Research Paper

For some of you, writing large research papers will be old hat.  For others, this course will be the first time, in which you’ve been asked to conduct your own scholarly inquiry, and for which you must prepare a lengthy, organized document describing your argument and findings.  Writing long papers that are both effective at conveying an argument grounded in adequate evidence and are reader-friendly is one of the hardest skills in the academic tool-kit to master.  I know, because a large portion of my job description as a professor at OU involves writing exactly these same types of papers, and because I hardly feel that I’ve mastered it.

To make things worse, writing a long research paper requires at least three distinct skills.  First, you must be an effective researcher, able to track down the necessary primary and secondary sources, review relevant scholarly literatures, and turn the mess of information out in the world about a topic into what we social scientists call “data.”[1]  Second, you must organize all of this disparate material into a coherent argument, in which you are able to demonstrate how your particular data provides new insight into old questions, or how your new theory or question shed light on old data.  A good academic essay needs to provide a clear narrative and explanation of a particular problem, but it must also engage with previous explanations, considering how your contribution fits into what the community already knows.  Finally, you must communicate these findings in a (standardized) format, making it readable, stylish, and transparent.

Thinking about your work in these steps (and understanding that you rarely proceed linearly, completing one step and moving on to the next, never to return) is a good way to begin thinking about crafting your paper.  In a five-page essay, you might plausibly sit down the day before, download a mess of articles, and whip together a finished product all at once, figuring out your argument as you go.  In a longer paper, this strategy WILL NOT WORK.  The goal of a research paper (at least, in my courses, and in the world of professional academic research) is to produce something new—something (either in terms of data or analysis) that is more than the sum of the various reference works you’ve dutifully cited in your text.  This inevitably requires a great deal of time—reflecting on what you’ve read, synthesizing multiple sources, and revising text.  The earlier you start, the easier it will be.

So, where to begin?  I recommend you all look at a pair of essays by political scientists Barry Weingast and Henry Farrell, each of which attempts to provide guidance to the neophyte academic paper-writer.  Weingast’s essay is directed more at graduate students aspiring to become professional academic writers, and Farrell’s is more oriented towards undergraduates, but each offers helpful advice that you may not have encountered before.

Barry Weingast (1995), Structuring Your Papers: The Caltech Rules

Henry Farrell (2010), Good Writing in Political Science: An Undergraduate Student’s Short Illustrated Primer

My personal advice centers on organization.  Being an effective researcher-writer means finding a system for keeping all that information straight, and for integrating it into your (evolving) paper outline.  Some students and academics use citation software (Zotero, which integrates into the Firefox browser, is the best free option) to help accomplish the first goal.  For the second, I recommend to all my students that they keep a research journal (I use an actual journal, but most will want to keep a word processor document), in which they periodically respond to their reading, outline and re-outline paper sections, and reflect critically on the ideas and data they are encountering.  I find this to be the best way to continually integrate new information into my emerging research plan, and to ensure that my writing remains organized in a reader-friendly way.


[1] This is made even still more difficult (layers upon layers of difficulty!) because in this class, you are likely research a topic on which you have limited firsthand experience, and for which you have not been able to carefully design a study intended to produce exactly the kind of data you need to answer your question.  The skill of research design and the application of social scientific methods is something we will touch on in this class, but for most of you, your focus will be on parsing the data and conclusions of other, more experienced scholars.