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13.1 Formatting a Research Paper

Learning objectives.

  • Identify the major components of a research paper written using American Psychological Association (APA) style.
  • Apply general APA style and formatting conventions in a research paper.

In this chapter, you will learn how to use APA style , the documentation and formatting style followed by the American Psychological Association, as well as MLA style , from the Modern Language Association. There are a few major formatting styles used in academic texts, including AMA, Chicago, and Turabian:

  • AMA (American Medical Association) for medicine, health, and biological sciences
  • APA (American Psychological Association) for education, psychology, and the social sciences
  • Chicago—a common style used in everyday publications like magazines, newspapers, and books
  • MLA (Modern Language Association) for English, literature, arts, and humanities
  • Turabian—another common style designed for its universal application across all subjects and disciplines

While all the formatting and citation styles have their own use and applications, in this chapter we focus our attention on the two styles you are most likely to use in your academic studies: APA and MLA.

If you find that the rules of proper source documentation are difficult to keep straight, you are not alone. Writing a good research paper is, in and of itself, a major intellectual challenge. Having to follow detailed citation and formatting guidelines as well may seem like just one more task to add to an already-too-long list of requirements.

Following these guidelines, however, serves several important purposes. First, it signals to your readers that your paper should be taken seriously as a student’s contribution to a given academic or professional field; it is the literary equivalent of wearing a tailored suit to a job interview. Second, it shows that you respect other people’s work enough to give them proper credit for it. Finally, it helps your reader find additional materials if he or she wishes to learn more about your topic.

Furthermore, producing a letter-perfect APA-style paper need not be burdensome. Yes, it requires careful attention to detail. However, you can simplify the process if you keep these broad guidelines in mind:

  • Work ahead whenever you can. Chapter 11 “Writing from Research: What Will I Learn?” includes tips for keeping track of your sources early in the research process, which will save time later on.
  • Get it right the first time. Apply APA guidelines as you write, so you will not have much to correct during the editing stage. Again, putting in a little extra time early on can save time later.
  • Use the resources available to you. In addition to the guidelines provided in this chapter, you may wish to consult the APA website at http://www.apa.org or the Purdue University Online Writing lab at http://owl.english.purdue.edu , which regularly updates its online style guidelines.

General Formatting Guidelines

This chapter provides detailed guidelines for using the citation and formatting conventions developed by the American Psychological Association, or APA. Writers in disciplines as diverse as astrophysics, biology, psychology, and education follow APA style. The major components of a paper written in APA style are listed in the following box.

These are the major components of an APA-style paper:

Body, which includes the following:

  • Headings and, if necessary, subheadings to organize the content
  • In-text citations of research sources
  • References page

All these components must be saved in one document, not as separate documents.

The title page of your paper includes the following information:

  • Title of the paper
  • Author’s name
  • Name of the institution with which the author is affiliated
  • Header at the top of the page with the paper title (in capital letters) and the page number (If the title is lengthy, you may use a shortened form of it in the header.)

List the first three elements in the order given in the previous list, centered about one third of the way down from the top of the page. Use the headers and footers tool of your word-processing program to add the header, with the title text at the left and the page number in the upper-right corner. Your title page should look like the following example.

Beyond the Hype: Evaluating Low-Carb Diets cover page

The next page of your paper provides an abstract , or brief summary of your findings. An abstract does not need to be provided in every paper, but an abstract should be used in papers that include a hypothesis. A good abstract is concise—about one hundred fifty to two hundred fifty words—and is written in an objective, impersonal style. Your writing voice will not be as apparent here as in the body of your paper. When writing the abstract, take a just-the-facts approach, and summarize your research question and your findings in a few sentences.

In Chapter 12 “Writing a Research Paper” , you read a paper written by a student named Jorge, who researched the effectiveness of low-carbohydrate diets. Read Jorge’s abstract. Note how it sums up the major ideas in his paper without going into excessive detail.

Beyond the Hype: Abstract

Write an abstract summarizing your paper. Briefly introduce the topic, state your findings, and sum up what conclusions you can draw from your research. Use the word count feature of your word-processing program to make sure your abstract does not exceed one hundred fifty words.

Depending on your field of study, you may sometimes write research papers that present extensive primary research, such as your own experiment or survey. In your abstract, summarize your research question and your findings, and briefly indicate how your study relates to prior research in the field.

Margins, Pagination, and Headings

APA style requirements also address specific formatting concerns, such as margins, pagination, and heading styles, within the body of the paper. Review the following APA guidelines.

Use these general guidelines to format the paper:

  • Set the top, bottom, and side margins of your paper at 1 inch.
  • Use double-spaced text throughout your paper.
  • Use a standard font, such as Times New Roman or Arial, in a legible size (10- to 12-point).
  • Use continuous pagination throughout the paper, including the title page and the references section. Page numbers appear flush right within your header.
  • Section headings and subsection headings within the body of your paper use different types of formatting depending on the level of information you are presenting. Additional details from Jorge’s paper are provided.

Cover Page

Begin formatting the final draft of your paper according to APA guidelines. You may work with an existing document or set up a new document if you choose. Include the following:

  • Your title page
  • The abstract you created in Note 13.8 “Exercise 1”
  • Correct headers and page numbers for your title page and abstract

APA style uses section headings to organize information, making it easy for the reader to follow the writer’s train of thought and to know immediately what major topics are covered. Depending on the length and complexity of the paper, its major sections may also be divided into subsections, sub-subsections, and so on. These smaller sections, in turn, use different heading styles to indicate different levels of information. In essence, you are using headings to create a hierarchy of information.

The following heading styles used in APA formatting are listed in order of greatest to least importance:

  • Section headings use centered, boldface type. Headings use title case, with important words in the heading capitalized.
  • Subsection headings use left-aligned, boldface type. Headings use title case.
  • The third level uses left-aligned, indented, boldface type. Headings use a capital letter only for the first word, and they end in a period.
  • The fourth level follows the same style used for the previous level, but the headings are boldfaced and italicized.
  • The fifth level follows the same style used for the previous level, but the headings are italicized and not boldfaced.

Visually, the hierarchy of information is organized as indicated in Table 13.1 “Section Headings” .

Table 13.1 Section Headings

A college research paper may not use all the heading levels shown in Table 13.1 “Section Headings” , but you are likely to encounter them in academic journal articles that use APA style. For a brief paper, you may find that level 1 headings suffice. Longer or more complex papers may need level 2 headings or other lower-level headings to organize information clearly. Use your outline to craft your major section headings and determine whether any subtopics are substantial enough to require additional levels of headings.

Working with the document you developed in Note 13.11 “Exercise 2” , begin setting up the heading structure of the final draft of your research paper according to APA guidelines. Include your title and at least two to three major section headings, and follow the formatting guidelines provided above. If your major sections should be broken into subsections, add those headings as well. Use your outline to help you.

Because Jorge used only level 1 headings, his Exercise 3 would look like the following:

Citation Guidelines

In-text citations.

Throughout the body of your paper, include a citation whenever you quote or paraphrase material from your research sources. As you learned in Chapter 11 “Writing from Research: What Will I Learn?” , the purpose of citations is twofold: to give credit to others for their ideas and to allow your reader to follow up and learn more about the topic if desired. Your in-text citations provide basic information about your source; each source you cite will have a longer entry in the references section that provides more detailed information.

In-text citations must provide the name of the author or authors and the year the source was published. (When a given source does not list an individual author, you may provide the source title or the name of the organization that published the material instead.) When directly quoting a source, it is also required that you include the page number where the quote appears in your citation.

This information may be included within the sentence or in a parenthetical reference at the end of the sentence, as in these examples.

Epstein (2010) points out that “junk food cannot be considered addictive in the same way that we think of psychoactive drugs as addictive” (p. 137).

Here, the writer names the source author when introducing the quote and provides the publication date in parentheses after the author’s name. The page number appears in parentheses after the closing quotation marks and before the period that ends the sentence.

Addiction researchers caution that “junk food cannot be considered addictive in the same way that we think of psychoactive drugs as addictive” (Epstein, 2010, p. 137).

Here, the writer provides a parenthetical citation at the end of the sentence that includes the author’s name, the year of publication, and the page number separated by commas. Again, the parenthetical citation is placed after the closing quotation marks and before the period at the end of the sentence.

As noted in the book Junk Food, Junk Science (Epstein, 2010, p. 137), “junk food cannot be considered addictive in the same way that we think of psychoactive drugs as addictive.”

Here, the writer chose to mention the source title in the sentence (an optional piece of information to include) and followed the title with a parenthetical citation. Note that the parenthetical citation is placed before the comma that signals the end of the introductory phrase.

David Epstein’s book Junk Food, Junk Science (2010) pointed out that “junk food cannot be considered addictive in the same way that we think of psychoactive drugs as addictive” (p. 137).

Another variation is to introduce the author and the source title in your sentence and include the publication date and page number in parentheses within the sentence or at the end of the sentence. As long as you have included the essential information, you can choose the option that works best for that particular sentence and source.

Citing a book with a single author is usually a straightforward task. Of course, your research may require that you cite many other types of sources, such as books or articles with more than one author or sources with no individual author listed. You may also need to cite sources available in both print and online and nonprint sources, such as websites and personal interviews. Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting” , Section 13.2 “Citing and Referencing Techniques” and Section 13.3 “Creating a References Section” provide extensive guidelines for citing a variety of source types.

