The prospect of writing a research paper
may sound daunting, but it need not be an overwhelming task if you adhere to one crucial rule
: Choose a topic that you genuinely care about. The quest for knowledge about something that you are passionate about will be much more worthwhile to you, and that passion will show in your work as well as in your final conclusion.
While your ultimate goal may be to present your findings in the conclusion of your research paper (typically in the final paragraph or two), that is not the only outcome you should hope to achieve. The processes that lead up to that conclusion are just as important. And a research paper is just that - a process. Let's examine some of the steps involved with successful research papers.
Topic Selection: Points to Consider
Once you've come up with a general idea (that interests you) for your research paper, the next step is to narrow your focus into a more specific direction. Make a list of what you know about your topic. As you assemble the list, ask yourself questions about the things that interest and/or confuse you. For example, if you're concerned about the overfishing of the oceans, come up with a list of questions that examines what it is that worries you, what you don't understand, and what you'd like to get to the bottom of: e.g., what are the effects of recreational fishing on fish populations? What about commercial fishing? What kinds of species are more vulnerable?
As you come up with questions, look for recurring ideas and common threads. These will allow you to narrow your focus, which will ultimately lead to a topic that is more manageable and that you can more thoroughly examine. The effects of overfishing in the ocean is too broad of a topic to write a well-developed research paper; however, the effects of the commercial long-line fishing industry on the ocean's shark populations is much more manageable. The ultimate goal will be to find the answer (or answers) to this question, which you will present in your conclusion.
The next step
is to determine what resources are available to you and decide whether or not you'll be able to get the information you need. What references, books, and periodicals are available at your library (if you have access to one)? With the proliferation of the Internet in so many aspects of our lives, it's easy to forget that the library has some distinct advantages over online sources
: Books and articles are already catalogued and easy to find in the library, a real person (the librarian) can be invaluable in finding resources for you, and resources in the library are often more reliable because they are usually screened before being catalogued. Keep in mind, also, that many professors still favor good-old-fashioned hardcopy sources for research papers. And when it comes to acknowledging the bibliographic information for your resources (such as your "works cited" page), traditional books and periodicals are often easier in terms of locating author, publisher, date, and page number information.
Online sources are, of course, often more practical and readily available, depending on your familiarity with online research strategies. A common problem is finding information that is marginally relevant or completely irrelevant to your topic. Another problem may be finding reliable sources that you can verify. Keep in mind also that because of copyright restrictions, many books and magazines will not be available (at least for free), and because the Internet is still relatively new, many older and historical sources will be unavailable online.
If you find that sources of information are too limited for your narrowed topic, now is the time to consider a new subject that you can more readily research with your available resources.
Gather, Plan and Write
Try to collect your resources together before you begin integrating them and writing the actual research paper. You must be careful to maintain accuracy at this stage of the research. If you are using a direct quote from a resource, be sure to write it exactly as it appears in the original work you're consulting. Be sure to also take note of all the necessary bibliographic information you'll need to acknowledge your resource.
Whether you summarize, paraphrase, or use a direct quote from a resource, be sure you're that you not only integrating it correctly into your research, but that you collect all the necessary information now, during the gathering and planning stage. Take some time to learn about avoiding plagiarism and how to properly document your resources. Most research papers utilize in-text citations as well as a list of works cited.
Once you've gathered your resources, it's time to plan your paper. An outline is a good way to begin doing that. You may begin with your thesis statement
, which is essentially your topic along with a brief plan of how you will develop it in your research paper. Begin listing examples and detail points that you think will support your research in your paper. Eventually you should reach a point - based on your reading and how it supports the points in your outline - where you're ready to write a more detailed outline (a sentence outline) and/or your first draft.
Like an essay
, your research paper should contain an introduction that includes a thesis statement, a body where you present your developed research, and a conclusion. However, a research paper is not the same as an essay in that essays don't always require outside research and documentation.
If you've taken the proper steps, including selecting a narrowed topic that you can readily research, gathered all of your resources (including bibliographic information), planned out and drafted your paper, then your conclusion is where you'll present the answer to your original question and your interpretation of all that research.
This is where you make clear why your point matters and what it means to you and your reader. In your conclusion, you may revisit your paper's original thesis statement and present the findings of your research, but rather than presenting a summary of points you've already made in your paper (which is redundant and a little boring), show how your research is important on a larger scale; that is, tell how it's important in "the big picture."
Since the conclusion is your final opportunity to "speak" to your audience, it should be definitive, have an impact, and leave your reader with a sense of completion. To that effect, it should tie up loose ends, without introducing new questions or thoughts that were not covered in your paper. It should demonstrate a new understanding of the deeper meaning behind the original topic.