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Guidelines For Research Papers

If your instructor has specific requirements for the format of your research paper, check them before preparing your final draft. When you submit your paper, be sure to keep a secure copy.

The most common formatting is presented in the sections below:


Except for the running head (see below), leave margins of one inch at the top and bottom and on both sides of the text. If you plan to submit a printout on paper larger than 8½ by 11 inches, do not print the text in an area greater than 6½ by 9 inches.

Text Formatting

Always choose an easily readable typeface (e.g., Times New Roman) in which the regular type style contrasts clearly with the italic, and set it to a standard size (e.g., 12 points). Do not justify the lines of text at the right margin; turn off any automatic hyphenation feature in your writing program. Double-space the entire research paper, including quotations, notes, and the list of works cited. Indent the first line of a paragraph half an inch from the left margin. Indent set-off quotations half an inch as well (for examples, see 76–80 in the MLA Handbook). Leave one space after a period or other concluding punctuation mark, unless your instructor prefers two spaces.

Heading and Title

Beginning one inch from the top of the first page and flush with the left margin, type your name, your instructor’s name, the course number, and the date on separate lines, double-spacing the lines. On a new, double-spaced line, center the title (fig. 1). Do not italicize or underline your title, put it in quotation marks or boldface, or type it in all capital letters. Follow the rules for capitalization in the MLA Handbook (67–68), and italicize only the words that you would italicize in the text.

Do not use a period after your title or after any heading in the paper (e.g., Works Cited). Begin your text on a new, double-spaced line after the title, indenting the first line of the paragraph half an inch from the left margin.

A research paper does not normally need a title page, but if the paper is a group project, create a title page and list all the authors on it instead of in the header on page 1 of your essay. If your teacher requires a title page in lieu of or in addition to the header, format it according to the instructions you are given.

Running Head with Page Numbers

Number all pages consecutively throughout the research paper in the upper right-hand corner, half an inch from the top and flush with the right margin. Type your last name, followed by a space, before the page number (fig. 2). Do not use the abbreviation p. before the page number or add a period, a hyphen, or any other mark or symbol. Your writing program will probably allow you to create a running head of this kind that appears automatically on every page. Some teachers prefer that no running head appear on the first page. Follow your teacher’s preference.

Placement of the List of Works Cited

The list of works cited appears at the end of the paper, after any endnotes. Begin the list on a new page. The list contains the same running head as the main text. The page numbering in the running head continues uninterrupted throughout. For example, if the text of your research paper (including any endnotes) ends on page 10, the works-cited list begins on page 11. Center the title, Works Cited, an inch from the top of the page (fig. 3). (If the list contains only one entry, make the heading Work Cited.) Double-space between the title and the first entry. Begin each entry flush with the left margin; if an entry runs more than one line, indent the subsequent line or lines half an inch from the left margin. This format is sometimes called hanging indention, and you can set your writing program to create it automatically for a group of paragraphs. Hanging indention makes alphabetical lists easier to use. Double-space the entire list. Continue it on as many pages as necessary.

Tables and Illustrations

Place tables and illustrations as close as possible to the parts of the text to which they relate. A table is usually labeled Table, given an arabic numeral, and titled. Type both label and title flush left on separate lines above the table, and capitalize them as titles (do not use all capital letters). Give the source of the table and any notes immediately below the table in a caption. To avoid confusion between notes to the text and notes to the table, designate notes to the table with lowercase letters rather than with numerals. Double-space throughout; use dividing lines as needed (fig. 4).

Any other type of illustrative visual material—for example, a photograph, map, line drawing, graph, or chart—should be labeled Figure (usually abbreviated Fig.), assigned an arabic numeral, and given a caption: “Fig. 1. Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child, Wichita Art Museum.” A label and caption ordinarily appear directly below the illustration and have the same one-inch margins as the text of the paper (fig. 5). If the caption of a table or illustration provides complete information about the source and the source is not cited in the text, no entry for the source in the works-cited list is necessary.

Musical illustrations are labeled Example (usually abbreviated Ex.), assigned an arabic numeral, and given a caption: “Ex. 1. Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Symphony no. 6 in B, opus 74 (Pathétique), finale.” A label and caption ordinarily appear directly below the example and have the same one-inch margins as the text of the paper (fig. 6).

Paper and Printing

If you print your paper, use only white, 8½-by-11-inch paper of good quality. If you lack 8½-by-11-inch paper, choose the closest size available. Use a high-quality printer. Some instructors prefer papers printed on a single side because they’re easier to read, but others allow printing on both sides as a means of conserving paper; follow your instructor’s preference.

