Writing Academic Papers

Writing Academic Papers

Steps to Writing a Good Research Paper
  1. Understand the assignment
  2. Choose a Topic & develop a thesis
  3. Identify keywords
  4. Develop a Research Strategy (Find and Evaluate Sources)
  5. Choose the right database
  6. Mark, save, e-mail your results
  7. Write the paper
    • Balance, accuracy and fairness
    • Your point of view is clear and objective
    • Differing points of view are acknowledged
    • Plagiarism
    • Paraphrasing
  8. Document/ Cite the sources
Step 1 – Understand the Assignment

Identifying the amount and types of sources your assignment requires will help you choose the right online research tools.

Before you begin searching the library catalogue and databases, you should clarify several things about the assignment:

  1. What type of assignment is it?
    (Research paper, essay, opinion paper, review, or other?)
  2. How long does your paper need to be?
  3. How many sources do you need for your bibliography?
  4. What types of information do you need?
    (Statistics, Web pages, books, articles, images, audio/video clips, or other?)
  5. Do you need current or historical sources? Or both?

If you are unclear on any of the requirements, ASK YOUR PROFESSOR ASAP! Doing this early in the semester will save you stress later on and will show your professor that you are proactive.

Step 2 – Topic & Thesis statement
  • How to choose a topicSometimes your topic is assigned by your professor. However, most of the time your professor will give you the freedom to choose your own research topic. Choosing a topic that is specific enough to be manageable without being too narrow can be difficult, but these steps can help.

    First, think about what topics might be of interest to you. You can get ideas by skimming your textbook, reading news magazines like Time, or keeping an eye on the news.

    Once you’ve identified a broad topic, looking at a few scholarly reference books (such as dictionaries and encyclopedias) can help you figure out which authors and sources are the most important to know about. Often a scholarly reference book will give you a short, authoritative overview of your topic and suggest additional sources for you to read. In essence, reading a reference article can save you time!

  • How write a thesis statementAfter you’ve identified and narrowed a research topic, you should re-state it in the form of a research question. Phrasing your topic in the form of a question helps to direct your research process.

    Asking whether a fact or statistic directly answers your research question can help you find the most relevant information for your topic. A good research question also leads to a direct answer in the form of a thesis.

    A sample research question might be:
    “What are some strategies for improving self-care among social workers?”

    This question might lead to the following thesis in the final paper:
    “Recommended strategies for improving self-care among social workers include: flexible benefits and scheduling, caps on case load, and…”

Step 3 – Identify Keywords

A good research question also helps you pull out the different concepts your research will cover. Our example, “What are some strategies for improving self-care among social workers?” has 2 distinct concepts:

  • Self-care
  • Social workers

These concepts will become the search keywords you will use in the Library Catalogue and online article databases. Keep in mind that not every author will use the same keywords to describe a topic: one author might write about “self-care,” and another might use the phrase “compassion fatigue”.

For this reason, you will want to identify some synonyms and related terms for each of your keywords before you start searching. For example:

  • Self-care
    • Synonyms/related terms: burnout, compassion fatigue, mental health
  • Social workers
    • Synonyms/related terms: Social work, social workers, counselor, clinician, case worker
Step 4 – Research Strategy

Once you’ve identified your search terms and synonyms, the final pre-search step is to combine those terms into search strings.

Online search tools like the library catalog and databases require a specific format for search statements, including the use of words called Boolean operators. Boolean operators are the words AND, OR, and NOT. Placing these words between your search terms will help you find books and articles that are targeted to your research topic.


The Boolean operator AND gives you more targeted results by requiring that two or more terms all appear within the title, abstract, or table of contents of a book or article. Let’s imagine we are looking for information on self-care for social workers.

A keyword search in a database for “self-care” returns 1353 titles.

A keyword search for “self-care AND social work” returns only 148 titles, but those are much more relevant to our topic.


The Boolean operator OR is the opposite of AND. OR generally gives you more search results by requiring either one term or another to appear in a book or article. OR works best when you are looking for synonyms or related terms.

For example, here’s a comparison using our example above:

A keyword search for “self-care OR “compassion fatigue”” returns 1427 titles.

A keyword search for “self-care AND “compassion fatigue”” returns 34 titles.

A Full Search

A good multiple search for your topic would be (self-care OR “compassion fatigue”) AND “social work”

The brackets ( ) group your synonyms together and the quotation marks ” ” make sure that the words are searched as a phrase, not two separate words

Truncation: use a * to find similar words with different endings.
e.g. educat* searches “education”, “educate”, “educational” etc 

How to find books and videos

Step 5 – Choose the Right Database

There are 2 types of research sources that can be found through the Fairbank Library web site: books and articles.  For most topics, both can be found by using our library catalogue

If you are researching a topic on Religion, please use the set of resources found here.

Step 6 – Mark, Save, and Email Your Results

Once you’ve started finding books and articles on your topic, be sure to save the information. This will save you time as you organize your notes and start preparing your bibliography.

In the Library Catalogue, you can download information about the books you find by adding them to your lists or clicking the Cite icon in each record.

In online databases, look for ways to mark your articles or save them in a folder. Then look for print/email/save options; usually you can also choose to have a pre-formatted citation (in APA, MLA, or Chicago style) included in the email or saved file.

If the database you’re using does not have a full-text copy of the article you need, it will provide you with a link to an Interlibrary Loan Request form. Fill out the form, and we will get a copy of the article you need from another library. Note that some ILL requests could have a cost and can take 2-7 working days to fulfill.

Step 7 – Write Your Paper

By this point, you should have a pretty good idea of what your main points are. If you want some help with the writing process, you should schedule an appointment with the Academic Learning Centre (ALC). The writing tutors can give you tips, feedback, and suggestions that can help you write a great paper!

How to Avoid Plagiarism


Step 8 – Cite your sources