Fundamental Guidelines on writing research papers


Read the following guidelines on writing your paper. Please note that absolute requirements (things we REQUIRE in or of all research papers) are tagged below with [REQUIREMENT]. Failure to adhere to these fundamental guidelines will result in a loss of points on your research paper. You get the grade you earn, not the grade we give you.

An "A" paper should teach your instructors something they did not previously know. For example, writing the same old tired lines about a topic like the Roswell UFO crash that has been thoroughly debunked in books and in lectures for this course will not earn an "A". Instead, find a topic that few have explored (check for a listing), or come up with a new angle on an old topic.

[REQUIREMENT] Paper Template File

  • Download this file; it is a template to use for building your paper. USE IT! Important: Download the template FIRST, then build your paper in it. DON'T write in Word with default conditions then paste the text into the template file. The margins are different, so you could get a nasty surprise when the page count changes. REPEAT: Use the template from the beginning!
  • Give your file a name in the format "Yourlastname.doc" (you better be smart enough to put in your own name). Be sure to capitalize your name.
  • Edit "Paper Title" to put in the desired title.
  • Edit "Date" to show the date the file was submitted.
  • The typeface is set to Times New Roman 12 point. DO NOT CHANGE IT!
  • Line spacing is set to 2.0 in the template. DO NOT CHANGE IT! If we find that the line spacing has been increased, we will penalize the paper by an amount proportional to the amount of the increase.
  • Page numbering is activated. DO NOT TURN IT OFF!
  • There is a strange line of "T O R A W C Q" at the bottom of the title page. DO NOT DELETE IT!
  • The format for sources separates source of claims from scientific sources. USE IT. Don't mix scientific sources into the claims section.

More Notes on Papers

  • [REQUIREMENT] Make sure that the paper uses or describes pseudoscience, the scientific method (especially where it is misused), or critical thinking so that it is applicable to this course. Be sure you understand the difference between the following:
    • Religion. This covers religion-based claims or doctrines that cannot be scientifically tested. These lie entirely outside the realm of science and are not amenable to scientific examination.
    • Pseudoscience. This includes claims of paranormal (supernatural) powers, supernatural phenomena (apparitions, miracles, etc), phenomena that would violate solidly confirmed physical laws (like perpetual motion machines) and claims lacking any scientific basis (astrology,...). These claims, unlike religion, can be tested; it is usually possible to design an experiment to find out whether the claimed phenomenon actually occurs.
    • Scientific fraud. Fraud includes things like falsifying data, fudging the statistics, omitting negative results or data, suppressing study results that are unfavorable, and ethical violations. Real scientific fraud is not accidental.
    • Science done badly. Here you find things like sampling methods that produce biased samples, using an inappropriate statistical method, using inappropriate lab animals for a test, or any number of more significant procedural erors. Such errors are not necessarily willful. Other scientists reviewing or replicating a flawed experiment will usually find and reveal the errors in the original work.

    Keep the claim or claims as narrowly and clearly defined as possible. Otherwise, you risk writing a tome instead of a paper, or trying to study too many directions all at once. A de-focused or vague paper that trades depth for breadth will not earn you a good grade.

    Writing about topics such as:
    • a policy debate (where the science is settled and it comes down to values and opinion, e.g. "Coke is better than Pepsi", or "Wind energy is better than solar energy."),
    • a purely scientific issue. If the answer to your question can be found through scientific inquiry (experiment, observation, etc), then it is not a pseudoscientific claim. Consider questions like "Are GMO foods/powerlines/asbestos dangerous?" Answers can be found by doing real science.
    • a purely theological or religious topic (where scientific tests are impossible, e.g. "Does God exist?"),
    • a purely technical problem (e.g. "Natural gas is a better fuel than coal or oil"),
    • a claim of a future event whose occurrence cannot be tested before it happens (e.g. "Humans will be replaced by robots in 50 years."),
    • or a topic where few resources are available to support EITHER the claim OR the study of the claim
    will earn you a poor grade. Avoid these.

    A topic that doesn't focus on a testable, pseudoscientific claim or a clear case of the use/misuse of the scientific method or critical thinking is not an acceptable research topic. Here are some things NOT to do.
    • Recite a lot of history about some topic. Use ONLY as much history as necessary to set the scene.
    • Recite a lot of doctrine about how something is supposed to work. What really counts is "Does it work?"
    • Write a broad essay on the subject. This does not amount to assessing a claim.
    • Try to lay out the "pros and cons" in an attempt at "fairness." Science is fair only in how well it gets at the facts about reality. Science develops knowledge; people have to figure out how to deal with it.
    • Try to prove a negative, like "ESP does not exist." You can debunk a claim easily if it would violate a well-established physical law, like one of the laws of thermodynamics. Otherwise, proving a negative is essentially impossible.
    You are STRONGLY encouraged to discuss your topic with the instructors FAR in advance of submitting your paper. It's why we have office hours, and it's why we require abstracts be handed in weeks before the paper due date. Your paper is your responsibility, and your adherence to our recommendations is your responsibility. That's why you get the grade you earn, not the grade we give you.
  • [REQUIREMENT] Cite evidence, not opinion. Your personal experiences are not useful either; they amount to anecdotes and don't prove anything beyond that one case.
  • [REQUIREMENT] Read the file of required references. If your topic is shown and lists references, you MUST read those references.
  • [REQUIREMENT] Build your paper on a specific testable claim. On the very first page, in the first paragraph, tell us the following:
    • State the claim clearly. Be sure it is a claim and not a question. "I can receive thoughts directly from an associate" is a claim; "Does ESP exist?" is a question, not a claim.
    • Who made that claim?
    • Show the source where you found it. A magazine, TV show, web site, advertisement, etc. will be fine. Cite that source. You cannot make up the claim yourself.
    • Give a brief summary of the amount of actual scientific tests of the claim that appear to be available. If very little is available this might not be a good topic.
    • If the claim is "widely believed," you need to find and cite some evidence of this.
    These papers are to be exercises in learning how to critically assess and evaluate pseudoscientific claims and the like.
  • [REQUIREMENT] If you use another author's words (or data or graphics), reference the work in your bibliography. Never plagiarize.

    If you are unclear on just what plagiarism looks like, then see our NOTES ON PLAGIARISM. Here are some basic rules:
    • If you copy, word-for-word, lines of text from any source without giving credit to the source, YOU ARE PLAGIARIZING
    • If you are going to use text verbatim from a source, even if you cite it you should put the text in quotes and use it as either an in-line quote or a block quote. See a writing handbook for more information. REMEMBER: too much block quoting (which equals not enough original writing) counts against your paper grade.
    • If you are not going to quote the source, but will simply use the text from the source, TRY TO RE-WRITE THE TEXT IN YOUR OWN WORDS.
    Properly used quotes are fine. They can add clarity or emphasis to critical points. Just be sure to enclose them in quotes and cite the source they come from. Large quotes should be set off as block quotes.
  • Refereed journal articles are the best sources, then books, then the internet. [REQUIREMENT] Your bibliography may not contain more than 25% internet sites. Exceptions: 1) Internet sites of type .gov, .mil or .edu will not count as Web sources. 2) Internet sites which are used as the source for the pseudoscientific claim are exempt; just be sure to clearly indicate this.
  • Be sure to check out any internet sites used for references. Here are some good references on how to do this.
  • [REQUIREMENT] The paper MUST have more than one reference.

    A paper with only one reference is not a research paper; if the reference is a book, the paper is a book review and if the reference is a web site the paper is a web site review.

  • [REQUIREMENT] The research papers must be turned in electronically. We will not accept paper copies. Use the assignment submission facility accessible from the top page. If that absolutely does not work, then E-mail your assignment to or turn in a PC floppy disk or a CD. Use Ascii text, RTF, or MS Word format (.doc). We cannot read
    • WordPerfect files
    • or Macintosh files
    • .pages files
  • [REQUIREMENT] If you are using Microsoft Word, you must use 12-point Times New Roman double-spaced for your type font, with one-inch margins. Any papers which use any other font or type size will be converted to 12-point Times New Roman. Page count will be determined AFTER conversion. USE THE TEMPLATE LINKED ABOVE!
  • [REQUIREMENT] The title page, images or illustrations, quotations, and the bibliography DO NOT COUNT toward the length of the paper. A 15-page paper means 15 pages of YOUR original text. A 15-page paper with 3 pages worth of pictures will be counted as 12 pages, with a corresponding reduction in the grade. To be sure of your page count, activate page numbering in your file. Don't forget to account for the title page, which does NOT count as text.
  • The midterm paper may be rewritten to obtain a higher grade; this means fixing any problems marked on your paper. You may get back one or two marked-up copies, depending on the instructor workload. If you rewrite your midterm paper, you must RETURN ALL PROOFREAD PAPER COPIES and e-mail a new version to We will not even consider a regrade without all proofread marked-up copies. NOTE: A penalty for late submission of the midterm paper will carry over to the rewrite. If you don't turn in the paper, the grade on it will be zero and this cannot be fixed with a "rewrite" later. Moral: Don't be late!
  • If you add extensive new material to the rewritten paper, please check the grammar, punctuation, and spelling carefully so you don't repeat the same kinds of mistakes that you made the first time and lose points.
  • Please proofread your papers carefully before you turn them in. We deduct one percentage point for each error in your paper. Twenty errors will result in a one point score reduction (e.g. 5 -> 4). One hundred errors will get you a zero score on the paper. Exception: We are lenient for students for whom English is a second language. We recognize that English is hard to learn; our marks will show you what a correct form looks like.
  • Correct spelling and grammar are essential. Here are
  • If your papers come back to you with more red ink than black, consider seeking help with your writing at the Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center.

You can also find dictionaries and thesauri in the ancient form known as books. Check the library. If you have trouble finding what you need, ask the librarians; they can help. They won't write the research paper for you, but they will help you locate sources.

If you need some guidance about what makes a good paper, see the page of Good Student Papers (password protected). These were "A" papers. Look at the number of citations they have in their bibliographies. Read the papers to see how they are organized. Check out the opening and closing paragraphs.

An "A" paper should teach your instructors something they did not previously know. For example, writing the same old tired lines about a topic like the Roswell UFO crash that has been thoroughly debunked in books and in lectures for this course will not earn an "A". Instead, find a topic that few have explored (check for a listing), or come up with a new angle on an old topic.

Regarding citations, remember that a paper with only one reference is not a research paper; if the reference is a book, the paper is a book review and if the reference is a web site the paper is a web site review.

Do NOT depend on the spell-checker to catch your errors. We have seen some hilarious mistakes in the form of incorrect words that were correctly spelled. If English is not your first language, get someone to read the paper with you and help you find mistakes. If English is your native language, get TWO people to proofread it for you! The spell-checker has produced some VERY amusing results in student papers. For one, how about "...let alone be an actual whiteness to the Holocaust." We think the writer meant "witness." Believe it or not, later in the same paper we found "eye-whiteness testimony."

Here's a particularly choice and amusing example:

... Previously in history, an epidemic outbreak was whopping couch. Whopping couch is an infectious virus typically caught by infants and children. ....
There was one more occurrence a few lines further on. The "whopping" is almost certainly a spell-checker artifact; if you type "whoping" and then look at the spelling choices offered by Word, "whopping" is the first choice in the list. It turns out that this student is not the first to produce this gem - a little web searching will turn up a newspaper headline "Vaccination Available for Whopping Couch."

"The The Impotence of Proofreading," by TAYLOR MALI from YouTube

Your paper should have a definite structure. Begin with an abstract of what the paper is trying to accomplish. Follow that with the body of the paper. Wrap up with a summary and conclusion. Here's one way to remember this.

  • Tell 'em what you are going to tell 'em.
  • Tell 'em.
  • Tell 'em what you told 'em.

The following suggestions are adapted from a page of recommendations given to us by Beth Newman of the SMU English Department. Also note that the last two links above, namely EasyWriter and the Pocket Style Manual, are also recommended by Ms. Newman.

1. The paper must articulate a clear thesis; that is, an arguable main point. By arguable, we mean that it is worth arguing; it is neither obvious ("Men are different from women") nor wishy-washy ("Men and women are different in some ways but similar in others"). We mean that, as an idea, it merits development, elaboration, substantiation, and qualification. Recommended: put your thesis at the end of your introductory paragraph.

2. Each paragraph of your paper should add up to a unit that makes a point. This point should support, qualify, refine, consider other objections to, or otherwise develop the thesis of your paper. After you draft the paper, reread it, asking yourself after each paragraph, "What is the main point here?" If you can't say, you need to work harder to make that point emerge. Recommended: articulate this point in a topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph or a concluding sentence at the end.

3. Your paper must provide an analysis of the issues involved, and the analysis should be rooted in something specific. Therefore, do NOT write your paper solely out of your own head or even out of your notes - based on an impression of the "general idea" we are asking about. Use your books and references. Study them. Be sure you understand the concepts, data and hypotheses.

4. When you quote something or someone, introduce the quotation and say something about its significance. Be sure to include the citation indicating the source of the quote.

5. Do not assume that meanings of key terms are self-evident (obvious). Your writing should define them as necessary so there will be no confusion on the reader's part about what they mean. Be sure to use terms consistently. Also be sure that you understand what each term means.

6. Your prose should be as clear, direct, and error-free as you can make it. Read your paper aloud. Do the sentences make sense? Do you stumble over them when you read them aloud? Would they be comprehensible to an intelligent person who does not know you and your way of expressing yourself? Avoid slang. Look for basic grammatical errors such as sentence fragments (not complete), runons, comma splices, failure to indicate possessives, subject/verb disagreement, etc., etc., etc. As mentioned above, be VERY careful about using the spell-checker. It WILL NOT save you from the incorrect word that is correctly spelled. For example, if you write "there" when you meant "their", the spell-checker is NOT going to catch it.

Here's a suggested process for writing as described by Prof. Newman. This outline assumes that you have already chosen the topic.

  • Brainstorm, meaning collect ideas.
  • Reflect on the ideas.
  • Produce a focus statement. This describes what you are going to concentrate on.
  • Write your thesis statement.
  • Collect evidence that you can use.
  • Produce an outline of the paper.
  • Write a draft of the paper.
  • Edit the draft, fixing errors and cleaning up the structure.
  • Get someone else to read the draft and comment on it for you. Revise the paper as needed to improve it.

Protocol for Grading Papers

Suggested Research Paper Topics

Good past student research papers