How to Write a Good Paper
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Papers should be about five pages long, and should be handed in during section meetings on the 8th of December. Late papers will be penalized by 20% for each day or part day late.

Selecting a Topic

Four possible questions have already been posted on the class website. A few students have been given permission to use other topics. The rest of you should choose one of these standard questions and answer it carefully.

The four questions have all been designed to give you considerable flexibility in deciding exactly what to focus on or which combination of readings to use in answering them. Because there are so many different ways of answering each, it is important that you decide which aspects and readings to focus on. Be sure to explicitly deal with ideas or material from at least four different readings, covering at least two different weeks of the class.

You will receive additional credit for bringing in readings and ideas other than those covered in the required course readings. In general, this will be a prerequisite for an A- or better. I'm happy to advise about these -- depending on the topic, suitable sources might be books about the Internet, the website CIO.com, the Harvard Business Review, the New York Times, etc. They don't necessarily have to be scholarly or theoretical.

Important note: The best papers will bring in a broader range of ideas and readings, while remaining focused on a single coherent thesis. It is fine to "bring in" readings by just mentioning them in a citation and referencing in the text a key idea. You don't have to write whole paragraphs summarizing the entire argument. For example, if you are writing a paper on the use of IT to improve business processes, you might find a way to support your argument by referring to the differentiation of knowledge from data (even though this isn't explicitly called for in the list of topics in the question). While this is discussed in the Knowledge Management readings and (a bit critically) in my paper on "How the Computer Became Information Technology," you wouldn't have to summarize the whole article. A citation to the appropriate reading, with a snappy definition of the relevant point, would be fine. I'm more interested in novel use, application and combination of these ideas than in seeing you do a précis of the whole article. We have the exam to test for that.

Have a Thesis!!

As well as a topic, you will need a thesis. The topic is the question you propose to answer in your paper -- for example, in one of my papers it was the relationship of administrative "systems men" to the idea of the totally integrated management information system during the 1960s. (Your topics will be rather broader than this, because you are not doing any specialized research). The thesis is a succinct statement of your answer. All the rest of the paper should be structured to support and elaborate on this thesis. In my paper, the thesis was something like: "The systems men invented and promoted the idea of the totally integrated management information system as the only proper goal of corporate computer use in order to assert control over the data processing department without sacrificing their claims to be managerial generalists."

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  Have a thesis, and state it clearly and concisely at the start of the paper. Do it in two or three sentences and make sure I know which ones they are. A paper is not a newspaper article, or a book review. The thesis should be the backbone of your paper – eliminate material that is not relevant to it. Refer back to the thesis as the paper develops.

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Try to make the thesis something that is not totally obvious (otherwise the paper is boring). For example, arguing that computers are important to business would be a bad thesis, for just this reason. Try to be interesting and original (without some originality, it will be hard to get more than a "B").

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On the other hand, the thesis should be supportable. I don’t have to agree with you after reading, but I do need to feel that you’ve made a strong case and that the argument might be plausible. The best papers try to take into account possible objections to the argument presented, and admit areas where the idea might not apply or where evidence is lacking.

Other Hints

1.    Remember your audience. Your paper is not a private communication between you and your professor. You should have in mind an audience of interested informatics professionals and students who are not necessarily experts in the topic of this paper. Remember also that there are some things that we do in informal writing (contractions, abbreviations, slang) that are not appropriate in formal writing.

2.    Have a conclusion. The paper should not just fizzle out when you run out of ideas – finish with something that ties your argument together nicely. It’s often useful to summarize your argument, gathering together the main pieces of evidence and showing that they demonstrate your thesis.

3.   Give supporting evidence. Strengthen your argument by referring directly to the text of the books. Don’t just recount what happened in the book, interpret it. Analyze the evidence to show how it supports your thesis. Quoting phrases or single sentences is fine, but don’t include large chunks. Give page numbers for specific points, chapter numbers where you are talking more about a general part of the book. Extra credit for using relevant evidence not assigned for this class.

4.    Don’t bite off more than you can chew. For a short paper like this one, narrow your focus and choose a thesis that you can support in the space allocated. Most bad papers attempt to make an overly general and grandiose argument.

5.    Do not plagiarize. Plagiarism is a serious offense and is grounds for failing the entire course. This includes handing in a paper for which you have received credit in another course (even if it is your work), handing in someone else’s paper or a portion of their paper, or failing to acknowledge (cite) your sources. Directly quoted material not placed within quotation marks is also plagiarism, even if you do include a citation. We reserve the right to run your paper through anti-plagiarism software.

Mechanics

1.    Give you paper a title which indicates the subject of the paper and your argument.

2.    Double-space your papers, using a 12 point serif font (Times, Palatino, Garamond, Century Schoolbook, etc.) with margins of at least one inch all around.

3.    On no account should your paper be more than 6 pages. It should not be less than 4 pages. When in doubt, cut rather than pad.

4.     Number the pages.

5.     Staple your papers.

6.     Keep a copy. Don’t risk losing it.

7.    Always proof your paper. Read it carefully, from a printout. Reading it out loud is the best way of spotting typos. Not spotting typos is the dumbest way to lose marks. Remember, the spell checker does not know what you actually meant to say.

How to Cite Sources

Academic authors base their arguments around the careful citation of evidence. Whenever you directly quote someone’s work, report someone else’s ideas, or present facts that are not common knowledge, you should let your readers know your source and give enough information for them to find that source. Even if you use your own words to restate another’s ideas, failing to cite constitutes plagiarism.

As a minimum, you must include the full title of the book, the name of the author, the year and city of publication. If you are citing a paper within a larger volume, then you must give the name of the collection and its editors. The examples below are from an actual paper.

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From a book: Sidney Pollard, The Genesis of Modern Management (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), chap. 7.

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From a journal: Clarence H. Danhof, “The Farm Enterprise: The Northern United States, 1820-1860,” Research in Economic History, 4 (1979), 127-191.

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From a collection: Albert Fishlow, “Antebellum Interregional Trade Reconsidered,” in R.L. Anderson, ed., New Views on American Economic Development (Cambridge: Schenkman Publishing Company, 1965) pp. 187-200.

bullet From the Web: Jon Surmacz, A Second Look at CRM Dawin Magazine, 11 June 2003 [cited 08 August 2003]. Available from http://www.darwinmag.com/learn/numbers/number_detail.cfm?ID=all&METRIC=558.

(Note: if you find material from a print newspaper, journal or magazine in an electronic database then cite the original print version -- not the electronic repository in which it is archived).

Students sometime ask whether they can cite material from lectures. Remember that the purpose of citation is to allow somebody else to go back to your source. Hence a public source is better than a private one. If you can find the same information in print, then cite this source instead. You could always ask the lecturer where it came from! However, if you are unable to do this then it is better to cite your lecture notes (giving date, lecturer, course number and venue) then to present no source at all.

Everything you could ever want to know about the technicalities of academic writing is contained in the Chicago Manual of Style. However, the book itself may be a little too complete for your current needs.

You will find a more user friendly version of the same material in Kate Turabian. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses and Dissertations. 6th edition, revised by John Grossman and Alice B. Bennett. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). This is the standard work recommended for student writing.


Page copyright Thomas Haigh -- email thaigh@acm.org.    Home: www.tomandmaria.com/tom. Updated 08/31/2003.