Term Paper Guidelines

This document is under development. Input and suggestions for improvement are welcomed by at this address. This revision: 1997.

Your Obligation to the Reader.

The author of a book or paper has an obligation to give the reader something beyond what the reader could obtain directly from the source materials. These services to the reader may include:

  • Research and investigate. Seek out obscure and hard-to-find material, and unify it into a clear presentation.
  • Synthesize. Draw together diverse things to show patterns and relations.
  • Organize. Give logical continuity and structure to diverse materials.
  • Analyze. Provide critical analysis in which arguments are examined for evidence, validity, logic, and flaws.
  • Clarify. Make evidence and arguments clearer to the reader. Elucidate difficult material.
  • Examine in a broader context. Show how a specific subject fits into a broader context, relates to another field, or relates to historic precedents.
  • Select and distill. Weed out fluff and irrelevancies to get at the main issues of a complex subject.
  • Adopt a point of view. Show how the preponderance of evidence and reason favors one side in a controversial issue.

Research Materials

Before sitting down to write you must have ideas, a plan in mind and genuine understanding to communicate. That comes from reading everything you can get your hands on related to your subject. How much? Well, I'd feel a bit insecure writing about anything until I'd digested and understood anywhere from one to two dozen solid references. I'd probably have looked at or skimmed 50 to 100, but not all of them would end up specifically referenced. Many have no relevant material, or nothing unique, not found in the other references. Some are useful only to lead to better sources.

I'd also want to have read all the reviews I could find of the major reference books I intend to use. Reviews often contain additional references and leads. I'd want to thoroughly search the periodical literature and the scientific journals. Scholarly books are reviewed in scholarly journals. Books for a more general audience are reviewed in newspapers and magazines.

Secondary sources are useful as leads to primary sources and as a way to gain an overview of your subject and initial familiarity with it. Encyclopedias are useful secondary sources. Review articles in journals and periodicals are also. But you must go beyond these, for a paper based only on secondary sources is considered weak.

One can become so narrowly focused on a specific subject that one overlooks the broader context of it. That can include historical and cultural context.

Example: If your subject were immunization against a particular disease, you'd surely want to first learn something about the general principles and practice of immunology.

Example: If you were discussing the decision to drop the first atomic bomb, you'd need to know something about the alternate strategies and tactics considered at that time, the knowledge we had about the strength and resources of the enemy, the projections of casualties if the conventional war were to continue, and the climate of public opinion.

Example: If you were researching the subject of repressed memories, you'd want to back off and learn what we know about more ordinary memory. One issue in repressed memory retrieval is whether these memories represent real events. Find out how good our memories are of real events. You will find that there's plenty of evidence that memory is very unreliable. As time goes on, we replay memories, and thereby reinforce them. If we didn't, we'd forget them. But each time we change and sometimes embellish them, and details become altered. If we talk with others who remember the same events, their perceptions can be melded with ours, and we now remember things we didn't actually observe. This is a well-known problem in eyewitness testimonies in court cases. Few of us are good observers, and few of us have reliable memories of what we observe. We may even shuffle the time ordering of events. Our confidence in our memories is no indicator of their truth. Once one looks into the more general literature of the psychology of memory, one is in a better position to evaluate claims of retrieval of repressed memories, memories of past lives, memories of ritual satanic abuse, accounts of UFO sightings, and abductions by aliens.

After reading and digesting the source materials, it's time to organize everything in your mind, or on paper, and plan a clear and logical exposition. Only then can you sit down at the computer terminal or typewriter and begin to write whole sentences and paragraphs. Do this without Your source references at hand. Do it from memory. Then, when the form and substance look good, consult your references again for details, facts, figures, specific references, etc.

Summary: A strategy for researching a term paper:

