Original Research Papers: What Does Originality Mean?

At a glance, the requirement to write an original term paper or research paper sounds strange a little. What can originality mean when it comes to making a research project? Should an original term paper or research paper be decorated somehow? Or should you use some original writing techniques? Let us help you figure out everything and answer these questions.

What you can be sure about is that you do not have to use any kind of decorations to prepare original term papers or research papers.

When it comes to originality in research projects, professors do not mean an original or unusual appearance of your works, but their content. Let us give you more details.

Original research papers: meaning #1

Have you ever tried using a customized research paper? Or, have you just visited websites of custom writing companies? All of them promise one important thing – to deliver an original research paper for you, one of a kind, plagiarism free work. What we are talking about is that very often professors just wait for an independent student’s research, a work that they do on their own, honestly, using some research resources, and definitely documenting them in their paper. This is what usually an original research paper means in schools or colleges.

Original research papers: meaning #2

There is one more interpretation of an original research paper that is used in academia. An original research paper is the one based on original research, and here you need to define what original research is all about. In a few words, this kind of research produces new knowledge instead of summarizing what is already known in a new form. There are many ways to produce new knowledge: observations, experiments, new approaches to solving existing problems, etc. Very often, an original research paper is simply called a dissertation.

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Although research paper assignments may vary widely, there are essentially two basic types of research papers. These are argumentative and analytical .


In an argumentative research paper, a student both states the topic they will be exploring and immediately establishes the position they will argue regarding that topic in a thesis statement . This type of paper hopes to persuade its reader to adopt the view presented.

 Example : a paper that argues the merits of early exposure to reading for children would be an argumentative essay.

An analytical research paper states the topic that the writer will be exploring, usually in the form of a question, initially taking a neutral stance. The body of the paper will present multifaceted information and, ultimately, the writer will state their conclusion, based on the information that has unfolded throughout the course of the essay. This type of paper hopes to offer a well-supported critical analysis without necessarily persuading the reader to any particular way of thinking.

Example : a paper that explores the use of metaphor in one of Shakespeare's sonnets would be an example of an analytical essay.

*Please note that this LibGuide will primarily be concerning itself with argumentative or rhetorical research papers.

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  • 12.1 Introducing Research and Research Evidence
  • 1 Unit Introduction
  • Introduction
  • 1.1 "Reading" to Understand and Respond
  • 1.2 Social Media Trailblazer: Selena Gomez
  • 1.3 Glance at Critical Response: Rhetoric and Critical Thinking
  • 1.4 Annotated Student Sample: Social Media Post and Responses on Voter Suppression
  • 1.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically About a “Text”
  • 1.6 Evaluation: Intention vs. Execution
  • 1.7 Spotlight on … Academia
  • 1.8 Portfolio: Tracing Writing Development
  • Further Reading
  • Works Cited
  • 2.1 Seeds of Self
  • 2.2 Identity Trailblazer: Cathy Park Hong
  • 2.3 Glance at the Issues: Oppression and Reclamation
  • 2.4 Annotated Sample Reading from The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois
  • 2.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically about How Identity Is Constructed Through Writing
  • 2.6 Evaluation: Antiracism and Inclusivity
  • 2.7 Spotlight on … Variations of English
  • 2.8 Portfolio: Decolonizing Self
  • 3.1 Identity and Expression
  • 3.2 Literacy Narrative Trailblazer: Tara Westover
  • 3.3 Glance at Genre: The Literacy Narrative
  • 3.4 Annotated Sample Reading: from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
  • 3.5 Writing Process: Tracing the Beginnings of Literacy
  • 3.6 Editing Focus: Sentence Structure
  • 3.7 Evaluation: Self-Evaluating
  • 3.8 Spotlight on … The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN)
  • 3.9 Portfolio: A Literacy Artifact
  • Works Consulted
  • 2 Unit Introduction
  • 4.1 Exploring the Past to Understand the Present
  • 4.2 Memoir Trailblazer: Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • 4.3 Glance at Genre: Conflict, Detail, and Revelation
  • 4.4 Annotated Sample Reading: from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
  • 4.5 Writing Process: Making the Personal Public
  • 4.6 Editing Focus: More on Characterization and Point of View
  • 4.7 Evaluation: Structure and Organization
  • 4.8 Spotlight on … Multilingual Writers
  • 4.9 Portfolio: Filtered Memories
  • 5.1 Profiles as Inspiration
  • 5.2 Profile Trailblazer: Veronica Chambers
  • 5.3 Glance at Genre: Subject, Angle, Background, and Description
  • 5.4 Annotated Sample Reading: “Remembering John Lewis” by Carla D. Hayden
  • 5.5 Writing Process: Focusing on the Angle of Your Subject
  • 5.6 Editing Focus: Verb Tense Consistency
  • 5.7 Evaluation: Text as Personal Introduction
  • 5.8 Spotlight on … Profiling a Cultural Artifact
  • 5.9 Portfolio: Subject as a Reflection of Self
  • 6.1 Proposing Change: Thinking Critically About Problems and Solutions
  • 6.2 Proposal Trailblazer: Atul Gawande
  • 6.3 Glance at Genre: Features of Proposals
  • 6.4 Annotated Student Sample: “Slowing Climate Change” by Shawn Krukowski
  • 6.5 Writing Process: Creating a Proposal
  • 6.6 Editing Focus: Subject-Verb Agreement
  • 6.7 Evaluation: Conventions, Clarity, and Coherence
  • 6.8 Spotlight on … Technical Writing as a Career
  • 6.9 Portfolio: Reflecting on Problems and Solutions
  • 7.1 Thumbs Up or Down?
  • 7.2 Review Trailblazer: Michiko Kakutani
  • 7.3 Glance at Genre: Criteria, Evidence, Evaluation
  • 7.4 Annotated Student Sample: "Black Representation in Film" by Caelia Marshall
  • 7.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically About Entertainment
  • 7.6 Editing Focus: Quotations
  • 7.7 Evaluation: Effect on Audience
  • 7.8 Spotlight on … Language and Culture
  • 7.9 Portfolio: What the Arts Say About You
  • 8.1 Information and Critical Thinking
  • 8.2 Analytical Report Trailblazer: Barbara Ehrenreich
  • 8.3 Glance at Genre: Informal and Formal Analytical Reports
  • 8.4 Annotated Student Sample: "U.S. Response to COVID-19" by Trevor Garcia
  • 8.5 Writing Process: Creating an Analytical Report
  • 8.6 Editing Focus: Commas with Nonessential and Essential Information
  • 8.7 Evaluation: Reviewing the Final Draft
  • 8.8 Spotlight on … Discipline-Specific and Technical Language
  • 8.9 Portfolio: Evidence and Objectivity
  • 9.1 Breaking the Whole into Its Parts
  • 9.2 Rhetorical Analysis Trailblazer: Jamil Smith
  • 9.3 Glance at Genre: Rhetorical Strategies
  • 9.4 Annotated Student Sample: “Rhetorical Analysis: Evicted by Matthew Desmond” by Eliana Evans
  • 9.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically about Rhetoric
  • 9.6 Editing Focus: Mixed Sentence Constructions
  • 9.7 Evaluation: Rhetorical Analysis
  • 9.8 Spotlight on … Business and Law
  • 9.9 Portfolio: How Thinking Critically about Rhetoric Affects Intellectual Growth
  • 10.1 Making a Case: Defining a Position Argument
  • 10.2 Position Argument Trailblazer: Charles Blow
  • 10.3 Glance at Genre: Thesis, Reasoning, and Evidence
  • 10.4 Annotated Sample Reading: "Remarks at the University of Michigan" by Lyndon B. Johnson
  • 10.5 Writing Process: Creating a Position Argument
  • 10.6 Editing Focus: Paragraphs and Transitions
  • 10.7 Evaluation: Varied Appeals
  • 10.8 Spotlight on … Citation
  • 10.9 Portfolio: Growth in the Development of Argument
  • 11.1 Developing Your Sense of Logic
  • 11.2 Reasoning Trailblazer: Paul D. N. Hebert
  • 11.3 Glance at Genre: Reasoning Strategies and Signal Words
  • 11.4 Annotated Sample Reading: from Book VII of The Republic by Plato
  • 11.5 Writing Process: Reasoning Supported by Evidence
  • 12.2 Argumentative Research Trailblazer: Samin Nosrat
  • 12.3 Glance at Genre: Introducing Research as Evidence
  • 12.4 Annotated Student Sample: "Healthy Diets from Sustainable Sources Can Save the Earth" by Lily Tran
  • 12.5 Writing Process: Integrating Research
  • 12.6 Editing Focus: Integrating Sources and Quotations
  • 12.7 Evaluation: Effectiveness of Research Paper
  • 12.8 Spotlight on … Bias in Language and Research
  • 12.9 Portfolio: Why Facts Matter in Research Argumentation
  • 13.1 The Research Process: Where to Look for Existing Sources
  • 13.2 The Research Process: How to Create Sources
  • 13.3 Glance at the Research Process: Key Skills
  • 13.4 Annotated Student Sample: Research Log
  • 13.5 Research Process: Making Notes, Synthesizing Information, and Keeping a Research Log
  • 13.6 Spotlight on … Ethical Research
  • 14.1 Compiling Sources for an Annotated Bibliography
  • 14.2 Glance at Form: Citation Style, Purpose, and Formatting
  • 14.3 Annotated Student Sample: “Healthy Diets from Sustainable Sources Can Save the Earth” by Lily Tran
  • 14.4 Writing Process: Informing and Analyzing
  • 15.1 Tracing a Broad Issue in the Individual
  • 15.2 Case Study Trailblazer: Vilayanur S. Ramachandran
  • 15.3 Glance at Genre: Observation, Description, and Analysis
  • 15.4 Annotated Sample Reading: Case Study on Louis Victor "Tan" Leborgne
  • 15.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically About How People and Language Interact
  • 15.6 Editing Focus: Words Often Confused
  • 15.7 Evaluation: Presentation and Analysis of Case Study
  • 15.8 Spotlight on … Applied Linguistics
  • 15.9 Portfolio: Your Own Uses of Language
  • 3 Unit Introduction
  • 16.1 An Author’s Choices: What Text Says and How It Says It
  • 16.2 Textual Analysis Trailblazer: bell hooks
  • 16.3 Glance at Genre: Print or Textual Analysis
  • 16.4 Annotated Student Sample: "Artists at Work" by Gwyn Garrison
  • 16.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically About Text
  • 16.6 Editing Focus: Literary Works Live in the Present
  • 16.7 Evaluation: Self-Directed Assessment
  • 16.8 Spotlight on … Humanities
  • 16.9 Portfolio: The Academic and the Personal
  • 17.1 “Reading” Images
  • 17.2 Image Trailblazer: Sara Ludy
  • 17.3 Glance at Genre: Relationship Between Image and Rhetoric
  • 17.4 Annotated Student Sample: “Hints of the Homoerotic” by Leo Davis
  • 17.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically and Writing Persuasively About Images
  • 17.6 Editing Focus: Descriptive Diction
  • 17.7 Evaluation: Relationship Between Analysis and Image
  • 17.8 Spotlight on … Video and Film
  • 17.9 Portfolio: Interplay Between Text and Image
  • 18.1 Mixing Genres and Modes
  • 18.2 Multimodal Trailblazer: Torika Bolatagici
  • 18.3 Glance at Genre: Genre, Audience, Purpose, Organization
  • 18.4 Annotated Sample Reading: “Celebrating a Win-Win” by Alexandra Dapolito Dunn
  • 18.5 Writing Process: Create a Multimodal Advocacy Project
  • 18.6 Evaluation: Transitions
  • 18.7 Spotlight on . . . Technology
  • 18.8 Portfolio: Multimodalism
  • 19.1 Writing, Speaking, and Activism
  • 19.2 Podcast Trailblazer: Alice Wong
  • 19.3 Glance at Genre: Language Performance and Visuals
  • 19.4 Annotated Student Sample: “Are New DOT Regulations Discriminatory?” by Zain A. Kumar
  • 19.5 Writing Process: Writing to Speak
  • 19.6 Evaluation: Bridging Writing and Speaking
  • 19.7 Spotlight on … Delivery/Public Speaking
  • 19.8 Portfolio: Everyday Rhetoric, Rhetoric Every Day
  • 20.1 Thinking Critically about Your Semester
  • 20.2 Reflection Trailblazer: Sandra Cisneros
  • 20.3 Glance at Genre: Purpose and Structure
  • 20.4 Annotated Sample Reading: “Don’t Expect Congrats” by Dale Trumbore
  • 20.5 Writing Process: Looking Back, Looking Forward
  • 20.6 Editing Focus: Pronouns
  • 20.7 Evaluation: Evaluating Self-Reflection
  • 20.8 Spotlight on … Pronouns in Context

