A research paper is variable and its definition depends on the class for which it is assigned. In its most basic form, it is a paper that is not solely based on the student’s own conjectures, but instead relies on researching the material of others. Research done might range from reading a book or an article or two to extensive reading, or other methods of research like performing experiments. Students often are given their first research paper assignments in high school, where the requirements for actual amount of research are fairly minimal. As students progress through college, papers usually become longer, more extensive, and require much more research and they are evaluated more on the basis of how thoroughly students have explored the available research on their topics or generated sound research of their own.
Students can take a variety of approaches to a research paper, depending on the way an assignment is described. Some papers use extensive research to justify making a specific argument, such as that a poem should be interpreted a certain way or that the US government should spend more money on AIDs prevention. Students can also fully research a topic and analyze present research, ultimately arriving at conclusions on how a topic should be viewed. Other papers use the scientific method, beginning with a question or hypothesis, and then through quantitative or qualitative research, they prove or disprove the hypothesis, writing a paper on their experiment and its results.
The length of the research paper often says something about the amount of research that is possible. For a 10-20 page paper, students might use about 10-20 sources, and these should be current and represent a diverse range of views. When using sources, instead of performing experiments, it very important to use those sources that are considered scholarly. They need to come from books or periodicals, and most need to represent recent writing on a topic; many Internet sources like Wikipedia are not used, though articles on encyclopedic sites could lead students to more scholarly sources that can be used.
Since emphasis is on the research, the research paper has to have a logical means for citing its sources. This varies depending on the discipline. In the humanities, people use Modern Language Association (MLA) format, and in many of the social sciences, the preferred citation method is American Psychological Association (APA) format. The hard sciences may call for other formats. Students take many general education courses where a research paper is required, getting some exposure to a variety of formats, but they should become most acquainted with the one used in their discipline, as it is likely to be required often.
Though variance can exist in topic, length, and focus of the research paper, most have some basic elements in common. They include a statement of intent of the paper or thesis, a review of the researched material with commentary, and some conclusions drawn based on the research. They should also include a works cited list or bibliography, which lists all references used, even if they weren’t quoted.