  1. Consult general encyclopedias. These give you an overview: the history, issues, people, and technical terms you'll need for further searching. Some even provide a bibliography. This gives you additional clues: the names of people who write about this subject, and the titles of journals that publish papers related to it.
  2. Follow up those references to find books and papers in journals and magazines. Each gives clues for further searches.
  3. Search, using author's names, to find the other things they have written.
  4. Find reviews of the books you intend to reference in your paper. These often contain additional information not in the book being reviewed. The authors of reviews in journals are usually also knowledgeable about the subject, and a literature search using their names is worth doing.
  5. Seek out the hard-to-find material. Books of essays and short articles often have very useful information and perspectives, but it's buried amongst material on unrelated subjects and may not show up by subject in a card catalog. Your familiarity with the names of people who contribute to this subject serves you well here.
  6. Search yearly indexes of journals. These are usually in the December issue. Some journals have cumulative indexes (every ten years). Some (Isis, for example) index related material in the journal as well as in related journals. There are journals of abstracts of published papers, which can speed these searches.
  7. Search materials of broader scope. If your subject was "tachyons" (hypothesized particles that move faster than light) you will need to consult books on relativity, atomic physics, elementary particles, and light. Since the interest in this subject is fairly recent (1970s), there will be much material found in general-interest magazines, and even in textbooks.
  8. Librarians can be a valuable resource. But before you consult them you should first have a general acquaintance with your specific subject (since they may not) so you can work with them most effectively.
  9. By now you have enough solid understanding of your subject to refine, redefine, and focus the subject of your paper. Do not be surprised if you have accumulated ten times as much information as you will actually use.
  10. You are also ready to do a search of internet resources. You have the keywords, and the names of the important players in this field. Chances are you won't find much new or useful information on the net, but once in a while you are pleasantly surprised.
  11. If you are really serious about some point not adequately addressed in the material you've found, you may choose to contact an author or researcher in the subject. Remember, these are busy people, and they aren't likely to respond if they suspect that you are just a student trying to meet a term-paper deadline who hasn't even been to the library yet. If your query is specific, insightful, important, and not adequately addressed in the available literature, it may be appropriate to put it directly to one of the major researchers. You must show that you've done your homework first, and have a general understanding of the subject.

Mechanics and Style

Finally, proof-read your paper carefully for correct spelling and grammar. Read it critically for form and content. Imagine yourself as the instructor, reading the paper to find its deficiencies, and to suggest ways it could be improved. Look especially for `stumble points', those places where the reader is forced to stop and re-read something to make sense of it. Fix any you find. This is another service you give to the reader.

One mark of good style is ease of reading. If you can read something aloud without stumbling or hesitating, that's a good sign. If you find, as you read, that you are being lulled to sleep, maybe the prose needs polish. Each sentence, each word, must have a purpose in conveying a specific idea or a feeling. Prune out any that don't. Purge `flabby' words and vague expressions. Substitute words with specific, precise and clear meaning—the meaning you intend to convey, not some other meaning.

My own view is that active, simple and direct expressions are best. Avoid colloquialisms unless they are necessary to make your point. Avoid emotion-laden words and phrases unless you are writing a romance novel, or a political speech.

Don't earn the legendary comment an English Prof. made on a student paper: "Your vocabulary is mean and impoverished, but entirely adequate to express your thoughts." Content is the purpose of a paper; style and packaging can facilitate comprehension of that content, but should never distract the reader from the content.

Common Mistakes.

These comments were inspired by papers I've read over many years.

Avoid "puffery." Purge pompous, pretentious phraseology. Examples:

  • The first person who... (Are you sure someone didn't do it earlier...?)
  • The basic cause of... (What, or whose, definition of basic?)
  • An essential idea...
  • In discussing this we need to begin... (Why must we? Couldn't we begin somewhere else?)
  • The most common idea... (Did anyone take a poll?)
  • After Plato came Aristotle... (Better: "Aristotle, Plato's pupil..." Wasn't anyone else of importance born between Plato and Aristotle?)
  • The most prominent... important... essential... influential... (Avoid superlatives)
  • These are important... precisely because... (There's no precise measure of relative importance)
  • Deemed most important... (No one uses "deemed" these days.) Such blanket pronouncements are bound to be open to question. Was ... really the first? Is that idea really essential? Usually such phrases serve no useful purpose in an essay and are better omitted.

Things to Leave Out.

[The advice in this section is excerpted from The Art of Public Speaking by Ed McMahon (Ballantine Books, 1986), with some edits and additions. The art of good writing has much in common with the art of good speaking.]

    Leave Out Superfluous Words That Aren't Needed.

    Omit the last three words in the above sentence and you have the same meaning. Better yet, leave out the third word—superfluous. The same number of syllables are dropped and you'll be more readily understood.

    In every case, your speech will be stronger if you use the term on the right than if you cloud the issue with the phrase on the left:

              in the event that                 if
              at this point in time             now
              in the order of magnitude of      about
              had the opportunity to be         was
              come into possession of           get
    Leave Out Redundancies.

    Some people aren't satisfied to call something a part or component; it has to be a component part. A blizzard is always an icy blizzard or even a snowy blizzard. The same people never talk about a disaster—it is a terrible disaster, apparently to distinguish it from a wonderful disaster. And they never wait for developments, preferring to wait for future developments.

    Bad example: You don't have to spell it out in detail; give ample advance warnings and conceptualize future plans. Better: Just spell it out; give warning and make plans.

    Leave Out Unnecessary Intensifiers.

    Is a very big dog larger than a big dog? If so, how much bigger? Nobody knows. Very is rarely needed.

    Major, absolutely and completely are a few of the words used as unnecessary intensifiers. Others are fundamental, basic, and essential. Take them out of the following and the meaning doesn't change.

              a major turning point
              an absolutely essential move
              a completely defunct company
              a revolutionary breakthrough
              an essential point to understand
    Leave Out Tired Expressions.

