What is a Research Paper?
A research paper is an inquiry and investigation on a given topic/subject. It may be defined as the culmination and final product of an involved process of research, critical thinking, source evaluation, organization, and composition.
General Steps to Writing a Research Paper
Things to Keep in Mind
- The first thing to note about writing a research paper is that everyone has his or her own unique process. Not every process is as successful as others, but the end result to every process is the same thing: a completed draft. It is important to understand that there is no such thing as the perfect paper. The paper is never perfect; it is merely finished.
- Be warned, research has a nasty habit of evolving. Don’t worry if the topic changes somewhat; that is simply the nature of research. As sources are compiled and scrutinized, the original writing topic might shift into something more honed and precise.
- With all that in mind, the information provided below contains the starting phases on how to write a research-based assignment. Each step through this process will include examples crafted from The RFK Tapes to help illustrate the various writing components. The references will be listed in the Chicago citation style.
The Planning Phase
- Step 1. Create a Schedule
The first step to any research activity is knowing and understanding the time constraints in which one is operating. Plot out the length allotted for the completion of the assignment; it could be as little as one week to as long as a whole semester. Once the assignment has been plotted, start adding estimated deadlines for different points in the trajectory of the paper/project. Make sure to give enough time to properly research (finding sources) as well as write (drafting the assignment).
- Step 2: Understanding the Assignment
To prevent wasting time and journeying down dead-end research excursions, students should make sure that they understand the parameters of the assignment first. Do not hesitate to ask the professor about anything confusing, such as the language within the prompt, the constraints of the assignment, the timetable for the project, etc.
A trick to decoding a prompt is to determine the objective of the writing assignment. Look at the action verbs utilized in the directions, such as arguing, instructing, explaining, reporting, etc. Then identify the task or expectation portion of the paper, for example: include, support, incorporate, apply, relate, extrapolate, etc. These words will guide the direction of your paper.
- Step 3: Choosing a Topic
This is the most challenging part of the process: figuring out what to write about. Everything starts somewhere, and this is the starting point for a research paper. The first course of action is to figure out what is interesting about a given subject. Find something that stands out or is weird. What caused a pause during reading or viewing of the text initially? Did something appear inconsistent? Did something cause a sudden onset of emotion, good or bad?
Once a vague notion of an idea has been chosen, sit with that interest for a little while and investigate it. Is the interesting thing worth researching? Is it something that can be crafting into an argument? Is it just interesting or is there more to it? Is there substance?
If the item of interest is researchable, approach the professor to get approval. The professor’s permission is the final check before moving forward in a research project. The professor is the one grading the assignment, so he or she will be the perfect person to judge the viability of a topic before hours or days are spent wasted in a fervor of scholarly pursuits.
- Step 4: Audience Awareness
While a student might be writing a paper for class, the instructor is not the only audience for the assignment. Research papers typically are meant to be a continuation and a contribution to the larger conversation happening around a certain text or topic.
The Questioning Phase (i.e. Brainstorming)
In simplistic terms, brainstorming is jotting down the ideas and questions that spring up while investigating a proposed writing topic.
Sit for 15-30 minutes and write down everything you can about your topic. While it might seem tedious, getting your ideas and questions down on paper will help prevent straying from the topic once researching starts as well as recording initial assumptions and developing a concrete understanding of the assignment’s trajectory.
Don't worry about having complete sentences or making everything grammatically correct. Just get the ideas down on paper.
Brainstorming for the RFK Assassination:
- "Was Sirhan Sirhan as we were told really a fanatically Arab nationalist?
- Or was he as some think, a Robot Assassin?
- Did Sirhan Sirhan even murder Robert Kennedy or did someone else?
- Did the Los Angeles Police conduct an honest investigation or was there a massive cover up?"1
- Sirhan's (lack of) memory in pantry
- Sirhan's position in pantry
- Too many bullets
- Girl with the polkadot dress
- Hypno-programming: find out more about this
- Other suspects
Formulating Research Questions:
The problem with research is the amount of information based around any given topic. Depending on what is being researched, some topics have multiple books published about the same thing while others have nothing published about them at all.
