Research Paper Basics

Getting Outside Material Into Your Paper

First question: Why quote?

Bad answers:

Better answers:

Second question: What am I trying to do in this paper?

OK—maybe it’s logically the first question, but often students think of it quite late. Consider this item from a student paper about the hazards of smoking:

Cigarette is defined as a small roll of finely cut tobacco wrapped in thin paper for smoking, usually made up of a filter tip (Agnes 264).

Ignoring the obvious problem (made up of a filter tip?), that is not exactly news to very many people in our culture. And if a reader happens to be one of the few who doesn’t know what a cigarette is, a common dictionary would provide a very adequate definition. On the other hand, the author of the smoking paper gives us this analysis without any citation:

When a child is growing up they will mimic images or do what their parent do because they feel it is the right thing to do. […] Children grow up with these images that parents are perfect and they know everything. So if a parent smokes around their child, most likely their child is probably going to think nothing is wrong with it. This is a main reason why children will start smoking at an early age.

Our student writer knew she was speculating about something important, but her point was hedged with “most likely … probably.” She knew it was a guess based on nothing more than her gut reaction. The careful reader hits “a main reason”—then asks, “How do you know?” If children smoke because they are imitating their parents, someone somewhere has done a study. It would be good to find out if parental modeling is a major cause of childish smoking—and if it isn’t, that would be good to know too. Time for more research than “it seems to me.”

Our student writer seems to have had two strategies in writing this piece:

  1. Show the teacher that she could find things in a reference work and do the MLA citations.
  2. Give a sermon based on her unsupported gut reactions and feelings—without asking whether anyone actually knows anything about the subject beyond their feelings.

These strategies are not designed to increase anyone’s understanding (either the writer’s or the reader’s) of the subject.

Quoting the dictionary

You should assume that your audience consists of reasonably well-educated Americans who have completed at least the 12th grade of high school. Therefore, even if you did not know the definition of “cigarette,” you should assume your audience does. Looking up a word in the dictionary is not research; it’s simply learning the language.

If you want to make a point about an unusual or little-known nuance of a word, perhaps a dictionary reference would work (though a college-educated audience has a very large vocabulary). Does your audience know that “addiction” can also mean a psychological dependence as well as a physical dependence? Was this one news to you? To the people you are writing to? If not, don’t trot out the dictionary just to fill space.

Third question: Can quotations carry the paper by themselves?

The quick answer is “no”

The Aim of a Research Paper

The research paper is neither a patchwork quilt of other people’s writing, nor is it a collection of your opinions with enough citations thrown in to show us that you’ve been to the library. You do research to learn something you didn’t previously know. We read these papers to find out what’s true. It’s obvious (or should be) that a college freshman’s opinion needs some expert testimony to back it up. (And we hope doing some scholarly reading shaped the freshman’s opinion.) It’s less obvious (but still true) that a Ph.D. needs the same sort of factual backing for opinions. That second extract from the smoking paper could have been enriched by appeal to authority. I took me less than five minutes of Internet time to find a short reference by the Tobacco Public Policy Center at Capital University Law School to a Dartmouth study which seems to prove that small children of smokers will pretend to buy cigarettes, light them, and smoke them as part of their ordinary play.¹ How would a reader react to quoting this study? A reference such as this one would have led me to say that the writer of the smoking paper knew what she was talking about.

What to quote

Not everything said by a source author is worth a direct quotation. Sometimes a summary or paraphrase is better—in fact the direct quotation should not be your main workhorse! Here are criteria suggested by one textbook³ for direct quotation:

Three parts (plus one) of a quotation, either direct or indirect

  1. Introduction telling us that it’s a quote and giving some reason for putting it in there.
  2. The quote itself.
  3. Interpretation or discussion.
  4. Somewhere in the mix (either in #1 introduction or just after #2 the quote itself), a reference telling us where you got it.

You can see these parts working (notice the color codes) in this section of a research paper:

The United States Department of Health and Human Services notes thatdeaths due to poor diet and physical inactivity increased 33 percent” over the past decade and it cites a study concluding thatpoor diet and physical inactivity may soon overtake tobacco as the leading cause of death” in this country. Certainly, if fast food causes people to become obese, and then obesity causes them to get sick or die, fast food cannot be considered an “improvement” in Americans’ lives.


