Hampshire College

Merle S. Bruno
Hampshire College
School of Natural Science

You may be one of those students for whom doing the research is more fun than writing the paper. If so, you are not alone, but putting a good research paper together can be much easier if you know some of the conventions and rules of style and organization that scientists and others use.

To help you over at least one hump of putting your paper together, I've collected a list of suggestions that may help you avoid some of the mistakes that many students make on their first first drafts. The hints are grouped into several categories:

These guidelines are intended for Hampshire students working on papers for 100 level courses or Division I exams in biological sciences, but much of the information is of broad interest to students working at other levels and on other topics.


1. INTRODUCTION. It is helpful to begin your paper by telling the reader what the paper is about and how you are going to address that topic. If you are interested in examining a hypothesis that grew out of your study of the literature, your research project, or just life, state that hypothesis early in the introduction. Don't save it as a surprise.

You should also tell the reader about the kinds of questions being discussed in the literature. You may have had a difficult time focusing on just one in this paper. Here is the place to talk about the larger context that makes the focus of your paper important. Include here some citations to authors whose works helped you understand these questions.

Look at the two paragraphs that start this page: the first tells you what this handout is about; the second says what I'm going to include in it--even to the extent of listing the section headings in order of their appearance. Such a listing isn't always necessary, but it is often worth considering.

Start to notice the organization of the research articles you read that you find pretty clear and reasonably easy to read. You're not allowed to steal ideas or content, but you are allowed to snitch elements of writing strategies.

2. REPORTING ON AN EXPERIMENT YOU CARRIED OUT. If you are writing about a lab or field research project you did, be as detailed in describing the METHODS as you would like people to be in a paper whose method you try to duplicate. Identify the instruments you used by brand and model names or numbers; identify the chemicals and amounts that were used or were measured; if you used assays or tests, name and describe them; give full information about your subjects, describe your experimental design and the rationale for it (what were your controls and what did those controls control for?).

When reporting on your own study, there is no one rule about when to keep the categories of RESULTS, DISCUSSION, and CONCLUSIONS as three separate sections and when to combine them, but let me list some suggestions.

a. Graphs and tables (figures) summarizing the results should be in the results section. Raw data sheets are generally not included in a paper. However the figures alone cannot constitute the results section. Each figure must be mentioned and described in the text. In fact, a simple rule of thumb is that a person ought to be able to understand the gist of your results without looking at the figures and, conversely, a person should be able to look just at the figures and know pretty much what you found (more about that under the section on graph and table conventions).

b. The RESULTS section describes your results, the DISCUSSION section discusses them. Think about the difference. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the description from the discussion and you can include both in the same section. But remember to do both things.

c. If you have a detailed discussion section, it probably includes your conclusion and you don't need a separate section to do that. Some papers end with a list of findings or conclusions, but this is a matter of style or convention in certain journals.

d. One interesting role of a DISCUSSION section is to allow you to speculate about the significance of the results you found in your study to understanding larger questions (you can refer to other studies at this point) or to propose additional work that you feel your results suggest. This type of discussion usually follows a more focused discussion of the results themselves and how strong (or significant) you believe them to be.

3. WRITING A LITERATURE-BASED PAPER. Writing a review of research done by others does not mean summarizing everything that has been written on the subject. You still need to narrow down to one or a few related questions.

  • One format for a Division I paper in Natural Science at Hampshire is to start with the kind of introduction described above.

    • Introduce the topic that interests you (with some citations to the general literature you've read).
    • Add to that some of the interesting questions raised for you or by you as you read and thought more about this topic (you may have additional citations here to articles or books you read that really aren't going to fit well into the more focused part of the paper; still it's important to show what reading influenced your ideas (it's also a way to show us what reading you have done).
    • Then tell the reader which of those questions you are going to address in your paper.
    • End the introduction by explaining how you've organized the paper to address that question.
      • You may say that you've included a short background section on (explain what it's about) followed by
      • a detailed analysis of ## studies (for a 100 level course paper that number will probably be from 2-4). You might characterize each of the studies in a sentence or two (maybe each takes a different approach to addressing the question--such as a case study, an experimental study, and an epidemiological study) and you'll conclude by
      • proposing, on the basis of your analysis, an experimental question you'd like to see addressed next and an explanation of how you would design that study in a way that addresses some of the shortcomings of those you've reviewed earlier.