Writing at Work

APA is just one of several different styles with its own guidelines for documentation, formatting, and language usage. Depending on your field of interest, you may be exposed to additional styles, such as the following:

  • MLA style. Determined by the Modern Languages Association and used for papers in literature, languages, and other disciplines in the humanities.
  • Chicago style. Outlined in the Chicago Manual of Style and sometimes used for papers in the humanities and the sciences; many professional organizations use this style for publications as well.
  • Associated Press (AP) style. Used by professional journalists.

References List

The brief citations included in the body of your paper correspond to the more detailed citations provided at the end of the paper in the references section. In-text citations provide basic information—the author’s name, the publication date, and the page number if necessary—while the references section provides more extensive bibliographical information. Again, this information allows your reader to follow up on the sources you cited and do additional reading about the topic if desired.

The specific format of entries in the list of references varies slightly for different source types, but the entries generally include the following information:

  • The name(s) of the author(s) or institution that wrote the source
  • The year of publication and, where applicable, the exact date of publication
  • The full title of the source
  • For books, the city of publication
  • For articles or essays, the name of the periodical or book in which the article or essay appears
  • For magazine and journal articles, the volume number, issue number, and pages where the article appears
  • For sources on the web, the URL where the source is located

The references page is double spaced and lists entries in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. If an entry continues for more than one line, the second line and each subsequent line are indented five spaces. Review the following example. ( Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting” , Section 13.3 “Creating a References Section” provides extensive guidelines for formatting reference entries for different types of sources.)

References Section

In APA style, book and article titles are formatted in sentence case, not title case. Sentence case means that only the first word is capitalized, along with any proper nouns.

Key Takeaways

  • Following proper citation and formatting guidelines helps writers ensure that their work will be taken seriously, give proper credit to other authors for their work, and provide valuable information to readers.
  • Working ahead and taking care to cite sources correctly the first time are ways writers can save time during the editing stage of writing a research paper.
  • APA papers usually include an abstract that concisely summarizes the paper.
  • APA papers use a specific headings structure to provide a clear hierarchy of information.
  • In APA papers, in-text citations usually include the name(s) of the author(s) and the year of publication.
  • In-text citations correspond to entries in the references section, which provide detailed bibliographical information about a source.

Writing for Success Copyright © 2015 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

How to Write an APA Research Paper

Psychology/neuroscience 201, v iew in pdf format.

An APA-style paper includes the following sections: title page, abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion, and references. Your paper may also include one or more tables and/or figures. Different types of information about your study are addressed in each of the sections, as described below.

General formatting rules are as follows:

Do not put page breaks in between the introduction, method, results, and discussion sections.

The title page, abstract, references, table(s), and figure(s) should be on their own pages. The entire paper should be written in the past tense, in a 12-point font, double-spaced, and with one-inch margins all around.

(see sample on p. 41 of APA manual)

  • Title should be between 10-12 words and should reflect content of paper (e.g., IV and DV).
  • Title, your name, and Hamilton College are all double-spaced (no extra spaces)
  • Create a page header using the “View header” function in MS Word. On the title page, the header should include the following: Flush left: Running head: THE RUNNING HEAD SHOULD BE IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. The running head is a short title that appears at the top of pages of published articles. It should not exceed 50 characters, including punctuation and spacing. (Note: on the title page, you actually write the words “Running head,” but these words do not appear on subsequent pages; just the actual running head does. If you make a section break between the title page and the rest of the paper you can make the header different for those two parts of the manuscript). Flush right, on same line: page number. Use the toolbox to insert a page number, so it will automatically number each page.

Abstract (labeled, centered, not bold)

No more than 120 words, one paragraph, block format (i.e., don’t indent), double-spaced.

  • State topic, preferably in one sentence. Provide overview of method, results, and discussion.


(Do not label as “Introduction.” Title of paper goes at the top of the page—not bold)

The introduction of an APA-style paper is the most difficult to write. A good introduction will summarize, integrate, and critically evaluate the empirical knowledge in the relevant area(s) in a way that sets the stage for your study and why you conducted it. The introduction starts out broad (but not too broad!) and gets more focused toward the end. Here are some guidelines for constructing a good introduction:

  • Don’t put your readers to sleep by beginning your paper with the time-worn sentence, “Past research has shown (blah blah blah)” They’ll be snoring within a paragraph!  Try to draw your reader in by saying something interesting or thought-provoking right off the bat.  Take a look at articles you’ve read. Which ones captured your attention right away? How did the authors accomplish this task? Which ones didn’t?  Why not?  See if you can use articles you liked as a model. One way to begin (but not the only way) is to provide an example or anecdote illustrative of your topic area.
  • Although you won’t go into the details of your study and hypotheses until the end of the intro, you should foreshadow your study a bit at the end of the first paragraph by stating your purpose briefly, to give your reader a schema for all the information you will present next.
  • Your intro should be a logical flow of ideas that leads up to your hypothesis. Try to organize it in terms of the ideas rather than who did what when. In other words, your intro shouldn’t read like a story of “Schmirdley did such-and-such in 1991. Then Gurglehoff did something-or-other in 1993.  Then....(etc.)” First, brainstorm all of the ideas you think are necessary to include in your paper. Next, decide which ideas make sense to present first, second, third, and so forth, and think about how you want to transition between ideas. When an idea is complex, don’t be afraid to use a real-life example to clarify it for your reader. The introduction will end with a brief overview of your study and, finally, your specific hypotheses. The hypotheses should flow logically out of everything that’s been presented, so that the reader has the sense of, “Of course. This hypothesis makes complete sense, given all the other research that was presented.”
  • When incorporating references into your intro, you do not necessarily need to describe every single study in complete detail, particularly if different studies use similar methodologies. Certainly you want to summarize briefly key articles, though, and point out differences in methods or findings of relevant studies when necessary. Don’t make one mistake typical of a novice APA-paper writer by stating overtly why you’re including a particular article (e.g., “This article is relevant to my study because…”). It should be obvious to the reader why you’re including a reference without your explicitly saying so.  DO NOT quote from the articles, instead paraphrase by putting the information in your own words.
  • Be careful about citing your sources (see APA manual). Make sure there is a one-to-one correspondence between the articles you’ve cited in your intro and the articles listed in your reference section.
  • Remember that your audience is the broader scientific community, not the other students in your class or your professor.  Therefore, you should assume they have a basic understanding of psychology, but you need to provide them with the complete information necessary for them to understand the research you are presenting.

Method (labeled, centered, bold)

The Method section of an APA-style paper is the most straightforward to write, but requires precision. Your goal is to describe the details of your study in such a way that another researcher could duplicate your methods exactly.

The Method section typically includes Participants, Materials and/or Apparatus, and Procedure sections. If the design is particularly complicated (multiple IVs in a factorial experiment, for example), you might also include a separate Design subsection or have a “Design and Procedure” section.

Note that in some studies (e.g., questionnaire studies in which there are many measures to describe but the procedure is brief), it may be more useful to present the Procedure section prior to the Materials section rather than after it.

Participants (labeled, flush left, bold)

Total number of participants (# women, # men), age range, mean and SD for age, racial/ethnic composition (if applicable), population type (e.g., college students). Remember to write numbers out when they begin a sentence.

  • How were the participants recruited? (Don’t say “randomly” if it wasn’t random!) Were they compensated for their time in any way? (e.g., money, extra credit points)
  • Write for a broad audience. Thus, do not write, “Students in Psych. 280...” Rather, write (for instance), “Students in a psychological statistics and research methods course at a small liberal arts college….”
  • Try to avoid short, choppy sentences. Combine information into a longer sentence when possible.

Materials (labeled, flush left, bold)

Carefully describe any stimuli, questionnaires, and so forth. It is unnecessary to mention things such as the paper and pencil used to record the responses, the data recording sheet, the computer that ran the data analysis, the color of the computer, and so forth.

  • If you included a questionnaire, you should describe it in detail. For instance, note how many items were on the questionnaire, what the response format was (e.g., a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree)), how many items were reverse-scored, whether the measure had subscales, and so forth. Provide a sample item or two for your reader.
  • If you have created a new instrument, you should attach it as an Appendix.
  • If you presented participants with various word lists to remember or stimuli to judge, you should describe those in detail here. Use subheadings to separate different types of stimuli if needed.  If you are only describing questionnaires, you may call this section “Measures.”

Apparatus (labeled, flush left, bold)

Include an apparatus section if you used specialized equipment for your study (e.g., the eye tracking machine) and need to describe it in detail.

Procedure (labeled, flush left, bold)

What did participants do, and in what order? When you list a control variable (e.g., “Participants all sat two feet from the experimenter.”), explain WHY you did what you did.  In other words, what nuisance variable were you controlling for? Your procedure should be as brief and concise as possible. Read through it. Did you repeat yourself anywhere? If so, how can you rearrange things to avoid redundancy? You may either write the instructions to the participants verbatim or paraphrase, whichever you deem more appropriate. Don’t forget to include brief statements about informed consent and debriefing.

Results (labeled, centered, bold)

In this section, describe how you analyzed the data and what you found. If your data analyses were complex, feel free to break this section down into labeled subsections, perhaps one section for each hypothesis.