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Articulate how research evidence and sources are key rhetorical concepts in presenting a position or an argument.
  • Locate and distinguish between primary and secondary research materials.
  • Implement methods and technologies commonly used for research and communication within various fields.

The writing tasks for this chapter and the next two chapters are based on argumentative research. However, not all researched evidence (data) is presented in the same genre. You may need to gather evidence for a poster, a performance, a story, an art exhibit, or even an architectural design. Although the genre may vary, you usually will be required to present a perspective , or viewpoint, about a debatable issue and persuade readers to support the “validity of your viewpoint,” as discussed in Position Argument: Practicing the Art of Rhetoric . Remember, too, that a debatable issue is one that has more than a single perspective and is subject to disagreement.

The Research Process

Although individual research processes are rhetorically situated, they share some common aspects:

  • Interest. The researcher has a genuine interest in the topic. It may be difficult to fake curiosity, but it is possible to develop it. Some academic assignments will allow you to pursue issues that are personally important to you; others will require you to dive into the research first and generate interest as you go.
  • Questions. The researcher asks questions. At first, these questions are general. However, as researchers gain more knowledge, the questions become more sharply focused. No matter what your research assignment is, begin by articulating questions, find out where the answers lead, and then ask still more questions.
  • Answers. The researcher seeks answers from people as well as from print and other media. Research projects profit when you ask knowledgeable people, such as librarians and other professionals, to help you answer questions or point you in directions to find answers. Information about research is covered more extensively in Research Process: Accessing and Recording Information and Annotated Bibliography: Gathering, Evaluating, and Documenting Sources .
  • Field research. The researcher conducts field research. Field research allows researchers not only to ask questions of experts but also to observe and experience directly. It allows researchers to generate original data. No matter how much other people tell you, your knowledge increases through personal observations. In some subject areas, field research is as important as library or database research. This information is covered more extensively in Research Process: Accessing and Recording Information .
  • Examination of texts. The researcher examines texts. Consulting a broad range of texts—such as magazines, brochures, newspapers, archives, blogs, videos, documentaries, or peer-reviewed journals—is crucial in academic research.
  • Evaluation of sources. The researcher evaluates sources. As your research progresses, you will double-check information to find out whether it is confirmed by more than one source. In informal research, researchers evaluate sources to ensure that the final decision is satisfactory. Similarly, in academic research, researchers evaluate sources to ensure that the final product is accurate and convincing. Previewed here, this information is covered more extensively in Research Process: Accessing and Recording Information .
  • Writing. The researcher writes. The writing during the research process can take a range of forms: from notes during library, database, or field work; to journal reflections on the research process; to drafts of the final product. In practical research, writing helps researchers find, remember, and explore information. In academic research, writing is even more important because the results must be reported accurately and thoroughly.
  • Testing and Experimentation. The researcher tests and experiments. Because opinions vary on debatable topics and because few research topics have correct or incorrect answers, it is important to test and conduct experiments on possible hypotheses or solutions.
  • Synthesis. The researcher synthesizes. By combining information from various sources, researchers support claims or arrive at new conclusions. When synthesizing, researchers connect evidence and ideas, both original and borrowed. Accumulating, sorting, and synthesizing information enables researchers to consider what evidence to use in support of a thesis and in what ways.
  • Presentation. The researcher presents findings in an interesting, focused, and well-documented product.

Types of Research Evidence

Research evidence usually consists of data, which comes from borrowed information that you use to develop your thesis and support your organizational structure and reasoning. This evidence can take a range of forms, depending on the type of research conducted, the audience, and the genre for reporting the research.

Primary Research Sources

Although precise definitions vary somewhat by discipline, primary data sources are generally defined as firsthand accounts, such as texts or other materials produced by someone drawing from direct experience or observation. Primary source documents include, but are not limited to, personal narratives and diaries; eyewitness accounts; interviews; original documents such as treaties, official certificates, and government documents detailing laws or acts; speeches; newspaper coverage of events at the time they occurred; observations; and experiments. Primary source data is, in other words, original and in some way conducted or collected primarily by the researcher. The Research Process: Where to Look for Existing Sources and Compiling Sources for an Annotated Bibliography contain more information on both primary and secondary sources.

Secondary Research Sources

Secondary sources , on the other hand, are considered at least one step removed from the experience. That is, they rely on sources other than direct observation or firsthand experience. Secondary sources include, but are not limited to, most books, articles online or in databases, and textbooks (which are sometimes classified as tertiary sources because, like encyclopedias and other reference works, their primary purpose might be to summarize or otherwise condense information). Secondary sources regularly cite and build upon primary sources to provide perspective and analysis. Effective use of researched evidence usually includes both primary and secondary sources. Works of history, for example, draw on a large range of primary and secondary sources, citing, analyzing, and synthesizing information to present as many perspectives of a past event in as rich and nuanced a way as possible.

It is important to note that the distinction between primary and secondary sources depends in part on their use: that is, the same document can be both a primary source and a secondary source. For example, if Scholar X wrote a biography about Artist Y, the biography would be a secondary source about the artist and, at the same time, a primary source about the scholar.

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The complete guide to writing a brilliant research paper

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The complete guide to writing a brilliant research paper

  • Find a curated list of 51 resources to write your research paper
  • Get access to 7 actionable video tutorials

Your one-stop resource  to writing a great research paper  

Writing a research paper is a challenging job for most of us --- from conceptualizing the paper, to breaking it down to its constituent parts, and finally, to referring to numerous other papers and books to get your own paper going --- it is daunting, to say the least. What it is not is, impossible! What follows is a step-by-step guide on how you can make your research paper a good read and improve the chances of your paper's acceptance: 

1. How to dive into the process of writing a research paper

Many a time, we are advised to start with a clean slate, or go Tabula Rasa! However, it isn’t always easy to make a fresh start. What you can do instead is to start on a creative note! How does one do that, you ask? By adopting a creative frame of mind! A research paper does not have to be seen as an exercise in writing turgid prose. You can start with an incident or an episode that links to your research topic. You can also start with a news item from history, to connect to your area of research. The sky is the limit when it comes to exploring such angles. If you’re jittery about sending out your paper for publication, worry not! Just ensure that you grab some eyeballs, while you bring out your creative side at the very start of diving deep into your research paper. What follows are the next steps that need to be taken in the process of writing your research paper: Originality is often what separates great research from mediocrity. How does one write an original research article? Here is some insight:  A young researcher’s guide to writing an original research article Writing a research paper Before embarking on the process of writing a paper, it is important to get all your doubts cleared. One query that we frequently receive was on the difference between a review and a research paper. Find out more here:  What is the difference between a research paper and a review paper ?

Another query some researchers have is this: What is the difference between a research proposal and a research paper? Did you know that Stuart Hall, the media and cultural theorist extraordinaire had published his work called ‘Keywords’? Keywords are often like SEO builders--Keywords help readers discover papers that are relevant to them and that they supplement the title? Here are some tips on how to write keywords:  How to create keywords for a research paper? Why do journals ask for keywords? How does one go about putting text onto paper or screen? Does this send shivers up your spine? Here are some practical tips on how to clock in some words per hour: Tackling the task of writing text If this is the first time you’re working on a scientific paper, here’s what you could do to put together a good one: 5 Practical tips for writing your first scientific paper

Outline of a research paper

It is always a useful endeavor to create an outline or inventory of the things that would go into your research paper. We have a ready reckoner on how you can do that. Watch this video for some excellent ideas:

Keep sub-topics and references ready 

Before you begin writing your paper, it is a good idea to collect an initial set of references to match the various topics and sub-topics to be covered in the paper. This way, you will not waste time balancing writing ideas and references, once you start writing. What should you be including as references in your paper? This is a query we received, and here’s our answer: What should be included as references in my paper? One of our readers asked us to help identify what a comprehensive citation list should include. Here’s how we responded: What does a comprehensive citation list include? Picture this: As part of preparing for your literature review, you have been reading a fascinating article that has some useful pointers for your work. The article cites some primary resources that you would like to use for your own work. How does one cite primary sources that one comes across in a secondary resource? Read on to find out: Should I cite the primary source if I have come across them in a secondary source Similarly, the article also has references that you would like to draw on. How does one go about this? Here’s what we have to say: How should I cite a reference that I found in a paper? Authorial responsibility in citing sources is an ethical aspect of publishing that all authors must understand well. Here’s a query that we received on this aspect of publishing: What is an author’s responsibility while citing sources? Is there a minimum or a maximum number of references that papers should have? Find out what the standard numbers of references in a paper are: What is the standard number of references a paper should have?