  • If you're including a background section, design it so that it will help you and your readers better understand the studies you will discuss. Think about the information you wish you had before you started reading the more specialized papers. In this section you will probably cite text book material.

    Avoid copying or paraphrasing text material and just tagging on a citation at the end of each paragraph. Read the section below on proper citation form, "voice," and plagiarism.

    We want to know what you understand not what the authors of the text understand. If you find anything confusing, just say so (Badger and Fox (1998) give what they called a vectorial analysis of ECG potentials. I think the idea of this is to understand more about what the ECG shows about how the heart is functioning, but I couldn't quite follow what they said.)--that will give us a chance to help you understand that information.

  • Then focus on several studies in the primary literature, and write analytical summaries of them. Address the questions being asked, how the study was designed to address those questions, and how they analyzed the data.

  • One way to end such a paper is to summarize what conclusions you think can be stated on the basis of the studies you've reviewed (reminding us of strengths and limitations of experimental design and data) how well supported or how broadly applicable these conclusions are).

    Then propose in some detail a study you would to see carried out that addresses one of the questions raised in your review.

  • Your bibliography should include complete citations of all the sources you referred to in your text. Check below for guidelines about constructing bibliographies.

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1. VOICE. What you are really striving for in your writing is to distinguish your voice or your perspective from those of your sources. If you are using a source to support an argument you are making, say so. Tell the reader why you think this evidence is convincing (or not). But don't ignore opposing views; explain the ways in which their evidence or arguments fail to support their conclusions. Comment on the information from the source or use it to show what others think of your argument. As you find more ways to define your voice, you'll find your thinking and your writing will become clearer.

You may have been told to avoid using first person in formal writing. Forget about that for now. We'd like you to experiment with ways to make your voice clear, and if that means saying, "I'm interested in this subject because......" then we want to hear that. Through your revisions, we'll make suggestions of other strategies if you seem to be overusing first person.

Your voice will emerge clearly if you are careful to cite authors whose evidence or ideas you are using. The section below includes some helpful hints about techniques for distinguishing your voice from your sources and how to cite references in your paper:


A. An example of how and how not to include references to the literature in your text:

NO. Studies at a major research hospital have shown that liquid protein diets can result in weight losses of up to 15 pounds a week (Fat and Blubber, 1969). [Several things make this a bit sloppy: it's not clear if Fatt and Blubber did the study so that you had a chance to evaluate the strength of the evidence yourself or if they just allude d to someone else's work and you are taking it for granted that their representation of this study is full and accurate. We can't tell from this if it represents results from a lot of subjects and we know nothing about the identity or history of the subjects. What percentage of their weight was actually lost, what period of time were they on this diet?]

YES Fatt and Blubber (1969) observed a group of six men who were confined in a dietary clinic at the Chicago Cardiology Clinic for eight weeks. All six men were described as "morbidly obese." This term was used by Fatt and Blubber to indicate that none of the subjects weighed less than 340 lbs. upon entry to the clinic. For two of these men, weight losses of 15 pounds were observed during the first week of a six week liquid protein diet of 800 kcal per day. Weight losses subsequent to that week are reported to have leveled off to 1.5-4 pounds per week. * [This would be a good point for your voice to be heard. Comment about ways in which this study supports your hypothesis or specific ways in which it is limited or insufficient. You might suggest a study that could build on and improve this one or use this as a transition to talk about another study that does address something that is missing here.]

B. Citations not read. If you want to mention a study you read about but did not actually read, your text reference should read

"Collins (as reported by Fatt and Blubber, 1969), concludes that...."

The bibliography would include the Fatt and Blubber reference, not the Collins one.

C. Multiple authors. If an article was written by 2 or 3 authors, use all the names when referring to them in your text; if three or more authors are listed, you can shorten them as (Lowry et al, 1986). (You can use either convention for three names.)


  • Don't use quotes just because you think the author says something so much better than you think you can. It probably isn't true. The author you are quoting wrote something that was intended to fit into another text and to support or illustrate the point that she or he was making. You are using ideas you find in many sources and from your own investigation to develop your own text and support and illustrate a different set of points than any of the authors you cite.
  • Sometimes when you say, "But the author says it so much better than I can." you really mean that there is something in the quote you don't quite understand so you don't know how to or whether to include it. Ask yourself if this is true. If it is, find out what you don't understand; test yourself by explaining it to someone else. After you've explained it, write down what you said.