  • Include a section for descriptive statistics
  • List what type of analysis or test you conducted to test each hypothesis.
  • Refer to your Statistics textbook for the proper way to report results in APA style. A t-test, for example, is reported in the following format: t (18) = 3.57, p < .001, where 18 is the number of degrees of freedom (N – 2 for an independent-groups t test). For a correlation: r (32) = -.52, p < .001, where 32 is the number of degrees of freedom (N – 2 for a correlation). For a one-way ANOVA: F (2, 18) = 7.00, p < .001, where 2 represents the between and 18 represents df within Remember that if a finding has a p value greater than .05, it is “nonsignificant,” not “insignificant.” For nonsignificant findings, still provide the exact p values. For correlations, be sure to report the r 2 value as an assessment of the strength of the finding, to show what proportion of variability is shared by the two variables you’re correlating. For t- tests and ANOVAs, report eta 2 .
  • Report exact p values to two or three decimal places (e.g., p = .042; see p. 114 of APA manual).  However, for p-values less than .001, simply put p < .001.
  • Following the presentation of all the statistics and numbers, be sure to state the nature of your finding(s) in words and whether or not they support your hypothesis (e.g., “As predicted …”). This information can typically be presented in a sentence or two following the numbers (within the same paragraph). Also, be sure to include the relevant means and SDs.
  • It may be useful to include a table or figure to represent your results visually. Be sure to refer to these in your paper (e.g., “As illustrated in Figure 1…”). Remember that you may present a set of findings either as a table or as a figure, but not as both. Make sure that your text is not redundant with your tables/figures. For instance, if you present a table of means and standard deviations, you do not need to also report these in the text. However, if you use a figure to represent your results, you may wish to report means and standard deviations in the text, as these may not always be precisely ascertained by examining the figure. Do describe the trends shown in the figure.
  • Do not spend any time interpreting or explaining the results; save that for the Discussion section.

Discussion (labeled, centered, bold)

The goal of the discussion section is to interpret your findings and place them in the broader context of the literature in the area. A discussion section is like the reverse of the introduction, in that you begin with the specifics and work toward the more general (funnel out). Some points to consider:

  • Begin with a brief restatement of your main findings (using words, not numbers). Did they support the hypothesis or not? If not, why not, do you think? Were there any surprising or interesting findings? How do your findings tie into the existing literature on the topic, or extend previous research? What do the results say about the broader behavior under investigation? Bring back some of the literature you discussed in the Introduction, and show how your results fit in (or don’t fit in, as the case may be). If you have surprising findings, you might discuss other theories that can help to explain the findings. Begin with the assumption that your results are valid, and explain why they might differ from others in the literature.
  • What are the limitations of the study? If your findings differ from those of other researchers, or if you did not get statistically significant results, don’t spend pages and pages detailing what might have gone wrong with your study, but do provide one or two suggestions. Perhaps these could be incorporated into the future research section, below.
  • What additional questions were generated from this study? What further research should be conducted on the topic? What gaps are there in the current body of research? Whenever you present an idea for a future research study, be sure to explain why you think that particular study should be conducted. What new knowledge would be gained from it?  Don’t just say, “I think it would be interesting to re-run the study on a different college campus” or “It would be better to run the study again with more participants.” Really put some thought into what extensions of the research might be interesting/informative, and why.
  • What are the theoretical and/or practical implications of your findings? How do these results relate to larger issues of human thoughts, feelings, and behavior? Give your readers “the big picture.” Try to answer the question, “So what?

Final paragraph: Be sure to sum up your paper with a final concluding statement. Don’t just trail off with an idea for a future study. End on a positive note by reminding your reader why your study was important and what it added to the literature.

References (labeled, centered, not bold)

Provide an alphabetical listing of the references (alphabetize by last name of first author). Double-space all, with no extra spaces between references. The second line of each reference should be indented (this is called a hanging indent and is easily accomplished using the ruler in Microsoft Word). See the APA manual for how to format references correctly.

Examples of references to journal articles start on p. 198 of the manual, and examples of references to books and book chapters start on pp. 202. Digital object identifiers (DOIs) are now included for electronic sources (see pp. 187-192 of APA manual to learn more).

Journal article example: [Note that only the first letter of the first word of the article title is capitalized; the journal name and volume are italicized. If the journal name had multiple words, each of the major words would be capitalized.] 

Ebner-Priemer, U. W., & Trull, T. J. (2009). Ecological momentary assessment of mood disorders and mood dysregulation. Psychological Assessment, 21, 463-475. doi:10.1037/a0017075

Book chapter example: [Note that only the first letter of the first word of both the chapter title and book title are capitalized.]

Stephan, W. G. (1985). Intergroup relations. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (3 rd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 599-658). New York: Random House.

Book example: Gray, P. (2010). Psychology (6 th ed.). New York: Worth

Table There are various formats for tables, depending upon the information you wish to include. See the APA manual. Be sure to provide a table number and table title (the latter is italicized). Tables can be single or double-spaced.

Figure If you have more than one figure, each one gets its own page. Use a sans serif font, such as Helvetica, for any text within your figure. Be sure to label your x- and y-axes clearly, and make sure you’ve noted the units of measurement of the DV. Underneath the figure provide a label and brief caption (e.g., “Figure 1. Mean evaluation of job applicant qualifications as a function of applicant attractiveness level”). The figure caption typically includes the IVs/predictor variables and the DV. Include error bars in your bar graphs, and note what the bars represent in the figure caption: Error bars represent one standard error above and below the mean.

In-Text Citations: (see pp. 174-179 of APA manual) When citing sources in your paper, you need to include the authors’ names and publication date.

You should use the following formats:

  • When including the citation as part of the sentence, use AND: “According to Jones and Smith (2003), the…”
  • When the citation appears in parentheses, use “&”: “Studies have shown that priming can affect actual motor behavior (Jones & Smith, 2003; Klein, Bailey, & Hammer, 1999).” The studies appearing in parentheses should be ordered alphabetically by the first author’s last name, and should be separated by semicolons.
  • If you are quoting directly (which you should avoid), you also need to include the page number.
  • For sources with three or more authors, once you have listed all the authors’ names, you may write “et al.” on subsequent mentions. For example: “Klein et al. (1999) found that….” For sources with two authors, both authors must be included every time the source is cited. When a source has six or more authors, the first author’s last name and “et al.” are used every time the source is cited (including the first time). 

Secondary Sources

“Secondary source” is the term used to describe material that is cited in another source. If in his article entitled “Behavioral Study of Obedience” (1963), Stanley Milgram makes reference to the ideas of Snow (presented above), Snow (1961) is the primary source, and Milgram (1963) is the secondary source.

Try to avoid using secondary sources in your papers; in other words, try to find the primary source and read it before citing it in your own work. If you must use a secondary source, however, you should cite it in the following way:

Snow (as cited in Milgram, 1963) argued that, historically, the cause of most criminal acts... The reference for the Milgram article (but not the Snow reference) should then appear in the reference list at the end of your paper.

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How to Write a Research Paper: Your Top Guide

what should a research paper look like

Did you know that the concept of a research paper can be traced back to the time of Aristotle in ancient Greece? In his renowned work, 'Prior Analytics,' Aristotle laid the foundation for logical reasoning and systematic investigation, setting the stage for the research papers we know today. From those ancient beginnings to the modern era, the art of writing a research paper has evolved into a captivating blend of critical thinking, meticulous analysis, and effective communication.

How to Write a Research Paper: Short Description

Whether you're a seasoned academic or a student venturing into the world of scholarly exploration, this comprehensive guide will take you on a journey through how to write a research paper. You will learn how to choose a compelling topic, conduct research, develop a solid thesis statement, structure your paper effectively, and present your findings with clarity and impact. Additionally, our paper writer service will explore proven techniques for organizing your thoughts, synthesizing information and crafting a compelling argument. By the end of this article, you will be equipped with the tools and knowledge to tackle the challenges of writing a research paper and producing a remarkable piece of scholarly work.

What Is a Research Paper: Understanding the Essence and Purpose

A research paper is like a well-crafted map that guides us through the labyrinth of knowledge. It is a scholarly document that explores a particular topic, delving into its depths and emerges with insights that enlighten and expand our understanding. Picture it as a detective story, with the researcher donning the hat of a relentless investigator, tirelessly gathering evidence and constructing a compelling argument. These papers find their natural habitat in academia, where students, scholars, and scientists alike employ them as vehicles for sharing their discoveries with the world. The purpose behind writing a research paper is the following:

What Is a Research Paper

  • It is a means of contributing to the existing body of knowledge. By conducting their own research and presenting new insights or discoveries, researchers add valuable information to the field they are studying.
  • Showcases the writer's ability to navigate the intricate world of research. It demonstrates their critical thinking skills, their ability to analyze data, and their capacity to draw logical conclusions based on evidence.
  • Serves as a platform for scholarly communication, allowing researchers to engage in conversations with their peers, exchange ideas, and build upon previous studies.

How Long Should a Research Paper Be: Decoding the Ideal Size

The question of how long a research paper should be is a bit like asking, 'How long is a piece of string?' The ideal size of a research paper can vary depending on various factors, such as the academic discipline, the nature of the research, and the specific guidelines provided by the institution or the journal.

In general, cheap research papers are expected to be long enough to effectively communicate the research findings and support the arguments made. However, they should also be concise and avoid unnecessary repetition or fluff. Quality and substance should always take precedence over quantity.

For most undergraduate assignments, research papers typically range from 5 to 15 pages, but this can vary depending on the course and professor's requirements. In contrast, graduate-level research papers and those intended for publication in academic journals can be significantly longer, often extending to 20, 30, or even 50 pages.

It's worth noting that some journals or conferences may have specific guidelines regarding the maximum or minimum word count for submissions. In such cases, it's crucial to adhere to the provided instructions to increase the chances of publication or acceptance.