2. Getting the title of your research paper right

A good title grabs attention like none other. Make sure that your title is catchy and informative, all at once. Allow your title to pique your readers’ curiosity or even make a statement. Here are some easy-to-follow tips to come up with a great title for your research paper. 

Is it fair to judge a book by its cover? Unfortunately, that’s how most people decide if they’d like to read your article. Fortunately, there’s something you can do about it! Read on to read some basic tips on writing a good title for your research paper: 3 Basic tips on writing a good research paper title I hope you found the tips useful. Writing a good title for a research paper comprises a few basic steps as well. Here are a bunch of steps that you should follow to writing a good research paper title: 5 Simple steps to write a good research paper title

Let us round it off with some more quick tips with examples of getting the title of your research paper right: Quick tips to help you get the title of your research paper right

One of our readers sent in a query that is pertinent to all of us --- how to write the title and introduction to a research paper. Often, readers (including journal editors) read the title and the first passage and then decide whether they want to read any further. So, make sure your work grabs attention: Can you help me write the title and introduction of my research paper? A good title hits like a bullet, is descriptive, yet crisp. We also have a video to guide you through the process of creating a title for your research paper. Here goes:


3. Writing the abstract of your research paper

A good abstract is one that not only succinctly summarizes your paper but also eggs your readers to read on. It provides a broad overview of your paper in an easy-to-grasp manner. Here’s more on what your abstract should read like:

Writing an abstract is like giving a glimpse of your research paper in a short paragraph. What are the components that go into writing a good abstract? Here’s a 10-step guide to writing a good abstract: A 10-step guide to making your research paper abstract more effective Gone are the days when tough prose was the only way to express research work. With the coming of easy-to-use technology and innovative ways of explaining science, graphical and video abstracts are becoming increasingly popular. Find out more about innovative ways of putting together your abstract: The coming of age of the abstract in scientific writing Want to learn the secret to writing a great abstract for a research paper in 3 minutes? Here’s a video that unravels tips that you could make use of:

Often times, abstracts differ according to the broad field of study that you work in. One of our readers sent in a query about writing an abstract for a social sciences or humanities paper. Find out more on how you can tailor-make your abstract here: How to write the abstract for a social sciences or humanities paper? Is it possible for a research paper to be written without an abstract added to it? Here’s what our publication expert has to say: Can a paper be published without an abstract? Is there a fundamental difference between an abstract and a synopsis? How do they differ from each other? If you too are baffled like one of our readers was, read the response to this question: What is the difference between an abstract and a synopsis for a biological science research paper What are the ethics of converting a conference abstract and paper in two different journals? Is this an acceptable norm? Join in to read our reflections on this: Is it acceptable to publish a conference abstract and an article based on it in two different journals? Are you still unsure of the importance of writing an effective abstract? This case study will surely convince you: The need to write an effective abstract: A case study

4. How to structure an original research paper (IMRAD)

The IMRAD is a passkey to the structure and function of a good research paper. Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion --- these are the key components of a good paper.

What is the IMRAD structure and its components?

This 2-minute video tells you more about what each section of your paper should include and how the sections should be organized:

Have you felt too cluttered in your head and found it hard to grasp what you should focus on while writing your paper? Delineating the most important ideas and knowing which ideas go where is crucial for a good research paper. Here’s an excellent article to guide you on the IMRAD structure: How to convey your most important ideas through your paper The introductory abstract tells you the gist of the research paper, hooking you on to it but keeping the suspense alive: I want to write an introductory abstract before writing a manuscript. How do I go about it? How you write your introduction sets the tone of your paper. And the section that follows introduction is the one where you become all descriptive. For some great tips on writing the introduction and methods section to your paper, read on: The secret to writing the introduction and methods section of a manuscript Establishing the end result is extremely important once you’ve got the readers hooked on to your research paper. And what these results imply, what are the limitations of the study, etc. is what constitutes the discussion section. So the results and discussion section of your manuscript are as important as a good introduction and body: The secret to writing the results and discussion section of a manuscript

5. How is a research paper formatted

Formatting your research paper can help you present your research in an accessible, discernible manner. Formatting adds or takes away layers from your written work, and good formatting accentuates the key ideas of your paper.

Capturing research data is an art, be it in words or in an artwork. Tables and figures are often the more communicative of the mediums to establish facts, provide comparisons, or state data. Here are some tips on how to use tables and figures effectively: 

Tips on effective use of tables and figures in research papers As we have already attuned ourselves to various kinds of data representations, how do you zero in on the best format? Find out more here:

Choose the best format for presenting your research data

Do you find it difficult to present your data effectively in the form of tables and figures? We have some handy guidelines for you:

6 Easy guidelines for preparing tables and figures for a research manuscript

6. How should you reference your research paper?

Usually, referencing styles are prescribed by the journal or your place of submission. As you may already know, there are numerous referencing styles that help present the works you have referred to, in a concise, stylized manner.  

Which style should you pick for referencing?

There are numerous stylistic formats in which your research papers and writing can be drafted. The American Psychological Association (APA) is one among the many bodies which prescribe referencing formats for academic works. Here’s a link that allows you to understand what the APA style sheet is: How to cite a journal article using APA style? Have you comes across research works that involve more than one author? If the number of authors is above three, you would have noticed that the phrase ‘et al.’ is used. You would have wondered what the rules are around using the phrase. Here’s an article that sheds light on when and how you can use et al. Using et al for in-text citations in research papers You were just introduced to a style of referencing. You would have noticed that there are various editions of such referencing formats, prescribing the style sheet. How are the style manuals updated with every version? Find out more: How are style manuals updated If your research work has legends and illustrations, graphs and pictorial representations, how would you go about referencing them? Here’s a look at how major style guides advice on multiple illustrations: 4 Major style guides on labeling composite or multi-part illustrations We have some interesting comparison of the styles of scientific publishing in English and Chinese! Find out more here: The style of scientific manuscripts published in Chinese and English in addition to language is quite different Avoid grammar and writing mistakes in your writing Grasping citation styles is usually a matter of practice. How do you format an article using a particular style? Similarly, how do you steer clear of plagiarism by citing right? Read on to find out: How to format an article using APA style What citation style should I use to avoid unintentional plagiarism?

7. Avoid grammar and writing mistakes in your writing

Can you understand this sentence: “He telephoned asking me to come next Sunday today”? Language is the medium to convey your ideas to your readers, so writing an error-free paper is essential. A badly written paper could potentially lead to journal rejection. So here are some quick and easy tips to avoid grammar and writing related mistakes. Grammar eludes many authors. Should you or should you not add a comma after “etc.”? Read on to find out: Comma after etc. at the end of a sentence Did you write the paper or is the paper written by you? Confused? Active and passive voices are both right but should be used appropriately. Here’s what you should be using in research writing: Using the active and passive voice in research writing Is it alright to use ‘I’ when you write your research paper, or is it too informal and not scientific enough? Here is some guidance on that: Is it acceptable to use first-person pronouns in scientific writing Are all abbreviations Greek and Latin to you? Worry not, for our publication experts will tell you how you could use some Latin abbreviations in your research writing: Difference between eg., i.e., and namely A lot of times, journal guidelines prescribe word limits for papers, and we tend to overshoot. Is there a knack to reduce the length of your paper without altering the meaning too much? Read on: 10 Tips to reduce the length of your research paper What is the difference between the terms “gender” and “sex?” How should you use these terms when you write your research paper? Our experts weigh in: Should I use the word sex or gender in my scientific research paper? Here’s a quick look at how you can use commas, brackets, and dashes when you write your research paper: Quick tips on using commas, brackets, and dashes in a research paper Writing clearly and crisply is half the battle won. But research writing process is fraught with difficulties since many researchers feel compelled to use jargon. Here are some tips on writing in simple and clear language: 5 Steps to simplifying the language in research communication Let us round those tips off with an article for you on improving academic writing: Language tips to improve academic writing  

8. How to keep your paper away from unethical practices

Ethics are an integral aspect of research, so it is extremely important that your research and writing are rooted in good ethical practices. Read on to find out more about how we address ethics in research: If you are unaware of publication ethics, without  intending to plagiarize, you may accidentally stumble into the trap of plagiarism. This is called accidental plagiarism. Authors who struggle with writing in English too fall prey to this. Plagiarism is often career-wrecking and can bring disrepute and shame. It is best to avoid any remote possibilities of accidental plagiarism. Here’s how you can do that in 5 easy steps:

Find out an experienced journal editor’s views on what constitutes plagiarism, and how you can be wary of this unethical practice:

So you decided to write a research paper drawing on your previous work. Are there any pitfalls here? There may be if you decide to copy parts of your previous paper. To avoid self-plagiarism, follow the guidelines below: What’s the big deal about self-plagiarism Is there a way of avoiding plagiarism? Well, yes! Paraphrase what you read and reference it clearly. Here is a great video on how you could paraphrase English text effectively:

Is paraphrasing necessary at all? What if you quote the original text, and then cite it? Would that amount to plagiarism? If you have these questions, then you should read what our experts have to say: Is it plagiarism if I use the same words as the original text but cite the source?

We hope our effort in putting together a curation on the norms and ways of academic and research writing helps you in tackling your everyday tryst with the world of academia and research and helps you in your journey to getting published in an international journal. Do drop us a message on what else you’d like covered extensively like this, and we’ll make sure it happens. Onwards, to write!

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How to Read a Research Paper – A Guide to Setting Research Goals, Finding Papers to Read, and More

If you work in a scientific field, you should try to build a deep and unbiased understanding of that field. This not only educates you in the best possible way but also helps you envision the opportunities in your space.

A research paper is often the culmination of a wide range of deep and authentic practices surrounding a topic. When writing a research paper, the author thinks critically about the problem, performs rigorous research, evaluates their processes and sources, organizes their thoughts, and then writes. These genuinely-executed practices make for a good research paper.

If you’re struggling to build a habit of reading papers (like I am) on a regular basis, I’ve tried to break down the whole process. I've talked to researchers in the field, read a bunch of papers and blogs from distinguished researchers, and jotted down some techniques that you can follow.

Let’s start off by understanding what a research paper is and what it is NOT!

What is a Research Paper?

