Every paper, whether it is a normal research paper, thesis, or dissertation, has a main argument. A paper is built on its main argument and backed up with supporting claims and evidence.


Types of papers

If you are unclear on the difference between difference types of papers, below are the common names of papers you will hear in an academic setting:

  • Essay
  • Research paper
  • Thesis
  • Dissertation
  • Report (lab report, field report, book report)
  • Personal statement

An essay is a relatively shorter piece of writing that typically has five paragraphs (an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion), while research papers tend to be longer and site more sources. An essay could be around two to five pages, and a research paper can range from five to eight pages or even longer depending on the depth of the paper. A thesis is a longer research paper that is the final project for a bachelor’s or master’s degree, while a dissertation is the lengthier final paper for a doctoral degree. Reports have different formats depending on the type, some common types being lab reports, field reports, and book reports. Lab and field reports usually have an abstract at the beginning and are longer than book reports. Personal statements, typically for when applying for a university, are essays where you write about personal aspects of yourself.

The general objective of essays, research papers, theses, and dissertations is the same. You make a main argument and support it. Because theses and dissertations are types of research papers, we will guide you through how to write a general research paper or essay.

Before you start, make sure you understand the assignment or prompt thoroughly and ask your instructor any necessary questions. Be aware of any word or page limitations or maximums, formatting requirements, or any other specifications. When choosing a topic, choose one that has enough information but is also not too cliché or overdone. If you are conducting your own scientific experiment, you do not necessarily need an abundance of published information and can instead use the data and conclusions from your own experiment.

Sequence of your paper

Knowing the structure and sequence of a research paper will help you get an idea of how you should go about writing your paper. The order of the content in your research paper typically starts off by stating your main argument or claim in the introduction paragraph. Some instructors or assignments require you to have an abstract, which is a summary of your main points, at the beginning of your paper. Formal scientific research papers, lab reports, field reports, and scholarly journals typically always have abstracts while not all social science research papers contain them and instead just have an introduction paragraph. If the instructions of your assignment are not clear, ask your instructor whether you need an abstract.

The core sections of any essay or research paper are the introduction, main body, and references. Different writing styles break down the main body of the paper in different ways, but the most common writing styles used for research papers are the APA and MLA formats with APA being more common than its counterpart, especially for scientific research papers. The general order of a research paper in APA format would be as follows:

Science research paper (APA): title page, abstract, introduction, method(s), result(s), discussion, and references

Social science research paper (APA): title page, introduction, method(s), result(s), discussion, and references

Some instructors prefer the results and discussion section to be presented together as one section and may call that section “Conclusion” as well. In a lab or field report, the sequence would be abstract, hypothesis, method(s), result(s), discussion, and conclusion. You would write the abstract last even though it goes at the beginning of the report because the abstract is a summary of the main points in the report.

Research papers in the MLA format do not have title pages and require you to put the title at the top of the first page before the introduction paragraph.

Now, let us break each section.

Title page (APA style)

Your title page should include your title, name, department or affiliation, course name, instructor name, date, and page number. See the APA style site for specifications on the formatting of the title page. Name your paper a title that is intuitive so that the reader will know the main essence of your writing before reading the whole paper. If your paper is a study on the effects of coffee on patients with diabetes, your title might be “Positive Effects of Consuming Apples for Patients With Type 2 Diabetes” which clearly illustrates the topic of your paper. You can also get a little more playful with your title and name it “Does an Apple a Day Keep the Doctor Away? Positive Effects of Consuming Apples on Blood Sugar Levels” although more lengthy.


First, check with your instructor whether an abstract is required. Most professional research papers have abstracts, but not all student assignments require one. Because the abstract is a summary of your research paper, you would write the abstract last. In it, you would summarize all other sections of your paper which includes your hypothesis (if present), research problem or question (if present), methods, results, and discussion or conclusion. An abstract is typically less than 250 words, briefly highlighting the key points of your paper.


Different instructors have different requirements for the introduction paragraphs of research papers assignments. Below is a list of the most common terminology used for types of elements within the introductory paragraph:

  • Main argument or claim
  • Research problem
  • Research question
  • Purpose of study or research
  • Topic of the paper
  • Background to existing research
  • Importance of the research
  • Hypothesis

It is rare for an instructor to specifically require every element in this list, and there is no single perfect combination of any of them either. If your instructor does not have any specific requirements for the introduction, be sure to at least mention your main argument. These terms can also  slightly differ depending on the field of study and some may not be used in some subjects, so be sure to check with your instructor if you are unsure.