And if you find yourself wondering how to write a good research paper, remember that you have the option to buy an essay from our reliable services!

Sample Research Paper

Before we dive into the specifics of writing a research paper, let’s explore some of its main components and how the information is structured.

what should a research paper look like

How to Write a Research Paper with 10 Effortless Steps

Embarking on the quest of writing a research paper? Fear not, for we have the perfect roadmap with 10 effortless steps to guide you through this academic adventure. From selecting a captivating topic that will captivate readers to meticulously analyzing and organizing your research, we will equip you with the tools and strategies needed to craft a stellar paper.

how to write a research paper

Grasp the Task

It's astonishing how many students dive into writing a research paper without even glancing at the assignment guidelines. While this may seem obvious to some, it's important to emphasize the significance of thoroughly reviewing the guidelines before starting.

To begin, carefully read the assignment and delve into the writing prompt. Take note of any technical requirements such as length, formatting specifications (single- vs. double-spacing, indentations, etc.), and citation style. Additionally, pay attention to specific details, including whether an abstract is required or if a cover page needs to be included.

Once you have a clear understanding of the assignment, you can proceed with the standard writing process, albeit with a few additional steps, due to the unique rules of research papers. However, the fundamental essence of the writing process remains unchanged.

For instance, let's consider a hypothetical scenario where a student named Alex is assigned a research paper on climate change. Before embarking on the writing journey, Alex carefully examines the assignment guidelines. The prompt specifies that the paper should be 10-12 pages long, utilize APA formatting, and include at least 10 scholarly sources. In addition, an abstract and a cover page are required.

With these guidelines in mind, Alex now has a solid foundation to begin their research paper. They can proceed by conducting thorough research, gathering relevant information from credible sources, and organizing their findings. Following the traditional writing process of drafting, revising, and editing, Alex can refine their ideas and arguments, ensuring a coherent and well-structured paper.

By taking the time to understand how to start a research paper and follow the appropriate writing process, Alex increases their chances of producing a high-quality research paper that meets all the necessary requirements.

Select Your Topic

When contemplating how to choose research paper topics , your primary consideration should be whether they possess enough depth and substance to sustain an entire paper. It is essential to opt for a topic that offers an abundance of data and complexity, allowing for a comprehensive and insightful discussion.

While ensuring your topic meets these criteria, it is equally important to infuse a personal touch. Avoid approaching the topic selection process mechanically; instead, seek something that genuinely captivates your interest. Ideally, aim for a research paper topic that satisfies both requirements - one that provides ample content for exploration while keeping you engaged and motivated throughout the research and writing process.

Gather Preliminary Studies

The importance of initiating your research promptly cannot be overstated. A research paper, as the name suggests, relies heavily on thorough investigation and inquiry.

To refine your chosen topic and shape a strong thesis statement, it is crucial to explore existing research on your subject matter as early as possible. Conducting preliminary research serves multiple purposes: it dispels any misconceptions or preconceived notions you may have and illuminates the most effective paths and methodologies for uncovering additional valuable material.

In the process of your search, it is crucial to differentiate between primary and secondary sources. Primary sources encompass original accounts, firsthand information, or direct observations, such as published articles, survey data, or personal interviews. On the other hand, secondary sources analyze and interpret primary sources, providing critical reviews, scholarly articles, or meta-analyses.

In certain academic contexts regarding how to write an academic research paper, a literature review may be required, wherein you present a comprehensive analysis and synthesis of the existing research to validate your research objectives. However, even if a literature review is not mandatory, it is highly beneficial to compile an early list of potential sources. This proactive step enables you to establish a strong foundation of relevant literature, ensuring a comprehensive and well-supported research paper.

Craft a Thesis Statement

When learning how to write a research paper, understanding the importance of a well-crafted thesis statement is crucial. The thesis statement serves as the backbone of any successful term paper, providing a clear and concise summary of the main focus of your study. It not only acts as a guide for the reader, indicating what to expect from the rest of the paper, but it also sets the tone and direction for your entire document. Follow these three steps to create an engaging and academically sound thesis:

  • Clearly define your research topic and its purpose. Determine the main subject and specific aspect or question you'll explore. Example: Research topic - Impact of social media on adolescent mental health.
  • Analyze the subject matter and narrow down your focus by identifying key aspects or variables to explore. Example: Focus on the impact of cyberbullying.
  • Craft a clear, strong, and concise statement that presents your main argument or position. Example: 'The prevalence of cyberbullying on social media platforms significantly contributes to adverse mental health outcomes in adolescents, highlighting the urgent need for preventive measures and support systems.'

Unveil Supporting Evidence

When it comes to knowing how to write an academic research paper, it's time to roll up our sleeves and delve into the wealth of sources we have collected. Within these sources lie the gems of information that will enrich and support our paper.

As a diligent researcher, your approach involves carefully reading each source and capturing essential notes. You must stay focused on extracting only the information that directly relates to the topic. It's important to resist the temptation of including tangents or irrelevant context, no matter how captivating they may be. Remember to diligently record the page numbers, not only for future reference but also for the necessary task of citation.

In addition to highlighting significant text and jotting down notes, another effective tactic that some students find helpful is the use of bibliography cards. These practical index cards serve as repositories for key facts or direct quotations on one side while capturing crucial bibliographical details such as source citations, page numbers, and subtopic categories on the other side. Although not mandatory, bibliography cards can greatly contribute to staying organized, particularly when it's time to outline your research findings.

Frame Your Paper

An outline plays a vital role in the construction of a research paper. It serves as a concise roadmap, outlining the essential topics, arguments, and supporting evidence that will be incorporated into the paper. By organizing these elements into distinct sections with appropriate headings, an outline provides a clear overview of how the paper will be structured before you even begin writing.

Creating a well-structured outline offers numerous benefits. Notably, it enhances the efficiency of the writing process by providing a framework that guides your thoughts and ensures a logical flow of ideas. By dedicating sufficient time to develop a comprehensive outline, you can streamline the overall writing experience and produce a cohesive and well-organized research paper.

If you're interested in exploring how to write a research paper outline in more detail, our article provides a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the subject. Read it to get valuable insights and practical tips on optimizing your outlining process for academic writing.

Begin the First Draft

Once you have your outline ready, it's time to dive into the writing process. This step requires considerable effort and attention, but with proper planning and organization, you can make it a smoother experience.

When it comes to writing a research paper introduction, it's natural to feel overwhelmed. To tackle this challenge, consider starting with a compelling opening sentence or anecdote that grabs the reader's attention. Then, present a concise and engaging thesis statement that encapsulates the main argument of your paper. Build upon this thesis by providing relevant background information and contextualizing the significance of your research topic. Save the intricate details and supporting evidence for the subsequent sections of your paper.

Moving on to the body of your research paper, this is where you present your research findings and analysis. To ensure clarity and coherence, consider organizing your content into logical sections or subheadings. Each section should cover a specific aspect or point related to your thesis statement. As you write each paragraph, make sure to provide sufficient evidence, examples, and explanations to support your arguments. Remember, this is the initial draft, so focus on conveying your ideas rather than striving for perfection.

Connecting your paragraphs seamlessly is crucial for maintaining a cohesive flow throughout your research paper. Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence that acts as a bridge between the previous and upcoming ideas. Use transition words and phrases to guide your reader from one point to another smoothly. Additionally, consider using clear and concise language to enhance readability and comprehension.

Once you have completed the body of your paper, it's time to craft a strong research paper conclusion example . Summarize your main arguments and findings, emphasizing their significance and relevance. Instead of simply restating your thesis, strive to offer a fresh perspective or insight that leaves a lasting impression on your reader. Avoid introducing new information in the conclusion; instead, focus on reinforcing the main points and leaving the reader with a sense of closure.

In the sections that follow, we will delve into how to cite a research paper . Let's explore the necessary steps and guidelines for proper citation.

Use Proper Source Citations

When starting a research paper, have you checked the assignment guidelines to determine the required formatting style? Two popular styles you might encounter are MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association). MLA is often used in humanities and liberal arts disciplines, while APA is preferred in social sciences and psychology. To make your life easier, you can find detailed formatting guidelines and  handy automatic citation generators and even buy research paper . Trust us; they can save you time and effort!

But wait, there's more! In addition to those two, you may come across other formatting styles like CMOS (The Chicago Manual of Style), AMA (American Medical Association), or IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). It may seem overwhelming, but each style has its own guidelines for citing different sources – from photos to websites, speeches, and even YouTube videos.

Now, we understand that citations can initially seem like a maze of rules and specific information. However, once you get the hang of them, citing sources will become second nature to you. The key is to practice and familiarize yourself with the guidelines. Before you know it, you'll be properly citing your sources without even thinking about it!

Revise and Polish

The key factor to mastering how to write a good research paper, it is crucial to dedicate time to proofreading and correcting any mistakes. To ensure a thorough review, we recommend conducting two editing sessions: one focused on addressing structural issues and another dedicated to refining word choice, grammar, and spelling.

During the structural edit, consider the following checklist to guide your revisions:

  • Is your thesis statement clear and concise, effectively conveying the main idea of your paper?
  • Does your paper exhibit a well-organized structure, with smooth transitions guiding the reader from beginning to end?
  • Do your ideas flow logically within each paragraph, presenting a coherent sequence of thoughts?
  • Have you supported your arguments with concrete details and facts, avoiding vague generalizations?
  • Do your arguments effectively support and prove your thesis statement?
  • Have you eliminated unnecessary repetition to enhance clarity and conciseness?
  • Are your sources appropriately cited, ensuring proper credit and avoiding plagiarism?

