The Research Paper

What is a research paper?

The best way to describe what a research paper is may be to describe what a research paper is not. A research paper is not an encyclopedia that lists every detail you have discovered about a topic. Nor is it a “literature review” that summarizes the current body of knowledge about a subject. Rather, a research paper is a piece of analytical writing, an essay in which you survey what experts know or have said about a topic and then compare or synthesize their thoughts with your own insights or opinions.

A research paper gives you the opportunity to contribute to a field, to add your voice to the ongoing conversation. How do you do that? By presenting your own analysis, interpretation, or argument backed up with solid evidence gleaned from your research.

What kind of research is expected?

Most college courses expect you to do secondary research–that is, research designed to find out what other people know or have written about a subject. Some common techniques of secondary research include reading books or journals, interviewing experts, and using audio-visual materials.

Some undergraduate and many graduate courses may require you to do primary research—that is, research of your own, designed to discover something original. For example, scientists often conduct primary research by making observations and performing experiments, while social scientists often engage in field research, such as making observations, collecting opinions (by means of polls, questionnaires, surveys), and interviewing individuals for case studies. In the humanities, primary research methods may include reading and critiquing original documents or sources, looking at works of art, and listening to music.

NOTE: Academic writing frequently involves combining primary and secondary research. In any case, you need to ask the professor the same questions: What research methods or techniques am I expected to use? What types of sources should I consult? How many sources am I supposed to consult? What analytical approaches to my source materials are permitted or required?

What kind of paper should result from the research?

The two main types of research papers are analytical and argumentative.

In the analytical research paper (also known as exploratory or informational) you should learn about the topic and inform your reader about what you have learned. If there are different opinions, you should report all of them; if there is a controversy, you should explain what both sides believe. Although analytical papers are governed by athesis—a sentence that establishes the controlling idea or main point of your paper—they do not take sides on an issue.

In the argumentative research paper, however, you should take a stand on an issue and try to persuade your reader to adopt or concur with your position. Like the analytical research paper, an argumentative paper should be driven by a thesis, but in this case, your thesis statement should establish your position on a debatable topic. You should support your argument with evidence gleaned from your research.

  • Sample analytical thesis statement: “Fast food companies have responded to the American public's concern about their weight by offering more salads and vegetables, reducing portion sizes, and providing nutritional information about their products.”
  • Sample argumentative thesis statement: “Obese Americans should not be allowed to sue fast-food restaurants for their condition, because overweight people who scarf down French Fries and milkshakes have only their own lack of will-power and poor eating habits to blame.”

In either case, your paper should present your thoughts and ideas about a subject, supported by the knowledge and opinions of experts in the field. And remember: Just because something is in print or on the Internet, it is not necessarily “the Truth.” Whether you are writing an analytical or an argumentative research paper, you should think critically, not only about the subject, but also about the sources you find. Analyze your sources by evaluating their authority, credibility, accuracy, and objectivity.

What are the professor's other expectations? Ask:

  1. How long should the paper be?
  2. How is your secondary research supposed to be documented?
  3. Is there anything else you should know about this assignment?

Webster University Writing Center—2004