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Preparing Your Term Paper

Bob Brown
College of Computing and Software Engineering
Kennesaw State University
Copyright © 2004

This document will guide you through the steps of selecting a topic, researching and writing a term paper suitable for a graduate course or an upper-division undergraduate course. It also describes how your paper will be graded.

Some of this material is quite specific to Brown's classes, but there is some pretty good general advice that may help you with papers in other classes. If you're not sure whether something is applicable to another class, ask your professor.

Keys to a Successful Term Paper

A "successful" term paper is one that earns a grade of A and doesn't kill you in the process. There are two keys to a successful term paper: careful selection of the topic and careful budgeting of time.

Something that is likely to cause term paper trouble for students is the selection of the topic. However, proper topic selection is also the key to a successful term paper. Your topic should be sufficiently narrow that you can master it completely in a reasonable amount of time and tell a substantial amount of what there is to know about it within the space allowed by the assignment. If you choose "Outsourcing Information Technology" as a paper topic, you are guaranteed to produce a mediocre paper that will earn a mediocre grade. Why? The topic is simply too broad. You can't master it in reasonable time, and you certainly can't tell all about it in a paper that's less than several hundred pages.

What do you do? Narrow the topic. How about "Service Level Agreements in IT Outsourcing?" That's still much too broad. Could you master this topic in one semester of part time study? Certainly not. Could you tell about it in a dozen pages? No, it's impossible.

A topic suitable for a graduate or upper-division term paper might be, "Considerations for Service Level Agreements in IT Outsourcing: One Company's Experience." You haven't promised to cover everything about SLAs and outsourcing, you've said you will cover some of the "considerations." Further, you've limited your discourse to the experience of one company. This is doable in a semester.

There's a potential trap in so narrow a topic, though. You have to have done enough research before you propose your topic to be sure you can find enough material. For the topic mentioned, you would need to have identified at least a couple of case studies on the same company, plus sufficient other material to assemble some background.

What if you can't find two case studies on the same company? See whether you can find two very similar case studies, but for different organizations. Now you can do a compare-and-contrast paper.

The key to a good topic is a narrow one on which you've done enough research to be sure it will work for you.

The other key to a successful term paper is budgeting your time. It's called a term paper because you're expected to work on it throughout the term. For a graduate or upper-division term paper, expect to spend four to six hours per double-spaced page. For a twelve-page paper, that's more than one full-time week, and possibly nearly two full-time weeks. You will spend about half that time on research and the other half on writing, with additional research as you find gaps.

The term paper assignment is structured in three parts to help you budget your time, but in the end it will be up to you to manage your time.

Your Term Paper Proposal

For this class, you must turn in a formal term paper proposal in which you propose a topic for your term paper. The due date for your proposal is shown in the syllabus. Your proposal must contain the following items:

Your term paper proposal is worth five percent of your term paper grade.

Your Term Paper Draft

Your term paper draft is an abbreviated version of the paper itself. It will have all the required sections, and the problem statement will be in final form. The literature review may be in draft form, but should be mostly complete. The discussion and conclusion may be in draft or outline form. The references should be complete, although there will be no penalty if you add references between the draft and the final copy.

The due date for your term paper draft is shown in the syllabus. Your term paper draft is worth ten percent of your term paper grade.

Required Format for Term Papers

Term papers for this class must be organized with five parts, an introduction, a review of the literature, a discussion, conclusions and suggestions for future research, and a reference section. The following outline illustrates the required format. Each of the items numbered with Roman numerals should have a heading in the paper. Each required section is discussed further below.

  1. Introduction
    1. Introductory Paragraph
    2. Statement of the Problem
    3. Rationale
  2. Review of the Literature
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusions and Suggestions for Future Research
  5. References


The introduction to your term paper has three distinct parts: an introductory paragraph, a statement of the problem and a rationale. These are shown separately in the outline to emphasize that all three parts are necessary. You will not put separate subheadings in your paper. Your introduction should flow naturally from one part to the next.

In the introductory paragraph you explain very briefly what subject matter your paper covers. This really is only one paragraph; you will get to the meat of the subject later. You should develop your problem statement and rationale before writing the introductory paragraph so that the introductory paragraph leads the reader up to the problem statement.

Problem Statement

Your problem statement will be a single sentence in a paragraph by itself. This sentence defines your paper. It must show clear focus; as you write your paper, you will refer to the problem statement frequently and include only material that is relevant to the problem statement. You might start out thinking of your problem statement as a question, but you will phrase it as a statement in your paper. Your research should support your statement. This means you will have to have done some research before you can formulate the problem statement.

Here are some examples of problem statements from various fields of study:

Note that your problem statement must be directly related to the subject of your course.

