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Academic Essay Vs Research Paper

In an opinion paper, you will focus on a topic about which you have personal thoughts, beliefs, or feelings.  Your goal is to persuadeyour reader that your position on this topic is the best one. You won’t accomplish that goal with a rant or diatribe. Instead, you will need to support your claim with facts, statistics, real-life examples or published research studies. So, despite its name, an opinion paper will require some research.

The most common research paper assignment (particularly in undergraduate courses) is a lot like a literature review. You will conduct a thorough search for scholarly sources about your chosen topic, then carefully read and summarize them. But beyond simply describing the books and articles that you read, your goal is to participate in the scholarly “conversation” surrounding your topic. You can do that by:

  • Organizing your paper by themes or trends that you discovered in the literature
  • Identifying and explaining controversies surrounding your topic
  • Pointing out strengths and weaknesses in the studies that you read
  • Identifying aspects of the topic that need further research

Sometimes (more commonly in graduate courses), you will design your own study and write about it. While this kind of research paper includes a literature review section, it will also require you to describe your study’s methodology, data analysis and results. The graduate section of Writing@APUS offers advice for students working on original research papers.


Are you new to library research?Click here to find some helpful tutorials.

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What Are the Differences Between the Kinds of Papers I Am Assigned?

Do you occasionally suspect that your professors think you're clairvoyant? Do you wonder if you were sick the day they passed out the cheat sheet entitled "Vocabulary of Academia and You"? They assign various papers and assume that you understand exactly what a 'critique' entails, and why it is different from the 'essay' you wrote last week. Well, read on, before you get another assignment you don't understand and try to stab your professor with his dry-erase marker.

Why, you ask, do professors have so many words just to assign you a paper? All these words exist so that your assignment can subtly tell you what the focus of your work should be. As a direct result of the Smarter Than You Act of 1932, colleges and universities are forbidden from giving their assignments in plain English. And so based on what the professor wants to read, he or she chooses from a list of words that are intended to tell you what to produce. All of these words, amazingly, mean 'paper.' But since not all papers are alike, each of these identifying words and phrases have subtle differences.

What exactly is an 'essay,' first of all? Technically, an essay is a short paper written on a specific topic. So basically, anything can be an essay that's not a dissertation or thesis or something else really, really long. So as a student, the meaning to you of this definition is that when you are assigned an essay, the professor expects you to give your views on a certain topic, supported by the appropriate number of sources. Many professors will specify this appropriate number. If not, and you know that you are expected to support your argument with outside sources, one per paragraph is usually a good number. 63% of scholars think so (Anonymous). The total number of sources depends on the length of your paper, but three is a good starting point. From there, find what you need to support your point.

But what about the more specific paper types? The research paper, for example. Most students would be able to deduce that this particular assignment asks for a paper based on research. But what does this mean? We learned earlier that these assignment-phrases were invented to suggest the intended focus of a paper. The connection here, then, is that a research paper differs from an essay in that the research takes the spotlight here. So while the essay focuses on your analysis of the topic and supports that analysis with research, the research paper focuses on the sources and the conclusions that can be drawn from them. In this case, you are the vehicle for the research rather than the research being the vehicle for your ideas.

Other paper types, such as the critique and the analysis, have more in common. These are typically found in the context of an assignment that requests your opinion on a specific source. When you see these words, you can expect to be given the resource by your professor, or at least to be directed to it. So what do you do with it, though, when you get it? If the assignment is a 'critique,' expect to be criticizing something. Remember, however, that in academia, you cannot criticize without providing a good reason. If you disagree with the source, you must explain why. However, you are expected to give your educated opinion in one way or another. In the case of the analysis, however, the professor seeks a more objective approach. The analysis requires you to - guess what? - analyze. Take the source piece by piece and explain the meaning and ramifications to the subject matter.

Your professors are speaking English. They just happen to be referring to a specific sub-set of vocabulary that no one outside of the academic world will ever need. But you need it, and now you know it, so you can go ahead and write that analytic research paper, with full confidence in what the professor wants. You can put the marker down now.

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