How to Write a Research Paper

This concise guide to writing a research paper by PhD Professor Shylaja Josyula will help you confidently and consistently write solid research papers. The guide provides you with an overview of the requirements for content and structure as well as insight into the expectations of your professors and the key points on which your research paper will be assessed.

Author bio for PhD Professor Shylaja Josyula, University of Toledo

Jacob Leland

Shylaja Josyula has a Ph.D. in Medical Sciences from Medical College of Ohio, Toledo and six years of postdoctoral experience from reputed institutions in US. She has many peer-reviewed publications in cancer research and has given poster presentations and seminars. She is now a registered patent agent in India.

This WriteWork Guide will teach to how to:

  • Structure a research paper.
  • Find and select research paper topics.
  • Craft proper citations and bibliographies.
  • Avoid plagiarism.

The guide also covers:

  • The difference between college and high school-level research papers.
  • Individual stylistic elements: title page, abstract, intro, footnotes.
  • How to present your methodology, results & discussion.
  • APA/MLA references.



Writing research papers is a vital part of academic life. The student selects a topic, collects the relevant literature, forms and tests a hypothesis and presents or argues the findings in the form of a research paper. Grading for research papers takes into consideration the ability of the student to critically review the literature, identify the research problem, analyze the data and communicate the results in an organized manner.

Although the student has prepared such papers in high school, there are important differences in the expectation at the collegiate level. The most obvious one is the length of the paper. High school papers tend to follow the fiveparagraph format — one introductory paragraph with the thesis, three paragraphs arguing for the thesis and a final concluding paragraph — written in three to four pages. College papers are usually ten pages or longer depending on the topic and research presented. High school papers are written for the lay public while college papers are written for those who are more knowledgeable about the particular research area. As such, the college student is expected to refer to more sources and make more in-depth arguments for his/her thesis.

This guide provides a road map on how to write a research paper. It includes sections on selection of research paper topics, general structure of a research paper, citations and bibliography, and plagiarism.

It is extremely important for the student to read, understand and strictly follow the guidelines provided by the instructor. Such guidelines take precedence over the directions provided by other sources including this guide.

Selecting the research paper topic

A major hurdle to writing a research paper is the selection of the topic. The first step is to pick the broad research area of interest from what you hear (lectures, seminars, group discussions) and what you read (journals, books, encyclopedias and online sources). Examples of such areas are the stock market crash, cell signalling, racial discrimination, etc.

Then, use the above sources to list specific topics in the broad research area. Review articles can be especially useful as they discuss the latest developments and usually also point out areas that need to be addressed. You can also make use of WriteWork's extensive library of research paper topics. When the list of all possible topics is complete, narrow down using the following criteria:

  • Do you find it interesting?
  • Are you familiar with it to understand the literature and to put together a research plan?
  • Is the available literature adequate? Is it original and significant enough to advance knowledge?
  • Do you find the topic neutral enough to conduct the research in an unbiased way?
  • Is it feasible?
    • Are suitable and widely accepted research techniques available?
    • Are any required facilities such as laboratories, data analysis centers, etc. available?
    • Are the relevant samples or sample population accessible?
    • Can the work be completed in the available time?
    • Make sure you consider the time involved to gather literature, design and conduct the experiment, analyze the data and write the research paper.

Once the research paper topic is selected, you should undertake a more extensive literature review. During this process, you may find that your research topic needs to be altered. This is a fairly common occurrence that aids in fine-tuning your research.

The next steps would be to work out the research objectives and the hypothesis, prepare and test them with the appropriate research plan, analyze the collected data and present the findings as a research paper.

Writing the research paper

Research papers generally have the following structure: Title page (optional), Table of Contents (optional), Abstract, Introduction, Methodology, Results, Discussion/Conclusion, References, and Appendix (optional). You should refer to your instructor's guidelines for formatting. If these are not given, then follow the style guide widely used in your research area. The common styles are:

  • APA (American Psychological Association) style for the social and behavioural sciences
  • MLA (Modern Language Association) style for the humanities
  • Chicago Manual of style for the humanities
  • CSE (Council of Science Editors) style for the sciences

WriteWork's library has a wide range of sample research papers. These samples not only serve as excellent examples of structuring the paper but also give the users an idea about the expertise of their peers.

