With science fair season coming up as well as many end of the year projects, students are often required to write a research paper or a report on their project. Use this guide to help you in the process from finding a topic to revising and editing your final paper.
Sometimes one of the largest barriers to writing a research paper is trying to figure out what to write about. Many times the topic is supplied by the teacher, or the curriculum tells what the student should research and write about. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes the student is given a very broad concept to write a research paper on, for example, water. Within the category of water, there are many topics and subtopics that would be appropriate. Topics about water can include anything from the three states of water, different water sources, minerals found in water, how water is used by living organisms, the water cycle, or how to find water in the desert. The point is that “water” is a very large topic and would be too broad to be adequately covered in a typical 3-5 page research paper.
When given a broad category to write about, it is important to narrow it down to a topic that is much more manageable. Sometimes research needs to be done in order to find the best topic to write about. (Look for searching tips in “Finding and Gathering Information.”) Listed below are some tips and guidelines for picking a suitable research topic:
- Pick a topic within the category that you find interesting. It makes it that much easier to research and write about a topic if it interests you.
- You may find while researching a topic that the details of the topic are very boring to you. If this is the case, and you have the option to do this, change your topic.
- Pick a topic that you are already familiar with and research further into that area to build on your current knowledge.
- When researching topics to do your paper on, look at how much information you are finding. If you are finding very little information on your topic or you are finding an overwhelming amount, you may need to rethink your topic.
- If permissible, always leave yourself open to changing your topic. While researching for topics, you may come across one that you find really interesting and can use just as well as the previous topics you were searching for.
- Most importantly, does your research topic fit the guidelines set forth by your teacher or curriculum?
Finding and Gathering Information
There are numerous resources out there to help you find information on the topic selected for your research paper. One of the first places to begin research is at your local library. Use the Dewey Decimal System or ask the librarian to help you find books related to your topic. There are also a variety of reference materials, such as encyclopedias, available at the library.
A relatively new reference resource has become available with the power of technology – the Internet. While the Internet allows the user to access a wealth of information that is often more up-to-date than printed materials such as books and encyclopedias, there are certainly drawbacks to using it. It can be hard to tell whether or not a site contains factual information or just someone’s opinion. A site can also be dangerous or inappropriate for students to use.
You may find that certain science concepts and science terminology are not easy to find in regular dictionaries and encyclopedias. A science dictionary or science encyclopedia can help you find more in-depth and relevant information for your science report. If your topic is very technical or specific, reference materials such as medical dictionaries and chemistry encyclopedias may also be good resources to use.
If you are writing a report for your science fair project, not only will you be finding information from published sources, you will also be generating your own data, results, and conclusions. Keep a journal that tracks and records your experiments and results. When writing your report, you can either write out your findings from your experiments or display them using graphs or charts.
*As you are gathering information, keep a working bibliography of where you found your sources. Look under “Citing Sources” for more information. This will save you a lot of time in the long run!
Most people find it hard to just take all the information they have gathered from their research and write it out in paper form. It is hard to get a starting point and go from the beginning to the end. You probably have several ideas you know you want to put in your paper, but you may be having trouble deciding where these ideas should go. Organizing your information in a way where new thoughts can be added to a subtopic at any time is a great way to organize the information you have about your topic. Here are two of the more popular ways to organize information so it can be used in a research paper:
- Graphic organizers such as a web or mind map. Mind maps are basically stating the main topic of your paper, then branching off into as many subtopics as possible about the main topic. Enchanted Learning has a list of several different types of mind maps as well as information on how to use them and what topics fit best for each type of mind map and graphic organizer.
- General to specific list. This method is similar to using a mind map except it is used in a linear list fashion by stating the topic and then listing the supporting details underneath. The general to specific list method works best when using a computer because ideas can easily be added without the information becoming “squashed” as would happen when it is written out. This method works in the following format:I. Topic ~ Water as a solid in nature
- Subtopic: Glaciers – large masses of ice on land
- Sub-Subtopic: Low temperatures and adequate amounts of snow are needed to form glaciers.
