This step-by-step guide to how to write a successful academic or scientific research paper outlines the steps that must be taken when writing about advanced research for formal publication, conference presentation, university credit, online sharing and other means of professional dissemination. Beginning with the development of an engaging and relevant research topic and one or more research questions or hypotheses, authors are advised to follow eight essential steps to meet requirements and prepare a well-written and carefully organised research paper that clearly communicates with readers.
The arrangement of the steps as I present them here will prove effective for most research papers in the arts and sciences, but it is important to remember that there can be considerable overlap among these steps, and the order in which they are completed may vary depending on the topic and the author’s approach to research and writing. The different aspects of a research paper tend to develop gradually as the planning and writing process advances, with work on one step frequently affecting work on earlier as well as later steps. A flexible approach to the writing process that accommodates the unique nature of the current research and the positive role of reflection and revision will enable the best use of this step-by-step guide.
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Eight Essential Steps for Writing an Excellent Research Paper
STEP 1: Choosing and Developing the Research Topic
An interesting and relevant research topic is an absolute necessity for a successful academic or scientific research paper. There will always be trendy or fashionable topics that prove, at least for a fleeting moment, interesting to an extremely wide audience, but most advanced research is reported primarily for rather specific groups of readers, such as fellow researchers within a discipline and professional practitioners. Those targeted or ideal readers should therefore be anticipated and kept firmly in mind to inspire the development and refinement of a robust topic that will demand original research and help the author generate valuable new knowledge.
The topic of a research paper should also fit, in both focus and range, the intended venue, so learning about the goals and objectives of the peer-reviewed journal, scholarly website, professional conference or other destination for a research paper is vital. Remember as you work that the most engaging and promising research topics are not usually finalised in a moment, a day or even a week. Alterations and refinements are often motivated by writing about the new research as well as by reading about the similar work of fellow researchers, and even careful rereading of one’s own fully drafted paper can lead to significant and productive shifts in a research topic.
STEP 2: Designing Research Questions and Hypotheses
An excellent way to focus the report and discussion of original research is to design one or more research questions or hypotheses that can be answered or tested via the current research and the author’s interpretation of its findings. Research questions and hypotheses can help the researcher as well as his or her readers understand the purpose and value of the research. Designing them early, presenting them clearly in the paper’s introductory material and returning to answer and discuss them after the results have been reported provide a solid thread on which to weave a focussed and logical argument.
It is essential to give considerable thought to the nature and wording of research questions and hypotheses in relation to the research methods employed, ensuring in all cases that any questions can in fact be answered and any hypotheses tested through the chosen methods. For this reason research questions and hypotheses are often designed in conjunction with the research methods for a project. For some types of papers research questions and hypotheses are mandatory. Even if they are not, however, they can usually be included in any type of research paper and are especially useful writing tools, enabling the author to address a research problem and future readers to understand it in clear and constructive ways.
STEP 3: Preparing a Working Outline of the Research Paper
Although some successful academic and scientific authors claim never to bother with outlines for their research papers, many others would never proceed without a carefully designed outline. A working outline offers the author, particularly an author new to writing about research, an excellent way in which to plan the content and structure of a research paper that will meet the many requirements usually associated with reporting advanced research in a professional and publishable manner. Obviously, whatever sections, subsections and other elements are needed to report and discuss the current research should be incorporated along with notes about the contents of these parts, but so too should the preferences indicated by a publisher’s guidelines for authors, a website’s instructions for contributors’ posts, a conference organiser’s rules for presenters or an instructor’s template for course papers.
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For some papers the guidelines and requirements will be detailed and extensive; for others they will be brief or vague or virtually nonexistent. The trick in all cases is to discover the relevant guidelines and observe them with as much precision and consistency as possible as you plan a paper that also presents your work as clearly and concisely as possible. The length of a paper, its structure and the documentation style of its references are often determined by guidelines, so keep an eye open for details about these aspects of the paper in particular. Although preparing a detailed outline that includes internal headings and subheadings as well as notes about what each part of the paper should contain and achieve can be time consuming, such an outline can also serve as a working template for drafting the paper itself and thereby significantly increase the efficiency of the writing process.
STEP 4: Creating Tables, Figures and Other Support Documents
Another strategy for rendering the writing of a research paper a more efficient and successful process is to assign certain information to tables, figures, appendices and other visual and support documents before beginning to draft the paper itself. Research results that consist of complex numerical data, detailed descriptions of research methods or in-depth case studies are examples of the kind of information that can effectively be presented in these visual and support documents. Such elements should be carefully designed to communicate their contents as clearly as possible, and consistency of design across elements of the same kind or those serving a similar purpose is advisable to enable comparative analysis.
If the visual and support documents for a research paper are designed and created before the main text is drafted, unnecessary repetition of information can be more easily avoided. In addition, arranging complicated information in the visual formats of tables and figures can help the researcher as well as future readers detect and better understand important patterns and trends in the results. This can, in turn, significantly enhance the interpretation and discussion of the findings, particularly when an author is dealing with complex data. Furthermore, separating helpful but not strictly necessary details from the running text of a paper and placing them in appendices or archives can make them more readily digestible while streamlining the main argument and rendering the research paper as a whole more appealing to general as well as specialist audiences.
STEP 5: Drafting the Research Paper Section by Section
With a working outline and an early version of the tables, figures and other support documents in hand, the process of drafting the main text of the research paper can begin. Because every necessary part and detail of the paper must ultimately be completed and included in the right place, the outline should always be followed with care, ensuring that each section and element is drafted in some form on the first attempt, including any required preliminary and final material.
While every part of the paper should be drafted, however, the bits and pieces need not be drafted in the order in which they will finally appear for readers. A more practical approach may be to work at the first draft in whatever order proves easiest, starting, for instance, with the description of methods or the report of results, following those with drafts of the discussion and conclusion, and finishing at the beginning with background or introductory material. The title, abstract, keywords and other preliminary and final matter such as acknowledgements, image credits and professional declarations can be added at any time, but some of them – the abstract and acknowledgements, for instance – will be best written after all parts of the main text are drafted.
Each and every element of the research paper should be carefully written to achieve its specific purposes, whether those may be increasing accessibility and attracting potential readers or analysing and discussing research results. Language that is specific and precise in explaining facts and ideas is advisable for a research paper, and it is always essential to write well, using a concise and formal style, complete sentences and accurate grammar, spelling and punctuation to ensure clear and professional communication of all aspects of the research.
STEP 6: Adding Scholarly Citations and References
Among the many aspects of an academic or scientific research paper that must never be neglected are the citations and references that acknowledge the work, publications and ideas of other authors and researchers. These should, of course, be included among the various parts of the research paper drafted in Step 5, but it is so very important to acknowledge sources, give credit where credit is due and generally tie one’s own research and its implications into the broader network of original research and advancing knowledge that I consider the addition of in-text citations and complete bibliographical references as a separate step here.
Many scholarly authors add the in-text citations, at least in a rough or cursory form, as they draft each section of the paper. Although this approach may not be strictly necessary, it is an extremely effective way to ensure that all the necessary citations are present and to avoid the dangers of unintentional plagiarism and embarrassing errors. These in-text citations can then be checked and finalised when the complete bibliographical references are listed at the end of the paper. As a general rule, every source cited should appear in the list of references and every source in that list should be cited in the text. Since most disciplines, publishers and instructors have stylistic preferences for scholarly references, guidelines must always be consulted, and correct and thorough information in the right style and order must be provided for every source used.
STEP 7: Proofreading, Editing and Refining the Paper
It is a very rare and exceptional first draft of an academic or scientific research paper that ends up published by a reputable journal or awarded with a top-notch grade. Successful research papers are, generally speaking, papers that have been carefully written, revised, edited, proofread and often revised and edited all over again by their authors. Such careful attention and reflection enable the improvement of language and style, the clarification of content and structure, the refinement of argument and interpretation, the correction of errors and confusing information, and the development of logical transitions between the various sections and elements of the paper.
Numerical data, tables and figures, bibliographical references and any information that is repeated in different places in the paper are among those aspects that usually require special checks to ensure accuracy and consistency. If language problems prevent clear communication, the help of a professional proofreader or editor may be advisable, and asking a trusted mentor or colleague, particularly one who has successfully published research similar to your own, to read and comment on the paper is also an excellent idea. Remember, however, that this strategy will prove most useful to authors who are willing to receive the feedback in a constructive manner and seriously consider alterations and improvements.
STEP 8: Sharing or Submitting the Research Paper Appropriately
Having dedicated so much time and effort to planning, drafting and perfecting a research paper, an academic or scientific author might be thought mad indeed to submit the paper to a potential publisher in any other manner than that required to ensure the best possible reception. Yet too any researchers come to the end of the writing process only to neglect submission requirements and generate a less than desirable initial response. This disappointment can easily be prevented by checking the guidelines or instructions carefully and submitting, for example, a perfectly formatted paper of the right length to a journal editor and accompanying it with a well-written and informative cover letter.
Never forget the importance of providing exactly what is wanted and expected. The organisers of a conference do not want a fifteen-minute paper that runs on for half an hour and the creators of a website do not want blogs formatted in ways that simply do not work on their site. The paper you provide must be appropriate for the venue, and professionalism should be maintained in this and other ways when working to publish and otherwise share advanced research. A professional perspective can be especially challenging to maintain when faced with less than positive comments from editors, peer reviewers and other early readers with strong opinions, so remember that achieving some degree of objectivity and focussing on producing the best research paper possible can be immensely helpful approaches.
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