    Phrases like slow but sure, good as gold, right as rain, and hard as a rock will paint old gray over your bright new ideas.

    Omit Non-Functional Words

    And then there are words we habitually carry along without good reason. Why do we write down something rather than just write it? And then we often say we write up a report. What's the logical difference between writing up something and writing it down? Why do we tidy up a room rather than just make it tidy? Would tidying down a room make it messy? Such embellished expressions don't even make logical sense, when you think about them. But how often does anyone think about them? Usually omission of non-functional words can add vigor to your writing without any sacrifice of clarity. This is a matter of judgment, for some phrases of this kind add a subtle style you may want to retain if you are aiming for an informal and colloquial effect.

Things to Keep in Mind While Writing:

  • Eschew obfuscation! Don't write anything you don't understand. Don't fake it and don't force it. Understand first—then write.
  • Make the focus and organization of your paper clear to the reader. Don't ramble from one thing to another aimlessly.
  • Decide what level of understanding your intended reader has, and choose the language and style to suit. Never attempt to write to a reader whose understanding and knowledge of this subject is greater than your own. If you don't understand it, you can't help your readers to understand it.
  • Find your natural style—don't imitate the writing style of others. Would you speak this way? If your professor gave a pop-quiz, would you write this way? One way to avoid this is to sit down at typewriter or word processor without any books, and simply put down your own thoughts on the matter. Then use your notes to fill in specifics, references, quotes, etc., but change the style and structure only if it is obviously inappropriate or clumsy.
  • Avoid imitating the language or style of your scholarly sources, for if you do it reasonably well, the result will have all the appearance of plagiarism. If you do it badly, you'll look ridiculous.
  • If you copy anything word-for-word from a source, set it in quotes (if short) or in an indented paragraph (if longer), and always reference it.
  • A paper should be more than a scrap-book or a compilation of notes. You must put your personal stylistic stamp on it: a point of view, a method of selection, a central theme.
  • Most students should avoid philosophical style, since at this stage of their education they probably don't have enough information or understanding to do it well. Stick to a clear and direct style, and stick with what you (and your readers) can understand. A good writer always tries to educate the reader, not merely pander to the reader's prejudices.

Citations and References.

Citations and references guide the reader to other sources of information, and document where you obtained your information. Common knowledge need not be referenced. The statement "George Washington was the first president of the United States" doesn't require a reference. But if you reference something most people don't know, like "Benjamin Franklin was suspected of spying for the British" you should document the source of that allegation.

References ensure that primary sources of information and ideas are given the credit they deserve. You wouldn't want to give the reader the impression that you formulated relativity theory, not Albert Einstein. Any time you need to include the exact words, paragraph, sentence, or even short phrase that is unique, specific, original, or particularly apt, its author deserves credit with a specific reference.

The Chicago Manual of Style, latest edition, is the standard reference for style of scholarly papers. For journalistic style, consult the Los Angeles Times Stylebook.

There are many acceptable styles for references, but these general principles apply:

  • Be complete. Give sufficient information in references that the reader could track down your references through standard search procedures. References to books must include author, publisher, publication date, and complete title. References to published papers must also include the journal title, volume and number, date, and page numbers of the particular referenced articles. Standard journal abbreviations may be used. Each journal or discipline has its own style manual. Consult them to find the standard abbreviations. Lacking that, look at how papers in that journal or discipline reference other papers.
  • Be consistent. Adopt a style appropriate for your paper (or the requirements of your publisher) and stick to it.
  • Be kind to the reader. Don't chase the reader around the book or paper to find the internal references. If endnotes are used, don't use an ambiguous numbering system that leaves the reader wondering which chapter the note attaches to. While endnotes are in favor these days, I prefer footnotes, which are right there on the page in front of me, so that I can read them while the idea is still fresh in my mind. Endnotes are more appropriate for things the reader doesn't need to know immediately, but may wish to consult later.
  • More kindness to the reader. Number the pages, and number the sections and subsections, figures, tables, and graphs.

References to WWW Sources.

Style manuals haven't caught up to the Internet and the World Wide Web. Until they do, this advice from Andrew Kantor, in Internet World (Feb 1996, p. 26) is useful:

Net citations will differ slightly, depending on where you found them online...

  1. Smith, John "John's Page: Good Marketing Tactics" at
    http://www.stateu.edu/users/jsmith/, 8 August 1996.
  2. Doe, Jane "Re: Putting Data Online?" in
    comp.infosystems.www, 2 October, 1996.
  3. InfoCorp Inc., "Going Digital" at
    gopher://gopher.icorp.com:70/11/Papers/GoDig/, 15 July, 1996.
Note that in the first example you should use the title of the page ("John's Page") followed by whatever heading of the piece you're citing. In the second, citing a Usenet News post, you should use the subject of the post and its date--not the date you saw it. Finally, in the Gopher example, use the URL rather than just the Gopher server.

