By Andrei P. Tsygankov

Suggestions for Writing a Research Paper

Subject and topic:

Your paper should be written on the subject of your oral presentation. I provide you with topics, as the purpose of this class is to learn how to develop your own argument on a randomly picked topic. However, you are free to choose the theoretical tradition and the theory to apply, as well as the side to take (the latter is not true with your oral presentations).


Paper should be researched thoroughly and comply with the standards of a good argument. You can either follow my criteria or develop your own. In both cases, specify your criteria in writing near the beginning of your paper, and then show how the argument you are making and the overall structure measures up. This is especially important if your criteria differ from mine: I will do my best to grade your paper in accordance with your standards, but you have to be clear and specific enough to make my job easier. I am not likely to be convinced if your criteria do not include and spell out the notions of "theory," "evidence," and "counter-argument." If you want to make up your own criteria, you have to work around these concepts.

Here are the criteria I use in my own writing.

Statement of research question. Every argument begins with stating a problem/question and proposing an answer/solution. Get to your main point/thesis as soon as you can, preferably in the first or second paragraph. Sometimes, it is even appropriate (and effective!) to open up by posing your main research question. This grabs the reader’s attention immediately and helps to provide the required coherence and tone for the rest of your argument. Here you should attempt to accomplish two things. 1) Try to be as clear as possible in introducing your question and proposed answer. Being consise usually helps: state your point boldly by saying, for example, "I will argue that the current nuclear non-proliferation regime cannot be sustained and should be replaced with a different arrangement." Do not be shy in drawing lessons and proposing solutions if you feel there are lessons to learn. In this class, being bold is a plus, not a minus. 2) Explain why solving/answering your research question is the most important thing in the world (almost) and why, without solving it, peace and security in international relations cannot be maintained, or will suffer considerably. Be brief, but to the point—it is not your job to tell the entire history of the question, but it is your responsibility to provide two or three sentences explaining the context of its emergence and the ugency of its solution.

Theory. A sound theory is the "crown jewel" of your paper (especially when it is backed by strong evidence). If you don’t have a sound theory, you don’t have an argument, you don’t know how to collect evidence, you don’t have any objections to address, and—most importantly—you don’t have much to learn from your empirical case. A sound theory is clear, specific, and applicable beyond one case. A) It is clear in specifying its main assumptions, the concepts/variables you are working with, and the relations between them. B) It is specific in formulating specific hypotheses/propositions and pointing which evidence would count as proving and disproving it. C) It has a relatively broad scope that is it is able to account for case(s) beyond your own (For example, when selecting a theory for explaining NATO expansion, be sure it can help you to understand the expansion of NATO, but also check if it applies to understanding behavior of other military alliances as well). In other words, theory should be theory and tell us something important about human world in general.

Evidence. Good evidence is something, without which a theory is worth very little. We are not going to (and should not) be convinced by theory alone—it is evidence that validates it and demonstrates its explanatory/interpretive power. The key word in evaluating the quality of evidence is "sufficiency." Good evidence is theory-related, rich, and truthful. A) It is theory-related in a sense that every major theoretical point is backed up and in a sense that no piece of evidence comes out of nowhere, without having some roots in theory. B) It is rich in a sense that more evidence is always better than less. When you can, use both qualitative and quantitative evidence and draw them from different sources to avoid various biases. C) It is truthful because it does not distort, or add something to what you have found in research just to make your theory and argument work. If it does not, it does not work. Don’t use it defending your argument, report it honestly, and argue from strong, rather than weak evidence.

Counter-argument. Whether you present affirmative or negative case, you must address possible objections, or alternatives to your argument. I recommend selecting one or two most likely objections and addressing them in explicit and systematic fashion. There are number of ways to do it. You are free to criticize your objection’s theory, assumptions, or implications, but remember that the most convincing critique always has to do with evidence. Try to demonstrate how the evidence you found are stronger than those the other side uses. Show in what way the evidence your real or imaginative opponent uses are flawed or insufficient.