This is a good start and is much better than putting down a quote that may be inappropriate or that you didn't really know how to use. If you just can't figure it out and can't find me or someone else to help, leave it out until you learn more about it or say (write) that you didn't understand it.

  • If a short phrase is common usage or is "truly" obvious, it is not necessary to quote. For instance, if you believe that further work needs to be done before one can confidently say that eliminating cholesterol from the diet will lower the risk of heart disease and you have demonstrated this by evaluating several studies that you have shown have weaknesses that might have influenced the results (thereby making the conclusions drawn either overblown or inappropriate), then just say that further work needs to be done. It is not necessary to quote the phrase "further work needs to be done," unless you want to point out that a particular author understands that her/his work was not conclusive.
  • There are times in scientific writing when using a quote is useful. If someone has said something so outlandish that you want to make certain your readers know that it isn't just your interpretation of that author that is odd, then quote the appropriate words. If there is a debate in the literature that you believe is based on the language used, give examples to illustrate that. If you are particularly inspired by a statement or description, use it, but be very sparing in this use.
  • Never try to fit in a quote so that it works in smoothly with your writing. If I were to tell you that "students usually hand in an exact typed version of their first hand written drafts." (Lowry, 1998), you have no way of knowing whether Lowry was talking about six students in a writing class at Amherst Regional High School or about a study of 45,569 first year college writing students sampled randomly from 15 four year liberal arts colleges over a period of ten years. What's more important, you don't know whether or not I know that. It sounds as though I am stating a universal truth that must be believed because someone published it somewhere.

Why is a statement more believable because someone managed to get it printed by a publisher than it would be if I had just said it? It isn't. What is important is, what's behind that statement? What is the evidence that it is so?

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3. PLAGIARISM. CONSULT THE STUDENT HANDBOOK TO READ THE FORMAL DEFINITION OF PLAGIARISM AND THE CONSEQUENCES OF PLAGIARIZING. Plagiarism is the most serious academic crime possible, and ignorance of the rules is not considered an excuse for it. But it's not difficult to avoid if you know what it is and appropriate citation conventions.

Many students aren't quite certain what constitutes plagiarism and use one of two techniques to avoid it: "paraphrasing" and "quoting." The first of these is not correct and is still, technically, plagiarism; the second is correct, but is not an effective writing technique unless used sparingly.

a. Paraphrasing. Just changing a few words around or leaving a few words out without properly citing the source of those words is still plagiarism. The key thing is that you do not want to misrepresent where your ideas came from; the exact words are important, but they are secondary to the ideas.

b. Quoting. If you quote directly and footnote that quote, you have avoided plagiarism, but you may have weakened your presentation. The reader is interested in your ideas and how they developed from your observations and from the ideas of others; if they wanted to read what someone else says on the subject, they'd be better off reading that author's work directly. Also, since your style probably differs from the author whose work you are quoting, it makes for an awkward and jumpy writing style when you try to glue them together and make it sound as though one person wrote it all.

In class I will give you a one page example (prepared, I believe by Will Ryan of the Writing Center) that illustrates the difference between a plagiarized summary and a legitimate summary. This reference to Will Ryan, by the way, is an inadequate indication of where I got this material, but it does indicate that it is not mine, and I will work on finding the correct source.

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1. BIBLIOGRAPHIES. Any research paper you hand in (even a first draft) should contain a bibliography which includes all the articles and books you referred to in the text. The assumption is that you have read these articles and the appropriate sections of the books. The bibliography should not include references not mentioned in the text or references you have not actually read.

Listed below are some helpful hints about how to construct bibliographies.

A. Bibliographic conventions. Use any standard style such as the ones you find in the backs of papers you are reading. Once you decide on one style, stick to it for all your references. The only thing I insist on is that you include the title and the first and last page numbers in your bibliography; not all referencing systems do that.

I prefer the APA (American Psychological Association) style, because it gives the reader enough information in the text to keep track of the authors you cite and how recently the work was published. The bibliography then tells you the title and exactly where it is published. So that's the style I illustrate here.

Fatt, F.I. and D.G.Blubber (1996) Effects of a six week liquid protein diet on morbidly obese men, Am. J. of Clin. Nut., 45(3):34-45.

