Research Paper Format: APA, MLA, and Chicago-Style How-Tos

Academic Writing updated on  December 11, 2023 7 min read

Most research papers include an abstract, an introduction, body text, a conclusion, and a list of references. They also share many formatting basics, such as double spacing and 1-inch margins.

So you’re writing a research paper. Your instructor has likely told you to follow American Psychological Association (APA) style, Modern Language Association (MLA) style, or the Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style or CMOS). But what do these formats look like?

If digging through these style guides sounds daunting, read on. We’ve put together a basic guide to research paper format in general, and APA, MLA, and CMOS formats in particular.

General research paper format

No matter which of these three style guides you’re following, some of the formatting standards will be the same. Most research papers include the following sections and formatting guidelines:

Research paper sections

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Body text
  4. Conclusion
  5. List of references

Research paper formatting

  • 11- or 12-point easily readable font, such as Times New Roman, Calibri, or Arial
  • Double line spacing
  • 1-inch margins
  • ½-inch paragraph indents and no extra space between paragraphs
  • A single space after periods
  • Headings
  • In-text citations
  • Hanging indents in the references

Now let’s look at the differences between these three major research paper styles and their special requirements, as well as some common deviations.

APA research paper format

APA differs from MLA and CMOS mainly in its structure and the way it styles references.

While MLA and CMOS typically follow the basic structure above, APA includes a title page and often includes tables and figures. It also expands the body text section into several sections, like this:

  1. Title page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Literature review
  5. Methods
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. List of references
  10. Tables and figures

As you can see, the body text is not one section but four: literature review, methodology, results, and discussion. You can see this format in action by looking at an APA format research paper example

The APA manual prescribes specific formatting for the headings above and within these sections. It also calls for a running head, a shortened all-caps title with a page number, though this isn’t a part of most student papers (ask your instructor). Here’s how these elements look in a paper:

For citing sources, APA style calls for in-text citations that include the author’s last name, a comma, and the year, like this (Kerns et al., 2015). If the citation is for a direct quote, it should also include the page number, like this (Kerns et al., 2015, p. 76).

However, if any of this information appears in the sentence, it doesn’t have to be repeated in the citation. And anytime more than two authors’ names are listed, only the first author appears in the citation with et al.

Another point to remember when you cite a direct quote in APA style is that if the quote is more than about 40 words, it should be set as a block quote. That means it becomes its own paragraph with every line indented ½ inch, and it doesn’t need to be surrounded by quotation marks. Its in-text citation comes after the closing punctuation instead of before.

At the end of the paper is the reference list. APA-style references use initials for the authors’ first names and list the year right after the names. They also feature sentence case for titles of works, but title case for titles of containers. Here’s an example of an APA-style journal article reference:

Kerns, C. M., Newschaffer, C. J., & Berkowitz, S. J. (2015). Traumatic childhood events and autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(11), 3475–3486.

APA style is pretty strict, but these are two APA-style rules that many authors break:

  1. Describe previous studies in the introduction instead of creating a separate literature review section, as shown in the example paper above.
  2. Place tables and figures within the text instead of at the end.

MLA research paper format

An MLA-style research paper is much simpler than an APA-style paper, so authors rarely have a reason to break the rules. It typically contains the general sections listed above, and its list of references is called Works Cited.

It doesn’t require a title page; instead, it begins with a left-aligned heading made of these elements:

  • Student name
  • Instructor name
  • Course name
  • Due date

Immediately after the heading is the title, centered and in title case but with no other formatting. All pages are numbered at the upper right with the author’s name, like this: Skaggs 1. You can see how these elements look in an MLA format research paper example.

To improve organization, MLA recommends numbered subheadings for student papers if all the subheadings are at the same level. In papers with multiple subheading levels, follow the format below:

  • Level 1: Bold, left-aligned
  • Level 2: Italic, left-aligned
  • Level 3: Bold, centered
  • Level 4: Italic, centered
  • Level 5: Underlined, left-aligned

MLA-style research papers also contain in-text citations, but unlike in APA style, they consist of the author’s last name and the page number with no comma, like this (Popper 92).

In MLA style, use et al. anytime a work has more than two authors. Capitalize titles of works in the references whether they are containers or not. Also, add quotation marks around titles of shorter works or works that are in containers. Here are examples of book and periodical citations in MLA style that you can follow:

Popper, Karl. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Thorne, Emily D., et al. “Winter Habitat Associations of Eastern Spotted Skunks in Virginia.” Journal of Wildlife Management, vol. 81, no. 6, 18 May 2017, pp. 1042–50.

MLA-style block quotations are for any quote longer than four lines (or three lines for poetry), following the same format as APA-style block quotes.

Chicago-style research paper format

Though APA style comes with a lot of detail and MLA style is simpler, CMOS is probably the most exhaustive style guide out there. However, Chicago style is all about simplicity and flexibility, tempered by consistency. CMOS recommends following the general formatting guidelines at the beginning of this article and using simple title-case headings set apart by bold, italics, and/or font size.

Since CMOS is so long and detailed, instructors often recommend Turabian style, which is Chicago style minus all the stuff that doesn’t apply to students. And since Chicago style is so flexible, they may tell students which paper sections to include, whether to create a title page, how to format headings, and which of the three possible CMOS citation methods to use.

Chicago style includes these three ways to cite sources:

  1. Author-date method: similar to APA-style in-text citations with the author’s last name and the year, plus a bibliography at the end of the paper
  2. Notes and bibliography: footnotes or endnotes only in short form, with just enough detail to lead the reader to the correct full citation in a bibliography
  3. Notes only: full citation info in footnotes or endnotes, making a bibliography unnecessary

Here’s a Chicago-style research paper example that uses the third method. In this paper, you can also see the short form for notes: when a source has already been cited in a note or can be found in the bibliography, the note should contain only the author’s last name, a shortened title, and a page number. For instance, the work by Rowena Spencer has been cited fully in note 5, so it’s cited in short form in note 7.

A bibliography must be alphabetized, so there are small differences between the format of a bibliography entry and the format of a note. For example, compare this note with the bibliography entry for the same source:

Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 2001), 51–52.

Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150–1750. New York: Zone Books, 2001.

In the note, the elements are separated by commas, the publication info is in parentheses, and the page numbers are included. However, in the bibliography entry, the first author’s name is inverted so it can be alphabetized, and since periods separate the elements, parentheses aren’t necessary. Also, since the page numbers would have appeared already in a short-form note, they don’t need to appear in the bibliography.

CMOS recommends styling quotes that are longer than about 100 words as block quotes, following the same format we described for APA-style block quotes above.

A formatting tutor for you

No matter which style guide you’re using for your research paper, QuillBot can provide priceless assistance. You can use it to create and save citations, check for plagiarism, and make sure you haven’t overlooked any errors. It can help you master the different referencing styles and get them right every time.
Even better, when you use the QuillBot Flow, you can begin with a template that shows you the APA or MLA components to include and the proper formatting for them. QuillBot gives you a running start.

What are the 5 components of a research paper?

Most research papers include an abstract, an introduction, body text, a conclusion, and a reference list.

How should a research paper look?

A research paper should be neat and well organized, with headings that tell the reader what they’ll find in each section. It should also contain in-text citations and a reference list to properly credit sources.

What format do most research papers follow?

The most common style guides for formatting research papers are APA, MLA, and CMOS or Turabian.

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Hannah Skaggs

Along with Meredith Harris

Hannah, a writer and editor since 2017, specializes in clear and concise academic and business writing. She has mentored countless scholars and companies in writing authoritative and engaging content.

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