- Sub-Subtopic: Glaciers move large amounts of earth and debris.
- Sub-Subtopic: Two basic types of glaciers: valley and continental.
- Subtopic: Icebergs – large masses of ice floating on liquid water
II. Topic ~ Water as a liquid in nature
- Subtopic: Glaciers – large masses of ice on land
Different Formats For Your Paper
Depending on your topic and your writing preference, the layout of your paper can greatly enhance how well the information on your topic is displayed.
- Process. This method is used to explain how something is done or how it works by listing the steps of the process. For most science fair projects and science experiments, this is the best format. Reports for science fairs need the entire project written out from start to finish. Your report should include a title page, statement of purpose, hypothesis, materials and procedures, results and conclusions, discussion, and credits and bibliography. If applicable, graphs, tables, or charts should be included with the results portion of your report.
- Cause and effect. This is another common science experiment research paper format. The basic premise is that because event X happened, event Y happened.
- Specific to general. This method works best when trying to draw conclusions about how little topics and details are connected to support one main topic or idea.
- Climatic order. Similar to the “specific to general” category, here details are listed in order from least important to most important.
- General to specific. Works in a similar fashion as the method for organizing your information. The main topic or subtopic is stated first, followed by supporting details that give more information about the topic.
- Compare and contrast. This method works best when you wish to show the similarities and/or differences between two or more topics. A block pattern is used when you first write about one topic and all its details and then write about the second topic and all its details. An alternating pattern can be used to describe a detail about the first topic and then compare that to the related detail of the second topic. The block pattern and alternating pattern can also be combined to make a format that better fits your research paper.
When writing a research paper, you must cite your sources! Otherwise you are plagiarizing (claiming someone else’s ideas as your own) which can cause severe penalties from failing your research paper assignment in primary and secondary grades to failing the entire course (most colleges and universities have this policy). To help you avoid plagiarism, follow these simple steps:
- Find out what format for citing your paper your teacher or curriculum wishes you to use. One of the most widely used and widely accepted citation formats by scholars and schools is the Modern Language Association (MLA) format. We recommended that you do an Internet search for the most recent format of the citation style you will be using in your paper.
- Keep a working bibliography when researching your topic. Have a document in your computer files or a page in your notebook where you write down every source that you found and may use in your paper. (You probably will not use every resource you find, but it is much easier to delete unused sources later rather than try to find them four weeks down the road.) To make this process even easier, write the source down in the citation format that will be used in your paper. No matter what citation format you use, you should always write down title, author, publisher, published date, page numbers used, and if applicable, the volume and issue number.
- When collecting ideas and information from your sources, write the author’s last name at the end of the idea. When revising and formatting your paper, keep the author’s last name attached to the end of the idea, no matter where you move that idea. This way, you won’t have to go back and try to remember where the ideas in your paper came from.
- There are two ways to use the information in your paper: paraphrasing and quotes. The majority of your paper will be paraphrasing the information you found. Paraphrasing is basically restating the idea being used in your own words. As a general rule of thumb, no more than two of the original words should be used in sequence when paraphrasing information, and similes should be used for as many of the words as possible in the original passage without changing the meaning of the main point. Sometimes, you may find something stated so well by the original author that it would be best to use the author’s original words in your paper. When using the author’s original words, use quotation marks only around the words being directly quoted and work the quote into the body of your paper so that it makes sense grammatically. Search the Internet for more rules on paraphrasing and quoting information.
Revising and Editing Your Paper
Revising your paper basically means you are fixing grammatical errors or changing the meaning of what you wrote. After you have written the rough draft of your paper, read through it again to make sure the ideas in your paper flow and are cohesive. You may need to add in information, delete extra information, use a thesaurus to find a better word to better express a concept, reword a sentence, or just make sure your ideas are stated in a logical and progressive order.
