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Research Paper Writing Guide

Why Did We Write This Guide?

The importance of research paper in the academic career of a student can hardly be overemphasized. For a student, a well written research paper can fetch high grades which can augment the total C.G.P.A. Further, the research papers which contain original research or a reformulation of the existing research in a particular field can be accepted for publication by leading journals, which can further boost the career- prospects of a budding academic. In this article, we attempt to give a comprehensive guide to the art of research paper writing.

Who Is This Guide For?

This guide is written for the students only. While we are well aware of the fact that the requirements for writing academic papers differ from one discipline to another, our definitive guide to research paper writing will be beneficial for students from any discipline. No matter which level of graduate study you belong to, you will find our guide to be the most definitive.

How To Use This Guide?

Each section is concerned with a specific aspect of research paper writing. In order to write a successful research paper, it is advised that you must read the article all the way through. We not only discuss in detail each and every aspect of a research paper, we also give you the highlights of our paper in a tabular form for quick reference. Keep our guide handy, next time when you are writing your research paper.

What is a Research Paper?

While there is no singular definition for the term ‘research paper’, it is generally accepted by scholars that a research paper is a generic term that can be applied to any one of the following:

Term Paper

A term paper is usually written by a student either at the graduate or at the undergraduate level as a part of the requirements for an academic coursework. In U.S. universities and colleges, a typical academic course requires the submission of term papers along with mid-semester and end-of-semester examinations. Students earn credit points for fulfilling the course requirements which are then added to calculate the final C.G.P.A. or cumulative grade point accuracy.

Published Article

A published article is a research paper which is usually written for academic journals. Such a paper is called a published one only if the paper is accepted for publication. Academic publication is, however, a highly competitive field and the number of research papers submitted for publication typically overwhelms the ones selected for final print. The process of academic publishing is a complex and a protracted one. It requires submission of a paper, review by academic peers, revisions and the final print. The entire process takes months.

Thesis or Dissertation

A thesis or a dissertation is a long academic paper divided into several chapters (usually five or more) that is submitted to obtain a Ph.D. degree. Additionally, M.A., M. Phil, M.S. and M. Tech degrees may also call for a thesis.
Here are 6 Quick Tips to Write a Good Research Raper

Why Is a Research Paper Written?

A research paper is usually written for any one of the following purposes. There are times when it can fulfill multiple requirements. Usually they can be summarized as follows:
1. A research paper might be assigned to a graduate or an undergraduate     student as a part of the course work.
2. It may be written specifically for academic publication.
3. Finally, it may be written in the form of a thesis or a dissertation in order     to obtain a terminal academic degree (for instance Ph.D.).

The above points require a bit of further explication. Universities and colleges across US, UK and Australia require a definite period of coursework for academic degrees. Both undergraduate and post graduate degrees require submission of term papers to earn credit points, failing which a student is debarred from taking the final examination.

Academic publishing is crucial for those seeking a career in academia. Budding scholars publish their research papers in various peer reviewed journals in order to strengthen their curriculum vitae. The world of academic publishing is so ruthlessly competitive that cynics called the trend ‘publish or perish’.
Finally, dissertations and theses are also large research papers written for submission in order get a degree. A thesis or a dissertation must be based on a candidate’s original research or should at least be a reformulation of the existing research findings in a particular disciplinary field.

How To Select a Topic For a Research Paper?

To begin with, any good research paper needs to have a research topic on which the paper is written. It is imperative that the topic chosen or given should have the following qualities:

The Topic Should be Relevant

Relevance is usually determined by the fact whether the topic is given or chosen. If the paper is on a given topic then the student needs to stick to the topic as closely as possible. However, if some leverage is given then the students might choose their own topic. Interesting and unusual topics may impress the teacher but make sure that your topic relates to what has been taught in class. If you are still confused, taking help of your seniors or graduate assistants (many universities provide them) may be a good idea.

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The topic should be able to speak to other researchers

This is especially true if you are writing an article that is meant for publication. Since the research paper is meant for publication in what is called a ‘peer reviewed’ journal, the paper will be reviewed by at least two anonymous referees. As such it is important to choose a topic which other researchers will find interesting and challenging.

Finally, chose an under-researched subject area

No matter which stream you belong to, cutting-edge research work is always appreciated. On the contrary, if you chose a research topic in which a number of published works already exist, your chances of coming up with original research is rather flimsy.