After addressing structural concerns, shift your focus to the word choice, grammar, and spelling edit. Consider the following aspects:

  • Is your language clear, precise, and free of ambiguity?
  • Do your sentences flow smoothly and convey your ideas effectively?
  • Have you eliminated filler words and phrases that weaken the impact of your writing?
  • Have you meticulously checked for proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation?

Consider reading your paper aloud or having someone else review it to catch any overlooked issues.

Enhance with Resources

There are various sources that can be utilized for references, including scholarly articles, books, websites, online videos, newspapers, and internet articles, among others. Each type of resource has its own format for citation. Below, you will find formats for commonly used resources.

  • Journal article: Author, A., & Author, B. (Year). Title of article. Journal Title, Volume(Issue), page range. DOI.
  • Book: Author, A., & Author, B. (Year). Title of book. Publisher Name.
  • Website: Author. (Year). Title of page. Retrieved Date, from (insert website URL).
  • Journal article: Author(s). 'Title of Article.' Title of Journal, Volume, Issue, Year, pages.
  • Book: Last Name, First Name. Title of Book. City of Publication, Publisher, Publication Date.
  • Website: Author. Name of Site. Version number, Name of organization, date of resource creation, URL. Date of access.

If you are seeking more information on how to write a research paper or need assistance with each step of the process, consider exploring the following tools:

  • JSTOR : JSTOR is a digital library containing a vast collection of academic journals, books, and primary sources. It offers comprehensive research material in various disciplines.
  • Mendeley : Mendeley is a reference management tool that helps you organize your research sources, collaborate with peers, and generate citations automatically. It also provides access to a large database of scholarly articles.
  • Grammarly : Grammarly is an online writing assistant that helps improve grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It offers suggestions for enhancing clarity and style in your research papers.
  • Tableau : Tableau is a powerful data visualization tool that enables you to create interactive charts, graphs, and dashboards. It allows you to present your research findings in a visually engaging and informative manner.
  • Overleaf : Overleaf is an online LaTeX editor that simplifies the process of writing scientific documents, including research papers, theses, and dissertations. It provides collaborative features and pre-built templates for different document types.

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In conclusion, with these effective steps and techniques, you can confidently write a research paper. Dive into research, organize your thoughts, support your arguments, revise diligently, and embrace improvement. Let your ideas flow and create papers that make a meaningful impact in your field.

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How to Write a Concept Paper: Easy Guide for Students

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How to Write a Research Paper

Last Updated: February 18, 2024 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Chris Hadley, PhD . Chris Hadley, PhD is part of the wikiHow team and works on content strategy and data and analytics. Chris Hadley earned his PhD in Cognitive Psychology from UCLA in 2006. Chris' academic research has been published in numerous scientific journals. There are 14 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 4,169,636 times.

Whether you’re in a history, literature, or science class, you’ll probably have to write a research paper at some point. It may seem daunting when you’re just starting out, but staying organized and budgeting your time can make the process a breeze. Research your topic, find reliable sources, and come up with a working thesis. Then create an outline and start drafting your paper. Be sure to leave plenty of time to make revisions, as editing is essential if you want to hand in your best work!

Sample Research Papers and Outlines

what should a research paper look like

Researching Your Topic

Step 1 Focus your research on a narrow topic.

  • For instance, you might start with a general subject, like British decorative arts. Then, as you read, you home in on transferware and pottery. Ultimately, you focus on 1 potter in the 1780s who invented a way to mass-produce patterned tableware.

Tip: If you need to analyze a piece of literature, your task is to pull the work apart into literary elements and explain how the author uses those parts to make their point.

Step 2 Search for credible sources online and at a library.

  • Authoritative, credible sources include scholarly articles (especially those other authors reference), government websites, scientific studies, and reputable news bureaus. Additionally, check your sources' dates, and make sure the information you gather is up to date.
  • Evaluate how other scholars have approached your topic. Identify authoritative sources or works that are accepted as the most important accounts of the subject matter. Additionally, look for debates among scholars, and ask yourself who presents the strongest evidence for their case. [3] X Trustworthy Source Purdue Online Writing Lab Trusted resource for writing and citation guidelines Go to source
  • You’ll most likely need to include a bibliography or works cited page, so keep your sources organized. List your sources, format them according to your assigned style guide (such as MLA or Chicago ), and write 2 or 3 summary sentences below each one. [4] X Research source

Step 3 Come up with a preliminary thesis.

  • Imagine you’re a lawyer in a trial and are presenting a case to a jury. Think of your readers as the jurors; your opening statement is your thesis and you’ll present evidence to the jury to make your case.
  • A thesis should be specific rather than vague, such as: “Josiah Spode’s improved formula for bone china enabled the mass production of transfer-printed wares, which expanded the global market for British pottery.”

Drafting Your Essay

Step 1 Create an outline

  • Your outline is your paper’s skeleton. After making the outline, all you’ll need to do is fill in the details.
  • For easy reference, include your sources where they fit into your outline, like this: III. Spode vs. Wedgewood on Mass Production A. Spode: Perfected chemical formula with aims for fast production and distribution (Travis, 2002, 43) B. Wedgewood: Courted high-priced luxury market; lower emphasis on mass production (Himmelweit, 2001, 71) C. Therefore: Wedgewood, unlike Spode, delayed the expansion of the pottery market.

Step 2 Present your thesis...

  • For instance, your opening line could be, “Overlooked in the present, manufacturers of British pottery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries played crucial roles in England’s Industrial Revolution.”
  • After presenting your thesis, lay out your evidence, like this: “An examination of Spode’s innovative production and distribution techniques will demonstrate the importance of his contributions to the industry and Industrial Revolution at large.”

Tip: Some people prefer to write the introduction first and use it to structure the rest of the paper. However, others like to write the body, then fill in the introduction. Do whichever seems natural to you. If you write the intro first, keep in mind you can tweak it later to reflect your finished paper’s layout.

Step 3 Build your argument in the body paragraphs.

  • After setting the context, you'd include a section on Josiah Spode’s company and what he did to make pottery easier to manufacture and distribute.
  • Next, discuss how targeting middle class consumers increased demand and expanded the pottery industry globally.
  • Then, you could explain how Spode differed from competitors like Wedgewood, who continued to court aristocratic consumers instead of expanding the market to the middle class.
  • The right number of sections or paragraphs depends on your assignment. In general, shoot for 3 to 5, but check your prompt for your assigned length.

Step 4 Address a counterargument to strengthen your case.

  • If you bring up a counterargument, make sure it’s a strong claim that’s worth entertaining instead of ones that's weak and easily dismissed.
  • Suppose, for instance, you’re arguing for the benefits of adding fluoride to toothpaste and city water. You could bring up a study that suggested fluoride produced harmful health effects, then explain how its testing methods were flawed.

Step 5 Summarize your argument...

  • Sum up your argument, but don’t simply rewrite your introduction using slightly different wording. To make your conclusion more memorable, you could also connect your thesis to a broader topic or theme to make it more relatable to your reader.
  • For example, if you’ve discussed the role of nationalism in World War I, you could conclude by mentioning nationalism’s reemergence in contemporary foreign affairs.

Revising Your Paper

Step 1 Ensure your paper...

  • This is also a great opportunity to make sure your paper fulfills the parameters of the assignment and answers the prompt!
  • It’s a good idea to put your essay aside for a few hours (or overnight, if you have time). That way, you can start editing it with fresh eyes.

Tip: Try to give yourself at least 2 or 3 days to revise your paper. It may be tempting to simply give your paper a quick read and use the spell-checker to make edits. However, revising your paper properly is more in-depth.

Step 2 Cut out unnecessary words and other fluff.

  • The passive voice, such as “The door was opened by me,” feels hesitant and wordy. On the other hand, the active voice, or “I opened the door,” feels strong and concise.
  • Each word in your paper should do a specific job. Try to avoid including extra words just to fill up blank space on a page or sound fancy.
  • For instance, “The author uses pathos to appeal to readers’ emotions” is better than “The author utilizes pathos to make an appeal to the emotional core of those who read the passage.”

Step 3 Proofread

  • Read your essay out loud to help ensure you catch every error. As you read, check for flow as well and, if necessary, tweak any spots that sound awkward. [13] X Trustworthy Source University of North Carolina Writing Center UNC's on-campus and online instructional service that provides assistance to students, faculty, and others during the writing process Go to source

Step 4 Ask a friend, relative, or teacher to read your work before you submit it.

  • It’s wise to get feedback from one person who’s familiar with your topic and another who’s not. The person who knows about the topic can help ensure you’ve nailed all the details. The person who’s unfamiliar with the topic can help make sure your writing is clear and easy to understand.

