Research Paper Basics

The American Research Paper

When you are asked to write a "research paper" in an American college or university, you are being asked for a very specific kind of project. If your only research writing experience was to copy out all the good bits of an article or two and type them up (typical assignments in middle school or junior high school), you need to upgrade your thinking. If your earlier education was in another country, you need to know that the American paper is a very specific assignment, different from a Chinese or British paper. And obviously, if your only model for academic "research" is Facebook contacts whose "research" is quoting other Facebook posts, you need to learn a whole new attitude.

Here, then, are some of the distinctives of an American college-level research-based academic paper.

Purpose: making new knowledge

Papers you have written in other environments may have focused on other purposes. Perhaps you were asked to prove that you know how to use the library. Perhaps you were asked to prove that you are an orthodox thinker who thinks what you are supposed to think. Business writing has the aim of making money for the company. Writing in an American university isn't like any of these.

At its best, American academic writing achieves its goals through a process of observation and synthesis. We spend a lot of time looking at the data, whether in primary research (looking directly at the research object) or in secondary research (reading the work of others who have done the primary research). Then we ask the questions, "How does all this go together? Have I learned anything new from my observations and my thinking?"

Focused argumentative thesis

This has nothing to do with screaming, fighting, name-calling, insults, or emotions. Try to lose the "fight" connotation of "argument" and work toward "ratiocination" (a really rare word that means much the same thing as I'm getting at). The New Oxford American Dictionary offers these definitions that get at the heart of what a research paper is doing:

A good research paper is not simply a collection of all the material you could find that somehow relates to the topic; it consists of material that is carefully selected to present a set of reasons and a process of logic that will persuade others that your idea is right.

Use of sources

In your earlier education, you may have been encouraged to pile up the greatest number of sources possible, without thinking too hard about their relevance to the topic. You may have been allowed to "prove" a point with the extremely weak subjective comment "to me this means." Neither one of these works too well in college. We assume you (and everyone else) can use Google and Academic Search Complete. We don't care how you feel about a topic.

An American academic paper uses its sources in to support the process of argument and ratiocination. Here's how Ouyang Huhua, professor of English at Guandong University of Foreign Studies summarized our use of sources:

[In the West] you use works as second-hand evidence to support your own claims, your own judgments. You are the master and they are the slaves serving you. (qtd. in Gill)

Getting back to the idea of persuading others that your idea is right, most scholars are not going to be at all persuaded when you report your own emotions or your uninformed opinions. Most scholars are not going to be persuaded when you bring in a mass of off-topic material just to show that you can find a lot of stuff.

One last point about sources: some of my students use quotations as a way of escaping the work of writing. Very ordinary material comes from outside sources, all put together in a kind of jigsaw puzzle because the student cannot trust his/her own writing ability. The paper resembles one of those magnetic poetry projects. That's not research—and it's not very good writing either.

Ownership of words

American college professors have a very strong concept of ownership when it comes to thoughts, words, and ideas. The basic idea is that if you did not think it up, you need to tell us where you got it. This has nothing to do with money. (Almost no academic papers result in financial gain for anyone anyhow.) If you are asked to discuss an important historical person, and you simply quote an article from Wikipedia without telling its source, American professors see that as fraud. You said you wrote it, but you didn't. You said you gave the matter serious thought, but you simply used the computer to copy and paste the material. You lied.

In some discourse communities, the total amount of knowledge is so small that a person could reasonably memorize absolutely everything there is to know, and a paper written within that environment would not necessarily need a complete citation system because everyone knows all the sources. (An example would be biblical scholarship: there are only 66 books in the Christian Bible* and many devout people really do memorize the whole thing, so a sermon in a Christian church can get away with "somewhere it says"—or even with an uncited quotation.) The world of university knowledge is not like that. There are billions of websites and millions of books in print. Nobody can memorize the whole thing, so it's unreasonable to assume that educated people know everything there is to know. Cite your sources.

*This is an example of common knowledge. Some bits of information are so well-known that we can assume they are available in many sources and known by most members of our target audience. If I were to comment that Jimmy Carter was our thirty-ninth president, I would not need to cite my source because I can assume that most Americans know that or can find it out from many sources. If I were to mention his surprise that the President must pay for White House dinners from his own pocket, that's not general knowledge. I would need to cite his autobiography (complete with page number). That's where I learned it.

Deductive linear structure

Most American research papers have a very definite layout. The well-known (and often hated) five-paragraph essay is often the student's first introduction to this kind of deductive structure, and can serve as a model for the research paper.

  1. Introduction that includes the argumentative thesis (usually somewhere near the end)
  2. Discussion of the first evidence and/or logic to prove the thesis
  3. Discussion of the second evidence and/or logic to prove the thesis
  4. Discussion of the third evidence and/or logic to prove the thesis
  5. Conclusion that shows how the thesis has been proven in the paper

This deductive linear structure is the reason many American students are taught the so-called Harvard Outline—it lays the whole structure out on paper:

  1. A major portion of your proof
    1. The first piece of data or logic to support your major subpoint
    2. Another piece of data or logic supporting this major division
      1. A discussion of the first part of item I. B.
      2. A discussion of the second part of item I. B.
      3. And you can put in as many of these as you need
  2. Another major portion of your proof
    1. First bit of data or logic to support this second major point
    2. Another bit of data or logic to support the second major point
    3. And this format can go on as long as it needs to

Apple, Inc. "New Oxford American Dictionary." 2007.

Gill, John. "Cultural Insight Can Help Tackle Plagiarism." Times Higher Education, 24 Apr. 2008, Accessed 23 May 2011.

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Revised 8/6/21 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: