourself, “Does separating students with ADHD improve their learning?” The answer—based on your preliminary research—is a good basis for your thesis statement.
5Determine supporting evidence
At this stage of how to write an academic research paper, it’s time to knuckle down and do the actual research. Here’s when you go through all the sources you collected earlier and find the specific information you’d like to use in your paper.
Normally, you find your supporting evidence by reading each source and taking notes. Isolate only the information that’s directly relevant to your topic; don’t bog down your paper with tangents or unnecessary context, however interesting they may be. And always write down page numbers, not only for you to find the information later, but also because you’ll need them for your citations.
Aside from highlighting text and writing notes, another common tactic is to use bibliography cards. These are simple index cards with a fact or direct quotation on one side and the bibliographical information (source citation, page numbers, subtopic category) on the other. While bibliography cards are not necessary, some students find them useful for staying organized, especially when it’s time to write an outline.
6Write a research paper outline
A lot of students want to know how to write a research paper outline. More than informal essays, research papers require a methodical and systematic structure to make sure all issues are addressed, and that makes outlines especially important.
First make a list of all the important categories and subtopics you need to cover—an outline for your outline! Consider all the information you gathered when compiling your supporting evidence and ask yourself what the best way to separate and categorize everything is.
Once you have a list of what you want to talk about, consider the best order to present the information. Which subtopics are related and should go next to each other? Are there any subtopics that don’t make sense if they’re presented out of sequence? If your information is fairly straightforward, feel free to take a chronological approach and present the information in the order it happened.
Because research papers can get complicated, consider breaking your outline into paragraphs. For starters, this helps you stay organized if you have a lot of information to cover. Moreover, it gives you greater control over the flow and direction of the research paper. It’s always better to fix structural problems in the outline phase than later after everything’s already been written.
Don’t forget to include your supporting evidence in the outline as well. Chances are you’ll have a lot you want to include, so putting it in your outline helps prevent some things from falling through the cracks.
7Write the first draft
Once your outline is finished, it’s time to start actually writing your research paper. This is by far the longest and most involved step, but if you’ve properly prepared your sources and written a thorough outline, everything should run smoothly.
If you don’t know how to write an introduction for a research paper, the beginning can be difficult. That’s why writing yourthesis statement beforehand is crucial. Open with your thesis statement and then fill out the rest of your introduction with the secondary information—save the details for the body of your research paper, which comes next.
The body contains the bulk of your research paper. Unlikeessays, research papers usually divide the body into sections with separate headers to facilitate browsing and scanning. Use the divisions in your outline as a guide.
Follow along your outline and go paragraph by paragraph. Because this is just the first draft, don’t worry about getting each word perfect. Later you’ll be able to revise and fine-tune your writing, but for now focus simply on saying everything that needs to be said. In other words, it’s OK to make mistakes since you’ll go back later to correct them.
One of the most common problems with writing long works like research papers is connecting paragraphs to each other. The longer your writing is, the harder it is to tie everything together smoothly. Usetransition sentences to improve the flow of your paper, especially for the first and last sentences in a paragraph.
Even after the body is written, you still need to know how to write a conclusion for a research paper. Just likean essay conclusion, your research paper conclusion should restate your thesis, reiterate your main evidence, and summarize your findings in a way that’s easy to understand.
Don’t add any new information in your conclusion, but feel free to say your own personal perspective or interpretation if it helps the reader understand the big picture.
8Cite your sources correctly
Citations are part of what sets research papers apart from more casual nonfiction like personal essays. Citing your sources both validates your data and also links your research paper to the greater scientific community. Because of their importance, citations must follow precise formatting rules . . . problem is, there’s more than one set of rules!
You need to check with the assignment to see which formatting style is required. Typically, academic research papers follow one of two formatting styles for citing sources:
- MLA (Modern Language Association)
- APA (American Psychological Association)
The links above explain the specific formatting guidelines for each style, along with an automatic citation generator to help you get started.
In addition to MLA and APA styles, you occasionally see requirements forCMOS (The Chicago Manual of Style),AMA (American Medical Association) andIEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).
Citations may seem confusing at first with all their rules and specific information. However, once you get the hang of them, you’ll be able to properly cite your sources without even thinking about it. Keep in mind that each formatting style has specific guidelines for citing just about any kind of source, including photos, websites, speeches, and YouTube videos.
