Academic Writing and Research
Formal Research
      and Academic Writing
Arthur Dirks
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Formal Research and Academic Writing

by Arthur Dirks
The Research Report
The Academic Paper
Preferred Paper Structure
Academic Writing Style

Research is defined as "the systematic investigation into and study of materials, sources, etc., in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions" (Thompson, 1996). In your early writing courses you had some formal introduction to this activity, and may have some research experiences in other course work. In this capstone course, we will revisit this topic with a focus on its value for discovery.

The term "research" often provokes phobic reactions, yet as theatre artists we constantly are called upon to perform considerable research activity in practicing our crafts. Performers research through focused observation of contemporary and historical behaviors and given circumstances. The importance of such research is fundamental to Stanislavsky's Method and its successors, and critical to such predecessors as Delsarte. Playwrights and all writers research the ground of their stories. Directors research past productions and critical perspectives, the voice of the playwright, as well as the period and environment of the story. Designers focus research period and style, as well as meanings and motifs. All research the specific sources of the play, and the sense of the metaphor.

The differences between those research activities and the more formal practice we pursue has to do with the difference in the ways we share the results of our research with our community. The structured practices traditionally characterized as research lead to formal interchanges with the community on a cognitive level, typically in various kinds of written research reports. Artists conduct their research in more informal ways and report their conclusions to the community through their art works. The structured practices are defined by Western logical traditions, while the interaction through symbolic expression is based in more fundamental social behavior.

It is true, nevertheless, that logical, discursive thinking is the standard for rational thought in Western culture, and a fundamental reason for general public education. Because the practices were refined in the environment of the academy, they are often referred to as academic research practices.

Artists need to be able to interact with the discursive world, which means a fundamental understanding of disciplined inquiry and how it is shared with the community. An experience in formally reporting a research investigation is best for such learning.

Approaches to Research

Much research is reported informally and rarely qualified by its sources. Over time, with the refinement of what has been called the scientific method, the methods of structured research have been codified to ensure that conclusions can be recognized widely as valid. For the most part, these methods are reducible to the traditional structures of deductive and inductive logic.

It is easy to see this process at work in some investigations, such as a scientific experiment, in which we attempt to derive a truth in a deductive manner. We can also see the process in social science research, where a survey might lead to a truth about human behavior. It is less easy to see how research occurs in the humanities fields, but it is very important to the process of discovery. An investigation into the background or themes of an author or artist should lead to conclusions that will enlighten other aspects of her opus. An exploration of the perspectives of directors on a topic should shape an understanding of its treatment on the stage. Inquiry into a group of events or occurrences should lead to an understanding of a cultural psychology or behavior or value.

If . . . , then . . . .

The key in all of these examples, is that the research leads to some conclusion beyond itself; that is, it is not enough simply to gather the information, called data (which, incidentally, is a plural form), but it must be constructed into meaning. A common attitude fostered in many research assignments is that one "looks up stuff" and reports it. Facts are not enough. Research is a process that involves not only data gathering, but also analysis and interpretation. In fact, the analysis is constant, determining what data are to be collected, seeking to bring meaning to the data as they are collected, and attempting to understand the implications of the discovery.


First, some terms. As with most other communities, researchers have developed a specific vocabulary to communicate clearly about their work. The lexicon is large, but anyone who reads and seeks to understand critically the reports of research must understand how a few basic terms are used in specific ways. Unfortunately, many can be confusing in their pairings. [The language below is influenced by Jaeger (1993), and by Vockell & Asher (1995).]

Inductive and deductive reasoning. These were described initially by Aristotle in his Rhetoric, in the 4th century BC, and they form the basis for rational thought since the Enlightenment (17th century AD). Most fundamentally, inductive reasoning is the drawing of inferences from a collection of data. Typically, this is an observation of common qualities or patterns among them that can explain experience or predict experience.

"Mark B is 3 meters from mark A; mark C is 4 meters from mark B, mark D is 5 meters from mark C; therefore, mark E is probably 6 meters from mark D."

