It's remarkable how much Squidward appears in a Google Images search for writing term papers during an all-nighter.
It's remarkable how much Squidward appears in a Google Images search for writing term papers during an all-nighter.

I take great pride in teaching a quantitative methods class that emphasizes work toward an end-of-the-semester research design paper. I’ve been genuinely surprised at the results that some students put forward. This class has also produced a couple research assistants for me and students who have begun graduate school or will be sure to start graduate programs soon (i.e. once they graduate).

The research design paper that I get is, from my experience, a reliable metric about who has considerable promise as a political science student. Those who excel at it have considerable promise for the next phase of their career. Those that do not stand out from the pack on this project are indistinguishable from their peers with nothing negative implied. At the least, the research design papers are okay on average.

This semester was a bit different. Several errors either appeared or were ubiquitous that I had not seen in my 8.5 years of teaching college students. What follows is a warning for future students both in my class and, ideally, students taking any political science class that builds toward an end-of-the-semester research paper. Students may find a previous blog post on “dos and don’ts of writing” and how to do a literature review to be useful. For the sake of my methods class, students should also read my research design paper instructions.

Get to the Point and Stay on Point (Seriously)

Most of my comments on student papers concern the length of time it takes for a student to say anything. These comments take the form of “A to B in as few words as possible” or “where is this going…”. The latter indicates much more frustration than the former. By time that comment appears, I may have already made my mind about what grade the student is getting for a particular section of the paper. Typically, that’s not good.

My hunch is students take forever to get to the point they think they are arguing because they are worried about not meeting a page length requirement or the minimum word count. Students mistake that the biggest sin in a research paper in a college class is not meeting those minimum length requirements. That’s not true. The biggest sin is leading the reader on a path to nowhere.

I believe there’s an obvious solution to this issue, though it requires taking to heart lessons students learned (or should have learned) in writing papers at lower levels of education. Outline each proposed paragraph in each section. For example, the literature review of any research paper should be about eight paragraphs in length.1 Make an outline with six-to-eight bullet points. The student that starts with just six bullet points can expand one of them to an additional paragraph later. For each bullet point, write a clear and concise statement that corresponds with an important lesson gathered from the review of the literature.

I’ll illustrate this with a condensed version of my literature review in my forthcoming Conflict Management and Peace Science article. For sake of clarity, I omit some parenthetical citations for these claims in order to better illustrate what this process should resemble.

  1. Why do invididuals prefer a “strong leader” (with many discretionary powers) if we believe preferences for democracy are universal?
  2. Perhaps this preference for democracy is “lip service” if we have not seen it manifest in democracy at the state-level.
  3. We think there are two broad classes of macro-level and micro-level explanations for this discrepancy between democratic preferences and democratic institutions.
  4. At the macro-level, these discrepancies cluster on various “cultures”.
  5. “Authoritarian values” seem to explain this phenomenon at the micro-level (i.e. the individual-level).
  6. However, the macro-level argument also coincides with “zones of peace” arguments that draw reference to reduced international threat in Europe.
  7. Hetherington and his colleagues show how international threats lead to a peculiar convergence of opinion not implied by the “authoritarian values” arguments.
  8. This implies that existing literature has much to learn from how salient international threats, like those to territory, condition support for “strong leaders”.

From this, I can expand and generalize these claims to a full-bodied literature review. Students can—really: must—do this with their theories as well. All told, it makes for much better structure in a particular section of the research paper.

Further, it should allow the student to stay on track when writing a particular section of the paper. Too many papers derail early in a given section when the student is chasing the elusive minimum word count or page length.

A (Simple!) Thesis Statement for Each Paragraph

I hope the prospective student noticed in my example above that each item in the list amounted to a thesis statement that guided each paragraph I wrote for that literature review. This frames the entire paragraph to follow. I do not stray off-topic.

The prospective student should also notice that these sentences are simple, direct, and to the point. The student should not waste time in saying what s/he needs to say.

There are two important drawbacks from making (what amount to be) thesis statements into these complex, qualifier-laden chores to read. One, it buries the proverbial lede. It confuses the reader about what point needs to be communicated. Two, it takes important “bite” from the statement that should be catching the reader’s eye. Simple sentences are always more jarring and noticeable.

Let me illustrate this with a reworked example from a paper I graded. All typos and spelling-grammatical errors are “as is”.

During this paper I seek to establish that while unilateral sanctions may have proven to be more successful than previous multilateral sanctions, when a group of states establish a multilateral sanction through the use of an international institution, rallying behind one central issue the multilateral sanction will be more successful.