After revising your paper, go back and edit it, correcting the capitalization, punctuation, and spelling errors – the mechanics of writing. If you are not 100% positive a word is spelled correctly, look it up in a dictionary. Ask a parent or teacher for help on the proper usage of commas, hyphens, capitalization, and numbers. You may also be able to find the answers to these questions by doing an Internet search on writing mechanics or by checking you local library for a book on writing mechanics.
It is also always a good idea to have someone else read your paper. Because this person did not write the paper and is not familiar with the topic, he or she is more likely to catch mistakes or ideas that do not quite make sense. This person can also give you insights or suggestions on how to reword or format your paper to make it flow better or convey your ideas better.
- As you do your research, follow your background research plan and take notes from your sources of information. These notes will help you write a better summary.
- The purpose of your research paper is to give you the information to understand why your experiment turns out the way it does. The research paper should include:
- The history of similar experiments or inventions
- Definitions of all important words and concepts that describe your experiment
- Answers to all your background research plan questions
- Mathematical formulas, if any, that you will need to describe the results of your experiment
- For every fact or picture in your research paper you should follow it with a citation telling the reader where you found the information. A citation is just the name of the author and the date of the publication placed in parentheses like this: (Author, date). This is called a reference citation when using APA format and parenthetical reference when using the MLA format. Its purpose is to document a source briefly, clearly, and accurately.
- If you copy text from one of your sources, then place it in quotation marks in addition to following it with a citation. Be sure you understand and avoid plagiarism! Do not copy another person's work and call it your own. Always give credit where credit is due!
- Most teachers want a research paper to have these sections, in order:
- Title page (with the title of your project, your name, and the date)
- Your report
- Check with your teacher for additional requirements such as page numbers and a table of contents
Year after year, students find that the report called the research paper is the part of the science fair project where they learn the most. So, take it from those who preceded you, the research paper you are preparing to write is super valuable.
What Is a Research Paper?
The short answer is that the research paper is a report summarizing the answers to the research questions you generated in your background research plan. It's a review of the relevant publications (books, magazines, websites) discussing the topic you want to investigate.
The long answer is that the research paper summarizes the theory behind your experiment. Science fair judges like to see that you understand why your experiment turns out the way it does. You do library and Internet research so that you can make a prediction of what will occur in your experiment, and then whether that prediction is right or wrong, you will have the knowledge to understand what caused the behavior you observed.
From a practical perspective, the research paper also discusses the techniques and equipment that are appropriate for investigating your topic. Some methods and techniques are more reliable because they have been used many times. Can you use a procedure for your science fair project that is similar to an experiment that has been done before? If you can obtain this information, your project will be more successful. As they say, you don't want to reinvent the wheel!
If these reasons sound to you like the reasons we gave for doing background research, you're right! The research paper is simply the "write-up" of that research.
Special Information to Include in Your Research Paper
Many science experiments can be explained using mathematics. As you write your research paper, you'll want to make sure that you include as much relevant math as you understand. If a simple equation describes aspects of your science fair project, include it.
Writing the Research Paper
As you read the information in your bibliography, you'll want to take notes. Some teachers recommend taking notes on note cards. Each card contains the source at the top, with key points listed or quoted underneath. Others prefer typing notes directly into a word processor. No matter how you take notes, be sure to keep track of the sources for all your key facts.
How to Organize Your Research Paper
The best way to speed your writing is to do a little planning. Before starting to write, think about the best order to discuss the major sections of your report. Generally, you will want to begin with your science fair project question so that the reader will know the purpose of your paper. What should come next? Ask yourself what information the reader needs to learn first in order to understand the rest of the paper. A typical organization might look like this:
- Your science fair project question or topic
- Definitions of all important words, concepts, and equations that describe your experiment
- The history of similar experiments
- Answers to your background research questions
When and How to Footnote or Reference Sources
When you write your research paper you might want to copy words, pictures, diagrams, or ideas from one of your sources. It is OK to copy such information as long as you reference it with a citation. If the information is a phrase, sentence, or paragraph, then you should also put it in quotation marks. A citation and quotation marks tell the reader who actually wrote the information.
