When a person is assigned a research paper, they begin upon a challenging path of study and learning. By the design of its own name, the research paper process is comprised on two main parts: Research and writing a paper. By definition, research is “Scholarly or scientific investigation or inquiry.” - (The American Heritage Dictionary) The research paper is a piece of work that requires work and effort to complete it properly.

Once an instructor has assigned the paper, a student can go through a process to gather all the materials they need and compose the actual written paper. But first, one must be sure to understand the assignment at hand. The length of the paper, which the teacher may specify in words or double-spaced pages, will determine the depth of research one must do. One must also remember that a research paper is expository, or meant to inform or relay information to the audience.

The Topic

The first step in creating the work is to choose a topic. Be glad if the professor has already assigned a specific topic, however realize that this does not happen often. Also bear in mind that when multiple people must research the same topic, materials and sources become scarce because people are competing for them. Professors will not often assign a specific topic to an entire class because most educators will more enjoy reading on a variety of topics rather than the same topic repeatedly. Sometimes however, a teacher will assign a general idea or area and leave it to the student to restrict their research to a specific topic. But limiting is easy once one gets started. If the topic is completely free form, it is essential that the topic is decided as quickly as possible so that research can begin.

One should choose a workable topic for their research paper. First and foremost, one must seek out some sources and determine if there will be enough information and material to cover the size and depth of paper to be written. Most papers will call for a number of assorted sources ranging from previous research from educational institutions and academic journals to books written by authors with qualifications in that matter. If at all possible, one should select a topic that interests them or is of interest to the audience reading the paper.

Time Management

Before beginning the rest of the process, however, one should set up a timetable or schedule. A calendar or spreadsheet can be used, and one can set aside a certain amount of daily time - or specific times - for working on the paper. One should also set goals of dates that certain milestones in the process of creating a research paper should be reached no later than. It is imperative to stay to the schedule because any time lost will be hard if not impossible to make up for. One can pick specific days to have such things accomplished as: finding five sources, complete outline of the paper, and finish rough draft. One should post up the schedule and goal dates near the place where they will be doing most of their work, or in a prominent place where the writer will see it often. This helps keep a person focused and prevents drifting from the task at hand. Doing this also prevents all of the work piling up and be left until the last minute when it may be too overwhelming to complete by the due date.

Sources and Materials

The second main step in the research paper process is to locate some sources and materials to base the writing portion of the paper on. Research is half of the process of creating the research paper - writing is the other half. There are many types of resources available today, however they are broken down into two kinds of sources: primary sources and secondary sources. A primary source is defined as being an original test, document, interview, speech, letter or person -- not an analysis or commentary of another source or event. Secondary sources comment on or analyze an original text or event, such as biographies or a study based on results of a Census.

The accuracy of the information contained in one’s sources is also very imperative. Author and dates can be crucial to the validity of the source. If one writes a paper based on illegitimate sources - the research paper itself can be seen as flawed and inaccurate. The date of the source is essential because of how information and society may change over time. Subjects involving sciences or technology will be seriously out of date if it was written in 1942. However, material written in 1942 about Johann Sebastian Bach, the Baroque era musical composer, may still be quite useful and accurate.

The author of sources is also imperative. Just because a person writes a book or article about a topic does not mean that they are an expert or qualified about it. It also does not imply that the person’s own ideas, opinions, or speculations are not included in the source. One should check the author of all their significant research material. Usually, information about the writer can be located on the dust jacket or back cover, or at the beginning or end of a periodical. One should look for degrees, qualifications, or if there is any indication that the writer might be biased or unreliable. Materials underwritten by educational institutions are ideal because they are accredited by that institution as having factual and reliable basis. Materials written by political interest groups or non profit organizations that promote certain views are not reliable because facts are usually presented to be in favor of that group's beliefs or goals, even if true. Always investigate the author, the publisher, and perhaps even review the author's sources for any serious academic paper.

