A research paper presents the results of your investigations on a selected topic. Based on your own thoughts and the facts and ideas you have gathered from a variety of sources, a research paper is a creation that is uniquely yours. The experience of gathering, interpreting, and documenting information, developing and organizing ideas and conclusions, and communicating them clearly will prove to be an important and satisfying part of your education.
Revisions to this Guide were made in May 2004 to reflect recommendations in the MLA Handbook's sixth edition (2003) and on the MLA's own Web pages.
There are many approaches to research — an essential part of every business and profession — and many ways to document findings. The library has books which will help you, and most English composition textbooks contain chapters on research techniques and style. It is important to follow consistently and accurately a recommended format that is clear and concise and that has been approved by your teacher.
The formatting of citations recommended in this guide is based on Modern Language Association recommendations. If your instructor requires another format, you can ask that instructor how such a format will be different from the recommendations we have made and make the appropriate adjustments. (Pay special attention to the material on “Footnotes and Endnotes” appearing in the section called "Parenthetical Documentation.")
This guide may suffice for most students' needs for most academic purposes in Humanities disciplines, but for advanced research projects it is by no means a substitute for the Modern Language Association Handbook for Writers of Research Papers Sixth Edition (2003). That handbook can be purchased in most bookstores and copies should be available in every college and municipal library. A Guide similar to this one, but based on the APA style, is also available online (see link on the navigation bar). Your best source of advice on all these matters is, of course, your instructor and library professionals.
This Guide to Writing Research Papers has no official relationship with the Modern Language Association and is not endorsed by the MLA.
II. Gathering Materials
Once your topic has been approved, begin to gather information from authoritative reference sources: pertinent books, encyclopedias, and articles in magazines, journals, and magazines. Librarians will be happy to show you how to use the various research tools within the library and may suggest other sources of information. Important new resources are now available to you through electronic services which provide many learning and reference tools as well as access to the Internet, where you can often discover an abundance of information.
We recommend the Capital Community College online Library and Information Skills Workbook as an introduction to using library and online resources. The workbook has chapters on finding books and journal articles, using CD-ROM databases, discovering resources on the internet, developing critical thinking skills, and designing a search strategy. It would be a good idea to go through the Workbook (and take its computer-graded quizzes) before beginning a major research project.
Depending on the resources available and the length requirements of your assignment, you may find it necessary to widen or restrict the scope of your topic.
III. Taking Notes for Topic/Thesis
As you examine each source, make a separate note of each fact or quotation you might want to use in your paper. Unless you are really good at manipulating text with your computer or laptop, it might be wise to use index cards when preparing notes. Be sure to identify the source of the information on the listing (include the author's name and page number on which the information appears). Try to summarize the information in your own words (paraphrasing); use quotation marks if you copy the information exactly. (This rule should apply whether you are copying a great deal of material or only a phrase.) Give each listing a simple descriptive heading.
Your listings — whether they appear on index cards or within some format on your computer — will now provide the authoritative basis for your paper's content and documentation. By arranging and rearranging the listings and using your descriptive headings, you may well discover a certain order or different categories which will help you prepare an outline. You may find that you need additional information, or that some of the listings may not be appropriate and should be set aside or discarded.