The "probable" statement about other instances is called an inductive leap. An inductive conclusion lacks the power of proof, but it generates theory.

This statement then is verifiable (provable) through deductive processes, which we all learned as the basis of geometry proofs, with their definitional "all" and "none" statements:

"All three-sided polygons are triangles; this polygon has three sides; therefore, this polygon is necessarily a triangle."

Because it relies upon logical absolutes, this process is accepted as proof of theory, provided the statements, or terms, are valid and logical. While these constructs have been challenged and qualified by later scholars, they remain at the root of what we understand as being "logical" and "rational."

Scientific method: This is the process of advancing our understanding of the topic by drawing inferences based on the careful observation of facts. This involves both deductive and inductive reasoning. This "scientific" method was refined in the development of research at the end of the 1800s, and historic educator John Dewey is credited with later popularizing it. Dewey's formulation focuses on: a) perceiving a problem, b) stating a hypothesis as a tentative solution of the problem, c) deducing predicted consequences based on that hypothesis, d) collecting data to verify or reject that prediction, and e) drawing conclusions about the hypothesis based on an analysis of the data.

Hypothesis: A statement of the possible relationships among the variables in a research study. The research hypothesis is a proposed, tentative answer to the research question or research problem. It supports a research prediction about the behavior of the variables. The purpose of research is to support or reject this hypothesis, and that purpose guides decisions about what data are to be collected.

In the example of inductive logic, above, a hypothesis might be constructed that says " If a series of three marks are separated by successive increases of one meter (i.e. 3, 4, and 5 meters), then under similar circumstances the fourth in the series will be separated by the prior separation plus one (i.e. 6 meters)."

Variable: The variables are fundamentally the terms of the logical construct. In the deductive example of the polygon, the number of sides is an "independent" variable, and the definition as a triangle is a "dependent" variable. In the inductive example, the observed distance between the marks is the "independent" variable, and the calculated distance to the next mark is the "dependent" variable. In quantitative research, a variable is any characteristic on which the elements of a sample or population differ from each other. The converse of a variable is a constant, which is identical for all members of a sample or population.

Independent variable: These variables are conditions that are presumed to affect a dependent variable. They are either manipulated by the researcher or are observed by the researcher so that their values can be related to that of the dependent variable.

Dependent variable: This variable defines a principal focus of research interest. It is the variable that is presumably affected by one or more independent variables. This is also sometimes called the outcome variable.

To put this all together then, in a study of several popular contemporary plays, one might find what appears to be unusually frequent themes of violence and gruesome deaths on stage, and later read in the newspaper about a rise in violence and gruesome deaths in the culture. An inductive analysis might conclude that playwrights in the American theatre are responding to the violence in the culture. The conclusion is a leap of inference from the data, which at least are the frequency of these themes in plays and in the culture. The salience of violence and death in the culture is the independent variable. It is presumed to affect the frequency of violent and morbid themes by American playwrights, which is, therefore, the dependent variable.

A hypothesis about the relationship among the variables might be: "When violence and death are frequent in the culture, playwrights write plays about violence and death." (There are a number of problems with this statement, but it serves as a clear, if imperfect, example.)

In order to understand the research of others there are some additional considerations. Research methodologies fall into two basic categories:

Quantitative research: In quantitative research, variables are defined by numbers, such as measuring behaviors or counting instances, which are then used as a basis for comparisons and conclusions. The most exemplary quantitative methodology is the experimental design, whereby in its simplest form, two groups are measured, one group is treated, and the groups are measured again. Results are then compared. These methods are less frequently used in humanities fields directly, but many topics in theatre have quantitative dimensions. The measurement of audiences, economic health, patterns of phenomena of many kinds (geographical distribution, cyclical change, etc.), historical comparisons, and similar topics typically involve numerical comparisons.

