Writing Research Papers

Many students find that writing a research paper is an unfamiliar and anxiety-ridden task; however, writing a research paper often allows you more choice over what you will write about and broader parameters on how you can frame your topic. It can be an extremely creative and enjoyable process, so long as you do not procrastinate and you do set a timeline for finishing the research paper on deadline. One, if not the most common mistake students make when confronted with writing a research paper is trying to do things at the last minute including choosing your topic, gathering your resources, reading your resources, taking notes, writing, rewriting, and editing the final paper. Allow more time than you think you need for each task and the research process will be a calm and rewarding one.

Research: What it is
A research paper is the culmination and final product of an involved process of research, critical thinking, source evaluation, organization, and composition. Use and citation of primary and secondary sources are at the heart of a research paper. Writing a research paper is an exploratory process. You may very well decide to change your argument during the course of the research process depending on the sources you find and how they communicate with one another. Your sources should support and interact with one another. You should not regurgitate information from sources in sequential order and consider that a research paper. Instead, examine all of the notes and sources you have compiled and think about what they would say to one another if they all sat around a table together. Would one author object to another’s argument? How? Who would form alliances? Considering these questions is a good first step to thinking of the research paper as a synthesis of many different positions, arguments, and types of information on your particular area of research.

Research: What it is not

A research paper is not simply an informed summary of a topic by means of primary and secondary sources. It is neither a book report nor an opinion piece nor an expository essay consisting solely of one's interpretation of a text nor an overview of a particular topic. Instead, you must spend time investigating, evaluating and even questioning your sources.  As the author of a research paper, you should keep in mind ways that you would expand on the research topic. Questions you have about what you read are informative – jot them down and they can be used later in your paper to suggest future directions for research in this area. The goal of a research paper is not to inform the reader what others have to say about a topic, but to draw on what others have to say about a topic and engage the sources in order to thoughtfully offer a unique perspective on the issue at hand. There are two major types of research papers – an argumentative research paper and an analytical research paper.

Argumentative Research Paper

The argumentative research paper consists of an introduction in which the writer clearly introduces the topic and informs his audience exactly which stance he intends to take; this stance is often identified as the thesis statement. An important goal of the argumentative research paper is persuasion, which means the topic chosen should be debatable or controversial. For example, it would be difficult for a student to successfully argue in favor of the following stance.

Cigarette smoking poses medical dangers and may lead to cancer for both the smoker and those who experience secondhand smoke.

Perhaps 25 years ago this topic would have been debatable; however, today, it is assumed that smoking cigarettes is, indeed, harmful to one's health. A better thesis would be the following.

Although it has been proven that cigarette smoking may lead to sundry health problems in the smoker, the social acceptance of smoking in public places demonstrates that many still do not consider secondhand smoke as dangerous to one's health as firsthand smoke.

In this sentence, the writer is not challenging the current accepted stance that both firsthand and secondhand cigarette smoke is dangerous; rather, she is positing that the social acceptance of the latter over the former is indicative of a cultural double-standard of sorts. The student would support this thesis throughout her paper by means of both primary and secondary sources, with the intent to persuade her audience that her particular interpretation of the situation is viable.

Analytical Research Paper
The analytical research paper often begins with the student asking a question (a.k.a. a research question) on which she has taken no stance. Such a paper is often an exercise in exploration and evaluation. For example, perhaps one is interested in the Old English poem Beowulf. She has read the poem intently and desires to offer a fresh reading of the poem to the academic community. Her question may be as follows:

How should one interpret the poem Beowulf?

Her research may lead her to the following conclusion:

Beowulf is a poem whose purpose it was to serve as an exemplum of heterodoxy for tenth- and eleventh-century monastic communities.

Though her topic may be debatable and controversial, it is not the student's intent to persuade the audience that her ideas are right while those of others are wrong. Instead, her goal is to offer a critical interpretation of primary and secondary sources throughout the paper – sources that should, ultimately, buttress her particular analysis of the topic. The following is an example of what her thesis statement may look like once she has completed her research.

Though Beowulf is often read as poem that recounts the heroism and supernatural exploits of the protagonist Beowulf, it may also be read as a poem that served as an exemplum of heterodoxy for tenth- and eleventh-century monastic communities found in the Danelaw.