Your main argument is what you are trying to prove and persuade the reader of. You are proving that your main argument solves a research problem or research question you are trying to answer. Going off of the example used in the title page, your main argument could be that consuming apples helps reduce the blood sugar levels of type 2 diabetes patients.

A research problem is an issue or gap in research of knowledge that is going to be addressed with your own research or experimentation, while a research question is a statement in the form of a question that seeks to learn and examine the unknown of the gap in knowledge. Stating your research problem or question helps give a clearer direction to your paper. Some instructors in academic institutions do not require a research question or a sentence that clearly states the research problem. However, when required, instructors will normally want either one or the other and not both. An example of a research problem would be that the effects of apples on type 2 diabetes patients is unclear and that there is a lack of information on food that is potentially helpful to type 2 diabetes patients. A research question for the same topic would look something like this: What is the impact of consuming apples on the blood sugar levels of type 2 diabetes patients?

Proving your main argument is the purpose of the study or research. Many of the terms in the list above overlap in different degrees to other terms. In this case, the purpose of your study can coincide with your main argument and the importance of of the research. For our apples example, the purpose of the study can be to help type 2 diabetes patients reduce their blood sugar by unveiling that apples can aid in reducing blood sugar levels.

The topic of your paper is the general subject of your work of writing. In many cases, when you state your main argument, you also simultaneously mention the topic of your paper. The topic also bleeds into the background to existing research, which is information on credible studies already executed on the said topic.

The importance of research addresses why the topic and research problem are important to study. Typically your main argument will point out the cause of a problem or propose a solution to an issue which in turn will be beneficial to the world. For example, if you argue with strong evidence that consuming apples helps regulate blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes patients, you are bringing light to a potential solution to a health problem.

A hypothesis, which is required in scientific research papers, tests and answers the research question and proves your main argument. An example of a hypothesis would be: If a type 2 diabetes patient consumes one six to eight ounce (170-225g) Washington apple a day, the patient’s blood sugar level will be reduced by 10% after three months.

When you are given full freedom for your introduction, and you do not know where to start, know that the fundamental basis of a research paper is making an argument and proving it with research. Therefore, you should always address your main argument in your introduction paragraph and then decide what other elements to incorporate next.


Methods of research for scientific research papers involve experiments, observational studies, field surveys, case studies, ethnographic research, and more. If you were conducting an experiment, you would explain the parameters of the experiment, including the number of study participants, the size of the control group and experiment group, and any other numbers or information which may include the participant’s demographics.

For social science research papers, methods of research may include correlational, observational, and experimental methods. Be aware that correlation does not imply causation. Case studies and focus groups are also viable research methods as well. Like for scientific research methods, make sure to denote all parameters of your methodology for your research for your social science paper as well.


In the results section of your paper, you address the data and information you collected from your research whether it is through tables, charts, graphs, numbers, or descriptive sentences. As mentioned previously, some instructors prefer the results and discussion sections to be combined into a single section which they may call the “Conclusions” section. In a results section that is not combined with the discussion section, you would state your findings in a non-bias and objective way, saving your interpretation for the discussion section.

Suppose through experimentation, you find out that if a type 2 diabetes patient consumes one six to eight ounce (170-225g) Washington apple a day, the patient’s blood sugar level will be reduced by an average of 12.3% after three months. You would state the numbers in this section and proceed to interpret them in the next one.


Also called the implications section, the discussion section is where you express your interpretation of the results of your research and how it relates to your hypothesis and answers your research question. Some instructors may call this section the conclusion section or call the combination of the results and discussion section the conclusion section. Ask your instructor on if he, she, or they have any specifications for the sectioning of your research paper assignment before starting writing.

Continuing on the apple example, with your results stated in the previous section, you can convey how this shows that consuming apples can help lower blood sugar levels which is exactly what your main argument in the introduction was claiming.


In your references section, you cite any sources that you used to aid you in writing your research paper. You can utilize online citation generators for APA, MLA, and other popular writing styles to help you complete your references section. Remember to keep track of all your references as you do your research so you do not run into the problem of not recalling where to find your sources and scrambling to search for them at the last minute.

Finding references for research papers

Research takes time and is not a task that gets done overnight. Find your sources beforehand and start reading them early. Do not procrastinate for research-heavy papers. Instead of leaving the essay until the day before the deadline, make achievable mini-deadlines to manage your time wisely.

After you choose your topic and main argument for your paper, find credible sources to refer to for your research, whether you are using them as part of your research findings or to provide background and context in your introduction.

Be cautious because the Internet is filled with both reliable and unreliable information. Below is a list of materials that would be reliable sources for research papers.

  • Peer-reviewed scholarly journals or articles
  • Published and professional books
  • Science, historical, or other trade magazines
  • Newspaper articles from credible news outlets
  • Data and statistics from credible organizations
  • Conference papers and publications
  • Digital media (videos, audio, images, etc.) from the government, news, or other credible organizations

Now, the next question is how do you know if an organization, publisher, or news outlet is credible? University publications and government websites are credible sources. In the US, .edu is the domain type for university while .gov is for official government websites. Famous news outlets and publishers that have been proven to be reliable for years are also great resources. Peer-reviewed scholarly journals and articles are typically seen as more credible than academic or trade magazines. Professional trade magazines, newspapers, and new outlets, however, can also be excellent sources if the enterprise has a long-standing honorable reputation.

Be cautious of biases and agendas

Note that some organizations may hold biases or agendas. There may not exist a perfectly objective news outlet, but just note that some networks show their political preference more strongly than others. Fox News is said to be more conservative politically in the US context. The Wall Street Journal is also said to be slightly conservative while CNN leans liberal. Opinions may vary, however. Some say CNN is politically neutral rather than leaning liberal.

Then what is an organization with an agenda? Suppose you are researching if consuming collagen supplements benefits the production of collagen in the skin. A credible-looking health website might state that consuming collagen supplements will indeed benefit your skin, but you may later find out that organization or the article was sponsored by a company selling collagen supplements. The health website then has a motive for publishing that online article (the sponsor is paying them money) and may be posting it even if there is faulty or unproven information. Because it is extremely difficult to do a full background check on all sources, if after some research the source looks like it was published by a credible organization without a motive, then you may use it as a reference. Non-profit organizations are excellent choices for references as well because they do not have financial motivation.

Use recent publications

Another aspect of your sources you should check is the date of publication. The information in older sources may be outdated and require cross-checking with newer material. You do not want to be using old information that was proven to be wrong after its publication. A standard rule of thumb is that sources published in the last 10 years are acceptable. Different instructors may have varying opinions on these numbers. If you are unsure, ask your instructor if he, she, or they have a specific range of time for acceptable sources.

Where to find credible sources

You may be wondering where you can find credible sources. Fortunately, there are many websites that make it easier for students and researchers to find reliable academic references. Here are some notable ones below.

Unreliable sources

To distinguish whether a source is credible, you must know what an unreliable source looks like. Here we collected a list of unreliable sources:

  • Wikipedia and other similar sites
  • Blog, personal websites, and other user generated content
  • Forum sites (Reddit, Quora, etc.)
  • Self-published books
  • Spoken word by a friend, family member, acquaintance, teacher
  • Satirical news outlets (The Onion, The Daily Show, etc.)
  • Social media (Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube)

If you find some information on Wikipedia that you would like to use, you can scroll down to the list of references on the said Wikipedia page and find the source of the information. If the source is credible, you can reference it directly.

The only cases in which you can site a YouTube video is it is uploaded by a credible organization such as NASA or the BBC News.


Do not plagiarize. You can use free online plagiarism checkers to see if any parts of your work would be considered plagiarized. Use quotation marks for direct quotations and paraphrase when needed instead of copying word for word.

Final tips

We collected a few dos and don’ts for when writing a research paper below.


  • Do write in third person instead of first person.
  • Do write an outline for your research paper before writing the paper or even finding your resources. An outline organizes your paper into the proper sequence and helps you find any holes in logic.
  • Do write a first draft instead of trying to perfect each section as you write it. You may experience writer’s block if you try to perfect everything from the beginning.
  • Do revise and reread your research paper multiple times. You can ask a peer or instructor to proofread it as well. Many universities have writing center where you can get your paper revised. Be sure to finish your paper in advance so you have to time revise it and give others time to proofread it as well. You can also use an online proofreading site such as Engram to check your grammar.


  • Do not lie about any of your findings or research.
  • Do not write an unnecessarily lengthy paper especially if it exceeds the word limit. A longer paper does not mean it is a better paper.
  • Do not lose focus and include information that is not related to your main argument.
  • Do not use eloquent words or terminology if you do not know how to use them in context.

Another extra tip is to play devil’s advocate and consider any counterarguments that may refute your main argument. This is usually a required step in persuasive essays and can help in augment your discussion section of the research paper. Some instructor require a counterargument in research papers while others do not, so check with your instructor to see if one is needed.

Best of luck on your research papers!

If you are an international student studying in the US, check out our article How to Study in the US as an International Student.

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