Here’s a tip: Use Grammarly’sCitation Generatorto ensure your essays have flawless citations and no plagiarism when citing scientific papers inMLA,APA, andChicago.
9Edit and proofread
Last but not least, you want to go through your research paper to correct all the mistakes byproofreading. We recommend going over it twice: once for structural issues such as adding/deleting parts or rearranging paragraphs and once for word choice, grammatical, and spelling mistakes. Doing two different editing sessions helps you focus on one area at a time instead of doing them both at once.
To help you catch everything, here’s a quick checklist to keep in mind while you edit:
- Is your thesis statement clear and concise?
- Is your paper well-organized, and does it flow from beginning to end with logical transitions?
- Do your ideas follow a logical sequence in each paragraph?
- Have you used concrete details and facts and avoided generalizations?
- Do your arguments support and prove your thesis?
- Have you avoided repetition?
- Are your sources properly cited?
- Have you checked for accidental plagiarism?
Word choice, grammar, and spelling edit:
- Is your language clear and specific?
- Do your sentences flow smoothly and clearly?
- Have you avoidedfiller words and phrases?
- Have you checked for proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation?
Some people find it useful to read their paper out loud to catch problems they might miss when reading in their head. Another solution is to have someone else read your paper and point out areas for improvement and/or technical mistakes.
Revising is a separate skill from writing, and being good at one doesn’t necessarily make you good at the other. If you want to improve your revision skills, read ourguide on self-editing, which includes a more complete checklist and advanced tips on improving your revisions.
Technical issues like grammatical mistakes and misspelled words can be handled effortlessly if you use a spellchecker with your word processor, or even better, a digital writing assistant that also suggests improvements for word choice and tone, like Grammarly (we explain more in the Tools and resources section below).
Tools and resources
If you want to know more about how to write a research paper, or if you want some help with each step, take a look at the tools and resources below.
This is Google’s own search engine, which is dedicated exclusively to academic papers. It’s a great way to find new research and sources. Plus, it’s free to use.
Zotero is a freemium, open-source research manager, a cross between an organizational CMS and a search engine for academic research. With it, you can browse the internet for research sources relevant to your topic and share them easily with colleagues. Also, it automatically generates citations.
Writing long research papers is always a strain on your attention span. If you have trouble avoiding distractions during those long stretches, FocusWriter might be able to help. FocusWriter is a minimalist word processor that removes all the distracting icons and sticks only to what you type. You’re also free to choose your own customized backgrounds, with other special features like timed alarms, daily goals, and optional typewriter sound effects.
This useful and free tool from Google lets you create simple charts and graphs based on whatever data you input. Charts and graphs are excellent visual aids for expressing numeric data, a perfect complement if you need to explain complicated evidential research.
Grammarly goes way beyond grammar, helping you hone word choice, checking your text for plagiarism, detecting your tone, and more. For foreign-language learners, it can make your English sound more fluent, and even those who speak English as their primary language benefit from Grammarly’s suggestions.
Research paper FAQs
What is a research paper?
A research paper is a piece of academic writing that analyzes, evaluates, or interprets a single topic with empirical evidence and statistical data.
When will I need to write a research paper in college?
Many college courses use research papers to test a student’s knowledge of a particular topic or their research skills in general. While research papers depend on the course or professor, you can expect to write at least a few before graduation.
How do I determine a topic for my research paper?
If the topic is not assigned, try to find a topic that’s general enough to provide ample evidence but specific enough that you’re able to cover all the basics. If possible, choose a topic you’re personally interested in—it makes the work easier.
Where can I conduct research for my paper?
Today most research is conducted either online or in libraries. Some topics might benefit from old periodicals like newspapers or magazines, as well as visual media like documentaries. Museums, parks, and historical monuments can also be useful.
How do I cite sources for a research paper?
The correct formatting for citations depends on which style you’re using, so check the assignment guidelines. Most school research reports use eitherMLA orAPA styles, although there are others.
This article was originally written by Karen Hertzberg in 2017. It’s been updated to include new information.
What are the 7 steps of writing a research paper? ›
- Step One: Determine the purpose of the paper. ...
- Step Two: Refine your research question. ...
- Step Three: Organize your approach. ...