How to Formulate a Research Question?

A research question is the primary question that guides the research paper. The paper is meant to elaborate on, modify, question or even criticize the given question. Here is a list of suggestions that should be taken into cognizance while coming up with a research question:

Keep in mind the central argument of your research

Your research question should be structured around this argument.

Modify the research question if necessary

While writing your paper or in the course of your research work, it is highly possible that you may be veered towards a different direction. Do not feel lost. A good researcher will always question his own research and leave a space for further study in that area.

Keep your research question for the end

This might seem a bit odd, but we insist that this is a highly effective approach. As a student you are not supposed to have all the answers. That is the perhaps the whole point of doing ‘research’ in the first place. Once you have scanned through your research findings and have noted them down, you should be able to isolate the central question that guides your research. That is your research question.

Here is an instance

Suppose, the research topic given to you is ‘Financial Policies of the US federal Government’ and you are supposed to write a research paper on it, how will you formulate your research question? Break down the topic into several sub-topics. In this case, possible sub-topics might include at least three areas: policies relating to economic sectors, policies relating to taxation and policies relating to social security. Conscientious students will immediately note that in all three areas, the US government follows a free market policy with minimum governmental intervention and maximum freedom to private entrepreneurs. This, then, can become your central research question: “How does the federal government of US follow a policy of minimal governmental intervention in all the three sectors of the economy?”

What Structure to Follow?

Various subjects have various writing methodologies. However, some points run in common in all the subjects.

A five paragraph essay is the classic format

Although there is no hard and fast rule as such. A well written essay must contain an exposition or an introduction where you state your research question and your methodology. This should be followed by the body of the essay and finally the conclusion

While an exposition, a main body and a conclusion may work for all subjects, specific subjects do require additional points

Here are two instances from science and marketing respectively.

For instance, science courses based on laboratory experiments should start with a hypothesis followed by details of the experiment and finally the inference.

For a marketing case study, you must start with a brief history of the company, including its current market status. Then conduct a situational analysis of the company, including any one of the following methods: SWOT, PESTEL or Porter’s Five Forces model. End with a discussion on the marketing mix, including four particular areas of the company. They are product, price, promotion and place.

What Style of Writing Should you Follow?

While substance is important, style too cannot be ruled out. After all this is a writing assignment. An elegant style of writing is sure to impress your teachers while academic journals are scathing when it comes to selecting a research paper for publication. You might be given some leverage when it comes to science-based papers. But expect no mercy if you are a humanities students, especially students from English, Comparative Literature and Creative Writing. Do keep in mind the following tips:

Follow a simple style of writing free from jargons and convoluted sentences

Although professional researchers do use a fair amount jargons, that should not overwhelm your subject matter. However, your linguistic style should not be too casual as you are writing for an academic audience. It is also important to be politically correct and not to use any sexist or racist terms.

A simple style of writing should be supplemented with a forceful argument

should consider both sides of an argument and come to a possible solution. Remember the conclusion should be your own intervention and not a rehashing of clichéd statements. Originality is always appreciated. Further, it is likely that your teacher will already know what experts have said on the given topic. He or she will be more interested in knowing what you are thinking.

Divide your research findings into several short sections or paragraphs

Doing this will make your essay look nice and organized.

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Be careful about spelling and grammar

If you are using MS word then chances are that your software will have spell check and suggestions on possible grammatical and syntactical errors. Alternatively, you can use online tools like Grammarly.com, Reverso.net, Gingersoftware.com, Spellcheckplus.com etc. Most of these sites are entirely free of cost where you can check for possible errors.

How to Conduct Research on the given Topic?

Whether it is meant for a journal or for submission for a particular university course, you can’t do without proper research. Earlier, students used to run from one library to another in order to get help. In this fast changing world, physical libraries are being replaced by virtual ones. Research papers are now being published online instead of being stored in the dusty shelves of university or public libraries. You can simply log on to the concerned website and get the research paper you want. This will help you to nail the research paper topic and come up with a good grade.

Research writing help is now made easy through several online journal sites. Some of the most popular sites are:


Founded in 1995, this digital database provides access to more than 2000 journals in 8000 institutions across 160 countries. It is one of the best and most loved digital libraries for arts and humanities students.

Project MUSE

With free access to over 550 peer reviewed journals and 2000 scholarly books, it provides subscription based access to research journals for arts and social sciences.


it is not a database but an excellent search engine for all the medical journals published anywhere in the world.


