A research paper is a formal essay or academic article that uses information collected from outside sources to a make a point, discuss it, and oftentimes analyze, and evaluate it. A research paper is not
- everything you can find on a topic,
- one person’s view on a topic, or
- only the material that supports your preconceived opinion.
This resource discusses three features of effectively written research papers: a narrow topic, a balanced discussion, and credible, properly cited sources.
A research paper topic should be reasonably narrow (e.g., “depression” is too general, but “treatments for veterans with depression” or “the depression-anxiety connection” are suitably narrow), and it should not be so new that little has been written on it or so controversial as to have largely biased sources. Conspiracy topics (the Kennedy assassination, who-knew-what pre-9/11, UFOs) should also be avoided as credible sources on these topics are hard to find.
Learn more about narrowing your research paper topic in this Writing Center Effective Writing Podcast: Narrowing Focus
Another key to writing a good research paper is having clear balance between outside research and original analysis. If you turn in a paper that only reports on what others have said about a particular topic, you have missed a primary purpose for academic writing: to think critically about what you read and to build on the knowledge that exists with your own analysis and ideas about it. Many students make this mistake the first time they write a research paper. They end up with 90 percent quotes and only 10 percent their own analysis. It needs to be closer to 20 or 30 percent research-based quotes and paraphrases and 80 or 70 percent analysis.
This is not to say you should throw in your own opinion based on preconceived ideas but to develop an original discussion by explaining to your audience the significance of the research, its relevance or implications, and the point you are trying to make with it. Consider the following paragraph. Note how every piece of outside research is accompanied by analysis (outside research is in bold font; analysis/argument is in regular font) and used to make a specific point:
One of the founding principles of American democracy is that our government is representative of its people, and the people best represented are those who vote. Voters are the citizens who elect those politicians who are concerned about the same issues. When people don’t vote, the government becomes less representative because issues that matter to many people are not addressed by governmental leadership. Moore (2005) argues that if we hope to remain a prosperous democracy, “citizens must understand, appreciate, and take part in the political process” (p.33). Yet many young adults who are educated and do understand the system are still not voting, so while Moore’s point may generally be true, many youths reject politics because politicians do not focus on issues youth feel affect them. In a 2004 Zogby poll for American Demographics, for example, only 5 percent of youth surveyed thought health care and only 3 percent thought abortion should be important election issues this year; they do not care about Medicare while their concerns about education costs and job opportunities are not getting the coverage they want (Rosenberg, 2004). What’s interesting is that the issues of greatest concern, educational costs and employment, indicate that the youth may be more in touch with the founding principles of this country than the politicians are. Meanwhile, the politicians blame low voter turnout on the apathy of the youth instead of focusing their efforts on addressing the issues that would get the youth to vote and strengthen American democracy.
This author has balanced research with analysis and argument, and that is your goal. Notice that the discussion portion frames the research, so that it comes before and after the research-based material. For more insight creating a balanced and developed discussion, listen to the Writing Center Effective Writing Podcast: Working with Sources: Working With Sources
Credible, Cited Sources
Whenever you incorporate information from outside sources into your writing, you are borrowing the intellectual property of others, so you not only have a responsibility to your readers that the information you borrow is credible, meaning it is a reliable source, and the information is valid and relevant to your topic for your readers, but also, you have an ethical responsibility to cite the information you borrowed, meaning to attribute it to its original author. When writing, you want to always make clear which information is borrowed and which is yours. In the sample paragraph, for example, notice that each of the sentences presenting source material identifies the author of that information either in the sentence or in a parenthetical citation.