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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.


The purpose of this playbook is to help you master the research process. The step-by-step information takes you through the whole process, from developing an idea into a topic to citing your sources.

To navigate this playbook, click on the links.

What is a Research Paper?

frustrated student looking at laptop while holding head in hands

The information below was taken verbatim from Cengage Learning.

Before you begin working on a research paper in any course, it is important to understand what a research paper is not.

  • A research paper is not "about" a subject
    A research paper should have a thesis -- a clear point of view. It is not simply a generalized discussion of an issue.
  • A research paper is not a summary of everything you can find
    Your goal is not to collect everything you can find out about a subject and summarize it. Although you should review as much material as possible, you should select sources that directly support your thesis.
  • A research paper is not a list of quotes
    The focus of your paper is your point of view, your commentary. Direct quotations, facts, and statistics may be woven throughout your paper, but they should support your position. Your commentary should do more than simply introduce or link quotations.
  • A research paper does not support a pre-conceived point of view
    Looking up facts that support what you already believe is not genuine research. You should examine evidence then form an opinion.
  • A research paper does not present the ideas of others without documentation
    Research papers must use documentation methods to prevent you from plagiarizing sources. Do not borrow ideas, statistics, or facts without noting their original source.

A research paper, no matter what the subject, must achieve specific goals:

  • A research paper meets the needs of the assignment
    Many instructors give specific requirements for research papers, detailing topics, use of sources, and documentation methods.
    • Make sure you fully understand the scope of the assignment.
    • Keep the needs of the assignment in mind as you work on your paper. Constantly refer to the instructor's guidelines to keep your research on track.
  • A research paper has a clear focus
    The more narrow you make your subject, the easier your paper will be to write. It is better to write about one character in a novel or a play than attempt to comment on an entire work. It is easier to focus on one treatment for a single psychiatric disorder than trying to address mental health.
  • A research paper has a clear thesis
    A research paper must express a point of view, not simply report on the ideas of others. The focus of the paper is not the views of others but your opinions and interpretations.
  • A research paper comments on the quantity and quality of sources
    A research paper does not simply summarize and present the ideas of others. A good research paper distinguishes between reliable and biased sources, between authoritative and questionable statistics, between fact and opinion.

Video: The Research Process - General Overview

This video, Information Literacy, Module 1: Starting Your Research Assignment, from the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning at Mercy College, provides an general overview of how to tackle a research project.