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How do I write an academic research paper?

A step-by-step playbook to the research and writing process. Modified with permission from Johnson & Wales University, Denver.

Developing Research Questions

who how what when where why

Once you have selected a topic, the next step is to develop research questions.

  • Write down what you already know or don't know about the topic.
  • Use that information to develop questions.
    • Use probing questions. (why? what if?)
    • Avoid "yes" and "no" questions. 


Avoid confirmation bias!

tipYou are not looking solely for information that supports your own opinions. You need to ask what it is you want to know about a topic, and then research to find out what other people are saying.

After reading and thinking about the information you find, you can then come to a conclusion. This conclusion is your thesis statement. Your paper will focus on supporting this conclusion, and you will include sources that you found during your research to back up your argument.

Remember -- you should come to your own, NEW conclusion, not simply repeat what you find in your research. That is called a report or a review of literature. Doing a research paper is not an exercise in repetition or summarization.

Example: Endangered Species Act

What do or don't I know about the Endangered Species Act (ESA)?

I know:

  • it's a law that protects animals and habitats that are in danger of extinction.
  • at one point bald eagles and grizzly bears were on the list.
  • there has been a lot of controversy about adding polar bears to the list.

I don't know:

  • what it takes for an animal to be removed from the list.
  • what the penalties are for violating this act.
  • if it protects only habitats within the U.S.

Research Questions

  • What was the ESA designed to protect -- animals only or ecosystems, too?
  • What animals/habitats outside of the United States are covered by the act?
  • What other countries have legislation to protect animals/habitats?
  • What animals are currently on the endangered species list?
  • How does an animal get added/removed from the list?
  • What penalities are imposed on those who violate the act?