Style, or format. How you present your argument in writing makes a difference. If your style is not clear and inspiring, chances are that many won’t be able even to grasp your argument. A paper must have a good title, and a clear structure, be written in a comprehensible and grammatically correct language, comply with academic standards of footnotes references, be typed in 12 point letter-size, double-spaced, and proofread. A) The title should be within ten words limit and must decisively represent your central thesis, rather than be descriptive (for example, "The Non-Proliferation Regime Cannot Be Sustained," rather than "The Problems with Maintaining the NPR"). To get around this size vs. substance dilemma, consider using subtitles—they can be somewhat longer (another ten words or so) and usually serve to spell out your main thesis in a language that is free of jargon or mataphors. B) A clear structure means that a paper has an introduction, a central part (which may include sections on research question, theory, evidence, and counter-argument), and a conclusion. It generally follows the format "I am going to argue—I am arguing—I have argued." See more below. C) Language, references, letter-size, spacing, proofreading. Consult Van Evera (1997) and other below-indicated source for writing and footnotes’ style. There are different styles of academic writing (Chicago, Harvard, etc.). Choose one and be consistent throughout the whole paper.

If you choose to adopt the above-specified criteria, my grading of your paper will be as follows. Statement of you question (15%); Theory (20%); Evidence (30%); Objections (15%); Style (20%) = 100%.

Steps to follow:

Writing a paper is a complex process that may follow different strategies depending on a purpose. My recommendations are tailored for this particular class although I hope they might be applicable outside the class's format as well. A general process of writing a paper may be seen in terms of four major steps to follow: preliminary research, theoretical preparations, empirical research, and writing up.

Preliminary research. This is the earliest stage of a paper writing, at which a person usually looks for a research question that is sufficiently focused, theoretically interesting, and policy significant. This is done for you, so you should concentrate on other aspects of preliminary research: getting a sense of the subject, familiarizing yourself with various sources and beginning to prepare an annotated bibliography, exploring possible analytical points to make, and looking for a preliminary way to connect these smaller points into an overarching argument. Some researcher find it useful to look for a preliminary paper title at this stage as well. Everything is preliminary and subject to subsequent change here: title, sources, analytical points. In your case, the preliminary research should probably take one to two weeks.

Theoretical preparations. This stage comes next and includes critically surveying theoretical literature, deciding on a theoretical tradition and a theory to use, and writing proposal (short preliminary statement of your question, theory, evidence, and reaction to possible objections), and continuing to work on your annotated bibliography. Allocate a week or two for making this step.

Empirical research. Empirical research is usually the longest stage of all. Here, you are after your evidence, which should be rich, diverse, and precise. This is a challenging, but also, many people feel, an exciting task. It is exciting, because you have a chance to see for yourself whether your theory works (or it should be replaced with a better one) and whether you are actually on the right track.

In collecting your evidence, you ought to be guided by the earlier-selected theory, but not to be dogmatic and stay away from the evidence that suggests a different theoretical path.

Try to constantly weight the evidence that fit your theory against those that don’t and decide what to do about it. This is your call: you should decide whether to stay with your theory, modify it, or replace it with a better one. If you decision is not the former, it makes sense to go back to the stage of theoretical preparations. Such walking in circle—from theory to evidence and vice versa—is perfectly normal; so do not be frustrated by it. Almost nobody can get the right theory right away and then go straight to evidence and prove the theory. More typically, it is a two way process.

Ones you finally feel that you are on the right track, the job of collecting evidence becomes much easier. Collect and classify those that fit your theory (and specify in which way they do) and those that do not. By this time, you should be able to see in which way your evidence are superior to those that do not fit your theory. Set the latter aside and be prepared to explicitly address them in the "alternative explanations" section. Prepare the final version of the annotated bibliography.

Overall, allocate about a month to complete the empirical research stage.

Writing up. This stage may be as creative and exciting as the previous one; in fact, some find it most energizing and satisfying, in part because the final outcome gets so much closer. It includes preparing an outline, first, and second draft. Here, the most challenging part is preparing a good outline, not the actual writing. A good outline should include all of your major and most of your minor points. It serves the purpose of a good road map: it should give you a clear sense of the general direction you are going to and of the points you are going to meet on your way there. Below, I spend a bit more time on organizing your paper.

The whole process of writing up the first draft should take you two to three weeks.


I recommend the following structure, or organization of your paper (which is very similar to the one adopted by Van Evera, see below): introduction, question, theory, evidence, possible objections, and conclusion. Always begin with the substantive sections and leave introduction and conclusion to the end.

Introduction. Introduction should make three points: it should briefly introduce your question and its significance, your answer, and orient the reader regarding your way of proceeding. This is the place to say, "I am going to argue…"

Question. Introduce your question by saying how and in which context it emerged and explaining why it is important to answer it.

Theory. Introduce your theory by specifying the used concepts and the relations between them. Be as precise as you can in specifying the concept/variable you are going to use for explaining/understanding the phenomenon that interests you. Specify how the theory chosen relates to evidence and which testable propositions can be derived from it. Here is your chance to say, "I am arguing…"

Evidence. You are arguing here as well, only this time on empirical rather than theoretical level. Relate your evidence to the theory and report them one by one. Depending on the choice of evidence, they can be presented in a number of different ways, but they must be closely tied to your theory.

Possible objections. You are still arguing, and this is where you complete your argument by addressing possible objections. You shouldn’t have trouble identifying objections, because you went though the evidence that don’t fit your theory at the stage of doing research. But if you do, try to imagine the audience you are likely to write for and one or two most important objections, this audience might raise in response to your argument. Explain your choice. Then, address these objections theoretically and empirically. This is a place to justify your choice of your theory and to show how the alternative explanations are wrong or not sufficient in answering your question.

Conclusion. Here, you do two things. First, you summarize your argument and your findings, "I have argued…" Second, you conclude, or specify what your analysis implies. Why is your solution important for the world? Can your answer help to solve an important policy issue? Can it be extended to regions/cases outside the one that you explicitly addressed in this paper? Be careful here; a typical error is to "conclude" what doesn’t follow from the analysis at all. Do not overstate your findings, but don’t sell yourself short too!

Size and sources:

The size of your paper and the amount of sources is not something I am going to grade you on. Normally papers of this kind come out around 15 to 20 double-spaced pages, but it can vary greatly depending on how complex a theory and evidence are. Don’t worry about it. Instead, worry about missing some best pieces of evidence that may defend or undermine your argument. Your key consideration should be sufficiency of your theoretical and empirical treatment of the question that you address. So the quantity is of no concern. However, the quality (of your sources and your theory) is a different matter and should be discussed with me individually.

This applies to your sources as well. It is quantity that matters, but quality. In the past, I had several examples of students’ overreliance on Internet and electronic data bases, without giving enough consideration to traditional academic sources. Some students used Internet, without having any idea about the owner of a web page and credibility of the information provided. You job is to be sceptical, thorough, and truthful, and you must know the sources you are citing. To compensate for this sort of shortcomings, I am imposing several formal minimal requirements regarding your sources. As you work on your paper, you must read and cite at least two academic books or five articles from refereed academic journals, such as ISQ, IO, WP, IS, EJIR etc (those long articles, with long citations). More is welcome! Internet is welcome too, but as a supplement, not a replacement, of more traditional sources. You are welcome to start with Internet to identify sources, but then you need to go to the library to check the sources and their relevance.

Other suggestions:

Start early. As you can see, writing a paper is a lot of work. So start early; do not procrastinate!

Have a point. Your overall paper, each section, each subsection, and each paragraph must have a point. Do not write just to write: there must be a good reason why you are writing this particular paragraph and why it is where it is, not some place else in the paper.

Have a friend. It is very important to have second (and third) eye for your paper. A friend will proofread your paper and give you a more general feedback regarding your structure, language, or the argument.

Learn more about academic honesty and dishonesty/plagiarism. When in doubt on citation rules, consult me or other faculty. We do take cases of plagiarism seriously and do not tolerate it.

Prepare the first draft in advance. If you prepare the first draft in advance, you win time to still make it stronger by getting reaction from friends and peers and by referring to it later with a fresh eye of your own.

Additional readings:

Craig, Joann. 1999. Success in IR. (See special sections on paper writing)

Kassiola, Joel. 1992. Rationally Persuasive Writing is Like House Painting: It’s All in the Preliminaries. Political Studies: 14-18

Van Evera, Stephen. 1997. How to Write a Paper. In his: Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science: 123-28. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Strunk, William, Jr. and E.B. Wight. 1979. The Elements of Style. 3d ed. NY: Macmillan.

Weston, Anthony. 1992. A Rulebook for Argument. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2nd ed. (See especially pp. 66-83).