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How to format a research paper

Last updated

7 February 2023

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Dovetail Editorial Team

Research papers are essential in academia, the sciences, law, and other fields where you must share detailed information backed by solid research.

Writing a research paper can be daunting if you’re not experienced with the process. Getting the proper format is one of the most challenging aspects of the task. Reviewers will immediately dismiss a paper that doesn't comply with standard formatting, regardless of the valuable content it contains. 

In this article, we'll delve into the essential characteristics of a research paper, including the proper formatting.

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What is a research paper?

A research paper is a document that provides a thorough analysis of a topic, usually for an academic institution or professional organization. A research paper may be of any length, but they are typically 2,000–10,000 words. 

Unlike less formal papers, such as articles or essays, empirical evidence and data are key to research papers. In addition to students handing in papers, scientists, attorneys, medical researchers, and independent scholars may need to produce research papers.

People typically write research papers to prove a particular point or make an argument. This could support or disprove a theoretical point, legal case, scientific theory, or an existing piece of research on any topic. 

One of the distinguishing characteristics of research papers is that they contain citations to prior research. Citing sources using the correct format is essential for creating a legitimate research paper. 

Top considerations for writing a research paper

To write a research paper, you must consider several factors. Fields such as the sciences, humanities, and technical professions have certain criteria for writing research papers. 

You’ll write a research paper using one of several types of formatting. These include APA, MLA, and CMOS styles, which we’ll cover in detail to guide you on citations and other formatting rules. 

Specific requirements of the assignment

If the paper is for a college, university, or any specific organization, they’ll give you certain requirements, such as the range of topics, length, and formatting requirements.

You should study the specifics of the assignment carefully, as these will override more general guidelines you may find elsewhere. If you're writing for a particular professor, they may ask for single or double spacing or a certain citation style. 

For example, if you were writing a research paper for ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers), you would look at their requirements and note specific guidelines for the paper's length, font, and necessary elements. 

Components of a research paper

Here are the basic steps to writing a quality research paper, assuming you've chosen your topic and considered the requirements of the paper. Depending on the specific conditions of the paper you're writing, you may need the following elements:

Thesis statement

The thesis statement provides a blueprint for the paper. It conveys the theme and purpose of the paper. It also informs you and readers what your paper will argue and the type of research it will contain. As you write the paper, you can refer to the thesis statement to help you decide whether or not to include certain items.

Abstract

Most research papers require an abstract as well as a thesis. While the thesis is a short (usually a single sentence) summary of the work, an abstract contains more detail. Many papers use the IMRaD structure for the abstract, especially in scientific fields. This consists of four elements:

  • Introduction: Summarize the purpose of the paper

  • Methods: Describe the research methods (e.g., collecting data, interviews, field research)

  • Results: Summarize your conclusions.  

  • Discussion: Discuss the implications of your research. Mention any significant limitations to your approach and suggest areas for further research.

The thesis and abstract come at the beginning of a paper, but you should write them after completing the paper. This approach ensures a clear idea of your main topic and argument, which can evolve as you write the paper.

Table of contents

Like most nonfiction books, a research paper usually includes a table of contents. 

Tables, charts, and illustrations

If your paper contains multiple tables, charts, illustrations, or other graphics, you can create a list of these. 

Works cited or reference page

This page lists all the works you cited in your paper. For MLA and APA styles, you will use in-text citations in the body of the paper. For Chicago (CMOS) style, you'll use footnotes. 

Bibliography

While you use a reference page to note all cited papers, a bibliography lists all the works you consulted in your research, even if you don't specifically cite them. 

While references are essential, a bibliography is optional but usually advisable to demonstrate the breadth of your research.

Dedication and acknowledgments

You may include a dedication or acknowledgments at the beginning of the paper directly after the title page and before the abstract.

Steps for writing a research paper

These are the most critical steps for researching, writing, and formatting a research paper:

Create an outline

The outline is not part of the published paper; it’s for your use. An outline makes it easier to structure the paper, ensuring you include all necessary points and research. 

Here you can list all topics and subtopics that will support your argument. When doing your research, you can refer to the outline to ensure you include everything. 

Gather research

Solid research is the hallmark of a research paper. In addition to accumulating research, you need to present it clearly. However, gathering research is one of the first tasks. If you compile each piece of research correctly, it will be easier to format the paper correctly. You want to avoid having to go back and look up information constantly.

Start by skimming potentially useful sources and putting them aside for later use. Reading each source thoroughly at this stage will be time-consuming and slow your progress. You can thoroughly review the sources to decide what to include and discard later. At this stage, note essential information such as names, dates, page numbers, and website links. Citing sources will be easier when you’ve written all the information down.

Be aware of the quality of your sources. A research paper should reference scholarly, academic, or scientific journals. It’s vital to understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. 

A primary source is an original, firsthand account of a topic. A secondary source is someone else covering the topic, as in a popular article or interview. While you may include secondary sources, your paper should also include primary research. Online research can be convenient, but you need to be extra careful when assessing the quality of your sources.

