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How To Write a Research Paper

Writing your first research paper can seem intimidating. Compared to essays that may be written in a high school or college class, research papers are longer, denser, and held to higher standards. They are also less structured, as there is no prompt and original ideas are a requirement. Writing a research paper, however, is not as difficult as it may seem if you follow these steps for getting started.

Pick an Academic Discipline

Research papers look different depending on the academic field in which one is writing. In fields related to science, research papers require extensive data collection, either as a result of observation or controlled experimentation. This style of research is very different from the humanities, where a lot of research focuses on reviewing existing literature, interpreting its meaning, and providing a new perspective. Social sciences research tends to be somewhere in between. The need for controlled experiments is not as great as the sciences, there is greater room for interpretation but not as great as in the humanities, and there is often a data science element. Choosing a research discipline is necessary for the next step: finding a research mentor.

Find a Research Mentor

When first starting to research, having a mentor with a similar research interest is very important. Mentors can help students understand the most recent research in their field so they ensure that their work is relevant and building upon existing literature. Mentors also help students ensure they are researching in accordance with the standards of academia. This includes data collection, citing sources, and paper structure. If students are at universities, they can email professors on campus to find a research advisor. For high school students, there are virtual research opportunities for high school students. Some academic networks to connect with research advisors include Jinso and Horizon.
Mentors are also helpful for sharing ideas. Knowing the discipline in which one wants to research is a great start, but with the help of a mentor, students can accomplish the next step: deciding on a research question.

Pick a Research Question

Knowing which discipline one wants to research is not enough to start reading sources and writing a paper. While high school and some introductory-level college courses present the entirety of subjects, research needs to pick a more narrow focus. A research question must do more than narrow the scope, however. It must be specific about the new way the research will view a topic. This may be analyzing data that has never been collected, viewing literature through a new lens, making new comparisons, or analyzing the applicability of older knowledge in light of new findings. A research advisor can ensure that students have found an appropriate research question. Without finding a good research question before getting started on reading and writing a paper, the focus will either be too broad or get lost.

Read Background Literature

A student will likely choose to research a subject of which they have knowledge through prior coursework. However, coursework captures the history and generality of a field. It does not present specific, recent information that is relevant to a particular research paper. Researchers should look through academic journals and databases for recent, relevant sources. This will help provide context for research and give useful information about what is already known. Some academic journals require a paid subscription. For those affiliated with universities, the fee may be covered by the school. However, accessing journals is expensive for those without a subscription through an institution. In this case, browsing through open access repositories such as ArXiv is a good way to discover recent research.

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