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
- Organize. Give logical continuity and structure to diverse
- 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
- 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
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
Example: If your subject were immunization against a particular
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
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
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:
- 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.
- Follow up those references to find books and papers in journals and
magazines. Each gives clues for further searches.
- Search, using author's names, to find the other things
they have written.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
meaningthe 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.
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
- The most prominent... important... essential... influential... (Avoid
- 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 wordsuperfluous.
The same number of syllables are dropped and you'll be more readily
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 disasterit is a terrible disaster,
apparently to distinguish it from a wonderful disaster. And they
never wait for developments, preferring to wait for future
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
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
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 firstthen
- 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 styledon'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
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
- 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
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.
- Smith, John "John's Page: Good Marketing Tactics" at
http://www.stateu.edu/users/jsmith/, 8 August 1996.
- Doe, Jane "Re: Putting Data Online?"
comp.infosystems.www, 2 October, 1996.
- InfoCorp Inc., "Going Digital" at
gopher://gopher.icorp.com:70/11/Papers/GoDig/, 15 July, 1996.
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
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
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
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- Philosophical views of knowledge: the egocentric vs. the scientific
view. The mystical vs. the objective view.
- 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.
- Opposition to new scientific ideas, by scientists and non-scientists.
Examples: atoms, relativity, continental drift, evolution.
- Over-enthusiastic acceptance of a scientific idea that later
is shown to be wrong. Cold fusion, medical `miracle cures'.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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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