The best remedy for either scenario is formulating research questions to help narrow the searchable field of information. Start by looking at the brainstorming activity. Are there any questions starting with “how” or “why”? Those types of questions will lead to more fruitful searches.
The Questing Phase
The questing phase is when a student will start collecting sources for the research assignment. Click over to Searching for Sources for more information.
The Blueprinting Phase
While some people will leave outlining to the end of the process as a way of double-checking the internal logic of a paper, creating an outline before beginning the drafting phase can help structure the argument and organize the research in a coherent fashion.
Resources for Creating an Outline:
- Outline Steps (doc): This is a downloadable Microsoft Word document already setup for an outline.
- Creating an Outline from Indiana University of Pennsylvania
- Why and How to Create a Useful Outline from Purdue University
The Drafting Phase
Once the research portion of the paper/project/assignment is complete, the drafting phase commences. For more information of how to craft an argument and begin drafting, click over to Creating an Argument and Drafting the Assignment.
- Zac Stuart-Pontier and Bill Klaber, "June 5, 1968," June 5, 2018, in The RFK Tapes, produced by Cadence 13, podcast, MP3 audio, 00:13:48-00:14:16, http://rfktapes.com/1-june-5-1968/.
The Different Types of Sources
- Primary Sources: "These provide the 'raw data' that you use first to test your working hypothesis and then as evidence to support your claim. In history, for example, primary sources include documents from the period or person you are studying, objects, maps, even clothing; in literature or philosophy, your main primary source is usually the text you are studying, and your data are the words on the page."1
- Secondary Sources: "Secondary sources are research reports that use primary data to solve research problems, written for scholarly and professional audiences. Researchers read them to keep up with their field and use what they read to frame problems of their own by disputing other researchers’ conclusions or questioning their methods. You can use their data to support your argument, but only if you cannot find those data in a primary source. A secondary source becomes a primary source when you study its argument as part of a debate in a field."2
- Tertiary Sources: "These are books and articles that synthesize and report on secondary sources for general readers, such as textbooks, articles in encyclopedias and mass-circulation publications like Psychology Today, and what standard search engines turn up first on the Web. In the early stages of research, you can use tertiary sources to get a feel for a topic. But if you use what you find in a tertiary source to support a scholarly argument, most of your readers won’t trust your report—or you."3
Step 1: Keywords
The first step when researching is to create a few key words to help narrow down the overabundant amount of information some topic will curate.
MKULTRA / CIA / Mind Control • 1960s LAPA (coverups / abuses / lawsuits) • Allard Lowenstein • Rosicrusians • RFK autopsy notes • RFK conspiracy • Sirhan Sirhan
Step 2: Google / Google Scholar
Google is a fine place to start researching for secondary and tertiary information, especially if the topic of exploration does not require peer-reviewed sources.
- Keep in mind: the internet is full of information, but not all of it is accurate or factual. If you are not comfortable with discerning the academically sound nature of a source, reach out to your professor.
Resources to Help Discern a Source's Validity:
- Center for Innovation in Legal Education's video Sources and Biases, which is part of a larger series on Critical Thinking.
- Thought Monkey's video Confirmation Bias in 5 Minutes, which is itself an example of bias.
Step 3: More Advanced Researching
This is the point in which students should coordinate in some capacity with a (local or university) library. At this point students should also have a better grasp on what they are researching, so the keyword searches will need to be more specific then utilized through a simple Google search.
Tips on Keyword Searches:
- Start with a general search of the topic (e.g., author's name, title of the primary source, etc.). This is a good way of judging just how many resources are available on the research subject in total.
- Begin filtering through your keywords. Pull the titles of books and articles that seem relevant to the research topic. [Hint: This step can take awhile and will vary depending on the length of the paper being written. Make sure to give enough time to really delve into the research.]
- If resources are still not available, broaden the search. Use more generalized keywords. Look up the parameters around the research inquiry instead of the topic itself. [Hint: This is another point in the research process where the professor can/should be consulted.]
Resources for Researching:
- See below for a list of resources available through the Ingram Library that will help in finding information and references through peer-reviewed journals and databases.
- ResearchReady.com's video Finding Credible Sources for Your Research Paper
Step 4: Reading the Research
Love it or hate it, this is the point where students really start engaging with the research on their topic.
