Basics of a Research Paper
A research paper is an essay, not a report. A report is a presentation of information gleaned from research, whereas an essay is a reasoned investigation that makes definite assertions and supports and defends those assertions. Some marks of a good paper are: clarity of expression, rigor in argumentation, correctness in form, balance in judgment, fairness in handling opposing views, breadth of coverage, discipline in focus, and plausibility of conclusions in light of all the relevant evidence.
The research paper follows standard academic writing procedures (this does not mean it must be boring). This means that the paper is written in your own words, with proper credit given when quoting or referring to words or ideas from another person. The paper should also be written in good English, which includes proper spelling and grammar as well as prose that is free from informal English (slang, appeals to the reader, contractions, etc.). The text should be clear, coherent, and as concise as possible—wordiness does not equal scholarliness.
Elements of Research Papers
This section seeks to lay out the process of writing a research paper, not the methods of research. For a discussion of finding and evaluating sources for a research paper, see a librarian, your professor, or one of the many good books explaining the process, such as these:
- Research Strategies: Finding Your Way Through the Information Fog, 5th ed., by William B. Badke (iUniverse, 2014).
- An Introduction to Theological Research: A Guide for College and Seminary Students, 2nd ed., by Cyril J. Barber and Robert M. Krauss Jr. (University Press of America, 2000).
- Student Guide to Research in the Digital Age: How to Locate and Evaluate Information Sources, by Leslie F. Stebbins (Libraries Unlimited, 2006).
Writing a research paper typically entails the following phases:
- Choose a topic/focus – Choose a topic that will be interesting to you and your professor. Research papers should also be relevant to your class and incorporate what you are learning. Choose a topic that is narrow enough in scope for you to cover adequately in your paper. Your topic should also be discussed in previous theological literature, so you can find good sources.
- Formulate a thesis – A thesis is a one-sentence assertion that you will prove in your paper. A thesis should be narrow and doable, yet challenging and interesting to you and your reader.
- Research – Explore the literature on your topic. Create and explore your bibliography of sources. Handle quotes and excerpts with respect for your source and its author(s). Be careful not to misapply what the author is saying.
- Planning and organizing – Revise your thesis if necessary. Jot down everything you want to say and group similar thoughts together. Using these groups, follow the lead of your thesis to build an outline.
- Writing – Write your paper following the outline you have built. Make sure to leave time to edit your paper and to have someone else (e.g., a friend, the Scribe Writing Center, your professor) look at it.
General Outline of a Research Paper
- Introduction – The introduction includes your thesis and introduces your topic. The scope of this paragraph should be the same as the rest of your paper. Avoid sweeping universal statements as well as sentimentality.
- Body – The body of your paper is your argument. Seek to prove your thesis. Follow your outline and be sure to engage your sources critically; don’t just regurgitate information. Quote sparingly; paraphrasing shows you understand the argument and intent of the source. Re-read the body of your paper often as you work: would this flow of sub-points convince you of your thesis?
- Conclusion – Conclude by restating your thesis. Summarize how it has been sustained, proven, or supported and make any final observations. The conclusion should connect and synthesize the information in your paper, not just repeat previously stated information.
- Bibliography – Every paper must include a Works Cited page. Each source you quote or footnote should be included in the Works Cited. See the appropriate style guide for how to format footnote and bibliography entries. Some research papers will also include a Works Consulted page. This page gives bibliographic information for all the sources you looked at during the research process, whether or not you incorporated information from them in your finished paper. See your professor if your not sure what kind of bibliography to include.
Format of a Research Paper
Unless your professor requests otherwise, the following conventions are recommended.
- The paper should be typed and double-spaced using a clear, non-ornamental, serif font. Examples of acceptable fonts include Times New Roman or Palatino. The text of the paper should be set in 12-point type with footnotes in 10-point.
- Margins are typically 1″ on all sides.
- Page numbers should be included on all pages in a place that remains consistent throughout the paper (i.e., top right on every page, bottom center on every page, etc.).
- Only one space (not two) should be placed after the terminal punctuation of a sentence.
- Titles of books and other longer works should be italicized, not underlined. Titles of articles, essays, parts of longer works, or other shorter works should be enclosed in quotation marks.
- Research and Writing in the Seminary: Practical Strategies and Tools, by Diane Capitani and Melanie Baffes (McFarland & Company, 2014).
- The Seminary Student Writes, by Deborah Core (Chalice Press, 2000).
- Your Guide to Writing Quality Research Papers: For Students of Religion and Theology, 3rd ed., by Nancy Jean Vyhmeister and Terry Dwain Robertson (Zondervan, 2014).