In this example, the 45 refers to the volume number of the journal. Usually each year of a journal gets its own volume number. It is often underlined or italicized or made bold to set it apart from the page numbers. The number in parenthesis is the issue number for that year. Not all references have it and it isn't necessary to include. If you use this convention, you can list the references alphabetically by last name of the first author. Then when you refer to that source in the text you can say

"Fatt and Katz (1990) examined the responses of six...." or

"The weights of six men on a liquid diet were followed (Fatt and Katz (1990)..."

Some people prefer to use citation numbers in the text (I don't because I like to see who did the work without having to turn to the back all the time):

"One study (6) examined the responses of six men to a liquid protein diet."

or use superscript small numbers 6. In this case, the bibliography would list the references in order of their first appearance, and the entries would be numbered. Fatt and Katz would be reference #6.

When more than three authors occur, you may refer to them in the text as first author followed by et al. But in the Bibliography, never use et al. Instead, include all the authors' names. Once you become familiar with a field, you can often tell something about the nature of the work by seeing who some of the authors are. The name of the major author (head of the lab for instance) usually appears either first or last. So it's important to be able to find reference to all the authors in your bibliography.

B. Edited books. Sometimes a technical book was organized by one or more people (editors) but individual sections or chapters were written by others. In that case, you can cite the authors of the individual chapters and treat their chapter as an article. In the bibliography, list it under the authors' names and indicate the year of publication, title of the article, name of the book, and names of the editors.

C. References not cited. If you find you have collected or read a lot of articles or books that just don't fit into your paper but you'd like your reader to know of them, include a separate listing called "Sources of Interest not Cited in Text" or "Additional References" or something like that.

2. FOOTNOTES. In scientific research articles, footnotes are usually reserved for definitions, special asides or explanations, or equations that would sound cumbersome if they were included in the regular text. Any direct quotes (of which there should be few if any) should be footnoted. Usually footnotes are found at the bottom of the page. Sometimes in longer papers they are collected together in a section at the back before the bibliography. A footnote section at the back of a paper is not the same as a bibliography. You still need a bibliography.

3. CITING WEB SITES. There isn't one standardized approach for citing web sites in your text, but a number of style manuals have suggestions. It isn't sufficient to put only the URL in the bibliography. If the site has an author, use the same fomat suggested above in your text (Author's last name or names, date of publication). Unfortunately that information isn't always available, but do what you can. You might have to use Name of Organization instead of author's name and you might not even find a date. If no date is given for when the site was created or updated, put the date when YOU read it (accessed November 28, 2000).

The Columbia University Press on-line style book gives up-to-date guidance about citing web sources. The idea is to indicate something about the value of the source. The University of Maryland University College has a web page that's a good guide for evaluating the quality of Internet resources. Check it out. Get in the habit of asking yourself lots of questions and seeing if you can find answers on the site you're using.

  • Is this a web page that a 6th grader put together for a project?
  • Is it a commerical site trying to sell something?
  • Is it from a peer review on-line journal?
  • Is it, as below, information from the Centers for Disease Control?

Elizabeth E. Kirk, Electronic and Distance Education Librarian at Johns Hopkins University has a more detailed site about assessing electronic resources.

The inquiring mind needs to know. Your citations should look something like this if you have all the information.

Candor WebTech, (updated April 14, 2000). Pain on the inner side of the knee. Drug Base Medical Information. http://www.candor.com/services

CDC (1998). The HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the United States, 1997-1998. The Centers for Disease Control. http://www.cdc.gov/nchstp/hiv_aids/pubs/facts/hivrepfs.htm

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Consult a writing book like "Elements of Style" Strunk and White for a more complete listing. I'll just list my favorite here.

  • It's always means it is. The possessive form of "it is" is "its" with no apostrophe.
  • Effect is usually a noun: "The effect of eating canned tuna is to make my cat sleep more."
  • Affect is usually a verb: "When my cat eats canned tuna, it affects how long he sleeps."
  • The following two cases are exceptions to this rule: "Effect" is used as a verb meaning "to cause something like a change": "The new rule effected a change in the structure of the committee." "Affect is used as a noun meaning psychological appearance: "He had a morose affect."
  • "Data" is a plural word: "The data support her hypothesis." If you want to refer to just one number, you can talk about a single data point. (I know! Computer people use data as a singular noun, but it isn't.)

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This page is maintained by Merle Bruno, mbruno@hampshire.edu