Like lab reports, research papers comprise a genre of writing that is mostly used only in academia. There are few specific guidelines that we can offer that will apply to research papers in general, since any professor can define his or her own expectations for a given assignment.

In general, the goal of a research paper is to synthesize information from a large number of sources to support a main idea or argument. That is, a research paper shouldn’t describe the findings of one paper after another in order to support your main idea(s). Instead, they should present the information from many sources in a cohesive set of points that support these ideas.


Below is an example of information adapted from Elkins-Tanton (2008).


Poorly synthesized information
Here, the author describes each study sequentially without attempting to relate them to one another or recognize the themes among them.

In 1970, Wood et al. used rocks reovered from the Apollo 11 bulk sample to propose a density-based lunar model that involved the melting of numerous rock materials in addition to crystal fractionation during early moon formation. This theory was supported in a paper by Solomon (1979) in which radioactive decay was proposed as a feasible source of energy needed to maintain core convection in smaller bodies such as Mercury, Mars, and the Moon. Planet growth through agglomeration of planetesimals has also been argued as a cause of silicate melting in portions of these terrestrial bodies (Wetherill, 1990). Though whole-mantle magma oceans remain possible but unproven, Tonks and Melosh (1993) provide evidence that large fractions of a planet can be melted by an initial shock wave, such as melting of 30–65% of a planet from the Moon-forming impact. Evolution of such large local magma oceans is further likely because it depends primarily on the matter flow controlling large scale deformation of the solid part of the planet, mechanism of crystallization, and melt region size (Reese and Solomatov, 2006).

Well-synthesized information
Here, the author attempts to synthesize a few of the main ideas from the papers. Notice how information synthesis is also more concise!

Early in terrestrial planet formation the heat of accretion, radiodecay, and core formation may have melted the silicate portions of the planets either wholly or partially (Wood et al., 1970; Solomon, 1979; Wetherill, 1990). Though whole-mantle magma oceans remain possible but unproven, there is a great likelihood that giant impactors late in accretion created hemispheric or shallow planetary magma oceans (Tonks and Melosh, 1993; Reese and Solomatov, 2006).



Note: Be sure to thoroughly read as many of your sources as possible before attempting to write your research paper! Failing to do so makes information synthesis much more difficult, because you are likely to try to describe the findings of a lone article instead of being able to connect it with other findings from the get-go. How can you identify and discuss commonalities among research projects if you’ve only read one of them?

Once you understand the purpose and parameters of your assignment, if you still aren’t sure how to start, a great place to start is the Middlebury Writing Center’s FAQ page.

Otherwise, many of the essential scientific writing guidelines you’ll find on this site apply to research papers. In particular, you’ll probably want to be sure that you know how to find and use the literature as well as write clearly and concisely.