A research paper is a dense and detailed manuscript that compiles a thorough understanding of a problem or topic. It offers a proposed solution and further research along with the conditions under which it was deduced and carried out, the efficacy of the solution and the research performed, and potential loopholes in the study.

A research paper is written not only to provide an exceptional learning opportunity but also to pave the way for further advancements in the field. These papers help other scholars germinate the thought seed that can either lead to a new world of ideas or an innovative method of solving a longstanding problem.

What Research Papers are NOT

There is a common notion that a research paper is a well-informed summary of a problem or topic written by means of other sources.

But you shouldn't mistake it for a book or an opinionated account of an individual’s interpretation of a particular topic.

Why Should You Read Research Papers?

What I find fascinating about reading a good research paper is that you can draw on a profound study of a topic and engage with the community on a new perspective to understand what can be achieved in and around that topic.

I work at the intersection of instructional design and data science. Learning is part of my day-to-day responsibilities. If the source of my education is flawed or inefficient, I’d fail at my job in the long term. This applies to many other jobs in Science with a special focus on research.

There are three important reasons to read a research paper:

  • Knowledge —  Understanding the problem from the eyes of someone who has probably spent years solving it and has taken care of all the edge cases that you might not think of at the beginning.
  • Exploration —  Whether you have a pinpointed agenda or not, there is a very high chance that you will stumble upon an edge case or a shortcoming that is worth following up. With persistent efforts over a considerable amount of time, you can learn to use that knowledge to make a living.
  • Research and review —  One of the main reasons for writing a research paper is to further the development in the field. Researchers read papers to review them for conferences or to do a literature survey of a new field. For example, Yann LeCun’ s paper on integrating domain constraints into backpropagation set the foundation of modern computer vision back in 1989. After decades of research and development work, we have come so far that we're now perfecting problems like object detection and optimizing autonomous vehicles.

Not only that, with the help of the internet, you can extrapolate all of these reasons or benefits onto multiple business models. It can be an innovative state-of-the-art product, an efficient service model, a content creator, or a dream job where you are solving problems that matter to you.

Goals for Reading a Research Paper — What Should You Read About?

The first thing to do is to figure out your motivation for reading the paper. There are two main scenarios that might lead you to read a paper:

  • Scenario 1 —  You have a well-defined agenda/goal and you are deeply invested in a particular field. For example, you’re an NLP practitioner and you want to learn how GPT-4 has given us a breakthrough in NLP. This is always a nice scenario to be in as it offers clarity.
  • Scenario 2 —  You want to keep abreast of the developments in a host of areas, say how a new deep learning architecture has helped us solve a 50-year old biological problem of understanding protein structures. This is often the case for beginners or for people who consume their daily dose of news from research papers (yes, they exist!).

If you’re an inquisitive beginner with no starting point in mind, start with scenario 2. Shortlist a few topics you want to read about until you find an area that you find intriguing. This will eventually lead you to scenario 1.

ML Reproducibility Challenge

In addition to these generic goals, if you need an end goal for your habit-building exercise of reading research papers, you should check out the ML reproducibility challenge.


You’ll find top-class papers from world-class conferences that are worth diving deep into and reproducing the results.

They conduct this challenge twice a year and they have one coming up in Spring 2021. You should study the past three versions of the challenge, and I’ll write a detailed post on what to expect, how to prepare, and so on.

Now you must be wondering – how can you find the right paper to read?

How to Find the Right Paper to Read

In order to get some ideas around this, I reached out to my friend, Anurag Ghosh who is a researcher at Microsoft. Anurag has been working at the crossover of computer vision, machine learning, and systems engineering.


Here are a few of his tips for getting started:

  • Always pick an area you're interested in.
  • Read a few good books or detailed blog posts on that topic and start diving deep by reading the papers referenced in those resources.
  • Look for seminal papers around that topic. These are papers that report a major breakthrough in the field and offer a new method perspective with a huge potential for subsequent research in that field. Check out papers from the morning paper or C VF - test of time award/Helmholtz prize (if you're interested in computer vision).
  • Check out books like Computer Vision: Algorithms and Applications by Richard Szeliski and look for the papers referenced there.
  • Have and build a sense of community. Find people who share similar interests, and join groups/subreddits/discord channels where such activities are promoted.

In addition to these invaluable tips, there are a number of web applications that I’ve shortlisted that help me narrow my search for the right papers to read:

  • r/MachineLearning  — there are many researchers, practitioners, and engineers who share their work along with the papers they've found useful in achieving those results.


  • Arxiv Sanity Preserver  — built by Andrej Karpathy to accelerate research. It is a repository of 142,846 papers from computer science, machine learning, systems, AI, Stats, CV, and so on. It also offers a bunch of filters, powerful search functionality, and a discussion forum to make for a super useful research platform.


  • Google Research  — the research teams at Google are working on problems that have an impact on our everyday lives. They share their publications for individuals and teams to learn from, contribute to, and expedite research. They also have a Google AI blog that you can check out.


How to Read a Research Paper

After you have stocked your to-read list, then comes the process of reading these papers. Remember that NOT every paper is useful to read and we need a mechanism that can help us quickly screen papers that are worth reading.

To tackle this challenge, you can use this Three-Pass Approach by S. Keshav . This approach proposes that you read the paper in three passes instead of starting from the beginning and diving in deep until the end.

The three pass approach

  • The first pass —  is a quick scan to capture a high-level view of the paper. Read the title, abstract, and introduction carefully followed by the headings of the sections and subsections and lastly the conclusion. It should take you no more than 5–10 mins to figure out if you want to move to the second pass.
  • The second pass —  is a more focused read without checking for the technical proofs. You take down all the crucial notes, underline the key points in the margins. Carefully study the figures, diagrams, and illustrations. Review the graphs, mark relevant unread references for further reading. This helps you understand the background of the paper.
  • The third pass —  reaching this pass denotes that you’ve found a paper that you want to deeply understand or review. The key to the third pass is to reproduce the results of the paper. Check it for all the assumptions and jot down all the variations in your re-implementation and the original results. Make a note of all the ideas for future analysis. It should take 5–6 hours for beginners and 1–2 hours for experienced readers.

Tools and Software to Keep Track of Your Pipeline of Papers

If you’re sincere about reading research papers, your list of papers will soon grow into an overwhelming stack that is hard to keep track of. Fortunately, we have software that can help us set up a mechanism to manage our research.

Here are a bunch of them that you can use:

  • Mendeley [not free]  — you can add papers directly to your library from your browser, import documents, generate references and citations, collaborate with fellow researchers, and access your library from anywhere. This is mostly used by experienced researchers.


  • Zotero [free & open source] —  Along the same lines as Mendeley but free of cost. You can make use of all the features but with limited storage space.


  • Notion —  this is great if you are just starting out and want to use something lightweight with the option to organize your papers, jot down notes, and manage everything in one workspace. It might not stand anywhere in comparison with the above tools but I personally feel comfortable using Notion and I have created this board to keep track of my progress for now that you can duplicate:


⚠️ Symptoms of Reading a Research Paper

Reading a research paper can turn out to be frustrating, challenging, and time-consuming especially when you’re a beginner. You might face the following common symptoms:

  • You might start feeling dumb for not understanding a thing a paper says.
  • Finding yourself pushing too hard to understand the math behind those proofs.
  • Beating your head against the wall to wrap it around the number of acronyms used in the paper. Just kidding, you’ll have to look up those acronyms every now and then.
  • Being stuck on one paragraph for more than an hour.

Here’s a complete list of emotions that you might undergo as explained by Adam Ruben in this article .

Key Takeaways

We should be all set to dive right in. Here’s a quick summary of what we have covered here:

  • A research paper is an in-depth study that offers an detailed explanation of a topic or problem along with the research process, proofs, explained results, and ideas for future work.
  • Read research papers to develop a deep understanding of a topic/problem. Then you can either review papers as part of being a researcher, explore the domain and the kind of problems to build a solution or startup around it, or you can simply read them to keep abreast of the developments in your domain of interest.
  • If you’re a beginner, start with exploration to soon find your path to goal-oriented research.
  • In order to find good papers to read, you can use websites like arxiv-sanity, google research, and subreddits like r/MachineLearning.
  • Reading approach — Use the 3-pass method to find a paper.
  • Keep track of your research, notes, developments by using tools like Zotero/Notion.
  • This can get overwhelming in no time. Make sure you start off easy and increment your load progressively.

Remember: Art is not a single method or step done over a weekend but a process of accomplishing remarkable results over time.

You can also watch the video on this topic on my YouTube channel :

Feel free to respond to this blog or comment on the video if you have some tips, questions, or thoughts!

If this tutorial was helpful, you should check out my data science and machine learning courses on Wiplane Academy . They are comprehensive yet compact and helps you build a solid foundation of work to showcase.

Web and Data Science Consultant | Instructional Design

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The Traditional Research Paper Is Best

from Bad Ideas about Writing

Alexandria Lockett

To understand the research paper and its contemporary significance, we must acknowledge how the Internet makes the process of research and of writing research much more complex. A vast majority of Internet users use the web and social media multiple times per day. Long gone are the days when one major function of the research paper was to bring students into contact with libraries. Today’s students need to also know how to navigate the Internet—a vast digital source of information whose system architecture affects the work of teaching and research.

Typically, a first-year college student’s research paper assignment might require 5–10 sources, whereas advanced students are probably asked to cite no more than 30 sources. These figures  may stem from research concerns that emerged during an entirely different technological history. This number makes sense if we consider the physical labor involved in visiting the library, communicating with a librarian, finding the card catalog, writing down serial numbers, walking up several flights of stairs, locating the correct stack, browsing the stack, and using a step stool to reach the source in question—rinse and repeat. These spatio-temporal aspects of composing a research paper most likely affected source selection. For example, some textbook writers used to complain about how research papers often lacked primary sources and relied on questionable secondary materials despite physical libraries’ numerous resources.

The number of sources a paper should include remains an essential guideline that defines the research paper, which affects how students prioritize their efforts. Most college students will  not have to worry about physically setting foot in a library building to meet the research paper’s quantitative source requirement. In fact, finding the number of sources is the easiest part for student writers, because a broad search will take less than one full second to retrieve millions and millions of sources on any given subject.

Of course, finding sources may be easy, but strategically incorporating them into an argument may seem impossible to today’s writers. How could any teacher reasonably expect a student to come up with a thesis when they are seconds away from an uncountable selection of sources and communities of knowledge? What incentive does any researcher have to make new ideas in the data deluge? When almost anything that can be conceived is searchable via the Internet, what is the researcher really responsible for? Verifying data? Deliberating about its significance? Informing their social media networks?

