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How to Write a Research Paper

Writing an effective research paper starts with knowing what type of paper you are writing.

The goal of a research paper is not to inform the reader what others have to say about a topic, but to draw on what others have to say about a topic and engage the sources in order to thoughtfully offer a unique perspective on the issue at hand. This is accomplished through two major types of research papers.

The argumentative research paper consists of an introduction in which the writer clearly introduces the topic and informs his audience exactly which stance he intends to take; this stance is often identified as the thesis statement. An important goal of the argumentative research paper is persuasion, which means the topic chosen should be debatable or controversial.

The analytical research paper often begins with the student asking a question (a.k.a. a research question) on which he has taken no stance. Such a paper is often an exercise in exploration and evaluation.

From OWL - Genre and the Research Paper.

Rationale for Citing your Sources

There are several basic reasons that you cite sources.

1.  Performed research.  

Properly formed and complete citations indicate you have conducted research on the topic or issue.  No citations to any or additional research, data, or supporting documents makes your comments opinion.

2.  Giving credit.  

Giving credit where credit is due is important for properly identifying and acknowledging the ideas or research of others and helps avoid inadvertent plagiarism.

3.  Avoiding plagiarism.  

If in doubt, cite your source.  Cite a direct quote, a paraphrase, or a summarization.  Be as precise as you can to avoid confusion.  If it is not an obvious "common fact or knowledge" then a citation will bolster your comment.

4.  Research trail.  

Properly formed and complete citations in a works cited / end note / foot note / references / bibliography allow your readers to see or find for themselves the sources you are utilizing to make your case or prove your point.  Research is a conversation and citations assist a reader or researcher as they work through the body of literature on a topic.


When to Cite your Sources

Source materials [what you cite] can be used in three different ways: it may be quoted, paraphrased, or summarized.


presenting source material verbatim (that is, in the exact words of the original) and placing quotation marks around it.


restating ideas of the source material in your own words.  No quotation marks are needed with a paraphrase.


transforming the source's ideas into your own words and reducing the number of words substantially.  Like paraphrases, summaries require no quotation marks.

From the online version of the UMUC Effective Writing Center's tutorial on How to Avoid Plagiarism.

Elements of a Citation

Citations are composed of various combinations of basic elements of information arranged or abbreviated in certain specific ways based on the citation style.  The most common citation styles are APA, MLA, and "Chicago" but there are dozens of different citation styles that have been adopted by various disciplines.

The basic elements of a citation typically include:

1.  Author or authors; how many are listed varies by citation style.

2.  Title of the source be it an article, book, book chapter or journal; in complete or abbreviated form based on the citation style.

3.  Date of publication; year is the absolute minimum required, type of publication may necessitate month and/or day as well. 

4.  Page numbers are mandatory when the publication uses them.

5.  Volume and issue numbers for journal or serial publications.

Other elements that are included depending on the publication type:

6.  Place of publication

7.  Edition

Additional elements that might be helpful to include if you're trying to be more helpful to your reader and/or are allowed to add elements to the citation style being utilized.

8.  URL (uniform resource locator) or DOI (digital object identifier).

9.  ISSN (International Standard Serial Number for journals/serials) or ISBN (International Standard Book Number).

10. Date accessed

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