The last part of the introduction is the rationale. In one or two paragraphs you explain why the problem you have chosen to research is important.

Review of the Literature

The literature review is your opportunity to present a tutorial on your subject by reviewing what other scientists have written. For papers at the undergraduate and master's level, this will often be the longest section of your paper.

Your search of the literature should focus on recent books and refereed papers that have made significant contributions to your topic. However, do not let the focus on recency distract you from describing foundational work in the subject. If the foundational work in your subject was done many years ago, it is still important to describe and cite it.

Look for quality, not quantity in your literature review. You are trying to get at the most important current ideas in your field, and possibly some of the foundational ideas. However, just reading the work of two or three other scientists is generally not enough to assure thorough coverage of a subject. If your assignment suggests a minimum number of references, you should think of it as a C-minus sort of minimum and not as an indication that your research is complete.

Although your literature review is exactly that, a review of the work of others, it is up to you to impose some organization on it. Make a list of the important ideas related to your subject, then organize the list so that foundational or elementary ideas are presented first. Develop an outline from your organized list and use the outline to organize your literature review.

The first paragraph or two should describe the organization of the literature review. If you have more than three or four main topics, consider using subheadings in your paper to guide the reader.

The literature review has three purposes: It offers your reader a tutorial on your subject, it identifies the important work in the field, and it shows your understanding of the existing literature. You accomplish the last purpose by paraphrasing instead of quoting unless a quotation is absolutely necessary to convey an idea. Paraphrasing is how you show that you understand another scientist's ideas well enough to express them in your own words. Note, however, than even when you paraphrase, the words and ideas of others must be properly cited.


In the literature review you reported the ideas of others. In the discussion, you introduce your own ideas. You will have taken a position in your problem statement. In your literature review, you will have reported the work of other scientists, some in support of your position and perhaps some in opposition. In the discussion, you support your position and present your own conclusions.

Start by summarizing the literature review; remind your readers of the important points. Then interpret the literature already presented in light of your problem statement. How do you do that? The following list is paraphrased from Hafner (2003):

Do not try to cram all seven of these techniques into your paper. By the time you have completed your literature review you should have formed an opinion about which two or three of these approaches are likely to work best for you.

You are presenting your own thoughts and opinions in the discussion. However, your thoughts and opinions must not be unsupported. Be careful to support your discussion with citations from the literature or by carefully explaining the line of reasoning that has led you to each thought, opinion or conclusion.

As with your review of the literature, your discussion must be organized. One way to approach that is to adapt and re-use your literature review outline when you write your discussion.

In your discussion you will refer to (and cite!) literature reviewed earlier in your paper. Generally this is not the place to introduce new literature.

If you did independent research, you would report it in this section. The results of your research would be woven into your discussion. (Independent research is possible, but not generally required, at the undergraduate and master's level.)

The literature review will probably be the longest section of your paper. The discussion should be next in length.

Conclusion and Suggestions for Future Research

Here is where you explain what conclusions you have drawn and whether your problem statement is supported by your research. Often your conclusion will be only one or two paragraphs.

As you do your literature review, consider where the gaps are. Are there areas that seem not to have been covered adequately by current research? If so, suggest future research that will fill the gaps. At the undergraduate or master's level, you should be satisfied if you can identify one or two such gaps. Your suggestions for future research will be at most one or two paragraphs.

The Reference List

Prepare your reference list according to the guidelines in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Fifth Edition, 2001. A copy of this manual is available in the reference section of the library, call number BF76.7.P83 2001. The general form of a reference entry is:

Here are some example reference entries. For more examples, see Purdue's OWL pages, here: and here:

Applegate, L., Austin, R., & McFarlan, F. (2003) Corporate Information Strategy and Management: Text and Cases (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill-Irwin.

Journal article:
Williamson, O.E. (1981). The economics of organization: the transaction cost approach. American Journal of Sociology, 87(3), 548-577.
Only the initial word of the title is capitalized; 87(3) means volume 87, number 3, and 548-577 are the page numbers.

Electronic reference to a journal article:
Varshney, U. (2002) Mobile payments. Computer 35(12) 120-121. Retrieved July 12, 2003, from IEEE Web Site:
This paper appeared in a refereed journal, but the student used an electronic version of it. This is different from the entry above in that it includes the date retrieved and the location of the Web site.

Your references are listed in alphabetical order by principal author. If you have more than one entry by the same author, arrange them by year of publication, earliest first.

Citing Your References

Refer to your course syllabus and the Standards of Academic Conduct paper and be extremely careful to attribute words and ideas that are not your own.

