Independent research is one of the most impressive things a high school student can achieve and is an increasingly popular option among the most talented students, who are working ever harder to secure a spot at top colleges. The end goal of research is the publication, having your work reviewed and deemed meritorious by others, and made available to the broader academic community.
Before you can publish your research, however, you need to write a research paper. Academic research papers are quite different from the essays you write in high school, or even college, and serve a different purpose. In this article, we’ll cover how to write a research paper step by step, from start to finish.
The Purpose of a Research Paper
Every research paper is arguing for a conclusion. Research begins with a question, then you gather data to learn the answer. Once you have drawn a conclusion from your data, the purpose of the paper is to present your data and show how it leads to your conclusion. Your result may or may not be the one you intended when you began your research, but should be supported by the data regardless.
We won’t go into the details of actually doing research in this article, as that varies greatly by field and discipline. Instead, we’ll cover each piece of the research paper, the purpose they serve, and how to write them. Let’s jump in and show you how to write a research paper.
The abstract serves to summarize your paper in brief, so that readers can determine if the paper is relevant to their studies. The abstract should detail your thesis, your data collection process, and the conclusions you drew from your data. Generally, the abstract only consists of a few hundred words, often less. Not all papers require an abstract; they are more common in the sciences than in the humanities.
The abstract should be concise and to the point. Don’t include unnecessary details, but briefly cover the main points of your research. You will read many abstracts during your own research, and come to understand their utility. When you are going through hundreds of potential sources, you don’t want to read the whole paper every time.
Thesis and Introduction
This is similar to many papers you have written already. In this part of your paper, you outline what you intend to study, and what claims you are arguing. Your thesis is a statement you intend to prove through your data and conclusions; it is the main point of the entire paper.
For this reason, the thesis (and often introduction as a whole) is one of the hardest parts of a research paper to write. Indeed, it is sometimes easier to write the rest of the paper first, than to return and complete the introduction. Whatever your thesis is, however, you should ensure it is well supported by your data and arguments. It is better to change your thesis to match your data than to manipulate data to reach a conclusion you prefer.
This is not needed in all research papers, but if others have already done significant work in your field of study, you are expected to acknowledge it, especially if it colors your current studies. The point of the literature review section is to cover these and address how they impacted your own research.
Most research itself begins with a literature review. We recommend reading all recent articles in the narrow field you are studying because it’s important to know if anyone else has already asked the same question as you before you begin. You can repeat a previous experiment to see if you attain different results, but this should be done consciously, not by accident.
Presenting Your Data
The next step is to describe how you collected your data and then present it. How to do this varies greatly based on what you were actually studying, but often involves charts, tables, or other figures.
When describing data collection, go into detail. You want people reading the paper to be able to replicate your process exactly should they desire. Discuss what sample size you used, and why you made the decisions you did when collecting data if necessary. This section is far longer for science papers than for humanities.
When presenting your data, try to be as clear as possible. If you have written lab reports before, you will have some sense of how this is done, just on a grander scale. Label the axes of your graphs clearly, identify all figures and don’t use acronyms without explanation.
Finally, include sources of error, and statistical analysis of your data (if necessary). If there were possible contaminations in how you collected data that could impact your results, you should detail those. This is important to include so that if others try to replicate your work, they can do so with even greater precision.
When presenting your data through graphs, tables, or other images, each should be assigned a figure number and a caption. The figure numbers allow you to reference each within your own text with ease, allowing readers to refer to them when necessary. Captions should be a brief, one-sentence description of what a figure shows. These make it easy for readers to tell at a glance what they are looking at.
Analyzing Your Data and Drawing Conclusions
After presenting your data, it’s time to draw conclusions from it. You outlined what conclusions you would be drawing in your introduction, but you now need to argue in favor of them. The goal is to present logically how your data supports your points.
The length of this section depends on what you are arguing, and what conclusions you are drawing from your data. For humanities papers, these sections are often longer, as the bulk of the paper is analysis, rather than the presentation of data. It is generally far shorter in scientific papers, where the presentation of the data often takes up much of the length of the essay. The social sciences can go in either direction, depending on the data presented and the conclusions are drawn.
Your conclusion sums up what you proved, and lays out possible areas for additional study. It should tie back in with the introduction, and restate your thesis, now that you have proved it. The conclusion is generally quite short, only a paragraph in length.
Footnotes and Bibliography
You need to cite your sources in a research paper; this is done through both footnotes and a bibliography at the end. You may use MLA, APA, or Chicago style citations as you prefer, but you should use a consistent style, for both footnotes and the bibliography. Some journals will mandate the use of one style or another.
Footnotes can also be used to include other tangential information or important notes. Some academics use footnotes to indirectly (or directly) denigrate the theories of their peers. We recommend you not do this, though we do recommend reading footnotes for this reason.
Whenever you use an idea or data from an outside source, you need to cite where it came from. The standards of academic honesty are quite high for publication, and we don’t want your paper to get rejected during review due to citation errors.
Audience and Tone
Research papers are formal and should be written formally. Don’t use slang (unless writing a paper on the linguistics of slang). You should also avoid the use of personal pronouns to reference yourself or the reader. The tone should be authoritative and aimed at an expert audience. Do not obfuscate merely for the sake of doing so, but present information at an expert level and expect to be understood.
Some papers and journals are specifically aimed at laypeople, and if you are writing a paper for one of these, you should use more accessible language, and explain assuming a lower level of background knowledge of the subject.
The ultimate goal of research is to discover something worthwhile and to share that discovery with the broader academic community. The fact that this looks great on a college application should be tangential but is a nice bonus for your hard work.
Of course, writing a research paper is challenging, and takes a lot of effort. If you would like help designing a research project, drafting a paper, or any other aspect of building your candidacy for college, schedule a free consultation with us today to learn how we can help you. We have helped students in every field prepare for college, and we’re always happy to hear from you.