- Step Four: Collect information. ...
- Step Five: Attribute the information. ...
- Step Six: Write your conclusion. ...
- Step Seven: Refine your thesis statement.
- Select your topic carefully.
- Choose sources that will be helpful and make sure they are reliable.
- Index cards should be used to jot down helpful notes that you may need throughout the process or writing.
- Your notes should be organized based on the topic it is under.
A 10-page paper will have approximately 2500 to 2750 words, double-spaced. It can be written within few hours to a week. It all depends on the writer, including how easy the topic is.What are the 6 major parts of a research paper? ›
A complete research paper in APA style that is reporting on experimental research will typically contain a Title page, Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, and References sections. Many will also contain Figures and Tables and some will have an Appendix or Appendices.What are the 8 important steps in writing research paper? ›
- Step 1: Get familiar with the assignment.
- Step 2: Pick a topic.
- Step 3: Research.
- Step 4: Organize research.
- Step 5: Form a thesis.
- Step 6: Create an outline.
- Step 7: Write.
- Step 8: Edit for content.
To introduce you to this world of academic writing, in this chapter I suggest that you should focus on five hierarchical characteristics of good writing, or the “5 Cs” of good academic writing, which include Clarity, Cogency, Conventionality, Completeness, and Concision.What are the 5 R's of research? ›
An emerging standard for research, the “5 R's” is a synthesis of recommendations for care delivery research that (1) is relevant to stakeholders; (2) is rapid and recursive in application; (3) redefines rigor; (4) reports on resources required; and (5) is replicable.What are the 3 most important things that must be seen in a research title? ›
Effective titles in academic research papers have several characteristics. Indicate accurately the subject and scope of the study. Avoid using abbreviations. Use words that create a positive impression and stimulate reader interest.What are the 4 major steps in making a research paper? ›
- Step 1: Identify and develop your topic. ...
- Step 2 : Do a preliminary search for information. ...
- Step 3: Locate materials. ...
- Step 4: Evaluate your sources. ...
- Step 5: Make notes. ...
- Step 6: Write your paper.
Writing 15 pages will take about 3.1 hours for the average writer typing on a keyboard and 6.3 hours for handwriting. However, if the content needs to include in-depth research, links, citations, or graphics such as for a blog article or high school essay, the length can grow to 25 hours.
What makes a good research? ›
Good research is replicable, reproducible, and transparent. Replicability, reproducibility, and transparency are some of the most important characteristics of research. The replicability of a research study is important because this allows other researchers to test the study's findings.How long does it take to write a 1500 research paper? ›
Writing 1,500 words will take about 37.5 minutes for the average writer typing on a keyboard and 1.3 hours for handwriting. However, if the content needs to include in-depth research, links, citations, or graphics such as for a blog article or high school essay, the length can grow to 5 hours.How do you complete a research paper fast? ›
- Brainstorm Quickly. Use the prompt. Outline possible options. ...
- Research. Find research to support each point in your outline.
- Write Quickly. Put it all on paper as you think of it.
- Polish. Take time to edit, condense, and rewrite. Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash.
While each academic paper varies greatly in time needed to complete, it can take anywhere from 10 days to 10 months to complete all the research process steps required.What is the most important part of a research paper? ›
The title and the abstract are the most important parts of a research paper and should be pleasant to read. The “title” should be descriptive, direct, accurate, appropriate, interesting, concise, precise, unique, and should not be misleading.What is the easiest part of research? ›
Research analysis is the last critical step in the research process. 2. The final research report where a discussion of findings and limitations is presented is the easiest part for a researcher.What are the 3 chapters of research paper? ›
- Chapter 1: Introduction.
- Chapter 2: Methods.
- Chapter 3: Major paper.
- Chapter 4: Normal thesis chapter, final preliminary study.
- Chapter 5: General discussion.
- Abstract or Summary.
- Review of Literature.
- Conclusions and Discussion.
- Identify the project topic. ...
- Review any available literature. ...
- Submit process for review. ...
- Create an initial hypothesis. ...
- Design the research approach. ...
- Begin gathering data. ...
- Analyze the results. ...
- Create your report.
Step 5 – Report Research Findings
The final step is to report the research findings to those who need the data to make decisions. The findings should be presented in a comprehensible format so that they can be readily used in the decision-making process.