Unfortunately, the labor involved in researching  and  using  the Internet for research tends to be ignored. Instructors may underestimate the nuances of popular databases and overestimate students’ frequent use of databases as competency. However, Internet research really is a lot of work. Researching “the research paper” via Google, Google News, and Google Scholar retrieves almost 19,000,000 results. Unaccompanied by quotes, the number of results exceeds one billion. Without awareness of the importance of Boolean logic, or operators that affect the scale of results, a researcher may find herself drowning in data. When plugged into proprietary databases available to most college and university students such as Proquest, JSTOR, ScienceDirect, and Academic Search Complete, the research paper displays several thousands of sources per database.

Consuming data dumps, whether  by  the  dozens,  hundreds, or thousands, would take decades to read, summarize, annotate, interpret, and analyze. These processes do not include the creative task of evaluating the patterns between data or learning more about the backgrounds, values, and beliefs of their authors—all of which were easy to take for granted when working with a limited number of print sources. Therefore, the 21st-century politics of research is defined by the problem of scope. There is simply too much information.

Although traditional research papers undoubtedly address the problem of how to evaluate and integrate sources, a contemporary first-year college writing student will probably be sensitive to her limitations as a single writer. What kind of original contribution can teachers reasonably expect the average high school or college student to create that they can’t instantly access via the Internet?  It hardly seems appropriate, or fair, to ask any student, regardless of classification, to wade through oceanic swaths of online data for the purposes of making an original contribution, as a single author, to some public policy debate or academic discipline.

Moreover, there are few incentives to ethically conduct research when the paper is taught as a bureaucratic necessity of the high school or college experience. I could wax poetic about the joys of discovery and the wonderment of wandering aimlessly through scholarly work, but the research paper does not tend to encourage this openness. Students may believe that if they include a certain number of sources of a particular kind, and use the instructor’s preferred documentation style, that their research paper will be successful. Too often this simplistic approach is mistaken for laziness. But, most people cannot  handle  the  chore of deciphering the data deluge. Plagiarism, then, becomes a major effect of the Internet’s causal effect on teaching and learning the research paper.

Thousands, if not millions, of students will use Google and Wikipedia as first steps towards plagiarizing work—plunging into an abyss of boredom or cultivating their curiosity about a subject. Their teachers will obediently, and sometimes zealously, police plagiarism with the assistance of Google’s robust search engines and Turnitin. Both the student and teacher will use social media to talk about their frustrations and joys in real-time. The student’s plagiarism will most certainly deserve a status update, some likes, and perhaps some comments. The teacher’s  boring  instruction and the difficulty of the assignment will end up discussed in text messages, and who knows which social media platforms or blogs. At worst, the student will complain about it to RateMyProfessor. com or in the teacher’s evaluations.  These  examples  illustrate that the Internet and mobile technologies extend the reach of the research paper far beyond classrooms and institutions. In fact, Research 2.0 converges with offline human activity, extending its causal force across several media, very much affecting real life.

The Research Paper 2.0

The entire Internet user experience is embedded in knowledge economies, which impact how people learn. For example, Internet users’ attention is managed and directed by large private corporations like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and their partnerships and affiliations with the handful of multinational conglomerates that produce and own the media. The data collection practices and design of these companies’ websites direct users’ attention, which affects their research skills. The same Internet users will also participate in the development of revolutionary open-source, collaborative archives like Wikipedia, which models an unprecedented effort in collective intelligence.

By virtue of accessing and using the Internet, its users are researchers. As a landscape of big data, the Internet’s primary purpose is to facilitate research and its subsequent acts of storing, producing, and retrieving huge amounts of information (as it was when it was conceived at CERN). Unfortunately, the Internet’s global multidisciplinary, multi-sector, and multi-generational history and culture are largely unknown by most contemporary students—even though they interact with it every single day. Thus, the research paper in contemporary web settings should be designed to directly address any of the technological politics of blended learning and emerging technologies.

At best, research papers 2.0 will encourage students and instructors to reflect on how the Internet and its complex networked features mediate their research and writing process. Specifically, research 2.0 might include a much stronger emphasis on collaborative and professional writing. Students may organize online writing groups via Google+ or LinkedIn based on their topical interests to provide evidence of their ability to lead and contribute to a team. They might also contribute to crowdsourced, annotated bibliographies of paper mill websites to help the school’s integrity office, or participate in one of the Wikipedia edit-a-thons sponsored by Art + Feminism. Research 2.0—be it delivered through a paper, ePortfolio, Wikipedia, or Prezi—might include ethical evaluations of research scandals, the legality of citizen surveillance footage of police brutality, and a comparative analysis of big data websites like Data.gov or WikiLeaks.com. But not all of its topics need to be digitally themed, but it can and should use digital technologies and resources to refresh what the research paper can do in the 21st century.

One of research paper 2.0’s primary objectives should be bringing students into contact with research communities that synergize online experiences with offline social events. Towards this end, Wikipedia is an ideal space for (and subject of) research in 2.0 because it has been a subject associated with research writing conduct for over a decade. Most students’ experience with Wikipedia and academic writing is that its use is strictly forbidden.

When it is cited as a source in a research paper, teachers are annoyed or infuriated because they can’t understand why students don’t know better. Regardless of how much suspicion surrounds the veracity of Wikipedians’ knowledge, every Internet user consults this  information  resource.  Furthermore,  students  and   teach- ers would have a much different experience with Wikipedia, and research, if students understood the site from the perspective of   its editors. Thus, the Wiki Education Foundation, an affiliate of  the Wikimedia Foundation—the  non-profit  organization  that runs Wikipedia among several other projects—has made strong attempts to connect Wikipedia to educational institutions through their Wikiedu.org platform.

Due to technological, and thus pedagogical limitations, the traditional research paper is incapable of translating the affordances of research writing to online environments. Therefore, research 2.0 should respond to the significance of human interaction with the Internet and the politics of big data. We live in a superabundance of learning spaces, and thus, infinite possibilities for research. However, few educational institutions and disciplines are cultivating the technical, scientific, and artistic competencies necessary for editing, navigating, and managing the Internet’s infinite retrieval mechanisms. When students are taught how to  recognize  that they have the power to diversify Internet content with high-quality research, the research paper 2.0 could play a major role in balancing the dynamics of knowledge production between traditional institutions and emerging media.

Further Reading

To learn more about how the purpose and genre of the American research paper has changed since the late 19th century, see John Scott Clark’s A Briefer Practical Rhetoric . Also important is Robert Morell Schmitz’s Preparing the Research Paper, A Handbook for Undergraduates. Additionally, Cecile Williams and Allan Stevenson’s A Research Manual and Florence Hilbish’s The Research Paper show that the research paper continued to be the central subject of writing manuals and textbooks throughout the mid-20th century.

For more information about the popularity of  the  research  paper assignment, as well as teacher training in  the  genre,  see James E. Ford and Dennis R. Perry’s Research Paper Instruction in the Undergraduate Writing Program , and Rethinking the Research Paper , writ- ten by Bruce Ballenger. Robert Davis and Mark Shadle’s Building a Mystery: Alternative Research Writing and the Academic Act of Seeking also discusses non-traditional approaches to research writing.

Researchers Tere Vaden and Juha Suoranta have critically evaluated some of the ways in which educators ought to make sense  of the politics of making information in Web 2.0 contexts in their book Wikiworld . In addition, for information on how researchers are measuring data and its volume, the following studies may be useful: “UC San Diego Experts Calculate How Much Information Americans Consume”; J.E. Short, R.E. Bohn, & C. Baru’s study, “How much information”; and Martin Hilbert’s “How to Measure ‘How Much Information?’ Theoretical, Methodological, and Statistical Challenges for the Social Sciences.”

Alexandria Lockett is an assistant professor of English at Spelman College. Her areas of applied expertise include technical and professional writing, teaching with technology, and writing program administration, with research interests in digital history, new media, surveillance, social movements, discourse theory, transdisciplinary communication, and cultural rhetoric. In the capacities of tutor, mentor, editor, career assistant, administrator, and instructor, she’s worked with diverse groups of college writers representing all classification levels including multilingual (ESL), first-generation, and students from underrepresented and diverse backgrounds at the University of Oklahoma and Pennsylvania State University. Her twitter handle is @MzJaneNova. Her public portfolio link is www.alexandrialockett.com

The Traditional Research Paper Is Best Copyright © 2019 by Alexandria Lockett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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The Essence of Authenticity

Olaf dammann.

1 Liesenfeld Research Institute, Boston, MA, United States

2 Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, MA, United States

3 Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics, Hannover Medical School, Hannover, Germany

Katja M. Friederichs

4 Department of Differential Psychology, University of Trier, Trier, Germany

Sabine Lebedinski

5 Institute of Psychology, University of Osnabrück, Osnabrück, Germany

Kerstin M. Liesenfeld

Associated data.

The original contributions presented in the study are included in the article/supplementary material, further inquiries can be directed to the corresponding author.

In this paper, we build upon the model of authenticity proposed by Lehman and colleagues, which includes the dimensions consistency, conformity, and connection. We expand this “3C-view” by adding a fourth dimension, continuity, which results in what we have come to call “4C-view of authenticity.” We discuss our proposal from a process perspective and emphasize that congruence might be a reasonable candidate for a concept that unifies the four dimensions of authenticity.


In a recent review article, Lehman and colleagues write about authenticity in the context of management studies ( Lehman et al., 2019 ). Their point of departure is their perception that the term “authenticity” refers to what is real, genuine, or true. In contrast to this, Lehman and coauthors outline their perspective of authenticity as dependent on the referent of the term. In keeping with other recent publications motivated by a “lack of definitional clarity” ( Newman, 2019 , p. 8), they outline different meanings the term can have in different contexts and ask what we are talking about when we talk about something or someone authentic.

Obviously, this semantic heterogeneity has its disadvantages, of which Lehman et al. (2019) emphasize two: the difficulties it brings for scholarly discourse and the possibility of “missing the big picture” ( Lehman et al., 2019 , p. 2). In order to overcome these hurdles, the authors propose a conceptual framework that rests on three different “meanings” of authenticity: authenticity as consistency, as conformity, and as connection.