General guidelines

Set 1" margins on all sides on 8.5" x 11" paper. Set the left margin at 1.5" if a binder is used.

All pages must be single-sided. Page numbers are usually placed on the top right corner. The numbering starts on the first page of the introduction.

The text should be double spaced and in any standard font of size 10 or 12. It should be organized in paragraphs, with each paragraph presenting a major aspect.

Organize the paper in such a way that the sequence of major points is the same for introduction, methodology, results and the discussion sections.

Title page (optional)

Purpose: This gives the reader information about the title and author of the paper.

If you follow the Chicago Manual of style, center the text on the title page both vertically and horizontally and include the following in the order:

Title of the research paper
Name(s) of author(s)
Name of the course
Date submitted

If there is no title page such as with the MLA style, the names of the authors, the course and the date submitted are typed on the left top corner of the first page. This should be followed by the centered title of the paper over the text.

Name(s) of author(s)
Name of the course
Date submitted

Title of the research paper

Table of contents (optional)

Purpose: This part provides the reader with an outline of the research paper. When present, it should be on a separate page and usually limited to one page titled `Table of Contents' or just `Contents'. The list should include the heading of each section (Level 1), reference, and appendix along with their page numbers. If each part is divided into subsections, the heading of the major subsections (Level 2) can be listed as indentations. Avoid listing headings of levels 3, 4 etc. An example would be the Table of Contents in this guide.


Purpose: This section states the major points of the paper and allows the reader to assess whether there is a further need to refer to any other part of the paper. It can also be used to search the particular field.

It is a short description of the research paper, often within 200 words in a single paragraph. State the purpose of your research, the methodology used, the results obtained and the conclusions drawn thereupon.


Purpose: This section provides the rationale for your study. Steps to take:


Purpose: This section allows the reader to evaluate the strengths and limitations of your study. It also enables the reader to replicate a part or the entire method for a similar or different study. Steps to take:


Purpose: This section objectively presents your research findings (without interpretation) to the reader. Steps to take:


Purpose: This section conveys the importance of your findings to the reader. Steps to take:


Purpose: This section enables the reader to find the source of the material used in the document for further study.

List all the literature cited in the document. Formatting of this section is dealt in greater detail in the section on Citations and Bibliography.

Appendix (optional)

Purpose: This section provides the reader information that is not included in the methods or results sections but may be required for better understanding of the paper.

Such information could be raw data, lengthy questionnaires, large maps, and large tables. Include different information in separate appendices. Number each appendix with a Roman numeral. For example, Appendix I can contain raw data and Appendix II can contain a questionnaire.

Citations and bibliography

The purpose of citations in a research paper is to attribute expressed ideas in a document to the original authors. The purpose of a bibliography/reference list is to enable the readers to find the source of the material used in a document for further study. All citations are listed in the bibliography. Refer to the appropriate style guide for proper formatting of citations and bibliography.

Footnotes and Endnotes

Sources can be cited using footnotes (placed at the bottom of the page) or endnotes (placed at the end of the document). Sequentially number the cited material in the text. Give details of the source as footnotes or endnotes.

"A number of instances have been documented in which postlabelling of non-adducts can occur"1
  1. David H. Phillips (1997). Detection of DNA modifications by the 32P-postlabelling assay. Mutation Research. 378: 1 — 12

In-text citations

For in-text citations, use parenthetical referencing. Use the author's name and the year of publication (Phillips, 1997) or the page number (Phillips, 7). If the author is part of the sentence, only the year or page number is placed within parenthesis. For two authors, the names of the authors appear in the same order as in the cited document. For more than two authors, the names of all authors appear the first time the work is cited and subsequent references would be first author et al

APA style:

"A number of instances have been documented in which postlabelling of non-adducts can occur" (Phillips, 1997). According to Phillips (1997), "a number of instances have been documented in which postlabelling of non-adducts can occur".