You Might Also Like

Get Started With a Research Project

Community Q&A

Community Answer

  • Remember that your topic and thesis should be as specific as possible. Thanks Helpful 5 Not Helpful 0
  • Researching, outlining, drafting, and revising are all important steps, so do your best to budget your time wisely. Try to avoid waiting until the last minute to write your paper. Thanks Helpful 6 Not Helpful 2

what should a research paper look like

  • ↑ https://writing.wisc.edu/handbook/assignments/planresearchpaper/
  • ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/evaluating-print-sources/
  • ↑ https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/conducting_research/research_overview/index.html
  • ↑ https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/writing/graduate-writing-lab/writing-through-graduate-school/working-sources
  • ↑ https://opentextbc.ca/writingforsuccess/chapter/chapter-5-putting-the-pieces-together-with-a-thesis-statement/
  • ↑ https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/the_writing_process/developing_an_outline/index.html
  • ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/introductions/
  • ↑ https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/writingprocess/counterarguments
  • ↑ https://writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu/pages/ending-essay-conclusions
  • ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/revising-drafts/
  • ↑ https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/formandstyle/writing/scholarlyvoice/activepassive
  • ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/editing-and-proofreading/
  • ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/reading-aloud/
  • ↑ https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/the_writing_process/proofreading/index.html

About This Article

Chris Hadley, PhD

To write a research paper, start by researching your topic at the library, online, or using an academic database. As you conduct your research and take notes, zero in on a specific topic that you want to write about and create a 1-2 sentence thesis to state the focus of your paper. Then, create an outline that includes an introduction, 3 to 5 body paragraphs to present your arguments, and a conclusion to sum up your main points. Once you have your paper's structure organized, draft your paragraphs, focusing on 1 argument per paragraph. Use the information you found through your research to back up your claims and prove your thesis statement. Finally, proofread and revise your content until it's polished and ready to submit. For more information on researching and citing sources, read on! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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Understanding What a Research Paper Looks Like

The aim of this article is to provide an overview for those unfamiliar with research papers, outlining what one typically looks like and the elements that compose it. Research papers are a common component in academic settings as they require students to demonstrate their understanding on a particular topic or field through engaging writing. Through exploring different aspects such as structure, content and formatting guidelines, readers will have increased awareness about how research papers can be effectively produced. This article is intended for use by both beginners who may lack knowledge regarding the production of quality research papers or experienced authors looking to refine their techniques.

1. Introduction to Research Papers

2. key characteristics of a research paper, 3. selecting an appropriate topic for your research paper, 4. constructing the outline and drafting the paper, 5. evaluating sources used in a research project, 6. crafting an effective thesis statement 7. formatting, editing, and finalizing your work.

Research papers can be both daunting and exciting to create. They provide an opportunity for writers to dive deeply into a subject, exploring new concepts and pushing boundaries of existing knowledge. At the same time, they require painstaking attention to detail; one small mistake or oversight can lead to significant problems down the road.

A research paper typically begins with an introduction section that establishes the context of your topic by providing background information about it. After introducing your main idea, you will likely delve further into related concepts in subsequent sections such as literature reviews and methodologies. Research papers often end with conclusions that summarize what has been discussed throughout the document.

Structurally speaking, research papers are quite straightforward: They generally include titles/headings at each major level (e.g., Introduction, Literature Review), sub-level headings (as needed) within each main heading/section, plus citations when quoting other sources directly or paraphrasing their ideas.

Informative and Accurate: A research paper should provide an accurate account of the material it presents. It must be written in a style that is clear, precise, and comprehensive; free from jargon or ambiguity; and fully compliant with established conventions for citing sources of information. A well-crafted research paper should accurately inform its readers about current topics, issues, or developments relevant to the topic area covered by the document while at all times being impartial in its analysis of those matters.

Complexity vs Clarity: The structure of a research paper can vary considerably depending on the nature of its subject matter but typically will include some combination of sections such as background/introduction section(s), literature review section(s), data collection methods & results section(s) and discussion & conclusion section(s). Each component needs to contain logically coherent arguments which demonstrate depth yet remain accessible enough to explain their content clearly even to laypersons unfamiliar with associated technical terms. In this way a successful research paper both conveys complex ideas whilst adhering firmly to best practices for plain language use within academic writing contexts.

Brainstorming When looking for a research paper topic, it’s important to start by brainstorming ideas. Consider any course topics that you’ve found particularly interesting, or think about an issue in the world today that sparks your curiosity. Once you have a few initial ideas jotted down, take some time to explore and expand upon each one until you can narrow them down into something more focused and manageable.

Research & Exploration Once you’ve narrowed down your options, dig deeper into each of those potential topics with additional research; consider what aspects could be explored further or whether there are related sub-topics within the main topic area that might provide more insight. Also make sure to check out any guidelines provided by your professor for help on selecting an appropriate scope and direction for your research paper project.

  • Explore library resources.
  • Consult subject matter experts.

. When it comes time to begin actually writing up the document itself, remember all of the work done thus far should come through in how effectively organized and informative your particular research paper looks like.

Organizing your Ideas Creating an outline for your research paper helps you keep track of the ideas, topics and arguments that are important to the topic. It serves as a roadmap for how to structure your paper. With a solid foundation in place, crafting the body of your work becomes much easier! To get started, consider these three key steps:

  • Develop main ideas or claims related to each subtopic.
  • Group relevant evidence under those main ideas or claims.
  • Use transitions between points/paragraphs when necessary.

Once you’ve laid out all of the different parts of your research paper, it’s time to begin drafting! The goal here is not necessarily perfection but rather giving yourself something concrete upon which to build later on. Every paragraph should have at least one idea-based claim backed up by reliable source material (which can include primary sources). Summarize any data or facts that support this claim in brief sentences; follow up with additional explanation if needed. These pieces will come together like puzzle pieces over time into what looks like an academic essay—specifically tailored towards responding directly to the prompt given at hand.

An Effective Method of Evaluation The research project’s sources can be evaluated using a few simple steps. First, an analysis should be conducted to identify any biases present in the source material. This includes analyzing potential political and ideological influences which could shape how information is presented. Additionally, one must look for any conflicts of interest that may arise from authors or organizations associated with the data being used.

Once this step has been completed, it is important to determine if there are any logical fallacies present in arguments made within the source material. It is essential that these issues are identified before relying too heavily on certain elements of a research paper looks like; such errors will ultimately lead to an unreliable result at best and a completely inaccurate conclusion at worst. Furthermore, citing multiple sources strengthens conclusions by providing alternative perspectives on topics explored throughout the document.

  • Analyze bias
  • Identify Conflicts of Interest
  • Look for Logical Fallacies

Thesis Statement Your thesis statement is the heart of your paper. It’s where you state your main argument, analyze it, and provide evidence to back up your point. As such, crafting an effective thesis statement requires both precision and creativity; no one size fits all approach exists here. A successful thesis statement should be clear, concise, specific and appropriate for its subject matter – in other words: tell readers what they can expect from reading the rest of the essay.

Formatting & Finalizing Your Work Now that you have written a compelling introduction including a solid yet creative thesis statement – it’s time to bring everything together in order for your research paper look like a masterpiece! Start by thoroughly reviewing every sentence within each section ensuring there are no errors regarding grammar or punctuation then shift focus on formatting elements such as font size or page numbering before finally examining visuals (charts graphs etc.) if included with accuracy.

  • Set margins.
  • Check pagination.

. Finally don’t forget to proofread: re-read at least twice taking special care when scrutinizing word choice as well as any use of quotations sources and outside material – this will help eliminate any potential typos leaving behind nothing but polished content fit for purpose.

This article has provided an overview of the structure and contents of a research paper. In conclusion, it is important to note that while there are common conventions in writing a research paper, each individual author will have their own style when constructing one. As such, understanding what makes up a standard research paper can help provide guidance for authors who wish to use this format effectively. Furthermore, doing so may also aid in developing better habits for communicating research results more efficiently and persuasively among academic communities.

Research Paper Guide

Research Paper Example

Nova A.

Research Paper Examples - Free Sample Papers for Different Formats!

Published on: Nov 27, 2017

Last updated on: Jan 11, 2024

Research Paper Example

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Crafting a comprehensive research paper can be daunting. Understanding diverse citation styles and various subject areas presents a challenge for many.

Without clear examples, students often feel lost and overwhelmed, unsure of how to start or which style fits their subject.

Explore our collection of expertly written research paper examples. We’ve covered various citation styles and a diverse range of subjects.

So, read on!

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Research Paper Example for Different Formats

Following a specific formatting style is essential while writing a research paper . Knowing the conventions and guidelines for each format can help you in creating a perfect paper. Here we have gathered examples of research paper for most commonly applied citation styles :

Social Media and Social Media Marketing: A Literature Review

APA Research Paper Example

APA (American Psychological Association) style is commonly used in social sciences, psychology, and education. This format is recognized for its clear and concise writing, emphasis on proper citations, and orderly presentation of ideas.

Here are some research paper examples in APA style:

Research Paper Example APA 7th Edition

Research Paper Example MLA

MLA (Modern Language Association) style is frequently employed in humanities disciplines, including literature, languages, and cultural studies. An MLA research paper might explore literature analysis, linguistic studies, or historical research within the humanities. 

Here is an example:

Found Voices: Carl Sagan

Research Paper Example Chicago

Chicago style is utilized in various fields like history, arts, and social sciences. Research papers in Chicago style could delve into historical events, artistic analyses, or social science inquiries. 

Here is a research paper formatted in Chicago style:

Chicago Research Paper Sample

Research Paper Example Harvard

Harvard style is widely used in business, management, and some social sciences. Research papers in Harvard style might address business strategies, case studies, or social policies.

View this sample Harvard style paper here:

Harvard Research Paper Sample

Examples for Different Research Paper Parts

A research paper has different parts. Each part is important for the overall success of the paper. Chapters in a research paper must be written correctly, using a certain format and structure.

The following are examples of how different sections of the research paper can be written.

Research Proposal

The research proposal acts as a detailed plan or roadmap for your study, outlining the focus of your research and its significance. It's essential as it not only guides your research but also persuades others about the value of your study.

