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What Should A Research Paper Contain

Elements of a Research Paper

Set the stage; state the problem (introduction)

  • Topic:
    generally describe the topic and how it fits into your field of study
  • Set the scene
    Describe the environment and its conditions
    Get permission before using personal information
  • Introduce and describe the problem
    Describe what you intend to show/argue and why
    What is its significance?
    Illustrate the problem with an interesting example
    (Remember you are writing for an audience and want to capture their interest)
  • Begin to define terms, concepts, vocabulary
    If possible, use one authoritative source or combine definitions and footnote your sources
    Later in the development of your paper, be conscious of using new terms and their definitions
  • Since tasks begun well, likely have good finishes (Sophocles)
    review the topic, scene, and problem with your teacher or supervisor to verify if you are on the right path

Review the Literature

What research is relevant?
How is it organized? c.f.: Writing Center/University of Wisconsin's Review of literature

Develop your Hypotheses

Your hypothesis is your proposed explanation that you will test to determine whether it is true or false
It will contain measurable variables (those that change or can be manipulated)
with results that can be compared with each other.
Avoid over-generalizing, and reference the research findings of others to support why you think this will work
C.F. National Health Museum's Writing Hypotheses: a student lesson

Methods

Give enough information so that others can follow your procedure,
and can replicate it (and hopefully come up with the same findings and conclusions as you did!)

  • Describe your procedure as completely as possible so that someone can duplicate it completely
  • Define your sample and its characteristics
    These should be consistent throughout the test
  • List the variables used
    These are what change, or that you manipulate, throughout the test
  • Try to anticipate criticism that affects either your internal or external validity
    These might be considered "flaws"

Findings

This is descriptive and numeric data

Discussion

Develop your argument based upon your findings.
While the data may read for itself, you will need to interpret

  • how it validates your hypothesis
  • what falls outside of validity
  • how it impacts the literature you cited
  • where further research is needed

Conclusion

Restate and summarize your findings and discussion either in order to simply complexity or to provide a summary for those who skip to it!

References

Verify with your teacher the proper format

Recommendations:

A research paper is not an essay, an editorial, or a story.
All assertions of fact must be documented.
Be careful of any generalizations that you make.
Strive to be value-free in your inquiry.
Review our Guide on the Scientific Method

...it's worth stressing that the evaluation of your paper will never be determined by whether or not your hypotheses are verified. It is important to remember that a hypothesis supported by the data does not mean that it is true as there conceivably is an infinite number of other theories that lead to the same prediction. Similarly, failure of support does not necessarily mean that your hypothesis is wrong: it may be hold true in some populations, you may have incorrectly measured your theory's concepts, your sampling may be flawed, etc. Philosopher Karl Popper, in fact, argues that science is not a method for verifying hypotheses. Instead, all that science can logically lead to is the falsification of hypotheses. In sum, negative results can be every bit as important as positive ones. 1Marvin Harris (Cultural Materialism 1979:7)"facts are always unreliable without theories that guide their collection and that distinguish between superficial and significant appearances." 1
Writing assignments

Writing for the "Web" | The five-paragraph essay | Essays for a literature class |
Expository essays | Persuasive essays | Position papers | Open book exams |
Essay Exams | White papers | Lab reports/scientific papers |
Research proposals | Elements of a Research Paper
Seven stages of writing assignments

See also:
1. Kearl, Michael, The Research Paper, Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, (September 17, 2004)
2. Online Writing Lab, Writing a Research Paper, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, (September 17, 2004)

Structure of a Research Paper

While academic disciplines vary on the exact format and style of journal articles in their field, most articles contain similar content and are divided in parts that typically follow the same logical flow.  Following is a list of the parts commonly found in research articles.  

  • Title
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion/Conclusion
  • References/Bibliography

Research papers are organized so that the information flow resembles an hourglass in that it goes from general  to specific and then back to general again.  The introduction and literature review sections will introduce the problem and provide general information. The methods and results will provide specific, detailed information about this research project and the discussion/conclusion will discuss the findings in a larger context. The following section will describe each of these parts in more detail.  Additional information can be found in the Resources section of this module and in the Suggested Readings.

Title

The title should be specific and indicate the problem the research project addresses using keywords that will be helpful in literature reviews in the future.

Abstract

The abstract is used by readers to quickly review the overall content of the paper.  Journals typically place strict word limits on abstracts, such as 200 words, making them a challenge to write.  The abstract should provide a complete synopsis of the research paper and should introduce the topic and the specific research question, provide a statement regarding methodology and should provide a general statement about the results and the findings.  Because it is really a summary of the entire research paper, it is often written last.

Introduction

The introduction begins by introducing the broad overall topic and providing basic background information.  It then narrows down to the specific research question relating to this topic.  It provides the purpose and focus for the rest of the paper and sets up the justification for the research.

Literature Review

The purpose of the literature review is to describe past important research and it relate it specifically to the research problem.  It should be a synthesis of the previous literature and the new idea being researched.  The review should examine the major theories related to the topic to date and their contributors.  It should include all relevant findings from credible sources, such as academic books and peer-reviewed journal articles.

Methods

The methods section will describe the research design and methodology used to complete to the study.  The general rule of thumb is that readers should be provided with enough detail to replicate the study.

Results

In this section, the results of the analysis are presented.  How the results are presented will depend upon whether the research study was quantitative or qualitative in nature.  This section should focus only on results that are directly related to the research or the problem. Graphs and tables should only be used when there is too much data to efficiently include it within the text.  This section should present the results, but not discuss their significance.

Discussion/Conclusion

This section should be a discussion of the results and the implications on the field, as well as other fields. The hypothesis should be answered and validated by the interpretation of the results.  This section should also discuss how the results relate to previous research mentioned in the literature review, any cautions about the findings, and potential for future research.

References/Bibliography

The research paper is not complete without the list of references. This section should be an alphabetized list of all the academic sources of information utilized in the paper.  The format of the references will match the format and style used in the paper.  Common formats include APA, MLA, Harvard and so forth.

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