This is another popular online database for scientific peer reviewed papers. Its popularity is growing among students of mathematics, physics, chemistry and computer sciences.

Library Genesis

An excellent repository of e books on every subject imaginable. However, the site has run into copyright issues in recent years.

How to do Citation?

The cornerstone of a good academic writing is citation. There are various citation styles. Ask your college professors about their preference and try to follow it. If not, then follow either the Harvard or Chicago citation formats. Science students can use the APA (American Psychological Association) citation format, while humanities students can go for the MLA (Modern Languages Association) format. Here is a brief introduction to each of the following styles:

Harvard Style

In a Harvard referencing style we follow an ‘author/date’ system for ‘in-text’ citations followed by a reference list at the end of the paper. Suppose the reference is M.E. Porter, “The Competitive Advantage of Nations”, Free Press, New York, 1990, then write it like this:

“Porter, 1990” for in-text citation and “Porter, M. E., Competitive Advantage of Nations, Free Press, 1990” for the reference list at the end of the paper.

Chicago Style

In this style, the names of author along with the titles of the books and journal articles should come in the footnotes below each page. If you are citing a book then italicize its name. On the other hand if you are citing the name of a journal article, then put the name within either single quotation marks or double quotation marks with the name of the journal in italics.

For instance, for the book, “The Competitive Advantage of Nations”, Free Press, New York, 1990, write M.E. Porter, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Free Press, New York, 1990. However if it is a journal article then write, Porter, M.E. (1991) "Towards a Dynamic Theory of Strategy", Strategic Management Journal 12 (Winter Special Issue), pp. 95–117.

APA style

American Psychological Association also follows in-text citations and reference list at the end of the essay. However it is followed exclusively by science students, unlike MLA style which is followed only by students of liberal arts and humanities. In MLA style, we simply put the author’s name followed by the page number within parenthesis. So if you are citing, Porter, Michael, “The Competitive Advantage of Nations”, Free Press, New York, 1990, then simply write (Porter, p. 118).
Here is a Comprehensive Article on "How to Cite Sources in Research Paper"

How to Prepare a Bibliography?

A bibliography is another important part of research paper, especially if it is meant for academic publication. Basically it is a list of all the books, monographs, journal articles and online resources you have used while writing your assignment. It comes at the very end of the paper. All journals insist on a proper bibliography at the end of a paper which has to be appended. Keep in mind the following words of advice:

1. Place all the names of the authors you have consulted and their works, in a     serial and an alphabetical fashion.

2. Further, surnames of the authors should come in the beginning followed    by the proper name, the title of his work, the name of publisher, the place of publication and the date of publication.

3. Bibliography can either be descriptive or enumerative. An enumerative bibliography is list of all the resource materials in a tabular format, while a descriptive bibliography is an essay that not only states names but also the publication details and an idea about the existing literature on the subject.
Here is a Complete Guide on "How to Write a Bibliography for your Research Paper"

10 Things to Remember

1. Understand the concept of research paper clearly

To reiterate, it is a generic which may mean a term paper, a paper for academic publication or thesis. Understanding the concept can help you to write your research paper accordingly.

2. Understand the purpose of writing a research paper

If it is for coursework then follow the teacher’s instructions like a flight attendant’s manual. If it is for publication then it is originality which is required.

3. Chose your topic carefully

A topic might either be given or chosen by the student. In either case, the topic should be relevant, liked by the peers and should throw some light on a hitherto unknown subject.

4. Formulate a strong research question

It is the guiding light for your research.

5. A coherent structure is best suited for academic research writing

While a classic five paragraph essay is good for any discipline, science and management subjects might have disciplinary requirements. You should always follow the disciplinary boundaries while preparing a structure.

6. Writing style should be clear, without jargons and free from proofing errors

The language should be coherent and you must proofread your own work.

7. Proper research is crucial

Fortunately there are plenty on online databases and search engines to help you in research paper writing.

8. Citation styles vary

So follow the guidance of the teacher or the journal in question. Popular styles include, Harvard, Chicago, APA and MLA.

9. Bibliography comes at the end and is an absolute must

It saves you from the serious charge of plagiarism and provides authenticity to your work.

10. Finally do not copy and paste from other sources

Use them liberally but do not forget to acknowledge. Otherwise it is called plagiarism (read stealing).

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