William Badke 

Table of Contents


Topic Selection and Analysis
The Research Question
Structure of a Research Paper


Should you use the Words of Others?
What is Plagiarism?
What is Proper Research Paper Form?
Final Words
Appendix: Sample Papers


Google Doc related to this site: Writing Research Papers

See the author's books for students: Research Strategies: Finding your Way through the Information Fog (2021) and Beyond the Answer Sheet: Academic Success for International Students (2003).



The research essay is a common assignment in higher education. The concept of the research essay at first appears simple:

But it is really not simple at all. International students often are very disappointed when they receive their first essay back from a professor. The comments may include:

and so on.

This website will show you what professors expect from students doing research essays. Let’s begin with the topic:

Topic Selection and Analysis                          

It is obvious that a research essay must have a topic, but what sort of topic? Some professors will give you a list and ask you to choose one. Others will give you general guidelines only. For example, you might be taking a course on "The History of the Middle Ages in Europe" and be told to write a paper on some important person of that period, showing how his/her life influenced the Middle Ages.

The first thing you will need to assume is that your topic is likely to be too broad, that is, it will require you to deal with too much information for one essay. If you leave the topic broad, it will be superficial. Picture it like this: You have two lakes, one small but deep, the other large but shallow.

                                                Deep or Shallow image

The wide but shallow lake is like a broad topic. You can say many things about the topic, but everything you say will be at a very basic or survey level. For example, if you were writing an essay on the development of industrialization in Korea, you could say many things, but you could not, for example, go into in depth analysis about the effect that the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990’s had on the progress of automobile manufacturing in Korea.

The narrow lake is like taking your broad topic and choosing to deal with only one part of it, but now in depth. For example, instead of writing a history of the development of industrialization in Korea, you could choose only one time period along with one industry and narrow your topic to "The effect of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s on automobile manufacturing in Korea." Now you have room to do more analysis and get deeper into the subject.



In the academic setting, professors usually want you to narrow your topic to allow for
depth. You do this by choosing to deal with only one part of the topic, not all of it.


The Research Question                           

Many students believe that the purpose of a research essay is to report on the books and articles they have read. They think the professor wants them simply to quote from or summarize what they’ve read so that the result is an essay that tells the reader all about the topic. This, however, is not the purpose of a research essay.


A research essay is intended to allow you to answer a question or controversy related
to the topic you are studying.


How can a student develop a proper research question?

  • Narrow your topic as described in Topic Selection and Analysis above.
  • Use reference sources or short introductions to your topic in books to discover aspects of the topic that are controversial or need investigation.
  • Develop a few possible research questions based on what you find in reference sources. These should be one sentence questions that are simple and clear.
  • Choose one of these questions to be the research question for your essay.


Take note that every research essay should have only one research question. You do
not want to have an essay that states, "The following paper will examine __________
and will also _____________ and will also ________________."  You want to deal
with only one question in any research project.


Here are some examples:

  • You start with a topic like: "The history of industrial development in Korea." You choose one aspect and narrow your topic to "The history of the automobile industry in Korea during the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s."Then you develop a research question: "Did the  Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s bring harm or did it bring benefit to the automobile industry in Korea?"

  • You start with the topic, "Constantine"(Roman emperor of the 300s AD who declared his approval of Christianity, leading to it becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire under Theodosius, 379-395). You narrow down to: "The Conversion of Constantine."From your basic reading you discover that there is a controversy – some people believe that Constantine did not really have a conversion to Christianity but pretended to do so because he knew it was politically better to endorse Christianity than to persecute Christians. Thus you create a research question: "Was the conversion of Constantine genuine?"

  •  You start with the topic, "Euthanasia" (that is, helping very ill people to end their lives). As you begin research, you discover that euthanasia is legal under certain conditions in the Netherlands, Canada, etc. So you narrow to "Euthanasia in the Netherlands."Also, from your reading you discover the argument of some people that once euthanasia is legalized, this will lead to the death of people who did not want to die (very elderly people, the disabled, etc.) This is called a "slippery slope argument," which says that once your feet slip on a hillside, you will slide all the way to the bottom of the hill. Similarly, the argument is that once you allow certain people to kill other people, the killing will increase until many people who didn’t want to die are also killed. Thus your research question could be: "What evidence is there, if any, from the Netherlands euthanasia experience that legalizing euthanasia creates a slippery slope?"Your research would investigate what is being done with euthanasia now that it is legal in the Netherlands.

For more information in narrowing topics and creating research questions, see William Badke, Research Strategies: Finding your Way through the Information Fog.

Structure of a Research Paper                      

The way you structure or outline your research paper is very important. It must have definite sections to it:

Introduction – The introduction serves two purposes. First, it allows you to provide the reader with some brief background information about the topic. Second, it lets you state your research question. Note that your research question must always be in your introduction.  It's best to make it the last sentence of your introduction.

The Body – The body of the research essay is the main part. It is generally broken down into various headings that deal with aspects of your topic. It is not easy to decide what headings should be in the body or in what order they should come. You must look at your topic and ask yourself, "What issues must I cover in order to answer my research question?" This may mean that you need a section to describe the controversy in depth, a section to answer the arguments of someone who does not agree with your position, and a section to make a strong case for your position being true. Here are some examples from the topics we discussed in The Research Question above:

"Did the  Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s bring harm or did it bring benefit to the automobile industry in Korea?"

I. Introduction
II. Initial Effect on the Automobile Industry
III. Later Effect on the Automobile Industry
IV. Was the Effect Positive or Negative?
V. Conclusion

"Was the religious conversion of Constantine genuine or only a political act?"

I. Introduction
II. Arguments that the conversion was genuine
III. Arguments that the conversion was only a political act?
IV. Conclusion

"What evidence is there, if any, from the Netherlands euthanasia experience that legalizing euthanasia creates a slippery slope?"

I. Introduction
II. The Laws that Control Euthanasia in the Netherlands
III. Actual use of Euthanasia Laws in the Netherlands
IV. Is there evidence that Doctors are going beyond the Controls of the Euthanasia Laws?
V. Conclusion

The Conclusion – The conclusion summarizes your research and answers your research question.

For more on structure, outline, etc. see William Badke, Research Strategies.

For a good example of the use of resources to answer a research question, see the essay, Penguins vs. Lemurs, a pdf file of a project done by Trinity Western University student Kevan Gilbert, and reproduced with permission.

On to Part Two

    Last revised: October 2017