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what is a research paper?

One question every teacher is familiar with is, “Why do we have to know this?” Sometimes students only ask the question as a way to challenge the teacher’s authority. It’s really just a way to complain about something they don’t want to do. Still, it’s a good question. Teachers should have a reason – and a good one – for teaching what they teach. That also goes for research papers.  

Research papers are hard work after all. As a student preparing to write one, you deserve to know what you’re going to get out of it. The good news is that, unlike many subjects we study in school, research paper writing really does have practical, real-world value.  

Not long ago, the primary value of research paper writing was learning how to do research. Students were taught how to find information, mostly through local libraries. They learned how to use card catalogs for books and reference resources for newspaper stories and magazine articles. Teaching students how to track down information was the point.  

That’s not the case anymore.We live in the Age of Digital Information. We now have easy, instantaneous access to practically unlimited amounts of information. If you have access to a web-connected device, even something as convenient as a smart phone, you can find fact, quotes, statistics, and answers to almost any question in a matter of seconds. But that doesn’t mean research papers have lost their value. It just means what’s most valuable about them has changed.  

The challenge in the Age of Digital Information is not getting information, but knowing what to do with it. What is important today is knowing how to identify the best, most trustworthy information, analyze it, organize it, and put it to use. That’s what writing a research paper is all about.  

Accumulating, evaluating, organizing, and presenting information are critical skills in today’s world. Employers need people who know how to handle information, how to make sense of it. That’s what research papers can teach us.  


What Is a Research Paper?  

Now that we know what research paper writing can teach us, let’s get down to business. Maybe the best place to start is to make clear what we mean by research paper. Here’s our definition: A research paper is a composition that depends upon previously published sources. A research paper is built in part upon the work of others. This is what distinguishes the research  paper from other kinds of writing. The main ideas will come from your head, but you will use outside sources to support your ideas.  

There are several kinds of research papers. Let’s take a quick look at them. 

The Report 

You are probably familiar with the basic report. Students generally start writing reports as soon as they learn to use big, fat pencils on paper with big, fat lines. One of the most common types is the book report.   

Reports are short and sweet. They are meant to provide information on a simple subject in just a few pages. They normally require only one or two sources.  

Reports usually include: 

  • Factual information like dates, names, events, or statistics

  • A brief, summary opinion statement

  • One or two sources

  • A title page or simple heading

Reports are typically less than ten pages long. They often don’t include a bibliography or formal works cited page, instead acknowledging outside sources in the text of the paper itself. The paper you’ll write for us will be more involved than a simple report. 

The Informational Research Paper  

This is the type of research paper you’ll be doing for this course.  

All research papers are “informational” of course, but this kind of research paper is distinct from a persuasive research paper — or term paper — in that the objective is to provide detailed information about a topic rather than to defend an opinion on that topic.  

It is possible, for example, to write an informational research paper on a historical event, a famous person, or an important invention without expressing an opinion on it. You could discuss the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, for example, without suggesting that it was either a wise or foolish decision. You could inform your readers about the life and accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin without commenting on his importance as a founding father. You could explain the theory of evolution without mentioning whether or not you believe it to be true.  

Informational research papers usually include: 

  • Factual information like dates, names, events, or statistics

  • A clear thesis that is not a statement of opinion

  • Some kind of concluding or summary statement

  • Between three and ten sources

  • A title page

  • Formal citations, including a works cited page

Informational research papers are normally between eight and twelve pages long. 

The Persuasive Research Paper/Term Paper 

WriteAtHome also offers a persuasive research paper for high school. 

A persuasive research paper is a bit more difficult than the informational paper because it requires the author to form, express, and defend an opinion. The purpose of a term paper is persuasive (to convince) rather than expository (to inform). Persuasive research papers are normally longer than informational papers — between ten and twenty pages. 

Persuasive research papers usually include: 

  • Factual information like dates, names, events, or statistics

  • A clear thesis statement that expresses the opinion to be supported

  • A conclusion reiterating the thesis

  • Anywhere from seven to dozens of sources

  • A title page

  • Formal citations, including a works cited page

The Thesis and The Dissertation 

thesis is a long paper that is often a requirement for obtaining a graduate degree from a college or university. It often takes a full school year to complete a thesis. 

dissertation is even more daunting. It is normally required for doctoral candidates and must make a meaningful contribution to the candidate’s field of study.  

Before you begin to panic — you won’t have to write a thesis or dissertation for us! 

Take a Deep Breath 

You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. Writing an excellent research paper will probably involve several hours of work each week. The benefit of a course like this, however, is that we will take it one step at a time. Starting this week, you will complete seven weekly assignments leading up to a polished final draft.  

Your writing coach will be right there with you every week, providing feedback on everything you submit and offering direction and assistance. Take advantage of your writing coach’s expertise. Feel free to email him or her with questions and updates. Your writing coach is eager to help. 

Be sure to download and read your assignment for this week! It will provide more details about what is expected and what you are to turn in next week. 

Below is a summary of what you can look forward to in the weeks ahead. 


Research Paper Timeline 

Week 1:Decide on a topic and thesis. Email your writing coach for approval. 

Schedule time for research 

Gather sources 

Submit Project Plan 

Week 2:Study and note-taking 

Submit Notes Report  

Week 3: Study/Note-taking 

Submit Outline & Summary 

Week 4:Compose and submit 1st draft 

Week 5: Compose and submit works cited page 

Week 6:Compose and submit revised paper 

Week 7:Compose final draft 

Week 8: Final draft due