Online Guide to Writing and Research

Chapter 4: The Research Process

Structuring the Research Paper

Formal Research Structure

For emphasis, the primary purposes for formal research are repeated here:

  • find and understand raw data and information
  • enter the discourse, or conversation, of other writers and scholars in your field
  • learn how others in your field use primary and secondary resources

For the formal or primary academic research assignment, where you will take your place in the scholarly conversation, consider an organizational pattern typically used for primary academic research. This organization consists of these sections—introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusions and recommendations.

The research paper flows from the general to the specific and back to the general in its organization. The introduction uses a general-to-specific movement in its organization, establishing the thesis and setting the context for the conversation. The methods and results sections are more detailed and specific, providing support for the generalizations made in the introduction. The discussion section moves toward an increasingly more general discussion of the subject leading to the conclusions and recommendations, which then generalize the conversation again.

The Introduction

Many students will find that writing a structured introduction gets them started and gives them the needed focus that significantly improves their entire paper. Usually, you will not actually begin writing here, but in a later section, wherever you think you have the most information. Because introductions are so highly structured, you may actually write your introduction last.

Introductions usually have three parts:

  1. presentation of the problem or the research inquiry
  2. purpose and focus of the current paper
  3. summary or overview of the writer’s position or arguments

As you can see, a thoughtfully written introduction can provide a blueprint for the entire research paper.

In the first part of the introduction, the presentation of the problem, or the research inquiry, state the problem or express it so that the question is implied. Then, sketch the background on the problem and review the literature on it to give your readers a context to show them how your research inquiry fits into the conversation currently ongoing in your subject area. You may tell why this problem has been a problem, why previous attempts have failed to solve it, or why you think this particular slant or angle to the problem is important. You can also mention what benefits are to be gained from solving this problem or exploring this topic from your perspective.

In the second part of the introduction, state your purpose and focus. Here, you may even present your actual thesis. Sometimes your purpose statement can take the place of the thesis by letting your reader know your intentions. Some writers like to delay presenting their thesis, especially if their readers may not be ready to accept it.

The third part, the summary or overview of the paper, briefly leads readers through the discussion, forecasting the main ideas and giving readers a blueprint for the paper.

This example of a well-organized introduction provides such a blueprint.

Example of an Introduction

Entrepreneurial Marketing: The Critical Difference

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, John A. Welsh and Jerry F. White remind us that "a small business is not a little big business." An entrepreneur is not a multinational conglomerate but a profit-seeking individual. To survive, he must have a different outlook and must apply different principles to his endeavors than does the president of a large or even medium-sized corporation. Not only does the scale of small and big businesses differ but small businesses also suffer from what the Harvard Business Review article calls "resource poverty." This is a problem and opportunity that requires an entirely different approach to marketing. Where large ad budgets are not necessary or feasible, where expensive ad production squanders limited capital, where every marketing dollar must do the work of two dollars, if not five dollars or even ten, where a person’s company, capital, and material well-being are all on the line—that is, where guerrilla marketing can save the day and secure the bottom line. (Levinson, 1984, p. 9)



In this example, the first sentence gives us the general academic conversation that this article will join. Sentence 2 narrows the discussion slightly to the entrepreneur. Sentence 3 explains why the entrepreneur and the small business are different and suggests the research question: How does the entrepreneur with his business principles differ from the corporate CEO and "big business" principles? Sentence 4 again places the discussion here within the academic conversation about entrepreneurs and slants the subject to "resource poverty." Sentence 5 suggests why this issue is significant and even hints that perhaps it hasn’t been covered sufficiently. The author is defining his "research space," where his research will fit in the conversation. The last and longest sentence succinctly summarizes the areas covered in this article and presents the thesis statement ". . . that is, where guerrilla marketing can save the day and secure the bottom line."

As an aside, notice that the title of our example has two parts. Readers use such academic titles to select articles and to get a quick sense of what an article is about. Academic titles can state the research question, summarize the thesis or purpose, or be written as a two-part title with a colon. As in this example, the first part of the title gives the context of the article, the academic discussion, and the second part gives the slant of the article, this writer’s special research space in the conversation.