- Scroll down for tips on engaging with sources and note-taking with examples included.
Engaging with the Sources
While primarily a component of the drafting phase, engagement with sources is a fundamental part of the research process.
- Remember, you are contributing to a larger conversation happening around a subject within a particular field of research.
- Though it sounds contradictory, look at sources that disagree with the statement you are trying to make. If you only look at people who agree with you, your paper will appear biased and under-researched.
The RFK Tapes Utilization of Sources
- Archival Audio
- LAPD Interviews: sets up case against Sirhan while also establishing the history around the RFK case
- Allard Lowenstein (Interviews and Personal recordings): beginning of the counter argument (as well as conspiracy theory) to Sirhan as the main suspect. He also discovers police misconduct and destruction of key pieces of evidence
- Interviews with First-Hand Witnesses from the Ambassador Hotel: more background as well as evidence surrounding the case
- Zac Stuart-Pontier Interviews
- Bill Klaber, co-host and author of Shadow Play: exemplifies the conspiracy theory about the assassination plot
- Sirhan Sirhan's family: background on Sirhan's character and circumstances.
- Dr. Daniel Brown, who interviewed Sirhan Sirhan: acts as an expert in the field of psychiatry
- Associates of Robert F. Kennedy from his presidential campaign: establishes Kennedy's character
- Dan Moldea, author of The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy: An Investigation of Motive, Means, and Opportunity: private investigator that provides an alternative suspect/theory to the murder plot. He also acts as a counter to Klaber, because he ultimately concludes that Sirhan murdered Kennedy
- Danny Jensen, former LAPD officer
- Interviews with Experts
- Audio experts Philip Van Praag and Phillip Harrison: competing interpretations of audio evidence from the Ambassador Hotel the night of the assassination
- Jesse Walker, author of The United States of Paranoia: academic researcher who is an expert on conspiracy theories and how they develop
- Book References
- RFK Must Die by Robert Kaiser: secondary option about the facts surrounding the RFK Assassination
- The Search for the Manchurian Candidate by John Marks: background information about the CIA's experiments with mind control and LSD within the MKULTRA trials
To have a full appreciation of the utilization of the above sources, listen to the podcast in its entirety.
Important: Take all the notes. All of them.
- The only way to keep research straight in your head is to record it in some way; writing notes down is the most constructive way of recording them, but taking pictures or scans to consult back to while writing the paper is also helpful.
- With each source, make sure to record the author's name, the title of the work (of both the larger piece [e.g., book, journal, etc.] as well as the small piece [e.g., chapter title, article title, etc.]), the publisher, the copyright date, and the page numbers referenced; you will need this information for the Works Cited or Reference page for the final draft.
Types of Notes:
- Direct Quotations
- Notations for
- Additional Research
- Argumentative Rhetoric
- Personal Asides
Tricks to Keeping Things Organized:
- If you want to get fancy, you can have different documents that contain different topics for each piece of research. Most people however don't have time for that. Develop your own tricks to keep your research separate.
- If the different-document-technique is too cumbersome, try using different color inks or highlighters.
- If that doesn't work, indicate the type of note with different bullet points.
- If you write down a direct quote, go ahead and indicate that in your notes with quotation marks and the page number it came from at the end. You will be less likely to confuse your sentences from that of someone else if you take the time to indicate who they belong to first.
Excerpt from notes on The RFK Tapes, "Episode 6: The Manchurian Candidate"4
- only Kennedy died that night at the Ambassador Hotel? Is that right?
- quotation from Dr. Daniel Brown, an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School., who conducted an interview with Sirhan Sirhan:
"I asked him to tell me at some length about his sister who died of leukemia several years before the assassination. Because those are verifiable memories and we could see what he could remember. [...] So there was quite a contrast between the amount of detail he could remember about his sister's illness and dying and the night of the assassination, which he remembered almost no details for. So that struck me. Later in a number of interviews over the years, I used hypnosis. and I’d have to say Sirhan is one of the most hypnotizable people I’ve ever met."
