Writing Across the Social Sciences

Writing Research Papers

The first thing to understand is "What is a research paper?"

A research paper is a document that explores the knowledge that is available within a particular field of study and presents that knowledge in the effort to answer a particular research question.

So, let's take this apart a bit...a research paper is:

  • a document
    • This means that it is written out as a single item. It might be printed or stored electronically
  • explores
    • By exploring we mean that it documents and writes about something...it is somewhat "investigative"
  • knowledge that is available within a particular field of study
    • While some research questionsmight involve more than one specific field, the point is that the paper focuses on knowledge that is ALREADY present within a field. If that field was Psychology, you would explore the knowledge of what has been discovered about that topic already...we call this "a review of the literature". This provides you with the background knowledge that you need to write about our current understanding about something.
    • This is different than conducting a study (experiment, survey, interviews) where you are actually gathering raw data on your topic. To conduct these sorts of studies you need to have specialized training in research methods and ethics (not because you can't do it, but to ensure that you do it in such a way that it produces accurate knowledge).
  • answer a particular research question
    • When you set out to write a research paper you need to first decide which quesiton you want ot answer. This is often the toughest part because you have to phrase the question in a way that will "justify" your work.
    • You can't really ask "yes or no" type questions
    • You have to ask questions using the terms that are common in the field you are studying (so often times you need to do some preliminary work to get to the question)
    • The question has to be important...there are a lot of questions out there that are not important or "nobody cares". This is particularly true in this day and age when there is so much information already put together out there on the web. If I can answer your question with a simple Google search, it is not worth writing a paper about it.
    • There is a whole section on coming up with good research questions in this tutorial

Formatting the Whole Paper

Similar to writing an essay, the format of a paper needs to lead the reader through your thinking process as you attempt to show what is known in a particular field in order to answer a particular question.

My favorite model for essay/paper writing is as follows:

  • You start out introducing the topic in general terms and then gradually work your way toward the thesis...this first part should show the reader why your question is important
  • The "thesis" is your actual research question.
  • You should then present your arguments/research/data that support/refute/answer your question
  • You should then bring the reader back to the question (the recapitulation of the thesis)
  • Then work your way out again towards general information and/or the practical application of your answers


Top 10 Rules of Writing

What is an Academic Paper

Starting the Writing Process
This site from the Purdue Online Writing Lab will help you get started on your paper.

How to Structure and Organize your Paper
Making  sense  out  of  your  observations  about  a  text  is  a  difficult  task.  Even  once  you've   figured  out  what  it  is  that  you want  to  say,  you  are  left  with  the  problem  of  how  to  say  it.   With  which  idea  should  you  begin?  Should  you  address the opinions  of  other  thinkers?  As  to   that  stubborn  contradiction  you've  uncovered  in  your  own  thinking:  what  do  you  do with that?  

Writing  papers  in  college  requires  that  you  come  up  with  sophisticated,  complex,  and  even   creative  ways  of  structuring your  ideas.  Accordingly,  there  are  no  simple  formulae  that  we   can  offer  you  that  will  work  for  every  paper,  every  time. We  can,  however,  give  you  some   things  to  think  about  that  will  help  you  as  you  consider  how  to  structure  your  paper.