Example of Research Proposal

An abstract serves as a concise overview of your entire research paper. It provides a quick insight into the main elements of your study. It summarizes your research's purpose, methods, findings, and conclusions in a brief format.

Research Paper Example Abstract

Literature Review 

A literature review summarizes the existing research on your study's topic, showcasing what has already been explored. This section adds credibility to your own research by analyzing and summarizing prior studies related to your topic.

Literature Review Research Paper Example


The methodology section functions as a detailed explanation of how you conducted your research. This part covers the tools, techniques, and steps used to collect and analyze data for your study.

Methods Section of Research Paper Example

How to Write the Methods Section of a Research Paper

The conclusion summarizes your findings, their significance and the impact of your research. This section outlines the key takeaways and the broader implications of your study's results.

Research Paper Conclusion Example

Research Paper Examples for Different Fields

Research papers can be about any subject that needs a detailed study. The following examples show research papers for different subjects.

History Research Paper Sample

Preparing a history research paper involves investigating and presenting information about past events. This may include exploring perspectives, analyzing sources, and constructing a narrative that explains the significance of historical events.

View this history research paper sample:

Many Faces of Generalissimo Fransisco Franco

Sociology Research Paper Sample

In sociology research, statistics and data are harnessed to explore societal issues within a particular region or group. These findings are thoroughly analyzed to gain an understanding of the structure and dynamics present within these communities. 

Here is a sample:

A Descriptive Statistical Analysis within the State of Virginia

Science Fair Research Paper Sample

A science research paper involves explaining a scientific experiment or project. It includes outlining the purpose, procedures, observations, and results of the experiment in a clear, logical manner.

Here are some examples:

Science Fair Paper Format

What Do I Need To Do For The Science Fair?

Psychology Research Paper Sample

Writing a psychology research paper involves studying human behavior and mental processes. This process includes conducting experiments, gathering data, and analyzing results to understand the human mind, emotions, and behavior.

Here is an example psychology paper:

The Effects of Food Deprivation on Concentration and Perseverance

Art History Research Paper Sample

Studying art history includes examining artworks, understanding their historical context, and learning about the artists. This helps analyze and interpret how art has evolved over various periods and regions.

Check out this sample paper analyzing European art and impacts:

European Art History: A Primer

Research Paper Example Outline

Before you plan on writing a well-researched paper, make a rough draft. An outline can be a great help when it comes to organizing vast amounts of research material for your paper.

Here is an outline of a research paper example:

Here is a downloadable sample of a standard research paper outline:

Research Paper Outline

Want to create the perfect outline for your paper? Check out this in-depth guide on creating a research paper outline for a structured paper!

Good Research Paper Examples for Students

Here are some more samples of research paper for students to learn from:

Fiscal Research Center - Action Plan

Qualitative Research Paper Example

Research Paper Example Introduction

How to Write a Research Paper Example

Research Paper Example for High School

Now that you have explored the research paper examples, you can start working on your research project. Hopefully, these examples will help you understand the writing process for a research paper.

If you're facing challenges with your writing requirements, you can hire our essay writing service .

Our team is experienced in delivering perfectly formatted, 100% original research papers. So, whether you need help with a part of research or an entire paper, our experts are here to deliver.

So, why miss out? Place your ‘ write my research paper ’ request today and get a top-quality research paper!

Nova A. (Literature, Marketing)

Nova Allison is a Digital Content Strategist with over eight years of experience. Nova has also worked as a technical and scientific writer. She is majorly involved in developing and reviewing online content plans that engage and resonate with audiences. Nova has a passion for writing that engages and informs her readers.

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Experiences of a London PhD student and beyond

How to Write the First Draft of an Academic Research Paper

what should a research paper look like

Actually making a start and putting together a first draft can certainly be the biggest stumbling block to getting a paper submitted. Unless you make a start, it’ll never progress! Drafting your first paper is even more difficult when you don’t yet have experience writing papers and submitting them to journals.

I know from experience how daunting the prospect can be and just how easy it is to unnecessarily procrastinate for months. But it doesn’t have to be difficult and the main thing is making a start. I’m here to try and help making the process less daunting for you!

This guide to drafting your first academic paper forms part of the publishing series . I suggest reading these associated posts in particular:

  • What to publish
  • When to publish
  • Where to publish

What to include in your first draft of an academic research paper

Let me start by saying that no one should be expecting for your first draft to be perfect! I wasted months of time on my first paper because I wanted to perfect everything, down to the wording, before sharing it with my supervisor. This is completely the wrong approach!

Instead of perfecting your first draft, just work to form the rough structure of your paper around whatever you want your key message to be. We discussed this further in the separate post: Deciding what to publish from your PhD work . Simply try to ensure your first draft roughly tells the story of what you want your main message to be.

It is absolutely fine for your first draft to be a rough cut, it should simply serve as a starting point. Therefore for example you can include extra figures you’re not sure about to be able to discuss with your co-authors whether or not they should be included. Throughout the drafting process you want to aiming to make your key message as clear and robust as possible but for now it’s fine to not be sure on the finer details. It may help to look at your favourite papers from the literature to get an idea what papers in your field typically include.

For now, don’t worry the quality of the written text, or finalising your figures. You want to use the first draft to form the rough structure and be a starting point for discussion with co-authors.

Let’s now discuss how to structure your first draft.

Structuring your first draft

If you already have a certain journal in mind to submit your paper to, how you structure your draft may slightly depend upon the format that the journal asks for. It’s a good idea to check their Author Instructions page which should include a “Guide for Authors”: a walkthrough of each section of the paper. Oftentimes there may even be a template you can download including section titles and advice for structuring your text.

what should a research paper look like

If you don’t yet have a journal in mind, don’t worry. For the most part all journals follow the same format. For an original research paper, usually you’ll include sections as follows:

  • Abstract – typically around 200-250 words or less.
  • Introduction
  • Conclusions – sometimes appears as the final paragraph of the discussion section.

Then followed by Author Contributions, Funding sources, Acknowledgments, Conflicts of Interest, any Supplementary files or Appendix and finally the list of References. None of these sections you really have to worry about at this stage.

Let’s go through roughly what to include in each section:


  • A brief review of previous literature to set the scene;
  • The motivation for the study;
  • The aims of your study;
  • Sometimes you may include a very brief overview of your main findings. See what other papers in the journal do.

Always include enough detail for someone else to be able to repeat your experiments, including:

  • How many samples did you test? How did you process them? Were there inclusion/exclusion criteria?
  • If you synthesised or processed physical samples, what materials have you used? Include processing temperatures, durations of each step etc.
  • What equipment and consumables did you use? Include the item code, model number and manufacturer.
  • How did you process the data? Name the software package, version and operations you performed.
  • Details of any statistical analysis: software packages, models, methods, inclusion/exclusion criteria and so forth.

In all instances where you followed a method developed in another paper, include a reference to that paper. Not only is it good practice to give credit where it is due but you’ll have an easier time with peer review demonstrating you’re following the convention.

Remember, you shouldn’t be discussing findings in your results section, simply presenting them. Therefore there shouldn’t really be any suggesting why the results are a certain way. The exception is where the journal specifically allows results and discussion sections to be combined. Further on in this post is a section about choosing figures and results to include in your paper, and most of these will appear in your results section.

  • Your results should aim to convince the reader of your key message.
  • Be conscious that when first looking at your paper, most readers will go straight to looking at your figures.
  • Cite every figure you include, in the order you include them. Clearly explain what is being presented.


The way I was taught to write a discussion was to simply use four paragraphs/sections covering:

  • Your key finding . You can even start it with the sentence “The most important finding of this work was”
  • Comparison to previous literature . How do your findings compare to other papers? What was the same? What was different? How do your findings progress the field? What would you recommend next?
  • Limitations . Every study has limitations, don’t try and hide them. Be honest with what wasn’t ideal during your study. Examples may be: small sample size, imperfect analysis, impractical sample processing. If you can, cite other papers which relate to these limitations: either in regards to why it’s not such a big problem, how it is common problem, or potential solutions or improvements for future studies. In any case, be honest. You can recommend future work to overcome these limitations if appropriate.
  • Conclusions . Give a brief set of conclusions with reference to the potential impact of your work for future studies.

You can see how I used exactly this format for a recent paper available here .

Eager to learn more about the steps involved in publishing your first paper? My academic publishing series is now available as a free eBook which you can read offline. Click the button below for access.

what should a research paper look like

In which order should you write the sections of the first draft?

Everyone writes papers differently, so what works for me may not work well for you. Personally once I start a document for a new paper, I typically write notes for each section as I think of them but go with the following strategy to get the text written.

what should a research paper look like

Generally it is acknowledged that the methods section is an easy section to write, so I would suggest starting there. Even if you’ve got writer’s block, writing your methods is pretty robotic and shouldn’t require much thought. It simply involves writing down the process you went through to collect all your data. Writing the methods is an easy starting point which should give you confidence to dive into the other sections. In the above graphic I’ve separated the conclusions from the discussion but often the conclusions will simply be the final paragraph of the discussion section.

After the methods you can start drafting your key results and your discussion will naturally follow from there. If you follow the structure for the discussion as outlined in the section above, it should also be formulaic and pretty easy to write if you’ve got a clear message.

By all means crack on with the introduction whenever you fancy. If you’re in the mood to write it, don’t stop yourself! I personally like to write notes for it and include key references as I’m going along, but write the bulk of it after the methods, results and the bulk of the discussion.