Corrections and Insertions on Printouts

Proofread and correct your research paper carefully before submitting it. If you are checking a printout and find a mistake, reopen the document, make the appropriate revisions, and reprint the corrected page or pages. Be sure to save the changed file. Spelling checkers and usage checkers are helpful when used with caution. They do not find all errors and sometimes label correct material as erroneous. If your instructor permits corrections on the printout, write them neatly and legibly in ink directly above the lines involved, using carets (⁁) to indicate where they go. Do not use the margins or write a change below the line it affects. If corrections on any page are numerous or substantial, revise your document and reprint the page.

Binding a Printed Paper

Pages of a printed research paper may get misplaced or lost if they are left unattached or merely folded down at a corner. Although a plastic folder or some other kind of binder may seem an attractive finishing touch, most instructors find such devices a nuisance in reading and commenting on students’ work. Many prefer that a paper be secured with a simple paper or binder clip, which can be easily removed and restored. Others prefer the use of staples.

Electronic Submission

There are at present no commonly accepted standards for the electronic submission of research papers. If you are asked to submit your paper electronically, obtain from your teacher guidelines for formatting, mode of submission (e.g., by e-mail, on a Web site), and so forth and follow them closely.

Designed to be printed out and used in the classroom. From the MLA Handbook, 8th ed., published by the Modern Language Association.

Research Paper Basic Guidelines

How to Write a Good Research Paperî

Steffen W. Schmidt, Ph.D.

Iowa State University/Nova Oceanographic Center


1. Introduction

What is the problem or topic you wish to investigate? How will you approach this research? Why is this of interest to you and why should we be interested in this topic? This is you ìcontractî with the reader (and professor). Here you say what you will be doing in the remainder of the project so define carefully your interests and the parameters (scope) of your projected work. Also remember to keep the project focused don't wander off! As you collect material and structure an outline keep referring to this section.


If you need ideas for a paper look at the topics in assigned reading material. Is any specific and narrow sub-topic of interest to you? Or, if you are interetsed in public opinion you might look for polls of opinion on the environment and related this to our coastal policy interests. A web search is also useful as a source of ideas. The Coastal Policy Network is a good source. Australia has a very developed Coastal Management program and you might want to look at that to get some ideas.

Now sketch out a rough outline. Below are some of the main categories you will want to have as sub-headings.

2. Literature Review

This section should:

  • First, contain the major studies that have been done on this subject. When you do a search, say on the web, you need to sort out from the reference you find who is cited or quoted. This may be in a newspaper story where they refer to General So-and-So or Professor Such-and Such. Or it may be in a footnote where the leading book and author on the topic are listed.
  • Second, you need to identify and cite other sources that you found particularly interesting and useful for this paper. (Make sure you try to verify the reliability and quality of your sources. The web is full of deceit and phony stuff. I had a student cite an article from The Onion for one paper!)

3. Body of your original research or case studies

Your actual research project will vary widely depending on the topic and on your methodological preferences. You should think about how you will do this research since there are a number of different approaches.

The most common type of research done for a project of this scope would be a literature review which basically lays out a narrative of what has been written about this topic. This narrative should be comparative (you compare what different researchers and writers have to say) and analytical (you should make your own comments and assessments of what the existing material reveals and also what is missing from the material you have identified in your view).

Alternatively you could do a statistical (quantitative) study from either existing data (such as time series data collected over a period of years). Or alternatively you might want to do original research using interviews of a selected sample of people ñ for example experts on the subject. You can do this on the telephone with a set of questions you want answered by all respondents. Or it might be original case studies maybe from information you have gathered or plan to collect.

4. Conclusions

Summarize your major findings. Make certain that you directly connect this section to the introduction you wrote and to what you said you were going to do in this research. Look at the introduction and make sure that you have clearly stated in that section what you intend to do in this work.

5. Sources used

List, using the preferred citation method suggested by the your program of study, the major sources you consulted for this project. Footnotes can be put at the bottom of each page [1) or you can cite by putting the source after the reference (Schmidt, 2003, p. 345) and then list the sources alphabetically at the end of the paper.

Other Tips:

  • Cover: Put a clean and informative cover on your project with a title, your name, a date of submission, and for what class this project was submitted. You can put a useful graphic on the cover but be careful to keep it ìtastefulî!

  • Number Pages: You must number all pages since thatís how others will cite your work.

  • Font: use standard size and style font. Use conventional margins left right and at top and bottom. Use one and a half spaces unless otherwise told. It makes it easier to read and write corrections/comments by the instructor.

  • Tables/Charts: It is always helpful to have appropriate graphics such as maps, tables, charts or other graphic representations in the paper. These should be used sparingly but they can make a paper richer and more professional.

  • Quotations: I strongly believe that nothing is quite as effective as a few really significant quotations from authorities on whatever you are researching. (Remember that hard though it may be to accept this fact, you are probably not an authority yet!). A few well-chosen quotes that reinforce the major thesis or conclusions of your project are very useful.