- triggering "range mode"
- The Manchurian Candidate: movie came out in 1962
- The Search for the Manchurian Candidate by John Marks quotation:
"Morse Allen decided to take his hypnosis studies further, right in his own office. He asked young CIA secretaries to stay after work and ran them through the hypnotic paces. He had secretaries steal secret files and pass them on to total strangers, thus violating the most basic CIA security rules. He got them to steal from each other and to start fires.
On February 19, 1954, Morse Allen simulated the ultimate experiment in hypnosis: the creation of a "Manchurian Candidate," or programmed assassin. Allen's "victim" was a secretary whom he put into a deep trance and told to keep sleeping until he ordered otherwise. He then hypnotized a second secretary and told her that if she could not wake up her friend, "her rage would be so great that she would not hesitate to 'kill.'" Allen left a pistol nearby, which the secretary had no way of knowing was unloaded. Even though she had earlier expressed a fear of firearms of any kind, she picked up the gun and "shot" her sleeping friend. After Allen brought the "killer" out of her trance, she had apparent amnesia for the event, denying she would ever shoot anyone." [chapter 11]
- Sirhan's "prison" memory where he could have been programmed
- why the conspiracy?
- Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The Crafting of Research, 3rd Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 69.
- Ibid., 69
- Ibid., 69
- Zac Stuart-Pontier and Bill Klaber, "The Manchurian Candidate," July 17, 2018, in The RFK Tapes, produced by Cadence 13, podcast, MP3 audio, 00:27:33, http://rfktapes.com/6-the-manchurian-candidate/.
The entire objective of this page is to help students craft a thesis statement. In order to make the process a little easier, we are going to break the thesis down to developing an argument and finding the greater significance of said argument; these two components, when combined, will create the overarching claim of the research paper. Let's begin:
Developing a Claim
- Find Something You Hate: A simple way to develop an argument is to find something you hate about a text or explain why you think the text is trash.
- Headcanons: Character studies and alternate interpretations of a specific scene are completely valid literary research pursuits.
- Something Interesting: Was there something that grabbed your attention when you first read/watched the text your paper is about? Explore whatever that interesting thing was.
Thesis for The RFK Tapes:
"Over the next 10 episodes, we’re going to plunge into the vaults of the Robert F Kennedy assassination. It’s a murder that changed the course of American history, and a case authorities have claimed for the last 50 years was open and shut."1
- Subject: RFK assassination
- Object: Controversy surrounding the conclusion of the case
Information from the Experts
- "In a research report, you make a claim, back it with reasons, support them with evidence, acknowledge and respond to other views, and sometimes explain your principles of reasoning. There’s nothing arcane in any of that, because you do it in every conversation that inquires thoughtfully into an unsettled issue."2
- The fundamental basis of a research paper is the presentation of a claim based on some reason backed up with evidence as indicated in the following illustration3:
- "So as you assemble the core of your argument, you must offer readers a plausible set of reasons, in a clear, logical order, based on evidence they will accept."4
- "Careful readers will question every part of your argument, so you must anticipate as many of their questions as you can, and then acknowledge and respond to the most important ones."5
Finding the Significance
- So What?: The "So What?" of an argument is primarily about the audience. Why should the audience care about your argument? This is the space where you explore the larger implications of your paper's conclusions as well as try to persuade your audience to your way of thinking.
- Contribution to Scholarship: Every piece of writing about a topic is supposed to be moving the conversation forward.
Significance of The RFK Tapes:
- Police misconduct / Miscarriage of justice
- Contribution to the distrust of the government and law enforcement
- An unbiased accumulation of the facts surrounding the murder of RFK and the conspiracy theory surrounding the case's conclusion
- Zac Stuart-Pontier and Bill Klaber, "June 5, 1968," June 5, 2018, in The RFK Tapes, produced by Cadence 13, podcast, MP3 audio, 00:02:50-00:03:03, http://rfktapes.com/1-june-5-1968/.
- Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The Crafting of Research, 3rd Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 108.
- Ibid., 112.
- Ibid., 130.
- Ibid., 113.
We have finally arrived at the culmination of the last three steps of the research process: The Drafting Phase. The information presented below is meant to help lessen the stress of sitting down at a computer and staring at a blank screen.