Write the first draft

Create a first draft where you put together all your research and address the topic described in your thesis and abstract. 

Edit and format the paper

Proofread, edit, and make any necessary adjustments and improvements to the first draft. List your citations as described below. Ensure your thesis and abstract describe your research accurately. 

Formatting a research paper: MLA, APA, and CMOS styles

There are several popular formats for research papers: MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association). Certain academic papers use CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style). Other formats may apply to particular fields. 

For example, medical research may use AMA (American Medical Association) formatting and IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) for particular technical papers. The following are the guidelines and examples of the most popular formats:

MLA format

The humanities typically use MLA format, including literature, history, and culture. Look over examples of papers created in MLA format. Here are the main rules to keep in mind:

  • Double-spaced lines.

  • Indent new paragraphs 1/2 inch.

  • Title case for headings, where all major words are capitalized, as in "How to Write a Research Paper." 

  • Use a popular font such as Times New Roman. This applies to all formatting styles.

  • Use one-inch margins on all sides. 

  • Number sections of the paper using Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.). 

  • Use a running head for each page on the upper right-hand corner, which consists of your last name and the page number.

  • Use an in-text citation within the text, using the author's last name followed by the page number: "Anything worth dying for is certainly worth living for" (Heller 155).  

  • On the citations page, list the full name, book or periodical, and other information. For MLA, you will not need footnotes, only in-text citations.

  • List citations in alphabetical order on a separate page at the end of the paper entitled “Works Cited.” 

  • Continuing with the above example from Heller, the listing would be: Heller, Joseph. Catch-22, Simon & Schuster, 1961.

  • For a periodical, the format is "Thompson, Hunter S. "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" Scanlon's, June 1970."

  • Use title case for source titles, as in "On the Origin of Species."

APA format

The sciences typically use APA format, including physical sciences such as physics and social sciences such as psychology. Simply Psychology provides examples of APA formatting. The following are the most important rules of the APA format.

  • Begin the paper with a title page, which is not required for MLA.

  • Use double-line spacing.

  • Indent new paragraphs 1/2 inch.

  • Use a running head for each page in the upper right-hand corner, which consists of the paper's title in capital letters followed by the page number.

  • The citations page at the end should be titled "References."

  • In-text citations should include the publication date: (Smith, 1999, p. 50). Note also that there's a "p" for "page," whereas in MLA, you write the page number without a "p."

  • As with MLA, use title case for headings, as in "Most Popular Treatments for Cognitive Disorders."

  • Use sentence case for titles of sources, as in "History of the decline and fall of the Roman empire." Note "Roman" starts with a capital because it's a proper noun.  

  • When citing in-text references, use the author's last name and the first and middle initials. 

  • Always use the Oxford comma. This comma goes before the words "or" and "and" in a list. For example, "At the store, I bought oranges, paper towels, and pasta."

CMOS formatting

Book publishers and many academic papers use CMOS formatting based on the Chicago Manual of Style. CMOS is also called Turabian, named after Kate L. Turabian, who wrote the first manual for this style. Here are examples of CMOS style formatting and citations.

  • Include an unnumbered title page.

  • Use double-line spacing.

  • Indent new paragraphs 1/2 inch.

  • Place page numbers on the upper right-hand corner of the page. Do not list your name or the paper's title as you would for MLA or APA styles.

  • Use title case for both headings and sources (same as MLA).

  • Unlike MLA and APA, the Chicago style uses footnotes for citations. Use a superscript for footnotes: "Smith argues against Jones' theory¹.” Footnotes may appear at the bottom of the page or the end of the document.  

  • CMOS supports both short notes and full notes. In most cases, you'll use the full note: "Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006), 76." For further references to the same source, use a short note: " Pollan, Omnivore's Dilemma, 45." The requirements of some papers may specify using only short notes for all footnotes.

General guidelines for writing and formatting research papers

Keep these guidelines in mind for all types of research papers:

Initial formatting

As you create your first draft, don't worry about formatting. If you try to format it perfectly as you write the paper, it will be difficult to progress and develop a flow of thought. With the first draft, you don't have to be concerned about ordering the sections. You can rearrange headings and sections later. 

Citation tools

Use automation tools for citations. Some useful tools make citations easier by automatically generating a citation list and bibliography. Many work with APA, MLA, and CMOS styles.

Check for plagiarism

Use a plagiarism detector to make sure your paper isn't unintentionally plagiarizing. There are many free and paid plagiarism checkers online, such as Grammarly. 

Proofread your work

Do several rounds of editing and proofreading. Editing is necessary for any type of writing, but you’ll need to revisit several distinct areas with a research paper:

  • Check for spelling and grammatical errors.

  • Read the paper to make sure it's well-argued and that you’ve organized it properly. 

  • Check that you’ve correctly formatted citations. It's easy to make errors, such as incorrect numbering of footnotes (e.g., Chicago style) or forgetting to include a source on your citations page.

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