3.E: What is Academic Research Writing?

Writing That Isn’t “Research Writing”

Not all useful and valuable writing automatically involves research or can be called “academic research writing.”

  • While poets, playwrights, and novelists frequently do research and base their writings on that research, what they produce doesn’t constitute academic research writing. The film Shakespeare in Love incorporated facts about Shakespeare’s life and work to tell a touching, entertaining, and interesting story, but it was nonetheless a work of fiction since the writers, director, and actors clearly took liberties with the facts in order to tell their story. If a student were writing a research project for a literature class which focuses on Shakespeare, he/she would not want to use Shakespeare in Love as evidence about how Shakespeare wrote his plays.
  • Essay exams are usually not a form of research writing. When an instructor gives an essay exam, she usually is asking students to write about what they learned from the class readings, discussions, and lecturers. While writing essay exams demand an understanding of the material, this isn’t research writing because instructors aren’t expecting students to do additional research on the topic.
  • All sorts of other kinds of writing we read and write all the time—letters, emails, journal entries, instructions, etc.—are not research writing. Some writers include research in these and other forms of personal writing.  Practicing some of these types of writing can be helpful in thinking through a research project. But when writers set about to write a research project, most of them don’t have these sorts of personal writing genres in mind.

So, what is “research writing”?

Research writing is writing that uses evidence (from journals, books, magazines, the Internet, experts, etc.) to persuade or inform an audience about a particular point.

library shelves

Research writing exists in a variety of different forms. For example, academics, journalists, or other researchers write articles for journals or magazines; academics, professional writers and almost anyone create web pages that both use research to make some sort of point and that show readers how to find more research on a particular topic. All of these types of writing projects can be done by a single writer who seeks advice from others, or by a number of writers who collaborate on the project.

What is academic research writing?

Academic research writing is a form of research writing. Academic research projects come in a variety of shapes and forms.  But in brief, academic research writing projects are a bit different from other kinds of research writing projects in three significant ways:

  •  Thesis: Academic research projects are organized around a point or a “thesis” that members of the intended audience would not accept as “common sense.” What an audience accepts as “common sense” depends a great deal on the audience, which is one of the many reasons why what “counts” as academic research varies from field to field. But audiences want to learn something new either by being informed about something they knew nothing about before or by reading a unique interpretation on the issue or the evidence.
  • Evidence: Academic research projects rely almost exclusively on evidence in order to support this point. Academic research writers use evidence in order to convince their audiences that the point they are making is right. Of course, all writing uses other means of persuasion—appeals to emotion, to logic, to the credibility of the author, and so forth. But the readers of academic research writing projects are likely to be more persuaded by good evidence than by anything else.“Evidence,” the information you use to support your point, includes readings you find in the library (journal and magazine articles, books, newspapers, and many other kinds of documents); materials from the Internet (web pages, information from databases, other Internet-based forums); and information you might be able to gather in other ways (interviews, field research, experiments, and so forth).
  • Citation: Academic research projects use a detailed citation process in order to demonstrate to their readers where the evidence that supports the writer’s point came from. Unlike most types of “non-academic” research writing, academic research writers provide their readers with a great deal of detail about where they found the evidence they are using to support their point. This processes is called citation, or “citing” of evidence. It can sometimes seem intimidating and confusing to writers new to the process of academic research writing, but it is really nothing more than explaining to your reader where your evidence came from.


Most academic research writing is based on primary and secondary research

Primary research is usually the “raw stuff” of research—the materials that researchers gather on their own and then analyze in their writing.  For example, primary research would include the following:
•    The experiments done by chemists, physicists, biologists, and other scientists.
•    Researcher-conducted interviews, surveys, polls, or observations.
•    The particular documents or texts (novels, speeches, government documents, and so forth) studied by scholars in fields like English, history, or political science.
Secondary research is usually considered research from texts where one researcher is quoting someone else to make a point.  For example, secondary research would include the following:
•    An article in a scientific journal that reported on the results of someone else’s experiment.
•    A magazine or newspaper account of an interview, survey, or poll done by another researcher.
•    An article in a scholarly journal or a book about a particular novel or speech.
Obviously, the divisions between primary and secondary research are not crystal-clear. But even though these differences between primary and secondary research are somewhat abstract, the differences are good ones to keep in mind when considering what to research and how to conduct the research.  For example, if a student were writing a research project on the connection between pharmaceutical advertising and the high cost of prescription drugs, it would be useful and informative to consider the differences between primary research on the subject (an article where the researcher documents statistical connections) and the secondary research (an essay where another researcher summarizes a variety of studies done by others).
Of course, the term “secondary” research has nothing to do with the quality or value of the research; it just means that to answer the question of the research project and to support the these, the writer must rely on the observations and opinions of others.
Most research projects completed by students in writing classes are based almost exclusively in secondary research because most students in introductory writing classes don’t have the time, resources, or expertise to conduct credible primary research. However, sometimes some modest primary research is a realistic option.  For example, if a student were writing about the dangers of Internet-based computer crime and someone on his campus was an expert in the subject and was available for an interview, the interview would be primary research.  If the student were writing about the problems of parking on campus, he might conduct some primary research in the form of observations, surveys of the students that drive and try to park on campus, interviews of the campus officials in charge of parking, and so forth.