In brief, authenticity as consistency is the congruous relationship between an entity’s external characteristics and its internal values. Authenticity as conformity is a congruous relationship between an entity and its social norms. Authenticity as connection is the congruence between an entity and “a person, place, or time as claimed” ( Lehman et al., 2019 , p. 3). We deliberately use the terms congruence and congruous in all three definitions because we propose in this paper that congruence is the essence of authenticity . In general, we use these terms in keeping with Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition for congruous , “being in agreement, harmony, or correspondence” ( Congruous, 2020 ). We think that all three of Lehman and coworkers’ interpretations of authenticity encompass some form of congruence: a particular congruous relationship between an entity and characteristics of itself, between an entity and its social context, and between an entity and another one, respectively.

We think of authenticity not as a static concept, but as a developmental process, as subject to change. Consequently, we suggest that besides the above three “C’s,” there is a fourth “C,” a fourth meaning of authenticity as continuity . The continuity perspective captures the developmental character of authenticity, the ever-changing relationships between an individual and himself/herself, others, and the social norms his/her life is embedded in. These relationships are different across the lifespan; they are different for the same person as a child, adolescent or adult. Hence, authenticity as continuity describes the congruous relationship between an entity and features of development and, therefore, captures the evolving nature of authenticity. Going beyond the static view of authenticity allows for inherent changes in authenticity over time and places a greater emphasis on becoming authentic instead of being authentic. Thus, authenticity as continuity combines a dynamic connection between static and process characteristics of authenticity, which in turn makes authenticity more of an on-going project instead of something that can be achieved.

Based on these considerations, we define authenticity as “the process of being in a congruous relationship with self, others, and relevant social norms.” Thus defined, we restrict our discussion to authenticity as a concept that can be applied at both the level of the individual as well as at the level of the collective (community and population). In this paper, we first briefly review Lehman et al.’s (2019) view of authenticity as consistency, conformity, and connection (henceforth, “3C-view” of authenticity). Then, we propose the addition of a fourth C, continuity (4C-view). Next, we explore and propose congruence as the essence of authenticity. Finally, we discuss advantages and disadvantages of our proposal.

The 3C-View of Authenticity

Lehman et al. (2019) tackle the problem of multiple interpretability of the term “authenticity.” The paper appeared in Academy of Management Annals and is, therefore, written from an economics and management perspective. In this section, we outline their discussion and argument step-by-step.

The authors’ 3C-View emerges from three guiding questions that address the referent, the target, and the audience of authenticity. First, they argue that in order to capture the meaning of authenticity one has to know who or what is the reference point to assess authenticity, which can be either inside (i.e., the entity itself) or outside of the entity (e.g., social category) that is judged. Second, the meaning of authenticity also depends on who or what the judgment of authenticity is directed to, meaning who or what the entity in itself is (e.g., individuals, organizations, brands, and objects etc.). Lastly, the audience that makes the authenticity judgment should be considered, and whether the audience is congruent with the entity (e.g., the self) or different (e.g., consumers judging authenticity of a product). The concept of authenticity as consistency was derived from classical philosophical works by the ancient Greeks and the existentialist movement (see Lehman et al., 2019 ). Here, the referent and target are the same (i.e., the entity) and hence authenticity is judged by the congruous relationship between external characteristic and internal representations of values and beliefs of the entity. An entity is primarily considered an individual in this conceptualization. The audience that judges on the congruence can be congruent with the entity (i.e., the alignment of an individual’s internal representations with his/her behavior leads to a feeling of authenticity or inauthenticity) or different (i.e., the perception of someone’s behavior being aligned with his/her assumed inner representations). However, in both cases the interpretative nature of authenticity is very subjective, as internal representations cannot be measured objectively, but are rather dependent on subjective feelings, or estimates from the perceived characteristics. Definitions in this conceptualization of authenticity reflect these two major aspects for alignment: the understanding of one’s true self (i.e., internal representation) and behaving and interacting accordingly (i.e., external characteristics; e.g., Goldman and Kernis, 2002 ; Harter, 2002 ; Kernis and Goldman, 2005 , 2006 ; Wood et al., 2008 ). This conceptualization is informed by research themes around self-concept ( Kraus et al., 2011 ), self-representation ( Walumbwa et al., 2008 ; Hochschild, 2012 ) and organizational as well as brand identity ( Beverland, 2005 ; Hatch and Schultz, 2017 ; Lehman et al., 2019 ).

Understanding the meaning of authenticity as conformity is embedded in cognitive psychology on schemas and work in sociology on institutional categories (for a brief overview see Lehman et al., 2019 ). Here, the referent lies outside of the entity (i.e., the social category). The target of the authenticity judgment, i.e., the entity, is either an individual (e.g., a musician creates music that is congruous with their genre; a leader with a specific leadership style and their actions are congruous with expectations of that category) or an object (e.g., a restaurant that serves cuisine that is congruous with the restaurant’s theme). Thus, authenticity is assessed by the congruous relationship between the entity and the social category that serves as a referent. The audience that judges on the congruence can be the entity itself or outside of the entity using categories and classifications to locate and evaluate authenticity. They can even act jointly to determine how authentic an entity is (e.g., people rate authenticity of a restaurant by evaluating who dines at that restaurant). As referent and target can both be captured objectively, the interpretative nature is much more objective than in the previous evaluation of authenticity. Yet, according to the authors, it still has subjective elements, as humans define and perceive social categories, and therefore there are some variabilities depending on the audience. In this conceptualization, the referent is dynamic as it is defined by members of the specific category, as they determine the norms and expectations the entity is subject to. Therefore, authenticity is subject to change according to the evolvement of a social category. Authenticity thus conceived “… reflects a concern with correct classification” (Davies, 2001, p. 203; citation in Lehman et al., 2019 , p. 14). This conceptualization of authenticity is informed by research themes around category membership ( Kovács et al., 2014 ) and reinterpretation ( Negro et al., 2011 ; Lehman et al., 2019 ).

The last conceptualization according to the 3C-view is authenticity as a connection , which is derived from work both in psychological essentialism and semiotics ( Lehman et al., 2019 ). Here, the referent is outside of the entity and is identified as a point of connection to a specific origin (i.e., person, place, or time). The target of the authenticity is mainly considered an object (e.g., artwork, clothing, and jewelry). Authenticity is judged by the congruence of the entity and the spatial and/or temporal distance to a specific outside criterion. The audience that judges the authenticity is equally outside of the entity and either relies on expert knowledge (e.g., an authentic Picasso painting is defined by certain criteria) or is the expert in itself (e.g., a connoisseur), which in turn makes the interpretation of authenticity highly objective. This conceptualization is informed by research themes around provenance ( Dutton, 2003 ), transference ( Grayson and Martinec, 2004 ) and symbolism ( Leigh, 2006 ; see also Lehman et al., 2019 for an in depth review).

The 4C-View of Authenticity

While the 3C-view reflects the complexity of authenticity, it does not capture the developmental aspect of authenticity. Thus, we propose a fourth “C”: authenticity as continuity . This view takes a process perspective : it captures the developmental process of authenticity. This perspective goes hand in hand with the remarks on authenticity of Peterson (2005) who characterized the term “authenticity work,” stating that individuals continuously work on appearing and remaining authentic and thus derived that authenticity “[…] is subject to continual change” ( Peterson, 2005 , p. 1086). Moreover, Koole and Kuhl (2003) hold that a chronic fixation (i.e., being static in authenticity) is rather suboptimal, as a dynamic change in affect and temporary alienation are relevant to allow for self-development and “optimal functioning sometimes requires active suppression of the authentic self […]” ( Koole and Kuhl, 2003 , p. 46). We think that the study of the variability of authenticity expressions over time, both intra-and inter-individually, will be as relevant to personality psychology research as is the variability of other behavioral characteristics. In particular, conceiving of expressions of authenticity as density distributions over time ( Fleeson, 2001 ) might be one fruitful way of looking at the continuity dimension of authenticity.

Several considerations are important when thinking of authenticity as continuity. First , authenticity is established through repeated self-assessment. An individual has to continuously evaluate whether he/she considers himself/herself being authentic or not. This involves constantly seeking “one’s truth of […] feelings and desires” ( Krause, 2017 , p. 5f) and reflecting critically on them in order to evolve authentically. Second , in a process, change abounds. Therefore, there are no characteristics of authenticity that are constantly fixed. Everything moves and is always subject to change. This requires the ongoing evaluation and re-evaluation of these ever-changing characteristics with the question in mind whether they fit the then current perception of authenticity. This resonates with the reflections of education researcher Pauline E. Leonard, who wrote about navigating the road of authenticity that “[b]ecoming authentic is a process, a journey, not an end in itself; it is an inner and outer journey and requires a continual examination of one’s multiple identities within the context of the communities in which one lives, works, and interacts” ( Leonard, 2005 , p. 7f). Third , with each change, the question comes up whether the continuity of authenticity is interrupted. It is difficult, but not impossible, to define breakage points where someone considers himself/herself authentic before and non-authentic after such point if the characteristics of authenticity are constantly changing. For example, traumatic events may cause an interruption in authenticity. Quade et al. (2019) examined in a qualitative study about scapegoating – a term that describes actively deflecting the blame received for one’s own failures by blaming others – how this traumatic event left it challenging for female leaders to remain authentic. In their qualitative study, all participants experienced an incongruence between their self-image and the image their audience had of them ( Quade et al., 2019 ). Fourth , every process has a beginning and an end. It seems clear that the authenticity process does not begin at birth due to the intellectual requirements of the person to self-evaluate. The endpoint of the process is hard to determine and is probably only individually defined, perhaps just like all of the process. One could argue that certain illnesses, such as dementia, can lead to an assessment of an endpoint, whereas authenticity is no longer experienced or perceived. Yet as the mental state of people with dementia is fluctuating, it could be considered more as a fading of authenticity rather than an actual end point of authenticity (see also Holm, 2001 ).

The concept of authenticity as continuity can be viewed in light of the work of modern philosophers, such as Parfit (1984) , who addressed moral, personal identity, and normative ethics. In keeping with our outline of the 3 C’s, we apply to the 4th C (authenticity as continuity) the same three guiding questions, considering the referent, the target, and the audience of authenticity. Here, the referent is considered the feature of development over time (e.g., typical development). The target of the identity judgment, i.e., the entity, is mostly considered an individual but can also be an object (e.g., a company), a community, or even a population. Therefore, authenticity is assessed by the congruous relationship between the entity and the feature of development over time that serves as a referent. The audience that judges on the congruence can be the entity itself or reside outside of the entity, who either rely on expert knowledge on features of development or the “gut feeling” of how oneself or others stay true to their path of development. While the former can be considered rather objective, the latter is very subjective since internal representations cannot be measured objectively, but are rather dependent on subjective feelings, or on inferences based on perceived characteristics. This conceptualization is informed by research themes that revolve around personality development, subjective sense of self, and individual values ( Kuhl, 2001 , 2020 ; Newman, 2019 ; Urminsky and Bartels, 2019 ).