What are the five ethics in literature review? ›
The key ethical issues discussed in the literature are informed consent, protection of children, anonymity and confidentiality, and payment of research participants.What is the 5th step in the research process *? ›
Polit and Beck (2004) describe 5 phases to the research process: the conceptual phase, the design and planning phase, the empirical phase, the analytic phase, and the dissemination phase (Table 1).What is the 6th steps in action research? ›
Step 6: Analyzing the Data
In traditional quantitative research studies, data analysis typically occurs following the completion of all data collection.
The three Rs (as in the letter R) are three basic skills taught in schools: reading, writing and arithmetic (usually said as "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic"). The phrase appears to have been coined at the beginning of the 19th century.How do you follow the 5 R principle? ›
A significant part of the process is implementing the steps known as the five Rs. They include refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle. Each of these steps must be followed to every last detail in order for the plan to work to its full potential.What are the words to be avoided in formulating research title? ›
Avoid roman numerals (e.g., III, IX, etc.) Obvious or non-specific openings with a conjunction: e.g., “Report on”, “A Study of”, “Results of”, “An Experimental Investigation of”, etc.What are the 3 things that one should remember in making the research questions? ›
In general, however, a good research question should be:
- Clear and focused. ...
- Not too broad and not too narrow. ...
- Not too easy to answer. ...
- Not too difficult to answer. ...
- Step 1: Pick a Topic.
- Step 2: Are There Enough Sources?
- Step 3: Validation: Find the Best Sources.
- Step 4: Make Notes.
- Step 5: Organize Your Information.
- define the problem.
- review literature.
- formulate hypothesis.
- select research design.
- conduct research.
- analyze and interpret data.
- Identification of a research problem.
- Formulation of Hypothesis.
- Review of Related Literature.
- Preparation of Research Design.
- Actual experimentation.
- Results and Discussion.
- Formulation of Conclusions and Recommendations.
What are the 7 parts of Chapter 1 in research? ›
This chapter includes the introduction, theoretical framework, statement of the problem, hypothesis, scope and limitation, conceptual framework, significance of the study and the definition of terms used.Which are the 5 basic principles of doing research? ›
- PRINCIPLE ONE: Minimising the risk of harm.
- PRINCIPLE TWO: Obtaining informed consent.
- PRINCIPLE THREE: Protecting anonymity and confidentiality.
- PRINCIPLE FOUR: Avoiding deceptive practices.
- PRINCIPLE FIVE: Providing the right to withdraw.
In particular, he emphasized three things that research needs: focus, theories, and competencies.What are the 5 basic steps of research? ›
- STEP 1: Formulate your question.
- STEP 2: Get background information.
- STEP 3: Refine your search topic.
- STEP 4: Consider your resource options.
- STEP 5: Select the appropriate tool.
- STEP 6: Use the tool.
- STEP 7: Locate your materials.
- STEP 8: Analyze your materials.
- Step 1: Exploring Your Research Idea and Constructing Your Search. ...
- Step 2: Finding Background Information. ...
- Step 3: Gathering More Information. ...
- Step 4: Locating Current Research. ...
- Step 5: Evaluating Your Sources. ...
- Step 6: Cite What You Find in Discipline-Appropriate Format.
Research is a dynamic process that can be organized into four stages: Exploring, Investigating, Processing, and Creating. As you work through a research project, you may move back and forth between these stages as your understanding evolves.What are the 6 common steps in quantitative research? ›
- Step 1: Getting Started.
- Step 2: Identify Resources.
- Step 3: Research Question.
- Step 4: Review Literature.
- Step 5: Use Theory.
- Step 6: Apply with IRB.
- Step 7: Choose Research Method. Quantitative Research Steps.
- Additional Reading.
Definitely, Introduction. Introduction is the challenging section. When you start, it is always challenging thats why introduction is serious. Literature review could be the most difficult because to identify the gap, you have to search and interpret different related works.What are the 5 chapters of research paper? ›
- Chapter 1: Introduction.
- Chapter 2: Methods.
- Chapter 3: Major paper.
- Chapter 4: Normal thesis chapter, final preliminary study.
- Chapter 5: General discussion.
The basic structure of a typical research paper includes Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Each section addresses a different objective. what they think the results mean in Discussion.