Why Learn To Write Research Papers

Pamela Ban is a senior at Harvard University. As a high school student, she wrote a research paper that appeared in The Concord Review.

The Internet makes it easy to treat the research paper as a Google exercise. However, any perceived “failure” of the research paper isn’t in the medium itself or the use of the Internet, but in the way we are tempted to approach it. A research paper done correctly goes beyond the mere conglomeration of facts that teachers today lament, and instead asks us to examine current literature and argue a thesis that is not directly from conventional wisdom. I’ve been fortunate to have this drilled into my head over and over by my teachers.

An essay is achievable with caffeine and an all-nighter, but the research paper, requires more time understanding sources, forming an original question and proving a thesis.

When held to this expectation, the research paper has a comparative advantage in depth. As many classmates and I have discovered, an essay is achievable with much caffeine and an all-nighter, but its older sibling, the longer research paper, requires more time understanding sources, forming an original question and proving a thesis. We’ve found that this process cannot be automated and the Internet is only an aide, providing sources more quickly than scouring library shelves.

Learning how to take what is already known and enhance it in a unique way is an unparalleled learning experience that we should not lose. My first experience writing a research paper in high school was a transformative step in developing how I think, argue and write. While my efforts were rewarded when my paper was featured in The Concord Review, it was the process of writing it that was the most valuable and I’m grateful that I’ve continued to be pushed at Harvard to treat the research paper as an academic exploration. Struggling to come up with an interesting, original idea that gives a new spin on what is already known is a worthwhile challenge that has taught me to scrutinize current knowledge more critically, think more originally and write more effectively. These skills will continue to help me not only in the classroom but also in the workplace.

In the end, the value in writing a research paper is why we should be encouraged from the start to approach it as it was intended to be approached -- formulating a research question and proving an original thesis -- instead of discarding the assignment altogether.

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This overview of research paper strategies will focus on the type of research paper that uses library resources.

The research paper is a popular academic assignment. Forms of it are also used in various professional fields. The research paper gives you the opportunity to think seriously about some issue. Building on the research of others, you have the opportunity to contribute your own research and insights to a particular question of interest to you. It also gives you practice in important academic skills such as:

  • formulating research questions
  • conducting research
  • managing time
  • organizing information into coherent ideas
  • substantiating arguments with research in the field
  • and presenting insights about the research

Disciplines vary in their ways of conducting research, in writing research papers, and in the form of the final copy. View sample papers and guides for documenting sources in the four major styles (humanities, social sciences, history, and sciences).

Individual instructors may also vary in their expectations of a research paper. It is important that you read the assignment carefully. Writing a research paper can be a very messy and fluid process, and the following is only a representation of commonly used steps.

Two major types of research papers

Argumentative research paper:

The argumentative research paper consists of an introduction in which the writer clearly introduces the topic and informs his audience exactly which stance he intends to take; this stance is often identified as the thesis statement. An important goal of the argumentative research paper is persuasion, which means the topic chosen should be debatable or controversial.

The student would support the thesis throughout the paper by means of both primary and secondary sources, with the intent to persuade the audience that the interpretation of the situation is viable.

Analytical research paper:

The analytical research paper often begins with the student asking a question (a.k.a. a research question) on which he has taken no stance. Such a paper is often an exercise in exploration and evaluation.

It is not the student's intent to persuade the audience that his ideas are right while those of others are wrong. Instead, his goal is to offer a critical interpretation of primary and secondary sources throughout the paper--sources that should, ultimately, buttress his particular analysis of the topic.

It is typically not until the student has begun the writing process that his thesis statement begins to take solid form. In fact, the thesis statement in an analytical paper is often more fluid than the thesis in an argumentative paper. Such is one of the benefits of approaching the topic without a predetermined stance1.

Revised: 07/11

1 Adapted from http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/658/02/

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