Taken together, our extension of Lehman’s 3C-view of authenticity provides a comprehensive model of authenticity, henceforth called 4C-Model of authenticity ( Table 1 ). The 4C-model allows for a more complete, inclusive, and integrated understanding of authenticity. Moreover, the model reveals interesting relations among the different characteristics of authenticity.

The 3-Cs proposed by Lehman et al. (2019) and the fourth C proposed in this paper.

Dimensions are explained by referent and by example.

All four Cs are relational in that they either relate different kinds of characteristics of one individual or entity to each other (C1, C4) or characteristics of an individual or entity to something external (C2, C3; Figure 1 ). All four Cs are arranged so that these two axes of authenticity relations self-self (green) and self-world (red) form the diagonals (1,4) and (2,3), respectively. What all four kinds of relationship have in common is that the relation is congruous.

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The 4-C model of authenticity with personal axis (green diagonal) and social axis (red diagonal) displayed in juxtaposition.

The personal axis refers to the congruence of internal values and external characteristics (C1) and the congruence of the individual’s personal development with what is expected to be typical in their community (C4). The social axis refers to the congruence of the individual and the social norms of their community (C2) and the congruence of the individual and their social position (C3).

Congruence as the Essence of Authenticity

In this section we explicate what we mean when we use the term congruence in our present context. We also outline why we think that congruence is the essence of authenticity .

The Latin origin of the word, congruere , means to come together , to fit in , to correspond , or to agree . We see things or aspects as congruous or congruent when we see fit . When characteristics that form or represent the relata of C–relationships go well together , we consider them congruous. What does that mean, to go well together? Let us consider a few examples pertinent to C1, consistency.

First, it should be possible to assess (evaluate) the relata and their relationship. We cannot establish congruence if we cannot make up our mind about the meaning of relata in and of themselves, as well as for each other. In terms of consistency (C1), what are we talking about when we talk about external features and internal values? We need to define what counts as external and internal value. We also need to explicate what external feature and internal values we are talking about.

Second, the relata have to be mutually relevant. For example, the relationship between external characteristics and internal values in C1 should have mutually relevant relata if, for example, a person behaves in a friendly and peaceful manner and his/her values include a devotion to non-violence. It makes less sense to attempt to establish a relation between peaceful behavior and the part of a person’s value system that embraces family values. Congruence can be evaluated in the former, but not the latter case. We can say that friendly behavior and a non-violent stance are congruent, and that aggressive behavior and a non-violent stance are incongruent. But we cannot say that friendliness and family values are necessarily congruent. On the other hand, aggressive behavior and family values are not entirely incongruent.

Third, and most obviously, the relata have to support each other in a justificatory, explanatory, or even causal way, at least in one, sometimes in both directions. A non-violent stance causes peaceful behavior, which in turn supports a non-violent stance. Anti-racist values explain inclusive behaviors, which in turn nurture an anti-racist value system.

Fourth, the relata should not contradict each other. Supporting the death penalty and insisting on keeping the 10 Commandments as an important component of one’s value system is a contradiction. Only if relata stand in a non-contradictory relationship with each other can we consider them congruous.

In sum, we see congruence as referring to a self-self or self-world relationship in which relata are assessable, mutually relevant and supportive, and non-contradictory. Based on our definition of congruence and our discussion of the 4 C’s we believe that congruence is a formidable candidate for the common denominator of all four Cs and, therefore, for representing the essence of authenticity.

In this paper, we have discussed Lehman’s 3C view of authenticity and expanded it by adding a fourth C, continuity. This modification emphasizes our view that authenticity is not static, but a process. This process perspective is based on the assumption that authenticity is subject to change, requires continuous work, and can thus be characterized as a developmental process.

Moreover, we have proposed that congruence may be the essence of authenticity. All four Cs require congruent relationships between internal and external aspects and, together, represent a proposed 4C model of authenticity.

Rogers uses the terms “congruence” and “incongruence” to delineate the difference between individuals who live an authentic life (congruence) at least in part due to receiving positive regard and those who cannot (incongruence) and who develop defense mechanisms ( Rogers, 1951 ). According to Rogers’ concept of an “organismic valuing process,” a person has an inborn capability to estimate what kinds of changes will be good for them in terms of being conducive to their strive towards such lived congruence. Sheldon and colleagues have put that theory to the test and performed a study to see “how people change their minds over time about what goals and values to pursue” ( Sheldon et al., 2003 , p. 837). Their results suggest that individuals shift towards intrinsic more than extrinsic goals, which supports the hypothesis that subjective well-being plays a greater role in such changes than, e.g., social desirability. These results provide an illustration of the developmental process we aim to capture with our fourth C, continuity. They also suggest that Lehman et al.’s consistency might be a stronger motivation for such developmental change than conformity.

Among the many possible repercussions of inauthenticity appears to be that experiencing inauthenticity can come as a threat to one’s moral self-concept ( Gino et al., 2015 ). Gino and colleagues have offered the explanation that inauthenticity and dishonesty share similar roots in that both are a “violation of being true, whether to others or oneself” (p. 984). Feelings of impurity in the context of inauthenticity could be explained by a spillover effect, because dishonesty is not socially accepted, while inauthenticity is. However, experiencing inauthenticity (i.e., incongruence) is a vital aspect for the process perspective of authenticity, as incongruence allows for continuous re-evaluation, and hence offers opportunities for development ( Kuhl, 2020 ).

How does our 4C-model of authenticity fit with existing categorization schemes? Newman recently lamented the “lack of definitional clarity [which is] due in part to the diversity of contexts in which authenticity is studied” ( Newman, 2019 , p. 8). In response to this perceived heterogeneity of definitions, Newman proposes three broad categories, i.e., historical, categorical, and values authenticity. The first two apply mainly to objects (e.g., pieces of art or types of food, resp.) Only the third appears to be applicable to individuals in that it refers to “the consistency between an entity’s internal states and its external expressions” ( Newman, 2019 , p. 10). This definition maps directly onto Lehman et al.’s first dimension of authenticity. Both Lehman et al.’s three and our fourth dimension should not be viewed as mutually exclusive categories, but as viewpoints or lenses through which the different kinds of authenticity can be studied.

We wish to emphasize that we developed our 4C-model of authenticity in the context of models of the self. In other words, we refer to authenticity (in the present context) as a characteristic of the self and its development. Our goal is not to contribute to the debate about what authenticity is in general , but to expand the list of characteristics of authenticity in the particular context of concepts of the self and the development of the self. When Newman writes about the “psychology of authenticity,” his focus is on what he calls “lenses” or “dimensions of consideration” ( Newman, 2019 , p. 10). His lenses (historical, categorical, and value) are not characteristics or dimensions of authenticity, but of the ways how authenticity is established in different contexts.

Carroll views authenticity as “an attribution – nothing more, nothing less” ( Carroll, 2015 , p. 3). He claims that “[i]n modern society, authenticity is often socially constructed,” and is thereby “culturally contingent and historically situated” ( Carroll, 2015 , p. 3) He contrasts this kind of socially constructed authenticity with Dutton’s nominal authenticity , e.g., the kind of authenticity attributed to an original painting or historically authentic piece of clothing ( Dutton, 2003 ), the authenticity of which can usually be “objectively and definitively evaluated”( Carroll, 2015 , p. 4). It remains to be explored whether the individual authenticity (the authentic self) we discuss in this paper is a kind of nominal authenticity that can be evaluated, but only subjectively, or if it is culturally contingent, or both.

Given that we have developed our model in the area of personality psychology, we do not see it as representing a different category, but as an additional dimension that, together with Lehman et al.’s three Cs, applies mainly to Newman’s category of values authenticity. We hope that our model will be helpful in further research on authenticity not only in individuals, but perhaps also in communities and populations. Such extension of our model from the realm of personal to social psychology, however, is clearly beyond the scope of this paper.

Data Availability Statement

Author contributions.

OD is the primary contributor regarding the proposed 4-C model and its outline. KL contributed to the overall idea and specific topic of this publication. All authors contributed to the writing of article and approved the submitted version.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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The word qualitative implies an emphasis on the qualities of entities and on processes and meanings that are not experimentally examined or measured [if measured at all] in terms of quantity, amount, intensity, or frequency. Qualitative researchers stress the socially constructed nature of reality, the intimate relationship between the researcher and what is studied, and the situational constraints that shape inquiry. Such researchers emphasize the value-laden nature of inquiry. They seek answers to questions that stress how social experience is created and given meaning. In contrast, quantitative studies emphasize the measurement and analysis of causal relationships between variables, not processes. Qualitative forms of inquiry are considered by many social and behavioral scientists to be as much a perspective on how to approach investigating a research problem as it is a method.

Denzin, Norman. K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln. “Introduction: The Discipline and Practice of Qualitative Research.” In The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research . Norman. K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds. 3 rd edition. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005), p. 10.

Characteristics of Qualitative Research

Below are the three key elements that define a qualitative research study and the applied forms each take in the investigation of a research problem.

  • Naturalistic -- refers to studying real-world situations as they unfold naturally; non-manipulative and non-controlling; the researcher is open to whatever emerges [i.e., there is a lack of predetermined constraints on findings].
  • Emergent -- acceptance of adapting inquiry as understanding deepens and/or situations change; the researcher avoids rigid designs that eliminate responding to opportunities to pursue new paths of discovery as they emerge.
  • Purposeful -- cases for study [e.g., people, organizations, communities, cultures, events, critical incidences] are selected because they are “information rich” and illuminative. That is, they offer useful manifestations of the phenomenon of interest; sampling is aimed at insight about the phenomenon, not empirical generalization derived from a sample and applied to a population.

The Collection of Data

  • Data -- observations yield a detailed, "thick description" [in-depth understanding]; interviews capture direct quotations about people’s personal perspectives and lived experiences; often derived from carefully conducted case studies and review of material culture.
  • Personal experience and engagement -- researcher has direct contact with and gets close to the people, situation, and phenomenon under investigation; the researcher’s personal experiences and insights are an important part of the inquiry and critical to understanding the phenomenon.
  • Empathic neutrality -- an empathic stance in working with study respondents seeks vicarious understanding without judgment [neutrality] by showing openness, sensitivity, respect, awareness, and responsiveness; in observation, it means being fully present [mindfulness].
  • Dynamic systems -- there is attention to process; assumes change is ongoing, whether the focus is on an individual, an organization, a community, or an entire culture, therefore, the researcher is mindful of and attentive to system and situational dynamics.