For a science fair project, a reference citation (also known as author-date citation) is an accepted way to reference information you copy. Citation referencing is easy. Simply put the author's last name, the year of publication, and page number (if needed) in parentheses after the information you copy. Place the reference citation at the end of the sentence but before the final period.
Make sure that the source for every citation item copied appears in your bibliography.
Reference Citation Format
|Type of Citation||Parenthetical Reference |
MLA Format (Author - page)
|Reference Citation |
APA Format (Author - date)*
|Work by a single author||(Bloggs 37)||(Bloggs, 2002)|
|Direct quote of work by single author||(Bloggs 37)||(Bloggs, 2002, p. 37)|
|Work by two authors||(Bloggs and Smith 37)||(Bloggs & Smith, 2002)|
|Work by three to five authors|
|(Kernis, Cornell, Sun, Berry, and Harlow 183-185)||(Kernis, Cornell, Sun, Berry, & Harlow, 1993)|
|Work by three to five authors|
|(Kernis et al., 1993)|
|Work by six or more author||(Harris et al. 99)||(Harris et al., 2001)|
|Two or more works by the same author in the same year (use lower-case letters to order the entries in bibliography)||(Berndt, 1981a)|
|Two or more works by the same author||(Berndt, Shortened First Book Title 221) then |
(Berndt, Shortened 2nd Book Title 68)
|Two or more works in the same parentheses||(Berndt 221; Harlow 99)||(Berndt, 2002; Harlow, 1983)|
|Authors with same last name||(E. Johnson 99)||(E. Johnson, 2001; L. Johnson, 1998)|
|Work does not have an author, cite the source by its title||(Book Title 44) or |
(Shortened Book Title 44)
|(Book Title, 2005) or|
("Article Title", 2004)
|Work has unknown author and date||("Article Title", n.d.)|
|* APA Note: If you are directly quoting from a work, you will need to include the author, year of publication, and the page number for the reference (preceded by "p.").|
Examples of Reference Citations using APA Format
Below are examples of how reference citations would look in your paper using the APA format.
"If you copy a sentence from a book or magazine article by a single author, the reference will look like this. A comma separates the page number (or numbers) from the year" (Bloggs, 2002, p. 37).
"If you copy a sentence from a book or magazine article by more than one author, the reference will look like this" (Bloggs & Smith, 2002, p. 37).
"Sometimes the author will have two publications in your bibliography for just one year. In that case, the first publication would have an 'a' after the publication year, the second a 'b', and so on. The reference will look like this" (Nguyen, 2000b).
"When the author is unknown, the text reference for such an entry may substitute the title, or a shortened version of the title for the author" (The Chicago Manual, 1993).
"For reference citations, only direct quotes need page numbers" (Han, 1995).
"Some sources will not have dates" (Blecker, n.d.).
Credit Where Credit Is Due!
When you work hard to write something, you don't want your friends to loaf and just copy it. Every author feels the same way.
Plagiarism is when someone copies the words, pictures, diagrams, or ideas of someone else and presents them as his or her own. When you find information in a book, on the Internet, or from some other source, you MUST give the author of that information credit in a citation. If you copy a sentence or paragraph exactly, you should also use quotation marks around the text.
The surprising thing to many students is how easy it is for parents, teachers, and science fair judges to detect and prove plagiarism. So, don't go there, and don't make us try to hunt you down!
Research Paper Checklist
|What Makes a Good Research Paper?||For a Good Research Paper, You Should Answer "Yes" to Every Question|
|Have you defined all important terms?||Yes / No|
|Have you clearly answered all your research questions?||Yes / No|
|Does your background research enable you to make a prediction of what will occur in your experiment? Will you have the knowledge to understand what causes the behavior you observe?||Yes / No|
|Have you included all the relevant math that you understand?||Yes / No|
|Have you referenced all information copied from another source and put any phrases, sentences, or paragraphs you copied in quotation marks?||Yes / No|
|If you are doing an engineering or programming project, have you defined your target user and answered questions about user needs, products that meet similar needs, design criteria, and important design tradeoffs?||Yes / No|