This statement does not negate the traditional readings of Beowulf; instead, it offers a fresh and detailed reading of the poem that will be supported by the student’s research.

It is typically not until the student has begun the writing process that his/her thesis statement begins to take solid form. In fact, the thesis statement in an analytical paper is often more fluid than the thesis in an argumentative paper. Such is one of the benefits of approaching the topic without a predetermined stance.

Library resources
Tarver Library has excellent in-house and online resources for writing a research paper. Become familiar with the library website: http://tarver.mercer.edu/

If the library does not have a book or article you need, you can request it from Tarver’s Interlibrary Loan service, keeping in mind to allow a few days for delivery: http://tarver.mercer.edu/interlibrary/ill.php

Many students will want to make use of peer-reviewed academic articles for their research paper. Using GALILEO and other databases through Tarver’s online system is an excellent way to ensure you are locating reliable academic sources. These online databases work much in the same way Google does. You can type in general keyword searches such as “human rights in Latin America” or use more advanced options that allow you to search by title, abstract keywords, or specific authors.

If you have any questions about the library’s resources or how to use them, you can contact them in person, online (http://tarver.mercer.edu/assist/askUs.php) or by calling the reference desk at (478) 301-2055.

Evaluating and using sources

There are more sources available today for writing research papers than ever before, so evaluating sources will be a crucial skill to develop during the research process. You will need to make decisions about what to search for, where to look, and once you've found material on your topic, if it is a valid or useful source for your research and writing. Types of sources include: books, periodical articles, videos, newspaper articles, non-periodical internet documents, theses and dissertations, and government documents. This does not mean that all sources are equal. “Blogs,” for example, are not considered an academic source. Writing a research paper requires you to use peer-reviewed academic publications as your primary and secondary source material.  A peer-reviewed source means that the work has been evaluated by other people in the same field in order to maintain or enhance the quality of the work in that field. Depending on the requirements for the paper laid out by your professor, you can sometimes selectively use newspaper sources as part of your research paper, but they should not be used to construct the bulk of your paper. Rather, you should use newspaper articles if they enhance your research paper by illustrating that it is a relevant and timely topic. As always, consult the professor if you have any questions about the appropriateness of your sources.

As you know, there exist a seemingly endless number of online sources related to any particular topic from religious freedom to genetically modified foods. Not all of these sources are valid for writing a research paper though there is a plethora of excellent online peer-reviewed sources available for researchers. You can access many of these sources through Tarver’s databases and online journals.

Two of the easiest ways to determine whether an article is a scholarly, peer-reviewed source is to see where it has been published and to glance at the article’s bibliography.  If the article is only published online and is not part of a dedicated scholarly journal, it is likely not a peer-reviewed source. If the article has no bibliography at all or a very sparse one, it is very likely not a peer-reviewed source. 

Citation systems
Research papers require students to employ one uniform citation system throughout the paper. The most commonly used citation systems in academic research are APA (American Psychological Association) and MLA (Modern Language Association). Depending on the type of research you are engaged in, you may be asked to employ a disciplinary specific citation system. Whatever citation system you are using, writing a research paper requires you to cite your sources in-text and provide a bibliography at the end of your paper listing all of the sources you used.

You must use in-text citations in any research paper. There are two general ways that students will employ in-text citations – 1) when directly quoting from another text and 2) when referencing an idea attributed to one or more authors. You need to provide a citation when directly quoting from another text. For example:

“And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile” (Proust 59).

Using the second type of in-text citation, citing an idea attributed to one or more authors, can often be confusing for students. For example, when writing the statement below, you must cite where the idea is coming from.

Certain literacy theorists have gone so far as to declare that the most significant elements of human culture are undoubtedly channeled through words, and reside in the particular range of meanings and attitudes which members of any society attach to their verbal symbols (Goody and Watt 323).

A general rule of thumb is: When in doubt – cite. You can always remove unnecessary citations but it is an arduous and frustrating process to have to re-locate your sources in order to fill in needed citations.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab provides detailed rules and examples for when and how to use both MLA and APA citation systems. You should make yourself familiar with these citation systems before you begin writing your research paper.

APA Style: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/2/10/
MLA Style: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/2/11/