The Analysis

  • Unique case orientation -- assumes that each case is special and unique; the first level of analysis is being true to, respecting, and capturing the details of the individual cases being studied; cross-case analysis follows from and depends upon the quality of individual case studies.
  • Inductive analysis -- immersion in the details and specifics of the data to discover important patterns, themes, and inter-relationships; begins by exploring, then confirming findings, guided by analytical principles rather than rules.
  • Holistic perspective -- the whole phenomenon under study is understood as a complex system that is more than the sum of its parts; the focus is on complex interdependencies and system dynamics that cannot be reduced in any meaningful way to linear, cause and effect relationships and/or a few discrete variables.
  • Context sensitive -- places findings in a social, historical, and temporal context; researcher is careful about [even dubious of] the possibility or meaningfulness of generalizations across time and space; emphasizes careful comparative case study analysis and extrapolating patterns for possible transferability and adaptation in new settings.
  • Voice, perspective, and reflexivity -- the qualitative methodologist owns and is reflective about her or his own voice and perspective; a credible voice conveys authenticity and trustworthiness; complete objectivity being impossible and pure subjectivity undermining credibility, the researcher's focus reflects a balance between understanding and depicting the world authentically in all its complexity and of being self-analytical, politically aware, and reflexive in consciousness.

Berg, Bruce Lawrence. Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences . 8th edition. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2012; Denzin, Norman. K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln. Handbook of Qualitative Research . 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000; Marshall, Catherine and Gretchen B. Rossman. Designing Qualitative Research . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995; Merriam, Sharan B. Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Basic Research Design for Qualitative Studies

Unlike positivist or experimental research that utilizes a linear and one-directional sequence of design steps, there is considerable variation in how a qualitative research study is organized. In general, qualitative researchers attempt to describe and interpret human behavior based primarily on the words of selected individuals [a.k.a., “informants” or “respondents”] and/or through the interpretation of their material culture or occupied space. There is a reflexive process underpinning every stage of a qualitative study to ensure that researcher biases, presuppositions, and interpretations are clearly evident, thus ensuring that the reader is better able to interpret the overall validity of the research. According to Maxwell (2009), there are five, not necessarily ordered or sequential, components in qualitative research designs. How they are presented depends upon the research philosophy and theoretical framework of the study, the methods chosen, and the general assumptions underpinning the study. Goals Describe the central research problem being addressed but avoid describing any anticipated outcomes. Questions to ask yourself are: Why is your study worth doing? What issues do you want to clarify, and what practices and policies do you want it to influence? Why do you want to conduct this study, and why should the reader care about the results? Conceptual Framework Questions to ask yourself are: What do you think is going on with the issues, settings, or people you plan to study? What theories, beliefs, and prior research findings will guide or inform your research, and what literature, preliminary studies, and personal experiences will you draw upon for understanding the people or issues you are studying? Note to not only report the results of other studies in your review of the literature, but note the methods used as well. If appropriate, describe why earlier studies using quantitative methods were inadequate in addressing the research problem. Research Questions Usually there is a research problem that frames your qualitative study and that influences your decision about what methods to use, but qualitative designs generally lack an accompanying hypothesis or set of assumptions because the findings are emergent and unpredictable. In this context, more specific research questions are generally the result of an interactive design process rather than the starting point for that process. Questions to ask yourself are: What do you specifically want to learn or understand by conducting this study? What do you not know about the things you are studying that you want to learn? What questions will your research attempt to answer, and how are these questions related to one another? Methods Structured approaches to applying a method or methods to your study help to ensure that there is comparability of data across sources and researchers and, thus, they can be useful in answering questions that deal with differences between phenomena and the explanation for these differences [variance questions]. An unstructured approach allows the researcher to focus on the particular phenomena studied. This facilitates an understanding of the processes that led to specific outcomes, trading generalizability and comparability for internal validity and contextual and evaluative understanding. Questions to ask yourself are: What will you actually do in conducting this study? What approaches and techniques will you use to collect and analyze your data, and how do these constitute an integrated strategy? Validity In contrast to quantitative studies where the goal is to design, in advance, “controls” such as formal comparisons, sampling strategies, or statistical manipulations to address anticipated and unanticipated threats to validity, qualitative researchers must attempt to rule out most threats to validity after the research has begun by relying on evidence collected during the research process itself in order to effectively argue that any alternative explanations for a phenomenon are implausible. Questions to ask yourself are: How might your results and conclusions be wrong? What are the plausible alternative interpretations and validity threats to these, and how will you deal with these? How can the data that you have, or that you could potentially collect, support or challenge your ideas about what’s going on? Why should we believe your results? Conclusion Although Maxwell does not mention a conclusion as one of the components of a qualitative research design, you should formally conclude your study. Briefly reiterate the goals of your study and the ways in which your research addressed them. Discuss the benefits of your study and how stakeholders can use your results. Also, note the limitations of your study and, if appropriate, place them in the context of areas in need of further research.

Chenail, Ronald J. Introduction to Qualitative Research Design. Nova Southeastern University; Heath, A. W. The Proposal in Qualitative Research. The Qualitative Report 3 (March 1997); Marshall, Catherine and Gretchen B. Rossman. Designing Qualitative Research . 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999; Maxwell, Joseph A. "Designing a Qualitative Study." In The SAGE Handbook of Applied Social Research Methods . Leonard Bickman and Debra J. Rog, eds. 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009), p. 214-253; Qualitative Research Methods. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Yin, Robert K. Qualitative Research from Start to Finish . 2nd edition. New York: Guilford, 2015.

Strengths of Using Qualitative Methods

The advantage of using qualitative methods is that they generate rich, detailed data that leave the participants' perspectives intact and provide multiple contexts for understanding the phenomenon under study. In this way, qualitative research can be used to vividly demonstrate phenomena or to conduct cross-case comparisons and analysis of individuals or groups.

Among the specific strengths of using qualitative methods to study social science research problems is the ability to:

  • Obtain a more realistic view of the lived world that cannot be understood or experienced in numerical data and statistical analysis;
  • Provide the researcher with the perspective of the participants of the study through immersion in a culture or situation and as a result of direct interaction with them;
  • Allow the researcher to describe existing phenomena and current situations;
  • Develop flexible ways to perform data collection, subsequent analysis, and interpretation of collected information;
  • Yield results that can be helpful in pioneering new ways of understanding;
  • Respond to changes that occur while conducting the study ]e.g., extended fieldwork or observation] and offer the flexibility to shift the focus of the research as a result;
  • Provide a holistic view of the phenomena under investigation;
  • Respond to local situations, conditions, and needs of participants;
  • Interact with the research subjects in their own language and on their own terms; and,
  • Create a descriptive capability based on primary and unstructured data.

Anderson, Claire. “Presenting and Evaluating Qualitative Research.” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 74 (2010): 1-7; Denzin, Norman. K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln. Handbook of Qualitative Research . 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000; Merriam, Sharan B. Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Limitations of Using Qualitative Methods

It is very much true that most of the limitations you find in using qualitative research techniques also reflect their inherent strengths . For example, small sample sizes help you investigate research problems in a comprehensive and in-depth manner. However, small sample sizes undermine opportunities to draw useful generalizations from, or to make broad policy recommendations based upon, the findings. Additionally, as the primary instrument of investigation, qualitative researchers are often embedded in the cultures and experiences of others. However, cultural embeddedness increases the opportunity for bias generated from conscious or unconscious assumptions about the study setting to enter into how data is gathered, interpreted, and reported.

Some specific limitations associated with using qualitative methods to study research problems in the social sciences include the following:

  • Drifting away from the original objectives of the study in response to the changing nature of the context under which the research is conducted;
  • Arriving at different conclusions based on the same information depending on the personal characteristics of the researcher;
  • Replication of a study is very difficult;
  • Research using human subjects increases the chance of ethical dilemmas that undermine the overall validity of the study;
  • An inability to investigate causality between different research phenomena;
  • Difficulty in explaining differences in the quality and quantity of information obtained from different respondents and arriving at different, non-consistent conclusions;
  • Data gathering and analysis is often time consuming and/or expensive;
  • Requires a high level of experience from the researcher to obtain the targeted information from the respondent;
  • May lack consistency and reliability because the researcher can employ different probing techniques and the respondent can choose to tell some particular stories and ignore others; and,
  • Generation of a significant amount of data that cannot be randomized into manageable parts for analysis.

Research Tip

Human Subject Research and Institutional Review Board Approval

Almost every socio-behavioral study requires you to submit your proposed research plan to an Institutional Review Board. The role of the Board is to evaluate your research proposal and determine whether it will be conducted ethically and under the regulations, institutional polices, and Code of Ethics set forth by the university. The purpose of the review is to protect the rights and welfare of individuals participating in your study. The review is intended to ensure equitable selection of respondents, that you have obtained adequate informed consent , that there is clear assessment and minimization of risks to participants and to the university [read: no lawsuits!], and that privacy and confidentiality are maintained throughout the research process and beyond. Go to the USC IRB website for detailed information and templates of forms you need to submit before you can proceed. If you are  unsure whether your study is subject to IRB review, consult with your professor or academic advisor.

Chenail, Ronald J. Introduction to Qualitative Research Design. Nova Southeastern University; Labaree, Robert V. "Working Successfully with Your Institutional Review Board: Practical Advice for Academic Librarians." College and Research Libraries News 71 (April 2010): 190-193.

Another Research Tip

Finding Examples of How to Apply Different Types of Research Methods

SAGE publications is a major publisher of studies about how to design and conduct research in the social and behavioral sciences. Their SAGE Research Methods Online and Cases database includes contents from books, articles, encyclopedias, handbooks, and videos covering social science research design and methods including the complete Little Green Book Series of Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences and the Little Blue Book Series of Qualitative Research techniques. The database also includes case studies outlining the research methods used in real research projects. This is an excellent source for finding definitions of key terms and descriptions of research design and practice, techniques of data gathering, analysis, and reporting, and information about theories of research [e.g., grounded theory]. The database covers both qualitative and quantitative research methods as well as mixed methods approaches to conducting research.

SAGE Research Methods Online and Cases

NOTE :  For a list of online communities, research centers, indispensable learning resources, and personal websites of leading qualitative researchers, GO HERE .

For a list of scholarly journals devoted to the study and application of qualitative research methods, GO HERE .

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