Some high school and first-year college writing courses use the term “research paper” or “research writing” to apply to any situation in which students use information from an outside source in writing a paper. The logic behind this is that if the writer has to go find information from a source, that action of going and finding information is similar to research, so it is convenient to call that kind of writing task a “research paper.” However, it is only true research if it starts from a QUESTION to which the writer genuinely doesn’t know the answer and if the writer then develops or builds the answer to the question through gathering and processing information.
To help keep that difference in mind, this course will use “research” to refer to the goal-directed process of gathering information and building the answer to a research question, and “source-based writing” to refer to the many other types of information gathering and source-based writing one might do.
One important indicator of the difference between research and other source-based writing tasks occurs when students develop the thesis (main point) of a paper. In a research project, students begin with a question, gather the data from which they will derive or build the answer to the question, build the answer, and then state their answer. The answer to the research question then becomes a thesis statement and serves as the main point of the paper. In the research writing process, therefore, stating or identifying a thesis happens at the pivot point between research and writing (so roughly half or two thirds of the way through the project, depending on the amount of time spent gathering and processing information).
Any assignment for which students begin by developing a thesis and then going out to gather information to support it is a source-based writing assignment, but it is not technically research because it begins from the answer instead of the question.
Being aware of this distinction is essential to successfully complete both research projects and other source-based writing tasks. The work processes that lead to efficiency and success with research projects are very different from the work processes students may have used successfully for other types of source-based papers. Both offer valuable learning experiences, but it is important to understand which type of assignment so students can adjust their expectations accordingly.