You must provide a citation every time you use the words or ideas of someone else; a bibliography entry by itself is not enough. For direct quotes, you must enclose the quoted material in quotation marks and provide the page number as well as the citation. If you use material from a particular source in six consecutive paragraphs, you need six citations, one in every paragraph. Otherwise, you are saying that the first five paragraphs are your work and only the sixth borrows from another. This is plagiarism and will result in a penalty grade.

The only way to be sure every use of another's words or ideas is properly cited is to cite as you write. If you refer to other work as you write a paragraph, insert the citation and, if necessary, the quotation, marks immediately. If you attempt to add citations after the fact, you will almost surely miss one. That is plagiarism just as certainly as if you did it on purpose and will result in the same penalty. There is no room in the rules of academic conduct for mistakes.

Use the parenthetical citation format described in the APA manual. Here are some examples:

According to Williamson (1981) transaction costs are like friction in economic activity...
Jones and Butler (1988) argue that the difference between cost leadership and differentiation is "one of degree, not one of kind" (p. 203).

When a work has many authors, you may use "et. al." to shorten the parenthetical citation.

In the network economy, firms can create network economies of scale and network economies of scope. (Applegate et. al., 2003) Network economies of scale are...

Grading Rubric for Term Papers

Grading of term papers is necessarily somewhat subjective, but this document provides an idea of how I will approach your paper. Given that your paper is on-topic and narrow enough in scope to allow some depth of study of your subject, when I grade your paper, I will examine the following four areas:

Grading is subtractive. I will start with the assumption that you have written an A paper and subtract for shortcomings in each area. A paper that meets standards in all areas will receive a grade of A; a paper that completely fails in every area will receive a grade of F. Each area of evaluation is explained further below.

By the time you begin your paper, you will have had an opportunity to receive feedback on a term paper proposal and a term paper draft. The purpose is to make certain your topic is appropriate to the course and not overly broad. An unapproved change of topic could result in an unsatisfactory grade.

Term papers will be assigned letter grades. For purposes of computing your course grade, your term paper grade will be converted into a numerical grade as follows:

A+ 100          C+  79
A 95    C 75
A- 92    C- 72
B+ 89    D+ 69
B 85    D 65
B- 82    D- 62
  F 0

To receive a grade of A+ (instead of A) a paper must be up to standards in every area and be outstanding in at least one of the first two.

Depth of discussion: The idea here is that you will have selected a topic sufficiently narrow that you will be able to go into considerable depth in the space allowed by the assignment. Superficial discussion and "padding" with unnecessary or irrelevant tables or figures will count against you.

Analysis and synthesis: A term paper is an opportunity to do enough research to master completely some topic we are studying. You should learn enough about the topic to present it in your own words, to have and express opinions about it, and possibly even to develop new insights. A paper that is a string of quotations held together with a few "glue paragraphs" of your own will fail this test.

Discussion supported by appropriate references: What is wanted here is evidence that you have done a thorough job of researching your topic. Just meeting the minimum number of references in the assignment is not enough for full credit. You need to do enough research to master your topic thoroughly. If you believe you've covered your topic thoroughly and you haven't used at least the minimum number of references, revise your paper. Remember that reference padding is a form of academic misconduct.

Significant errors of fact will count against you in this area.

The best references are papers from refereed journals that relate directly to your topic. Next come books, especially recent ones. "Internet references" (unless they are electronic copies of refereed journals) contribute little to this category, and an excessive number will count against you. Use of Internet references or popular publications may be further limited by your specific assignment.

Writing, grammar and punctuation: Expression counts, and poor expression can reduce your grade substantially. Every university student should be able to produce a well-organized paper and that is expected of everyone.

There is wide variation in how our students were prepared to write in English, and some of you may not be native speakers of English. It is not my intention to penalize anyone because of preparation or practice. Instead, I will pick the best-written paragraphs or sections of each paper and use that writing as the 'gold standard' against which the rest of that paper will be assessed. In other words, I will compare your paper as a whole against the best example of your own writing in that paper. Substantial deviation from your personal gold standard will be taken as evidence of carelessness and inattention and will result in a major grade penalty.

Careless mistakes, especially, will reduce your grade. Failure to use appropriate formats for your paper and references will be taken into account in this area of evaluation, as will papers shorter or substantially longer than the assignment asks for.

If you are required to present your term paper, your preparation and presentation will be included in this category.

Plagiarism or other academic misconduct: Refer to your syllabus, the student handbook and the University catalog. Academic misconduct can result in penalties as severe as failure of the course and dismissal from the University.


Hafner, William (2003) Guidelines for Preparing a Class Paper using the Modified Dissertation Style, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida: Nova Southeastern University, Graduate School of Computer and Information Sciences.

Last updated: 2016-03-28 11:45