MLA style:

"A number of instances have been documented in which postlabelling of non-adducts can occur" (Phillips, 7).

Bibliographic Citations

Citations in the Bibliography/Reference can either be in the sequence of their first appearance (or) arranged alphabetically according to the first author's last name. If more than one document of the author is cited, they are then arranged by the year of publication. Refer to the appropriate style guides for formatting. The following examples of bibliographic citations are in the CBE (CSE) format.

Journal articles

Author(s), year of publication, title of article, journal name, volume, issue, page numbers .

Phillips DH. 1997. Detection of DNA modifications by the 32P-postlabelling assay. Mutation Res 378:1—12.

Lauffenburger DA, Horwitz AF. 1996. Cell migration: a physically integrated progress. Cell 84:359-369.

Sheetz MP, Felsenfeld DP, Galbraith G. 1998. Cell migration: regulation of force on extracellular matriz-integrin complexes. Trends Cell Biol 8:51-54.


Author(s), year of publication, title of chapter, editor(s), title of book, edition, place of publication, publisher, page number .

Johnstone A, Thorpe R. 1987. Immunochemistry in practice. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications. p. 80-95.

Bock KW, Lilienblum W. 1994. Roles of uridine diphosphate glucuronosyltransferases in chemical carcinogenesis. In: Kauffman FC, editor. Conjugation-deconjugation reactions in drug metabolism and toxicity. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. p. 391-428.

Online sources

Same as for journal articles/books. In addition, include date of retrieval and the URL.

Horbinski C, Mojesky C, Kyprianou N. Live Free or Die: Tales of Homeless (Cells) in Cancer. Am J Pathol [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2010 May 31]; 177: 10441052. Available from: doi:10.2353/ajpath.2010.091270

Marcelin A-G. 1. Resistance to nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors. In: Geretti AM, editor. Antiretroviral Resistance in Clinical Practice [internet]. London: Mediscript, 2006 [cited 2010 Aug 31]. Available from: 5


It is the use of other people's ideas and/or language without acknowledging the original source. Anyone can recognize that turning in another person's work as one's own is plagiarism. However, it is not always easy to identify plagiarism. There is misunderstanding of when the line crosses from research to plagiarism. The popular Wilson Mizner's quote "copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research" is a case in point.

Put all original text in quotes and cite the source(s) as close to the quote as possible. Even if the original text is paraphrased into one's own words, it is important to credit the source.

Types of plagiarism are

  • Using word-for-word sentences or phrases from one or more sources without citation. Adding the source but not indicating the original text in quotes is still plagiarism.
  • Altering a few words or phrases in the original text or altering the order of sentences but retaining much of the original text without citation.
  • Paraphrasing the original text in one's own words but not including the relevant citations thereby not crediting the original author for the ideas or style.
  • Properly paraphrasing the original text but including either the in-text citation or the bibliographic citation but not both.
  • Not including enough information in the references making it difficult or impossible to locate the sources. Examples are including the original author's name but not the year of publication, not including the exact page numbers, etc.
  • Giving inaccurate information about the sources. Even if this happens inadvertently, inaccurate citations mislead the reader about the sources.
  • Properly citing the source in some places but not others.
  • Using one's own previous work without a proper reference (selfplagiarism).

Information that falls under common knowledge need not be cited. An example of such information is the fact that earth revolves around the sun.


Established in 1995, WriteWork is an online academic resource featuring a student community with over 375.000 members and a comprehensive library of research papers, essays, and book reports. WriteWork also offers a number of hands-on writing guides written by PhD Professors from some of the most well established colleges and universities in the world. Writing guides include: How to Write a Book Report and How to Write an Essay.