Yuck. A better way to state this argument follows:

In this paper, I argue that multilateral sanctions can be more effective than unilateral sanctions when there is just one issue at stake and when the sanctioning states legitimate the sanctions through international institutions.

This reworked example uses a much simpler sentence structure to more plainly communicate the overall point of the paper to follow.

However, I caution that thesis statements, especially about the overall argument in the paper, should be even simpler than that. Given this author identified two conditions under which s/he purports multilateral sanctions would be more effective than unilateral sanctions, it might even be better to state this argument as follows:

In this paper, I argue that multilateral sanctions can be more effective than unilateral sanctions under two conditions. First, multilateral sanctions are more effective than unilateral sanctions when there is just one issue at stake. Second, multilateral sanctions are more effective than unilateral sanctions when the sanctioning states legitimate the sanction policy through an international institution.

I suppose there is some value in the first example, though. The first example is better if the student is concerned foremost with the minimum page length and word count. The second example is better if the students wants the reader to know what s/he intends to argue. I care more about the latter than the former.

The third example is a happy medium between the two, should the student place more urgency on the minimum word count/page length.

Never “Quote-Dump”

The “quote-dump” is one of the worst, most commonly appearing elements to any student paper and it needs to stop post haste.

By “quote-dump”, I refer to the practice of taking a verbatim passage from a given text (sometimes a full sentence and routinely more than that), inserting it as a direct quote into a paragraph, and offering the minimal parenthetical citation to avoid accusations of plagiarism. Turnitin will flag this practice as “unoriginal”, and it is. It’s not plagiarism, but it sure as heck is not original.

The spirit of the “quote-dump” is effectively plagiarism. Both are devices used by the student who 1) does not want to take time to write something in his/her own words and 2) does not want to take time to adequately understand what the cited source actually means for the student’s purpose.

Professors encourage citing relevant sources used in the course of writing a research paper. However, failure to take time to translate what the cited sources are saying into the student’s own words amounts to something that is spiritually similar to plagiarism. The “quote-dump” will not result in an academic misconduct hearing, but both the “quote-dump” and plagiarism may result in identically poor grades for the assignment.

Here’s a guide for students who are asking themselves whether they should directly quote a source verbatim in their paper (i.e. “quote-dump”).

  1. Don’t do it.
  2. Is the quote from a policymaker or otherwise public figure (i.e. not an academic source)? If so, you can think about using it as a tool to frame your paper with an informative quote that illustrates an ongoing debate. Here’s an example from Stohl et. al’s (1984) article on whether human rights considerations actually mattered to U.S. foreign assistance decisions from the Nixon Administration to the Carter Administration. Notice the quote to begin the article.
  3. Did the author from whom you are thinking about quote-dumping say something so profound—or even profoundly wrong—that it needs to be said as is? If so, you can think about “quote-dumping” a particular passage to draw attention to how this passage is so profound it needs to be included as a blockquote. Ashworth et al. (2008a) and Ashworth et al. (2008b) use this device largely to draw the reader’s attention to the extent of logical fallacies and research design flaws committed by Pape (2003) in his analysis on the causes of suicide terrorism. Odds are the student will not encounter such a situation for the end-of-the-semester research paper.
  4. So, don’t do it. Use your own words.

Other Miscellaneous Tips

  • Don’t do anything at the last minute. Believe me; it shows.
  • Proofread, seriously.
  • Follow instructions. This one should go without saying.
  • Learn APSA citation style, or whichever one the professor wants. I think most of us want APSA style.
  • Learn what is and is not a proper noun. I’ve never seen such confusion about what is and is not a proper noun in my life. Things like [sic] “(U.S.) civil war”, “cold war”, “vladimir putin”, “obama”, and “department of defense” I see reduced to common nouns while disparate terms like [sic] “Oil”, “Gas”, “Systems”, and “Terror” become proper nouns. Is this a residual effect of kids coming of age with the internet? I’m wondering if this is something akin to a Buzzfeed effect (see example here).
  • Does it need to be said, but is it ultimately a diversion from the overall point the student is trying to communicate? If so, make it a footnote.
  • To parrot my dos and don’ts of writing post: never use passive voice, never use weasel words, do not use adverbs, and do not use the word “very”. I expand further on the rationale for these in that post.
  1. No rule is hard and fast, but this is about average for any research paper. I have seen literature reviews that were as short as four-to-six paragraphs, but this generally coincides with longer sections of a research paper elsewhere (e.g. the theory section).