Qualitative research: Qualitative researchers use observations, interviews, historical and narrative documentation, and similar subjective data as a basis for discovering and confirming relationships among variables. Many questions probe social situations and use field research techniques, which give considerable attention to describing the context of the social environment. These methods can be divided further into social science methods (case study, phenomenological, grounded theory), and humanities methods (historical, critical/descriptive). Further distinction is not important here.

One needs to regard the research of others critically. Some important concepts in considering the research are:

Validity: The coherence between the data and observations or conclusions drawn from them. It goes to the question of whether the data actually support the meaning that has been derived from it. Our conclusion that playwrights respond to the violence in the culture may be a valid conclusion or inference from the data of the plays and cultural statistics. A valid statement is not necessarily a true statement, however, because alternative and contradictory valid conclusions also may be drawn from the same data. In quantitative methods there are several kinds of validity (content, construct, concurrent, predictive), which are concerned with the degree to which a measurement instrument actually measures what it purports to measure.

Reliability: The degree to which the data would support the meaning in other circumstances. This asks the question of whether the statement is always true. In quantitative research, a measurement instrument that is reliable will provide consistent results when a given individual is measured repeatedly under near-identical conditions. A bathroom scale is reliable if it delivers the same weight when one person steps on and off several times.

Generalizability: The degree to which the conclusions can be extended to other circumstances. If some research prediction is proven in a specific situation, to what degree will the prediction hold true in another similar situation? This is important, because the power of research lies in its generalizability as much as its predictability and profundity. For instance, the conclusions suggested above, about playwrights responding to violence in the culture, are much more powerful if they predict something about the relationship between playwrights and culture in other times or places. The data must support the expanded statement, however, and no conclusion can be generalized beyond the support of its data.

Causality: One of the classic fallacies in logic is post hoc ergo propter hoc [after this; therefore, because of this]. Dependent and independent variables may change together, and one may predict the other, but that doesn't necessarily mean one causes the other to change. In our example both variables presumably change together – violence in plays and violence in the culture – but it would take more study than the coincidence of these changes to establish that one causes the other.

Primary sources: Primary sources are the original data in a state with no intervention or interpretation, the "first event." The ultimate original data is direct observation, but first-hand, unedited, untranslated, original transcription is an acceptable alternative (eye witness account, photo, original artwork or written work). Stringency about original sources often is related to the contestability of the conclusions, and sometimes the accessibility of the primary source. If the conclusion can be affected by the precise original wording in a foreign language, one must study the original wording, but that is more difficult if it is on a Dead Sea Scroll. If the statement is significant, its validity is in question because is based on secondary sources and the primary source may qualify or even contradict it.

Secondary sources: All sources that are not considered primary are considered secondary, the "reported event." These are descriptions, digests, translations, and reproductions of the first event. The famed "Swan Drawing," or "de Witt sketch" of the Elizabethan Swan Theatre, is at once a primary and a secondary source. The surviving drawing is really a secondary source of information about the Swan Theatre because it is a copy made by van Buchell (Brockett, 176). On the other hand, it remains a primary source of information about itself, in the sense that we can make statements about what it seems to show. Similarly, Shakespearean scholarship and interpretation turns on questions of "primariness" of various printed versions of his plays.

Structured Research

The process that incorporates these concerns is often called structured research, to differentiate it from casual and less formal research such as artists employ. As with Dewey's description of the scientific method, the steps have a logical coherence that gives power to the conclusions. The linear notion of steps is somewhat deceiving. While the flow of activity follows this pattern, multiple steps are in process at the same time, but some decisions are best made before others.

  1. Isolate and define the problem.
  2. Review previous research related to the problem.
  3. Formulate a working hypothesis (theory or proposition).
  4. Devise appropriate techniques and methods to verify it.
  5. Collect, record, classify, and control data. Two common controls are a) chronological, and b) topical.
  6. Find meaning in the data, and describe it (findings).
  7. Derive generalizations and conclusions (determination of the hypothesis).
  8. Suggest possible application of the findings and conclusions.
  9. Report findings and conclusions intelligibly.