Libraries are ideal locations to find sources, especially those libraries on college or university campuses. One should allow enough time for research and reevaluating the topic as one finds more information or lack thereof. Reference Librarians, sometimes referred to as “media specialists”, can guide you on the correct path to finding sources - but don’t count on them to find all the material for you. Card catalogs and computer reference systems that many libraries now have are a good place to start. Dictionaries, Atlases, and Encyclopeidas can give you information to start, but don't quote them as a source. Specialized academic encyclopedias may be used for definitions and the like within the paper, however.

Note Taking

Begin taking notes on index cards, and making little notes as to what sources you obtained the notes from. Make a second stack of index cards with the sources you documented, and number them. One can place the number of the source on their note cards to indicate exactly where the quote or information came from without having to do tedious and time-wasting back tracking.

Documenting Sources

There are two major styles for documenting one’s sources. The two styles are called MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association). There are others, such as Chicago, but it depends on the progessor what format they prefer. MLA is the format often preferred in papers by high school teachers and college professors. The latter style, APA is applied in psychology journal articles and is required for college psychology papers. Since APA has a limited use and application, MLA will be the format that one will most lilkely use in their research paper when citing sources.

There are guides, lists, and entire books devoted to the MLA format and how it should be properly employed by the writer of the paper. There exist these references for all formats. Diana Hacker's Pocket Handbook is a great reference for any student in high school or collegiate studies, and documents wonderfully how to use a myriad of documentation styles, including the major MLA, APA and Chicago. On a side note, It would be very prudent and efficient to record the sources in the proper format on the note cards so that the task of compiling the works cited page is nothing more than copying over the information as written.

The Outline

Writing an outline for the research paper is the next task. The final outline will contain a quick overview of what the research paper will contain and the organization of the paper. Generally, the outline will also contain the thesis statement - a single declarative sentence that covers the main idea of the paper. The thesis statement should note both the topic of the paper and what the body or content paper will cover. However, some teachers or professors do not want students to put the thesis in the outline. One should ask the teacher ahead of time.

Put the pen to the paper

Once all the sources and information has been compiled and the outline of how the paper will be written has been completed, the second phase of creating the research paper begins. The research phase is over and now begins the stage of writing the actual paper. When writing the first draft, one uses the thought process also known as synthesis. “Try to write...the first draft in one sitting, without interruption...Find a quiet place and stay focused until...finished... Write in the third person point of view also. This will give your paper an objective, factual tone.” – (A Student Guide to Writing a Research Paper).


When the draft is done, one should revise the draft. What is written on in the research paper must be scrutinized and looked at. It is more difficult to analyze a paper right after writing the draft. One should allow at least a day to pass before attempting to revise the draft. This process is called the “cold eye approach”. One can even benefit from submitting the paper to be reviewed and analyzed by friends or fellow classmates who can oftentimes be more objective than the author of the draft.

All of the note cards for the sources of the paper should be compiled and made into an MLA formatted Works Cited Page. “The Works Cited section lists all works that have contributed ideas and information to your paper” – (“The MLA Style Manual”) The MLA Style Manual also indicates that calling the page “Works Consulted” instead allows one to include all works consulted through research, not just those directly cited in the paper.

The Final Draft

At this point, the research paper has been prepared and written and reviewed. Once the necessary corrections and revisions have been made to satisfactory levels, the paper should be proofread by the author (again using the “cold eye” technique) and some friends or classmates. Any minor changes to the paper should be made as necessary and the final paper compiled and readied.

The paper should also follow some basic guidelines when preparing the final manuscript. Use standard sized, 8 1/2” x 11” plain white paper and print or type on only one side of the sheet. Running titles, heading, proper double-spacing and all the proper formatting should be checked. Some professors want title pages, others do not. Read your paper's instructions or consult the professor first. With the finished paper printed or typed out, it should be paper clipped or stapled in the upper left hand corner. Paper binding methods such as folders and report covers should not be used.


Composing a research paper is a time consuming task, and requires fore planning and a structured process to achieve a desirable result. Following proper formatting and structure of the written paper is just as important as the actual research. In any case, Good Luck!

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