How do I write a research paper?

Getting Started

First of all, make sure you understand your assignment.  This seems pretty simple, right?  But it's important to take the time to carefully read over what you have been asked to do.  Look for words such as discuss, analyze, evaluate and compare.  Have you been asked to use specific types of information?  How long should your paper be?  What writing style are you expected to use?

If something isn't clear to you, ask your instructor.

And...you've heard this before...plan ahead and start well before the paper is due!

Choosing a Topic

Research is a commitment of your time and energy, so it's important to have a clear idea of what you are looking for before you start!

Has your instructor provided a list of suggested topics?  Can you choose your own?  Where do you begin?

It's helpful to do a little background reading.  Try your course textbook or check the Catalogue for other books related to your subject.  Look for something that interests you.  Consider different aspects of the topic.  Then select a specific question or statement and use this as the focus for your paper.

Keep in mind that if your topic is too specific, you might have trouble finding enough information.  On the other hand, if your topic is too broad, you might become overwhelmed by too much information!  Try to find a good balance.

What Kinds of Information Do You Need?

Do you need books?  Articles?  Newspapers?  Statistics?

Have you been asked to use primary sources?  Primary sources are documents or other original sources created at the time of an event, and include official records, correspondence, memoirs, diaries, speeches, newspaper articles, photographs and more.  Secondary sources synthesize the information provided by primary sources and include interpretations, criticisms, evaluations, and summaries.  Textbooks, edited books, biographies and review articles are examples of secondary sources.

Developing a Search Strategy

First of all, identify the main ideas or concepts of your topic.  Simplify each idea to one word or a short phrase, and make a list.  These are the keywords that you will use to search for information.  Next, brainstorm related words or synonyms for each keyword.  Think of various forms of your keywords.  Add these words to your list.

Now you can design your search.  Most of the time you will be searching electronic databases, such as the Library's Catalogue and E-Resources.  The best strategy is to keep it simple!  Start your search with one keyword, two keywords joined by "AND", or a short phrase.  You will probably need to do a few searches to find what you need.  Refine your search by adding or removing search terms, or trying alternate keywords.

Finding Books

Use the Catalogue to find books.  Start with a "words or phrase" search, using the keywords you've identified.  You can also search the Catalogue by title or author.  The Catalogue lists all the books in the Library (including ebooks), plus DVDs, videos, audio CDs, CD-ROMs and more. 

Can't find a book that you would like to use?  If it's not owned by the Library, it can be requested through Interlibrary Loan.

Finding Articles

If you want the most current information on your topic, you need to look for articles.  Go to E-Resources and choose a subject related to your topic, or "general", to access a list of suitable databases.  Each database provides access to many journals, magazines, newspapers and similar publications.  You can search these databases with your keywords to find articles.

Are you required to use peer-reviewed journal articles?  These are journal articles that have been critically reviewed by subject experts before being accepted for publication.  If so, you cannot use articles from popular magazines or newspapers.  Most databases allow you limit your results to peer-reviewed articles.

To access the full text of an article, look for a “full text” link , or click on "get it!"  If the article is available in another database, get it! will link you to it.   Get it! will also indicate if the article is available in print or microform format in the Library.  If the full text of an article is not available in any format in the Library, you can request it through Interlibrary Loan.

Want to look for articles from home?  You can access E-resources from off-campus!

Managing Your Information

Remember to keep records of all your research.  This will help you if you want to find a source again.  You will also need this information when you prepare the bibliography for your paper.

Most databases allow you to print, save or email articles.  You can also export Catalogue records and article links directly into RefWorksRefWorks is a handy tool that allows you to import, store and organize references in your personal RefWorks account, format in-text citations and create bibliographies.

Evaluating Your Information

Evaluating the information you've found is an important step in producing a good research paper.  No matter where your information comes from, you should look at it critically and consider the following:

  • Is the author qualified to write on the topic?
  • Is the information scholarly?
  • Is it current?
  • Is the information accurate?  Has it been edited by other experts?  Has the author provided references?
  • Is the information objective or is there an obvious bias? 
  • Is the information relevant to your topic?
  • Do you have enough information to cover all aspects of your topic?

Writing Your Research Paper

Prepare a tentative outline of your paper and organize your information according to this outline.  Write a first draft.  If you find that you don't have enough information, you will need to do further research and revise your paper as necessary.

Format your paper according to the writing style required by your instructor.  The Library has guides for many of the commonly used styles, including:

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association    BF76.7 .P83 2010

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers    LB2369 .M53 2009

The Chicago Manual of Style    Z253 .U69 2010

Preparing a Bibliography

Academic honesty requires that you acknowledge all the sources you use for information by preparing a list of references, or bibliography. Not doing so constitutes plagiarism.

Format your bibliography according to the style you are using.  For help see How do I cite sources?  Remember, RefWorks can be used to help you create a bibliography in any style you choose.

Where to Get Help

If you need any assistance finding information for your research paper, please come to the Library Info Desk.  You can also get help by contacting us at 474-3450 ext 4221, or emailing us .

We're here to help! 

Suggested Reading

Writing Research Papers: A Complete Guide 13th ed.    LB2369 .L4 2010

Making Sense: A Student's Guide to Research and Writing 6th ed.    LB2369 .N67 2009

The Practical Guide to Writing 2nd Canadian ed.    PE1408 .P733 2006

Simon & Schuster Handbook for Writers 3rd Canadian ed.    PE1408 .T725 2002

The Little, Brown Handbook 9th ed.    PE1112 .F64 2004