By reviewing the introductions to research articles in the discipline in which you are writing your research paper, you can get an idea of what is considered the norm for that discipline. Study several of these before you begin your paper so that you know what may be expected. If you are unsure of the kind of introduction your paper needs, ask your teacher for more information. As an added note, the introduction is usually written in present tense.

The Methods Section

The methods section of your research paper should describe in detail what methodology and special materials, if any, you used to think through or perform your research. You should include any materials you used or designed for yourself, such as questionnaires or interview questions, to generate data or information for your research paper. You want to include any methodologies that are specific to your particular field of study, such as lab procedures for a lab experiment or data-gathering instruments for field research. If you are writing a literary research paper, you would want to use the methodologies scholars use to examine texts and place the author and the literary piece into its literary and historical context. If you are writing a business management research paper, you would want to use the methodologies that place your discussion in the context of business and economics.

Next to your own critical review of the scholarship in your discipline, your teacher is the best source of what methodologies are used in it. Many writers of research begin with this section because it is often the easiest to write. This section is usually written in past tense.

The Results Section

How you present the results of your research depends on what kind of research you did, your subject matter, and your readers’ expectations. Quantitative information, data that can be measured, can be presented systematically and economically in tables, charts, and graphs. Quantitative information includes quantities and comparisons of sets of data. If you are unfamiliar with the conventions, you may find it challenging to present quantitative findings. You may include some commentary to explain to your reader what your findings are and how to read them.

The distinction between the results section and the discussion section is not always so clear-cut. Although many writers think you should simply present and report your findings on the data you have collected, others believe some evaluation and commentary on your data may be appropriate and even necessary here. You and your teacher can decide how strict you want to be in this decision.

Qualitative information, which includes brief descriptions, explanations, or instructions, can also be presented in prose tables. This kind of descriptive or explanatory information, however, is often presented in essay-like prose or even lists.

There are specific conventions for creating tables, charts, and graphs and organizing the information they contain. In general, you should use these only when you are sure they will enlighten your readers rather than confuse them. In the accompanying explanation and your discussion, always refer to the graphic by number and explain specifically what you are referring to. Give your graphic element a descriptive caption as well. The rule of thumb for presenting a graphic is first to introduce it by name, show it, and then interpret it. You can consult a textbook, such as Lannon’s Technical Writing for more information and guidance. The results section is usually written in past tense.

The Discussion Section

Your discussion section should generalize on what you have learned from your research. One way to generalize is to explain the consequences or meaning of your results and then make your points that support and refer back to the statements you made in your introduction. Your discussion should be organized so that it relates directly to your thesis. You want to avoid introducing new ideas here or discussing tangential issues not directly related to the exploration and discovery of your thesis. This section, along with the introduction, is usually written in present tense.

The Conclusions and Recommendations Section

Some academic research assignments might end with the discussion and not need a separate conclusions and recommendations section. Often, in shorter assignments, your conclusion is just a paragraph or two added to the discussion section. In many of your research assignments, however, you will be asked to provide your conclusions and recommendations in your research paper.

Conclusions unify your research results and discussion and elaborate on their significance to your thesis. Your conclusion ties your research to your thesis, binding together all the main ideas in your thinking and writing. By presenting the logical outcome of your research and thinking, your conclusion answers your research inquiry for you and your readers. Your conclusions should relate directly to the ideas presented in your introduction section and not present any new ideas.

You may be asked to present your recommendations separately in your research assignment. If so, you will want to add some elements to your conclusion section. For example, you may be asked to recommend a course of action, make a prediction, propose a solution to a problem, offer a judgment, or speculate on the implications and consequences of your ideas. The conclusions and recommendations section is usually written in present tense.

The Reference List

Of course, your research paper is not complete without your list of references. Documenting your research paper to use your sources in a manner that maintains academic integrity is discussed in the next chapter.