The United States Department of Health and Human Services notes that “deaths due to poor diet and physical inactivity increased 33 percentover the past decade and it cites a study concluding that “poor diet and physical inactivity may soon overtake tobacco as the leading cause of deathin this country. Certainly, if fast food causes people to become obese, and then obesity causes them to get sick or die, fast food cannot be considered an “improvement” in Americans’ lives.

Ways we mess up

Quoting when we should have summarized

“As nurses move into roles requiring greater autonomy,” they learn to use assertiveness and critical thinking skills “for themselves and their clients” to achieve desired outcomes (Ellis and Hartley 34).

My student said she did it this way because she was afraid of plagiarism. It’s perfectly fine to summarize the ideas, present them as an indirect quotation, and give credit to the original source—even if you do end up using three or four words in the same sequence as the original source.

Connotation/Denotation problems

Student favorite: “Quotes”

Another student favorite, quotes, doesn’t mean what you think. It means your source is reporting someone else’s words; it does not mean “here comes a quotation by my source.”

Martin Luther King quotes, “I have a dream today!” means he found those words somewhere else and he’s reporting them to us—if you mean that he thought them up himself, don’t use “quotes.”

Rough reading

The paragraph should work smoothly on the way into (and out of) the quotation. Read it aloud and have the nerve to edit yourself—or perhaps to change your quotation strategy a bit. Notice how this awkward introduction improves if we simply leave out the words in brown:

Chung-Tzu describes a sage as “suppose there is one who insists on morality in all things, and who places love of truth above all other values” (58).

Student favorite: “As told by / As said by”

Besides being very awkward, this introduction to a source’s words implies that you are reporting something very informal and unreliable. The sentence has its shoes off and its feet on the coffee table. It’s just shooting the breeze and chatting about random ideas.

As said by Charles Wheeler, “There is no evidence that access to federal programs acts as a magnet to foreigners or that further restrictions would discourage illegal immigrants.”

But if you give your source some adult dignity, the credibility of both your source and your own paper really improves.

As Charles Wheeler of the National Immigration Law Center asserts, “There is no evidence that access to federal programs acts as a magnet to foreigners or that further restrictions would discourage illegal immigrants” (qtd. in “Exploiting”).

Dropped quotes

If you simply drop a quotation into the paper without an introduction or discussion, you waste it. If it doesn’t make an important point worth discussing, don’t put it in. If it’s just grinding out some of the work of writing, don’t waste a quote on that. Here’s a quote that makes the reader do all the work of integrating and interpreting—and makes a very minor point too.

For some people in the world it takes a long time for them to notice that they need help and most screw their lives up in the whole process. “Many people feel the compulsion to spend so much time computing that it causes problems with their health, finance, and relationship” (“Computer Addiction”). Some of the questions people wonder the answer to are: Who suffers from computer addictions? What does it mean to be addicted? Where can we find help?

Dropped quotes are a temptation to plagiarism because there’s no “boundary” between your writing and the writing of your source except the quotation marks, and they aren’t enough. If you read the passage aloud, the “Many people feel” section sounds exactly like the rest of the paragraph.

Putting in the citations later

It’s a foolish strategy, and a paper full of dropped quotations almost guarantees you will miss a few, so dropped quotes plus putting in the citations later almost always equals plagiarism. A paper written this way isn’t really a research paper anyhow; it’s simply a project of finding strings of words in source material to say what you guessed at in the first place.

(About half of the people who commit plagiarism in my classes claim they were going to “put in the citations later” and simply forgot. It’s a very thin excuse, and I’ve seen it many times before. I always assume it’s a lie.)

¹ “Miscellaneous News - Study Reveals Children as Young as Two Mimic Parents’ Smoking Habits.” Tobacco Public Policy Center at Capital University Law School, 6 Sept. 2005, Accessed 28 June 2006.

² Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Genius | Song Lyrics & Knowledge, 2018, Accessed 3 Jan. 2018.

³ Fowler, H. Ramsey, et al. The Little, Brown Handbook. Instructor’s ed., HarperCollins, 1995. p. 556-57.

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Revised 1/2/22 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: