July 19, 2019
For those unsure of how to put together a research paper (and for those who might need a refresher), I thought I’d put together a page on advice and resources on how to go about it.
This is a work-in-progress, so check back regularly for updates.
Making sense of science:
- J Raff, How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists, Violent Metaphors, 8.25.13
Style guides (for help with foot- and endnotes, how and how much to quote, paraphrasing, and all things reference):
- Plagiarism.org, esp.:
- Purdue Online Writing Lab
- UW Madison’s Writer’s Handbook
- To cite legal materials, including regulations, see:
Citing your sources is a key aspect of writing research papers: in exchange for making use of someone else’s work, you MUST GIVE CREDIT for that work. Not doing so is a kind of theft (otherwise known as “plagiarism”), and, generally, rude.
How to give credit, however, can be fraught. As you can see from the list of style guides, above, there are a number of ways to cite material correctly. Furthermore, some of these styles combine specific citations with general references, while others separate these two functions.
What do I mean by “specific citations” versus “general references”? Consider “general references” to be the set while “specific citations” are the subset. That is, everything you specifically cite should be found in your list of general references.
Okay, but what are “general references”? General references (which may be referred to as “Bibliography”, “List of Sources”, or “References”) are the list of everything you’ve read to prepare yourself to write. Do note that material assigned for class, if relevant, should be included in your list of references; that is, if you’re writing a paper on stem cells, you should include “Stem Cell Basics” in your list of references.
“Specific citations” refers to specific pieces of information which you take from a particular source; these could be direct quotes (which should be indicated by ” ” marks), paraphrases of information, charts, figures, images, and any other details. Depending on the style you use, you could create footnotes (which appear at the bottom of the page), endnotes (which appear at the end of the body of the paper), or parenthetical citation (in which source information appears in parens at the end of the sentence). Whatever method (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.) you choose is fine: just pick one, and stick to it.
See How do I cite sources for further information on both general and specific citation.
As to how to place the foot- or endnotes in your paper (Word):
- Place your cursor at the end of the phrase or sentence and click on “References”
- Click on either “Insert footnote” or “Insert endnote”
- Write in the relevant information
- Place cursor anywhere in the body of the paper to leave the note
- If you want to edit the note, simply place cursor within the note
Word will automatically generate the superscript note number as well as place the note at either the bottom of the page (footnote) or end of paper (endnote).
Three further notes. One, if you cite a bunch of material from the same source (say, you’re summarizing findings from a study) and it takes you a paragraph to do so, you could wait until the end of the paragraph to offer the specific citation. (If, however, in that same paragraph, you include information from another source, then you need to tie each bit of information to each source.)
Two, if you’re unsure of whether to cite a source or not, err on the side of citation. Yes, it is possible to have “too many” footnotes or endnotes, but I’d rather have you “over-cite” and give too much credit than not give sufficient credit.
Finally, when I say “NO NAKED URLS!”, I mean that I do not want you simply to write a url, be it general (www.nature.org) or specific (web.mit.edu/7.72/restricted/readings/PGDreview.pdf); a link without any other identifying information is not enough
You MUST include author, article title, journal title, volume, number (if available), date, and page(s). If the information is web-only, then you still must include author (if available), article/blog post title, web site title, and date posted.
General writing hints
*Acronyms are useful; however, write out the full title on first use, with the acronym in parentheses. After that, you may refer simply to the acronym. Ex: “As part of the executive branch, the National Institutes of Health (NIH). . . . NIH in turn doles out funding. . . .” (Note: there are exceptions to this. For example, “DNA” and “RNA” are rarely written out on first use, and nobody writes out “X-radiation” for “X-ray”; fMRI, however, could go either way: some may write out “functional magnetic resonance imaging” or “functional MRI” on first use, then use “fMRI” after. If in doubt, write out.)
*Authors should never be referred to solely by their first names. Some writers may refer to an author’s full name on first use, then last name thereafter, while others only ever refer to the last name. Again, whichever style you choose, stick to it throughout the paper. Ex: “Harriet Washington, in Medical Apartheid, . . . Washington further notes. . . .”
*Avoid slang and swearing in formal writing. (Some stylists also oppose use of contractions or first-person, but in papers for my courses, these are fine.)
*Spell-check is good, but insufficient: it only checks whether a word is spelled correctly, not whether it is used correctly. Ex: I often see “loose” in the body when “lose” is clearly what is meant.
*Grammar-check is variously useful: It’s probably worthwhile to run a grammar-check at least once to catch obviously problematic phrases or sentences. However, unlike spelling (which is almost always right or wrong), grammar rules may be bent, stretched, or outright broken in service to good writing. In other words, pay attention to the rules, but you may, on occasion, mindfully ignore them.
*Ask someone to read over your paper, with an eye toward comprehension. Do they understand your presentation of material? Is there something unclear or confusing? repetitive? contradictory? As a general matter, if someone who doesn’t know much about the topic is able to understand your analysis, that’s a good sign.
How to find sources
Plagiarism is bad, but it is not only okay but expected that you “steal” sources. I put “steal” in quotes because, of course, it’s not really stealing: instead, you look at the bibliography, list of references, or notes from an article or book you’ve read, track down the relevant sources and then read them for yourself.
The “read them for yourself” point is key: just as it is not acceptable to take information without citing the source of that information, it is not acceptable to cite source material that you haven’t read.
In any case, that’s a great way to find additional sources once you already have an article or two to start with; what if you’re starting from scratch?
Search engines are your friend, and for research papers, Google Scholar is your best friend. Unlike regular search engines, which pulls material gathered from anywhere, Google Scholar restricts its search pool to academic and scholarly sites. In most cases you won’t be able to link to the full text of the article (but if there’s a link to a pdf on the side, try that), but you will often get an abstract (a paragraph summarizing the findings) and, almost always, the source reference itself.
[Important: see discussion of filtering-by-date, below]
So, for example, I did a search on Google Scholar for “preimplantation genetic diagnosis”, and here’s what came up:
If you click on the title of the first entry, you get this:
You can read through the summary to figure out if the full article is likely to contain the kind of information you need. If so, copy or save the information you’ll need to find the article in the library:
That is, the name of the journal (Lancet), volume, number, date, article title, and author(s). Then you can go through the library’s electronic journals (see How to access electronic journals, below), find the right issue, the right article, and download it to your computer or a thumb drive for free.
This article, however, is one of the few to which you can link directly. See, in that first screenshot, the “mit.edu [pdf]” link to the right? Click on that, and voilà, the article appears.
Now, not all right-side-links will take you to a full-text article, but it’s usually worth a click.
Filtering by date: Finally, Google Scholar arranges links in the same way as regular search: by popularity. While that’s not necessarily bad, when it comes to scientific research, you often want the most recent research—which, because it is recent, will often have fewer hits.
To get access the most recent research, you want to filter your results. So, to go back to the results page for ‘preimplantation genetic diagnosis’:
You can also filter by clicking on ‘Since 2019’, ‘Since 2018’, etc., or by ‘Custom range.’ I strongly suggest you run both unfiltered (to get the most popular) and filtered-by-date (to get more recent) searches to get a good combination of commonly-cited and up-to-date work.
Once last thing about date filters: It’s good to get the most recent work, but it is also the case that sometimes that work is not. . . reliable. Thus, while you want more recent work than from, say 2004, sometimes research a year or two old may be the best bet. It’s a tough call, evaluating which of the latest work is reliable, one which bedevils even experts, so don’t feel like you have to figure this out; rather, I mention this to reassure you that work from the last few years can be sufficiently ‘recent’.
A coupla’ other things regarding searches:
- Try different ways of searching for the same information, e.g., “preimplantation genetic diagnosis”, “PGD”, “embryo diagnosis”, “embryo genetic diagnosis”, “embryo screening”, etc. There’ll probably be a fair amount of overlap, and some junk, but sometimes using similar terms or synonyms (e.g., “brain” and “neuro”, or “gene transfer”, “gene therapy”, and “genetic engineering”) can crack open a tough search.
- Widen or narrow your search as needed by adding or subtracting adjectives: “gene transfer” will get you everything on gene transfer, but if you’re interested particularly in, say, diabetes, then try “gene transfer diabetes”.
- Review articles are great, and can often be found just by adding “review” to your search. These kinds of articles are often found in the front or “news” section of academic journals, and summarize the state of the research to date. It’ll give you a good overview of the obstacles and successes in the field, as well as some names to run searches on.
- When looking for ethics articles on a topic, again, you can often just append “ethics” to the end of a phrase, e.g., “PGD ethics”; similarly, you could add “social implications”, “social consequences”, “law”, “regulations”, “morals”, “morality”, etc. And, again, if you’re looking for reviews, then add “review”, e.g., “PGD ethics review”, etc.
- Wikipedia can be a fine place to start, but a terrible place to end. The main problem with Wikipedia is its varying reliability: you don’t always know how good is the info contained within. That said, it’s not half-bad on straight-up science, and the notes can often give you a heads-up on your searches. (And if you do use Wikipedia, remember to cite it in your list of references.)
- Don’t forget the links in Bioethics articles, Bioethics laws & regs, and Bioethics sites and docs. In some cases you’ll get good information directly from the links themselves; in others, you’ll get leads (names, topics) to use in searches.
Finally, give yourself time to do the research, and allow yourself to wander. So, for example, you’ve tracked down that source in the Lancet—but before going straight to the article, scan the rest of the table of contents to see if there are any other, related, articles. If you’ve found a researcher whose work particularly fascinates you, run a search on his or her name in a regular search engine, just to see what pops up: you might find an interview with the researcher, or further elaborations on the work, or just something funky and unusual which gives you an angle into the work that you hadn’t thought of.
In short, research often seems like a slog, but it can be fun, in a puzzle-solving sort of way. So while I’m a big fan of focus in the papers themselves, sometimes you need a little “un-focus” in preparing them.
How to access electronic journals:
Go the Lehman Library home page:, click on “E-journals”:
This will appear; type in the journal title (in this case, Lancet):
In this case, either “Lancet (British Edition)” or Lancet (North American Edition)” would work, although if you want articles since 2006, you’ll need the British edition.
(How do you know this? Check below the titles, which give date ranges for article access: only the British edition gives access to articles “to 3 months ago”. )
In any case, click on one of the links which includes your date range (2004). Each of the four items links to a database (Medline, PublicHealth, ScienceDirect and Academic Search, Business Source, Health Source, CINAHL). It doesn’t matter which one you use, as long as it gets you to your article.
Note on databases: there are many different databases run by different companies, and may vary with the type of article you’re looking for. So, for example, Medline compiles articles on biomedical research, while you’ll find social science research on JSTOR. This is FYI only, as the database is solely a means to an end: you generally do NOT need to cite the database itself when citing a particular article. (See Style Guides, above)
If you’re off-campus, then at this point the library will ask you to enter your library barcode (no spaces) to access the journal. (The barcode on your ID may be automatically activated; mine was not, so I needed to go to the library front desk to do so—FYI.)
Now, if you look at the information at the link, the article is from a May 2004 issue, so you’ll need to choose a database which contains that particular issue.
Let’s say I click on the “Public Health Database” link; if I’m searching from an off-campus computer, then at this point I’ll be asked to login. Once I’ve done so, this is what appears:
Again, all of the database links are going to look something like this. To find the article, I simply scroll to the correct year and month (2004, May), then click on the correct issue (May 15, Vol 363, No 9421).
This leads to a table of contents. I scroll to the correct article—I have to click ‘next page’—at which point I can either click on the title, or on Full Text or Full Text PDF; if I click on the title, I get the abstract, and also further options to open or save the Full Text/PDF article.
Here’s what it looks like in Medline/ProQuest if I click on the title (the html full text appears below the abstract):
Now, I know this process seems cumbersome, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not the that bad. And remember, this would even more of a pain in the tuchus if you had to search for, find, pull out and copy all of this by hand.
For how to cite the article, see the link to Citation styles.