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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

Offers detailed guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper in the social and behavioral sciences.

Things to Think About Before You Begin

After you have determined the type of research design you will use, but before you sit down and begin to organize your paper, there are few things you should consider doing that will help make the process of writing go much smoother.

Make a Schedule

Drafting a schedule and noting deadlines on your personal calendar should be your first step to writing a research paper. Create a schedule based on your own sense of how much time you think you will need to contemplate, research, organize, and write a paper based on its length and your familiarity with the general topic. A helpful strategy is to work backwards from when the final paper is due.

Choose specific dates of important steps along the way, but focus on setting realistic goals, and then stick to them! Make sure to give yourself enough time to find out what resources are available to you [including
meeting with a librarian, if needed!], to identify a research problem to investigate, to select and read relevant research literature, to outline your paper, to organize the information you are going to cite in your paper, and to write your first and final drafts [as well as any necessary steps in between]. Developing a personal assignment calendar will also help you manage your time in relation to work assigned in other classes.

Analyze the Assignment

Carefully analyze the assignment to determine what you are specifically being asked to do. Look for key terms, topics, subject areas, and/or issues that can help you develop a research problem that interests you. Be sure that you understand the type of paper you are being asked to write. Research papers discuss a topic in depth and cite to credible sources that contain evidence that supports your particular perspective. However, there are many different ways this can be achieved.

The way in which your professor may ask you to frame your analysis can include any of the following approaches:

  • Case study -- explain the implications and unique characteristics of a complex research problem using a single bounded unit of analysis that illuminates key issues about the problem [e.g., an organization, behavior of doctors in an emergency room, a supreme court ruling, an event].
  • Comparison  -- compares and contrasts two ideas, constructs, or tangible things with one another.
  • Definition -- discusses in depth the cultural and associative meanings of, for example, a political theory, a policy proposal, or a controversial practice.
  • Descriptive -- chooses a subject that you know well and help others to understand it.
  • Evaluative -- examines a theoretical concept, issue, person, place, or thing with the purpose of critically assessing basic assumptions, ideas, behavior, or events.
  • Exploratory -- pursues a specific line of inquiry, often with the purpose of making recommendations for further research or to advocate and provide evidence for specific actions to be taken.
  • Interpretive -- applies the theoretical knowledge gained in your coursework to a particular research problem, such as, a business situation in a management course or a psychological case profile.
  • Narrative -- writes from an experiential point of view, usually your own and written in the first person, that relates to the research problem.
  • Persuasive -- takes a position in a scholarly debate and gives the reader reasons based on existing evidence why they should agree with your position.
  • Policy memorandum -- writes short factual sentences that objectively summarizes a situation to date, identifies the main issue of concern, provides a breakdown of the elements of this main issue, and then recommends how to address the issue based on research about the topic.

NOTE:  If for any reason you are unclear or confused about any aspect of the assignment, request clarification from your professor as soon as possible. Faculty are required to hold office hours to meet with students. Take advantage of this. Professors will not accept the excuse that, "I didn't understand the assignment" if you end up being upset about the grade you receive.

Ballenger, Bruce P. The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers. 7th edition. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2012. Composing Processes: Planning and Organizing. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Invention: Starting the Writing Process. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Invention: Overview of the Writing Process. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Lester, James D. Writing Research Papers: A Complete Guide. 15th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2015; Rosenblatt, Paul C. Restarting Stalled Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2016; Williams, Joseph M. and Lawrence McEnerney. Writing in College 2: Preparing to Write and Drafting the Paper, Writing Program, The University of Chicago; Prewriting Strategies. Writing Center. University of Kansas; Prewriting Techniques. Hawley Academic Resource and Advising Center. Simpson College.

General Information

Below are general rules outlined in most writing assignments in social and behavioral sciences classes, however, keep in mind that the style and format of a research paper may vary depending on the preferences of your professor.

To make a paper readable:

  • Use a 12 point standard font; the most common used for research papers is either New Times Roman, Calibri, Georgia, or Garamond.
  • Text should be double spaced on 8 1/2" x 11" white paper with one inch margins on all four sides.
  • Number pages consecutively but never number the title page as page 1.

General mistakes to avoid:

  • Start each new section on a new page -- avoid orphan headings, sentences, or words  [insert a page breaks where necessary].
  • Dividing a table or figure -- if possible, confine non-textual elements, such as a table or chart, to a single page. If this is not possible, create a logical break to separate the data into two pages or consider creating two or more non-textual elements to show the data.
  • Not adhering to recommended page limits -- if the assignment asks you to write a paper between 12-15 pages, this indicates the range that your professor believes is typically needed to thoroughly examine the research problem. If your paper is well below or well above this range, this may indicate a need to flesh out your analysis or eliminate unnecessary text, respectively.

General  stylistic and grammatical mistakes to avoid:

  • Use normal prose with appropriate articles ["a," "the," "an"].
  • Spell checkers and grammar checkers are helpful, but they don’t catch everything. Always proofread and, if possible, get someone to review it for you before submitting your final paper.
  • Indent the first line of each paragraph.
  • If a paragraph is nearly a page or more longer, then it is probably too long for the reader to comprehend and should be divided into smaller paragraphs.
  • Write in an active voice when possible but note that some professors prefer a passive voice.
  • Write out all abbreviations the first time they are used with parentheses around the abbreviation [i.e., International Monetary Fund (IMF)]. Do not use too many abbreviations; they shorten the text but make it more difficult to read because the reader has to repeatedly think about what each means. Never start a sentence with an abbreviation.
  • Do not use contractions in academic writing and do not start sentences with conjunctions (and, but, or) or numerals.
  • Avoid informal wording, addressing the reader directly, and using jargon, slang terms, declaratives, or superlatives unless they appear in direct quotes from other sources.

In all sections of your paper:

  • Stay focused on the research problem you are investigating [follow the steps in this guide].
  • Use paragraphs to separate each important point.
  • Present your points in a logical order.
  • Use present tense to report well accepted facts [e.g., "The Prime Minister of Bulgaria is Boyko Borissov."]
  • Use past tense to describe specific results from your study [e.g., "Evidence shows that the impact of the invasion was magnified by events in 1989."]
  • Avoid the use of superfluous non-textual elements [images/figures/charts/tables]; include only those necessary for presenting or enhancing an understanding of the results.

NOTE: These are general guidelines that apply to almost every paper you write in college. However, the specific format of your paper--how you arrange the title page, headings, subheadings, non-textual elements, citations, appendices, etc.--will be dictated by the writing style manual you are asked to use [e.g., APA, Chicago, MLA, or other]. If your professor has not stated which style to use, be sure to ask. If your professor does not state a preference, choose the writing style used within your major or that you have the most experience using.

The Guide to Grammar and Writing. Capital Community College Foundation; Grammar. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing Tips. Writers Workshop.  University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign;  Handouts. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina.