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Writing Research Papers

During a PhD, it’s likely you’ll be expected to write a research paper. Publishing work can be a great way to improve an academic CV and promote yourself as an early career researcher. You might also present your findings at a conference, where you can further network and promote your area of expertise.

But writing a paper is not easy and can take a lot of background work. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead and follow some key steps.

What is a research paper

A research paper is a publication of your own argument in a particular field of study. Whether you are a single or co-author, it should present a well-researched perspective on a relevant academic debate.

The purpose of a paper is to critically engage with a topic and present your own thoughts formed after a period of study on a relevant source base.

What makes a good research paper?

A good paper should be able to identify clear research objectives, an appropriate methodology and contribute interesting and unique conclusions to an academic field. It should be able to comment on the current field of study and identify why this work is significant.

How to outline a research paper

After conducting preliminary research, you should be able to identity a specific area or issue that needs further development.

Topic

The first thing you need is a topic. Unlike a book, a research paper should not aim to tackle a whole academic discipline. Instead the topic needs to be focused and narrow. Potential discussion might focus on an underused source base, a particular debate, or a new development.

Source base

Once you have decided upon a topic, you will need to identify a source base. Like the topic, this needs to be focused and narrow.

This is the stage in which you will conduct the bulk of your research. Ask yourself, what are the sources telling you? Do they change your idea in any way? And, are there any additional sources you might have missed that could be important to your topic?

The argument

After completing a significant amount of research, you should be able to form an argument. What does your evidence suggest? How does this contribute to the debates you originally intended to address? This is a good time to start listing the relevant points you’ll want to cover in the body.

It can also be helpful to write your argument down. While it might change in the process of writing, or after further research, it’s good to have a focus. A research paper should not be descriptive and so it can be helpful to have a preliminary argument written to keep your writing focused.

Choosing a publisher

Lastly, before writing you should identify which journal you want to submit to. It’s important to pick a journal that covers your field of study as this will give you a greater chance of publication. It will also mean that assigned reviewers will be more knowledgeable on your current academic discipline and so will offer better guidance in their feedback.

A good method is to check your own secondary research. Which are the most common journals you use? Then you can use their websites to assess whether your topic and methodology fits their style guidelines. Sometimes it might be worth emailing the journal editor with a brief summary of your article to enquire if it would be something of interest.

How to structure a research paper

After creating an outline of your points and argument, this needs to be organised into a written format. The length of your paper will depend upon your field of study, methodology, referencing style and intended publisher. Journals will list the length of publications they accept on their website and so you should use that as a guide.

While articles are commonly between 10-20 pages, some journals will accept pieces up to 50 pages.

Introduction

Arguably the most important part of any written piece, the introduction needs to be engaging to catch the reader’s attention. Here, you should summarise your topic and approach before finishing with a thesis statement.

Main body

The main body will feature the main points that you listed for your argument. Make sure each section is relevant and linked. Going off on a tangent can make your work look unorganised. Your argument might seem less convincing if there is little or no apparent relation between each point.

It’s important to remember that you should not organise your sections by sources, but by theme. It is also a good idea to finish with your strongest point as it can help make your conclusion look more convincing.

Conclusion

Here you should revisit your original thesis statement made in the introduction and then summarise how you have shown this to be true. Go over each point making it clear how it contributes to your argument. The conclusion is also where you might suggest that further research is needed into the broader topic.

Revisions

Lastly, it is always crucial to revise your work. A good research paper will probably be drafted at least a couple of times. Make sure to check these three key things:

  • Grammar and readability
  • The clarity and flow of your argument
  • References and factual evidence used

How to format a research paper

Every publishing house will have their own specific formatting style guides. That’s why it’s important to know who you want to publish with before you submit.

Abstract

All journals will ask for an abstract of your article. An abstract is a paragraph long summary of the paper. Its purpose is for readers to decide whether they need or want to read your article. It should include the subject of research, the reason behind it, a methodology and concluding statement.

Following style guides

The main thing to check in the formatting style guide is referencing. Make sure you have used the right system, whether it be in-text citations, footnotes or endnotes. You should also check if you are required to have a bibliography. It is also good practice to submit in the required font and sizing.

Some journals might also ask for a short biography of the author.

Submission

The last stage of writing a research paper is submission. After sending your paper to a journal it will be checked by an editor before being sent for peer review. Under peer review the article will be read by three to four anonymous readers (depending on the size of the journal). Each will provide feedback.

Feedback

It is unlikely that a research paper will be full accepted on first submission and often edits will be required. If your article has been preliminarily accepted, you will be given a set period for edits. Each anonymous reviewer will provide their constructive feedback and you should attempt to address each point raised.

Doing a PhD

For more information on what it’s like to do a PhD, read our guides to research proposals, dissertations and the viva.

Last updated - 16/12/2020

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