Creating the First Draft
Sometimes, the key to working on a larger project like a research paper is to create smaller tasks to accomplish within the larger whole.
Dissecting the Document:
- Thesis Post-it: The easiest way to remember what your paper is arguing is to have your thesis statement written down on a post-it that you can stick to the side of your computer or on your writing station for quick reference. The thesis is what drives the whole paper; it is the thing that will keep you on task and prevent you from sliding off topic. With each new paragraph, check in with your thesis. Does the new line of thought match up to what you're supposed to be arguing? Are you still trying to prove your ultimate claim or have you deviated? Check in with the thesis often, and you will help cut down on the need to remove pieces of your paper later.
- Multiple Documents: Sometimes breaking the argument down across multiple documents can help (a.) maintain focus on the smaller topics as you develop them and (b.) trick your brain into thinking that you have done more work in a shorter window.
- Don't Delete Anything: Technically, this falls into the above category, but it is more about maintaining your morale while you're writing. By not deleting anything, you are basically making a list of possible information that you might still need at some point while you're writing. The set aside information may ultimately be useless, but that's fine too. As long as you don't delete it, you don't feel like you are purposely shorting yourself in your own writing.
- Change the Spacing: While it might seem counterproductive, changing the spacing of your document from double-space to single-space can help remove some of the anxiety regarding the ultimate length of the paper. How long does the document need to be? 5 pages? 10? 20? Well, if you start working on a single-spaced document and write ten pages, once you change the document to double-space, you have a twenty-page paper.
Not all students are going to have to contend with theory in their research papers. Theory and Theoretical Frameworks are traditionally part of the writing found within Major-level classes.
Literary Theory Resources:
- Literary Theory from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Writing Theory Resources:
- Organizing Academic Research Papers: Theoretical Framework from Sacred Heart University Library
- Understanding, Selecting, and Integrating a Theoretical Framework in Dissertation Research: Creating the Blueprint for Your "House" (pdf) by Drs. Cynthia Grant and Azadeh Osanloo
Productive procrastination sounds like an oxymoron. How can you advance with an assignment when you're not actively working on it? Well, below is a list of things to do for the paper that are necessary but also a bit of a time-waster while putting off actually working on the writing portion.
List of Purposeful Yet Effective Distractions:
- Research Notes: Open a new document and type up all of the research notes that you plan to incorporate into your paper.
- Reference Page: Create a separate document and type up all of the references for the paper.
- Copy-Editing: If you get stuck at any point, stop and read back through your work. You can correct your errors as you go while jump-starting your brain with new ideas.
By doing one or all of the above, you have successfully wasted time while still managing to get important things accomplished. Try to steer clear of doing laundry or cleaning during this phase of the assignment, but if you ever need a break, get up and take a walk or fix a beverage of some kind. Sometimes just stepping away from the computer for a moment can help recenter your thought process.
Resources on How to Structure a Research Paper
- Dr. Greg Frazier's Sample Paper (pdf): This sample paper walks students through how to write a research paper.
You have reached the end of the process. You have a completed draft and are ready to hand it in, right?
You have a first draft. Now, you need to begin the editing stage of the writing process.
However before you begin this process, take a deep breath. Have you been up all night? Go take a nap. Turn on some calming music and have a cup of tea. Do whatever you have to that is away from the paper you have just finished. You need a break and so does your brain. This is going to be hard, but you need to leave the paper alone for a little while (preferably for at least a day, but twenty minutes would help). This will all still be here.
Now that you've had a few restful moments, let's jump into editing.
Tips on Proofreading and Editing
A good deal of revising methods depend solely on how much time is left in between when the draft is completed and the assignment needs to be handed into the professor. With that in mind, the below tips are divided into two categories: the meticulous method and the fast method.
- The Meticulous Method
- Outline the Paper: As mentioned back in the brainstorming section, some people find it more beneficial to outline a research paper at the end of the process instead of the beginning. Creating an outline at this juncture allows for a student to fully digest the paper in its entirety while simultaneously breaking the paper down into its base components. The reason this option is considered lengthy is because the easiest way to do this is with notecards. Take a stack of notecards and write out your thesis statement, topic sentences, evidence, analysis of that evidence, and transitional sentences. (See: time-consuming). By pulling your paper apart like this, it allows for you to take parts of it and rearrange them while also seeing these parts in isolation.
- The Fast Method
- Read it Backwards and Out Loud: When short on time, the easiest way to find errors is to read the paper backwards and out loud. Reading the paper backwards forces you to look at each individual sentence in isolation. Reading it out loud will help you hear when a sentence has awkward wording or seems incomplete in some way.
- Seek Outside Assistance
- Tutoring: The University Writing Center and Center for Academic Success are free face-to-face tutoring services for students to get help with any of their writing questions. Make your appointments early. You need enough time to be able to incorporate whatever the tutor tells you into your paper before handing it in to your professor. Give yourself at minimum a day before the assignment is due. Don't try to get help the day your supposed to hand it in, and especially, don't try to get someone to look at it within the same hour you have class. Most students need substantial changes to their paper because most students are asking for assistance with the first draft. Give yourself time to get help.
- Consulting with the Professor: I know it seems intimidating, but go see your professor. He or she is grading your work. Don't be afraid to ask for help, that's what office hours are for.
- Online Resources: While not as helpful as a face-to-face consultation, there are online options that can help in a pinch. The only caveat to them is time.
- Smarthinking: UWG provides students with an online tutoring service called Smarthinking (find more information on this service at the UWC's Online Writing Tutoring or UWG Online Student Help pages). Smarthinking has a 24- and 48-hour turnaround guarantee.
- Grammarly: This is a website that helps with proofreading and some plagiarism issues. (Check out the Grammarly or UWG Online Student Help page to find out how to access it for free.)
- Check out the UWC's Proofreading and Editing page
For additional information, check out the Writing Process, where we breakdown different writing concepts that fall slightly outside the purview of a research paper. The information within the writing process pages also provide a more thorough look at quotation integration and understanding academic lingo, which is not fully explored in the general steps that we have provided above.
- Youtube channels that exemplify a research-based essay:
- Videos from TED-Ed:
Ingram Library Resources:
Ingram Library provides students with free access to multiple academic journals for a wide-range of subjects. When starting the research process, check out the academic databases below:
- ABELL (Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature): Lists monographs, periodical articles, critical editions of literary works, book reviews, collections of essays, and doctoral dissertations on English and American literature since 1920. (No full text)
- Gale Literary Sources: Contains 5 literary databases: Literature Criticism Online, Literature Resource Center, Scribner Writers on GVLR, Something about the Author Online, and Twayne's Authors on GVLR. These resources include literary criticism and biographical and critical essays on the lives and works of influential literary figures from the US and beyond.
- Literary Reference Center: Information from respected reference works, books, and literary journals. Includes work overviews, articles of literary criticism, author biographies, book reviews, and short stories and poems.
- Literature Online Complete (LION): LION (Literature Online) is a full-text library of over 330,000 works of British and American poetry, drama and prose. In addition to literary texts, LION includes biographical sketches of major writers, selected author bibliographies, and critical and reference works.
- Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism: Historical survey of the key literary figures, schools, and movements.
- JSTOR: Access to back issues of core journals. Includes extensive content in literature.
- MLA International Bibliography (Literature and Language): Journal articles, books, and dissertations. Subjects include literature, language and linguistics, folklore, literary theory & criticism, and the performing arts.
- ProQuest Research Library: Multi-disciplinary database with many full-text scholarly articles.
- Project Muse: Scholarly publications in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Includes extensive content on literature.
Important thing to remember: to use the University's databases off campus, be sure to log in with the GALILEO password first. (The GALILEO password can be found in the Resources box in CourseDen--lower right)
Ingram Library also contains subject-based guides to help students find the best research databases.
- Google Scholar: Google search engine for scholarly sources.
- Refdesk.com is a free and family friendly web site indexing and reviewing quality, credible, and current Internet reference resources.
- Library of Congress is the research library that officially serves the United States Congress and is the de facto national library of the United States.
- Internet Archive is a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.
- Open Library provides online access to many public domain and out-of-print books.
- Project Gutenberg is a collection of public domain books.
- Library Extension is a helpful aid in finding books in local libraries.
- Zotero is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share research.