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Athabasca University

Writing a Research Essay for a Senior Social Science Course

All governance courses are numbered at the 300 and 400 level, and virtually all are deemed to be in the “social science” area. What this means is that the course is geared toward students who are in their 3rd and 4th year of university studies. As such, the tutor of your Governance course will have specific expectations with respect to how a social science essay is written.

There are many excellent online references that walk students through the process of writing a research paper. Some of my personal favourites are:

But more succinctly, the expectations for a paper prepared for senior level social science course can be broken down into three general areas:

  1. Analysis and argument
  2. Evidence
  3. Quality of expression

1. Analysis and argument

The point of a research paper is to read what others in the field have written about the topic, think about whether what they say makes sense logically and whether or not they support themselves with solid evidence, then form your own opinion which you express in your paper. A paper without an argument has no point, it describes the issues without analyzing it. Your argument should be expressed as a thesis statement in your introduction, i.e., at the end of the first or second paragraph. An argument gives your paper organizational structure; each paragraph you write should relate back to and advance your argument. Your conclusion is not the place to put your thesis, nor is this a place to new ideas that have not been previously discussed. Your conclusion should summarize the points you have already made in your paper and restate your thesis (i.e., hammer your point home!)

2. Evidence

Quantity: A senior level research paper written for a social science class must be based on research that the student has conducted. A senior essay should contain a minimum of between four and six resources. While in some cases it is acceptable to use course textbooks as a reference, using the course manual should be avoided. Research means you are supposed be coming up with your own sources!

Books can be ordered from Athabasca University's library, or, you can access many online journals that contain articles published by academics who are experts in the area you are writing about. For assistance with using AU’s library, call 1-800-788-9041, ext. 6254 or visit the library's help centre.

Quality: Many students use material they have found on the web. Be aware that most web material is not “peer reviewed.”1 That is, the posted information has not been vetted by experts in that field. Put more bluntly, anyone can post anything on the web so the quality of information can vary dramatically. Books and articles that appear in academic journals are not published until they have been read by experts who attest to their quality. Note that Wikipedia is not considered to be an acceptable “academic source” for a research paper. If you must use an internet source, you first must make a very critical evaluation of its quality, and you must cite it correctly. For more information on assessing web resources, see the University of Alberta library's resource guide “critical evaluation of resources on the internet”.

Quotes: Remember that quotes should be used to support your point, not to make it. So avoid the temptation to use someone else's words because s/he “said it so well.” This is YOUR paper, you make the point, then back yourself up by referring to a point made by an expert that supports what you are saying. As such, you shouldn’t be using quotes at the beginning of paragraphs, nor should you be quoting entire paragraphs. I also caution against finishing your paper with a quote. This is YOUR paper after all, YOU should have the last word!

Plagiarism: Resist the temptation to cut and paste other people's work, even for the purpose of compiling the notes you make while writing your paper. If someone else's words make it into your paper and you fail to cite the source, you are guilty of plagiarism, an academic offense that has serious consequences. In the academic world, plagiarism is considered to be theft; it does not matter if it was done unintentionally. Take a few moments to review Athabasca University's policy on plagiarism.

Many students who are guilty of plagiarism did not intend to commit fraud when they began their courses, but ended up plagiarizing because of sloppy research practices that resulted from poor time management and a looming contract deadline. If you are unsure of what the assignment expectations are or are having difficulties with your course material, contact your tutor. S/he is there to assist you with any academic problems that you might be having. You can also take advantage of the study related resources that have been compiled by staff at Athabasca University .

If you are having problems completing your course because of medical or personal problems, contact Athabasca University’s student counseling to discuss what options you have.

You may be completing your course through individualized study, but that does not mean that you must cope with problems alone.

Citation style: There are many different citation styles that can be used, but Chicago and APA are the most commonly used in Governance courses. What is of most importance is that you pick an acceptable style, use the it correctly and consistently. This includes web resources! For correct citation styles see Duke University libraries “assembling a list of works cited in your paper”.

3. Quality of expression

Express yourself: A well written paper is a pleasure to read. Don't try to copy the writing style of the academic papers you have read as part of your research. Write your paper in your own words and say what you have to say in plain English. Using big words incorrectly will not only make for difficult reading, it will definitely not impress your tutor!

Get organized: Each paragraph in your paper should relate to both the paragraph before and after it, and it should advance your thesis. Avoid the use of section headings in a short paper, particularly if you are tempted to use them in the place of transitional sentences between paragraphs. If you must use section headings, remember that “introduction” and “conclusion” do not make compelling titles!

Fix those writing problems: Spelling and grammatical problems really detract from the “flow” of the paper. Twist someone's arm to proof read your paper for you – this person will catch the errors that your eyes glaze over when you proof read your paper for the 10th time in three days. If you do not have anyone who can proof read for you, put your paper in a drawer for a week after completion, then read it out loud to yourself. It is amazing the things that you will see when you read it with “fresh eyes,” particularly if you read it out loud.

Common errors I love to hate!

Plural versus possessive:
Tables = plural, i.e., there is more than one table.
Table's = possessive, i.e., something belongs to the table.

Verb agreement:
Government, public, the state, the police, a non profit organization, the Board, the administration = singular, therefore, the government is an “it,” not a “they”

It's = it is
its = possessive
its' does not exist in the English language.

Hint for remembering the difference, never use “it's” in a formal essay as you should not be using contractions. It is always better to spell it out.

1For more information on peer reviewed articles, see the University of Alberta library's resource guide, “peer reviewed materials”.

Updated January 26 2016 by Student & Academic Services

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