Five Fundamental Problems to Avoid in Your Research Papers
Five fundamental errors instructors don't want to see in your papers. Avoiding these key problems will go a long way toward improving your grades.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
When your instructor grades your research papers, he or she will look for well-organized, well-researched, well-supported assignments that read smoothly. Before ever getting into the nitty-gritty fine points, such as grammar, spelling, syntax, and other writing mechanics, the instructor will evaluate your paper based on how well you've executed the fundamentals. Here are five fundamental errors your instructor doesn't want to see in your papers. Avoid these, and you'll go a long way toward improving your grades.
- Faulty Organization
The poorly structured paper -- the No. 1 complaint of college professors -- frequently results from procrastinating and failing to plan adequately. The major points of your paper should flow logically from each other and build upon each other. In short, your paper should make sense. A good way to check for organizational issues is to read the paper aloud and listen for the logical flow.
- Poor or Nonexistent Transitions
In addition to an overall logical flow, your paper's paragraphs should have some connection to each other. Since this problem relates to poor organization, improving your paper's organization will set the scene for improved transitions. Test your transitions by reading aloud to determine whether each paragraph flows coherently from the preceding paragraph.
- Failure to Support Your Thesis
Student research papers must explore a question, problem, or issue. You must state a thesis at the outset, also known as a hypothesis, and the rest of your paper must build a case that supports your thesis, argument or main point. You are not merely summarizing information, as you might do with a high-school paper, but taking a position with the best evidence you can find in the literature. Here's how a colleague, history professor Jeff Horn, expresses this concept in the writing guidelines he distributes to his students: "All papers must have a thesis. Providing information is not enough. There must be a point to your work. The thesis of your paper should be a declarative sentence that makes an argument of some kind and shows why a topic or idea is significant."
- Little Evidence of Research
Inserting quotations, citing authors that bolster your thesis, and presenting a lengthy-but-pertinent bibliography will all help show your instructor that you've researched your topic well, assuming that you have, in fact, gathered sufficient research material. But evidence of copious research will succeed only if you use the research you've uncovered in a way in a way that logically supports your thesis. Integrating that research into the paper is trickier. Our friend the history professor offers this stringent guideline: "Every paragraph except the introduction and conclusion ought to have a reference to the primary or secondary material used for your paper. If there is not a reference to a source in the paragraph, you probably have not provided the necessary evidence to demonstrate your point." While some professors might consider such a dictum extreme, you certainly can't go wrong if you follow the "a-source-in-every-paragraph" guideline.
- Inadequate Citation of Sources
When you use ideas, facts, and opinions that are not your own -- even when you don't use the author's exact words -- you must give appropriate credit to the author as you incorporate his or her ideas into your paper. If you don't do so, you're committing plagiarism, one of the most serious offenses in academe. If your instructor approves, you can also footnote sources that won't fit into your paper because of space or flow. It's better, when in doubt, to over-cite than under-cite. Each academic discipline uses a specific citation style dictated by the (such as American Psychological Association, Modern Language Association, Chicago Manual of Style, Turabian). Your instructor will probably direct you in the appropriate citation, style, but if not, ask.
Final Thoughts on Research Paper Problems
Once you've mastered these five fundmentals, you can focus your efforts on fine-tuning all the smaller mechanics of your paper.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.