Specific Suggestions for Science Seminar Papers.

Since this is a science seminar, we insist that the papers be about science, something of importance to science, or something science influences or has influenced. The paper can also be about something that challenges or enhances scientific knowledge, methodology, or philosophy.

While your classroom oral reports may be informational and descriptive, a written paper gives you opportunity to evaluate and analyze, relate one thing to another, and probe more deeply into reasons and connections.

One pitfall is to treat your subject too broadly. The paper must have a focus, made clearly apparent to the reader early in the paper and consistently followed throughout.

    If your focus is a person or persons, you should put that person's scientific work into the context of the society of the time, and the science of the time. You will want to analyze scientific ideas and their impact on the course of scientific development.

    If your focus is a period (long or short) in history, you should look at what was going on in science then, what were the concerns and attitudes of the scientists, and how their work was enhanced or limited by the tools at their disposal. You should also explore the interaction of individuals as they exchanged ideas and criticized each other's work.

    If your focus is on a particular claim to knowledge (good science, bad science, pseudoscience or other) you need to analyze the claim, the evidence supportive of the claim, its testable predictions, its proponents and opponents, and its philosophical basis.

Suitable Topics for Science Term Papers.

In no particular logical order, here are some topic ideas off the top of my head.

  1. Pseudosciences masquerading as science. Creation-science is perhaps the most visible example right now. However, researching this topic could easily result in your being buried in claims and counter-claims not crucial to the central issues, which might make it difficult for you to even find the central issues.
  2. Claims of knowledge "outside" of the limits of science: paranormal or supernatural. The issue here is "On what basis can such claims be made and how can they be tested, if not by the methods of science?" Some claim that it's just a matter of extending science ("If scientists would only study this...."). Others claim the alleged phenomena will be "forever outside the limits of science."
  3. Recent philosophical critical analyses on the scientific world view and its methodology. Read Kuhn, Popper, Feyerabend, Lakatos. Some of these people seek to modify, or replace, the methodology of science. Some of those in the field called "science studies" claim that scientists' 'reality' is merely a social construct: a world-view of mutual agreement among an elite group of scientists, without any objective reality.
  4. Philosophical views of knowledge: the egocentric vs. the scientific view. The mystical vs. the objective view.
  5. Cases of honest mistakes within science. Include discussion of what motivated these, and some observations on how they can be avoided. Some examples: N-rays, M-rays, polywater, cold fusion.
  6. Opposition to new scientific ideas, by scientists and non-scientists. Examples: atoms, relativity, continental drift, evolution.
  7. Over-enthusiastic acceptance of a scientific idea that later is shown to be wrong. Cold fusion, medical `miracle cures'.
  8. Deliberate fraud in science. This is rather rare, but the few examples are interesting. Some cases that have generated recent interest: Alleged fudging of data by Ptolemy, and by Gregor Mendel.
  9. Hoaxes in science. Piltdown man. Berringer's stones. The "moon" hoax of the New York Sun. The Kensington Runestone. Piltdown Man, the Piri Ries map, the Vinland map.
  10. Scientists who were victims of self-delusion, seeing what they wanted to see. Scientists duped by spiritualism in the late 19th and early 20th century. N-rays (physics), M-rays (mitogenetic radiation, biology), 'canals' of Mars.
  11. Discarded scientific ideas. Some scientific ideas and models, while not entirely wrong or misguided, are abandoned, replaced or drastically modified by something better. Examples: phlogiston, caloric, the luminiferous ether.
These come to my mind because I know something about them. I hope that you come up with extensions to this list.

Wrapping It Up.

For the best possible grade, review your paper to be sure that you:

  • Address the subject of the seminar. Since this is a science seminar, your paper should relate in an important way to science (not technology).
  • Stick to the chosen topic. Don't stray into side issues.
  • Make the structure and organization of the paper appropriate to the subject and clear to the reader.
  • Discuss issues and themes. Don't merely recount facts and events.
  • Thoroughly document all sources and assertions, with internal references in a consistent form.
  • Present the material in a readable and professional style. Double-space the text. Use only one side of each sheet, with at least a one inch margin at the left and 3/4 inch margins on the other three sides. Avoid distracting font styles. Secure the pages in some way so that they can't get out of order.
The commonest deficiency of previous term papers I've seen was their lack of analysis of issues, failure to expose connections and relations or to dig into historical background. Another deficiency was too-heavy reliance on language and style of sources. A good essay is not a cut-and-paste operation. It must show clearly your contribution to the organization, selection, and analysis of the materials.

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