Usually it is recommended to write the abstract last once everything else is finalised.

Choosing which figures to present

Remember you’re creating a story around your key message. As such all your figures should be helping to convince your reader of your key message.

  • Be aware that there are sometimes limits on the maximum number of figures you’re allowed to include (around 8) in the main text of your paper. Usually you can move figures to a supplementary section if necessary. Prioritise the most impactful figures to illustrate your main point.
  • Each figure should aim to address a certain point around your key message to convince readers. You can combine figures as panels within a larger figure but only do so if they address the same overall point. Don’t confuse readers by combining loads of unrelated things just because you’re running out of space!
  • Always make sure the caption fully describes what the figure is showing. The figure and caption should explain what is going on without the reader having to read any of the main text. What type of equipment generated the data? How many samples were tested? What do the error bars show? What is the scale? For stats: what is the p-value?

You may need a figure to describe your methods but after that usually you’ll try to include figures in an order which tells a story. Importantly: this order may not be the one in which experiments actually took place. You’re trying to tell a story to get a message across, not write a diary! It’s no problem to move sections of results around if it makes for a more convincing message, especially for readers who may only have a quick glance through your paper.

For example you may wish to start with your key finding, then follow with any validation work, then finally include more details to convince the reader. It will really depend on what suits the work you’re doing, but remember that you have full control and your aim should be to make a clear story.

My top tips for putting together your first draft of the paper

Iterate quickly.

My main bit of advice is to get a first draft put together pretty quickly otherwise you risking wasting lots of time like I did! I wish I had sent the initial drafts of my first paper to my supervisor sooner. I spent far too long trying to perfect it down to the exact phrasing of sentences. There is no point getting to this level of detail if there is potentially an improved completely different direction to take the paper in!

what should a research paper look like

What I’ve found to work really well is to set deadlines with your supervisor to ensure you are making progress to submission. You don’t have to have the full paper available all at once. I have had calendar invites set up saying by a certain date I’d have sections of the paper sent across, and to limit procrastination no date was more than four weeks away.

what should a research paper look like

After your supervisor(s) has had a look, send it across to any co-authors. It may take a few iterations until everyone is happy. Once you have the backing of your coauthors, don’t be scared to submit your manuscript slightly sooner than you feel comfortable.

A reviewer is pretty unlikely to outright reject your paper if they want more experiments to be carried out: they’ll ask for what they want in the review process.

Always think about the next publication

Once you start writing, you may struggle deciding what to include and what not to. Remember though that this doesn’t mean you need to delay publishing if you already have a clear story. Unless all your work sits together very neatly, please resist the urge to include everything in a single paper.

If you’ve got results you’d like to publish but they don’t sit nicely with the main message of this paper, you can always consider publishing them separately later. It is much more important to create a clear message with a coherent story than to include extra work just because you did it!

Although some academics shun the “salami slice” connotations of having many smaller papers, it doesn’t always make sense to force different experiments together in to one paper. I recently published two different papers in the same special issue of a journal, both were related but had very different messages:

  • Quantifying 3D Strain in Scaffold Implants for Regenerative Medicine
  • Exploratory Full-Field Mechanical Analysis across the Osteochondral Tissue—Biomaterial Interface in an Ovine Model

It wouldn’t have made for a stronger paper to combine them because in essence they were telling separate stories.

It’s fine for your first draft if you’re not exactly sure what to include. Once you’ve got the rough form of the paper sorted, you can add or reduce bits as necessary. The key thing is to get a first draft done to get the framework for the paper. No one is expecting it to be perfect!

Word vs LaTex

I know some people enjoy using LaTex for their documents, but I’ve never used it. Everyone I’ve always worked with uses Word, so even if I was keen to use LaTex I’m not sure that it would be that easy to collaborate on documents to track changes etc. Journals will often request the paper to be submitted as a Word document so probably save using LaTex for your own internal reports or theses.

Keep your data, files and figures organised

This point extends far beyond your first draft of a paper! Once you start iterating on papers, it becomes more important than ever to know where all your key files are. Ensure you keep different version of documents clearly labelled.

Be prepared for reviewers to ask for modifications to figures or data to be reanalysed.

What I do is keep a folder for the paper and include the main working draft plus other relevant documents like notes or draft of the cover letter. I then have subfolders for data, figures and old drafts.

Aim to present figures with a clear message which are easy to “get”

Making figures is the focus of a whole other post which will follow this one. In short:

A lot of readers will initially flick through your paper and skip straight to your figures. It’s really important that the figures tell the story clearly and can be understood by just looking at the figure and caption. Also, if the readers don’t like the look of your figures, or can’t understand them, they’re less likely to bother reading the rest of the paper. Again, have a look at how published papers present their work to get some ideas.

You’ll want to make your figures in such a way that they can be amended easily to account for any adjustments suggested by co-authors or reviewers. I use a combination of Excel and Photoshop for most of my figures. There are lots of alternatives depending on what you’re presenting, GIMP is a free alternative to Photoshop.

If you make them in Paint and someone suggests making some alterations, it could take you ages. Instead if you make them in a non-binding software like Photoshop you can easily make non-destructive changes element by element.

It is worth spending time creating nice figures. Having polished figures makes your submission look more professional, ensuring the underlying science is easy to understand is critical too. Plus you can use them elsewhere, such as in presentations or other documents.

Got a draft? What happens next

The hard work is far from over once you have your first draft but you’ve overcome a really big hurdle in the journey to getting your work published. Now it’s time to discuss your draft with co-authors, incorporating feedback and changes into subsequent drafts.

There is no certain number of drafts you should expect to go through before submission, just know that you could endlessly spend time finding things to add (discussed here ) and you should be very conscious to avoid doing! For my papers I think it took around four drafts until we felt happy enough to submit. Not all of your co-authors have to give feedback for every draft, I’d suggest the main people you’ll be liaising with will be your supervisor(s) though it’s certainly important that everyone has an opportunity to help.

Once all of the authors, including yourself, are happy with the paper, speak to your supervisor for how to proceed with submission. Some supervisors like to lead the submission whereas others prefer for the student to do so, and then to transfer “corresponding authorship” at the final stages before publication.

In any case, be prepared to feel vulnerable when you do eventually submit the research paper to a journal. This can be completely normal, your work is going to get critiqued! But remember that you’ve done great and rather than leave the data on a computer you’re motivated to pursue publication in turn helping progress your field. Well done!

I hope this post has helped with your first draft of a paper! Remember that you can find the other posts in the series here: Writing an academic journal paper series. Next we’ll be covering creating figures and dealing with reviewers.

Please let me know what you thought of it or if there are any other details of publishing which you’d like help with .

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Purdue Online Writing Lab Purdue OWL® College of Liberal Arts

Writing a Literature Review

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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.

Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?

There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.

A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.

Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.

What are the parts of a lit review?

Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.


  • An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
  • A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
  • Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
  • Summarize and synthesize: Give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: Don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically Evaluate: Mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: Use transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.


  • Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
  • Connect it back to your primary research question

How should I organize my lit review?

Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:

  • Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
  • Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
  • Qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
  • Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.

What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?

Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .

As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.

Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:

  • It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
  • Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
  • Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
  • Read more about synthesis here.

The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.

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  • How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
  • Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods?
  • Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).


The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.


If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources


A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.

Open Google Slides Download PowerPoint

If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility


  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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McCombes, S. (2023, September 11). How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates. Scribbr. Retrieved February 19, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/dissertation/literature-review/

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    Ensure you keep different version of documents clearly labelled. Be prepared for reviewers to ask for modifications to figures or data to be reanalysed. What I do is keep a folder for the paper and include the main working draft plus other relevant documents like notes or draft of the cover letter.

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    Table of contents Step 1: Introduce your topic Step 2: Describe the background Step 3: Establish your research problem Step 4: Specify your objective (s) Step 5: Map out your paper Research paper introduction examples Frequently asked questions about the research paper introduction Step 1: Introduce your topic

  18. How to Format a Thesis for a Research Paper

    1 It should be clear and concise: A research paper thesis statement should use plain language and explain the topic briefly, without going into too much detail. 2 It's a single sentence: A thesis statement is generally only one sentence, which helps keep the topic simple and makes it easier to understand.

  19. PDF Strategies for Essay Writing

    When you read the assignment prompt, you should do the following: • Look for action verbs. Verbs like analyze, compare, discuss, explain, make an argument, propose a solution, trace, or research can help you understand what you're being asked to do with an assignment. Unless the instructor has specified otherwise, most of your paper ...

  20. Writing a Literature Review

    A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research ...

  21. How to Write a Research Proposal

    Write with Grammarly What is the goal of a research proposal? In a research proposal, the goal is to present the author's plan for the research they intend to conduct. In some cases, part of this goal is to secure funding for said research.

  22. What Does a Good Research Paper Look Like?

    · Aug 31, 2016 A Guide on What Does a Research Paper Look Like What does a research paper look like? A research paper isn't a typical essay that you wrote and know how does an essay look...

  23. How to Write a Literature Review

    Examples of literature reviews Step 1 - Search for relevant literature Step 2 - Evaluate and select sources Step 3 - Identify themes, debates, and gaps Step 4 - Outline your literature review's structure Step 5 - Write your literature review Free lecture slides Other interesting articles Frequently asked questions Introduction Quick Run-through

  24. 5 Best Sites to Buy Research Papers Online

    By simply searching phrases like 'buy college research paper,' 'write my assignment for me,' or 'order research paper' on Google, you'll be presented with a lengthy list of companies.