The report follows a standard pattern, although there is variation:

  1. Describe problem.
  2. State intent of research.
  3. Review research and other literature on the topic.
  4. Discuss the hypothesis that drove the research, and its background.
  5. Describe the methods and techniques of the research.
  6. Describe the findings.
  7. Describe the conclusions.
  8. Suggest application and further research.


Brockett, O. G. (1977). History of the Theatre. Third edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Jaeger, R. M. (1993). Statistics: A Spectator Sport. Second edition. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Vockell, E. L. & Asher, W. J. (1995). Education Research. Second edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Thompson, Della, ed. (1996) The Oxford Modern English Dictionary. Second edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

The Research Report

The differences between artists and others who do research lie in the ways we share the results of our research with our community. Artists interact through the symbolic expressions of their work, while discursive understanding is reported in written form. That written form, as is consistent with logical methods, constructs an argument for its conclusions in such a way as to be logically persuasive of its truth.

Similarly, creativity and originality are expected in the document or presentation of the artist's discoveries. For the researcher, however, creativity and originality are focused upon the analysis and interpretation of the results, and upon the elegance and cleverness of the research design, not upon the writing of the report. The report is expected to be a clear, coherent, largely self-documenting account of the investigation and the discoveries it produced. Ambiguity, whether creatively introduced or not, is contradictory to the purpose of the research report. The result is a somewhat rigid style with great attention to detail. The language is clear, and words and concepts that might be confused are clearly defined by the author.

Following is an outline of a formal research report. In the data gathering process, an understanding of the structure allows the reader to find the elements quickly. Conclusions and arguments can provoke insight, reported data can support other observations, and citations can lead to more data. In the analysis and reporting processes, the structure suggests an organization of thought.

Text of the Paper

  1. Introduction
    1. An introduction to the Problem area that indicates the importance and validity of the particular Problem.
    2. A clear and sharply focused statement of the Problem, together with an analysis and specification of delimitations.
    3. A section that establishes the theoretical framework from and within which the investigation is to be conducted. Definition of terms, basic assumptions.
    4. A resumé of related research and professional literature.
    5. Design of the investigation.
  2. Investigation
    1. Discussion of what was examined and, if necessary, how it was acquired.
    2. Statement of results of investigation. What did investigation produce? Findings, not conclusions or generalizations.
  3. Generalization
    Evaluative discussion of the solution of the Problem in relation to previous research that was reported in the review of literature. Conclusions. This is the most intellectually demanding part of the project. Here the investigator conjectures, interprets and questions. Out of this discussion come implications for revising the current body of knowledge. Suggestions for further study.
  4. Summary
    In general a long abstract. Reiterates the problem, the research methodology, the findings and conclusions. You should be able to read this and get the "gist" of the whole paper.

The Academic Paper

The academic paper requirement for this course is a report of an investigation. It is an étude in the sense that it is designed around specific experiences. There are other ways of reporting, but this approach is preferred.

The process steps outlined below vary in the amount of attention required. Some problems may sketch themselves in, while others must be wrestled to the ground. Identification of the problem establishes the point of the paper at the outset. A paper must have something to say — a conclusion, which relates back to the problem.


  1. Rough in the problem.

    The problem is the purpose of the investigation, stated as a problem.

    The problem to be explored must be known at the outset, but the conclusion and principal points to be made are often not known until after the paper is substantially written. Then it often must be rewritten to focus toward the conclusion.

    The term "problem" and its fundamental role can be paralyzing, because it seems to imply some significant social or cultural deficit. For this less highly structured research, the problem need not be profound and can be developed around the research question. For instance, one may have observed casually that there seems to be a lot of plays about violence and death, and feels that some research on it might be rewarding. The research question, "Is there a relationship between what is on stage and what is going on around us?" can be expressed as a need to understand the relationship between stage themes and cultural behavior around violence. That need becomes the problem, and suggests where to look for data. It also commits the paper to responding to that need, becoming the purpose for it.

  2. Review available resources

    It makes no sense to pursue a topic, no matter how interesting, if the data are not accessible. Mark it as a topic to pursue when the resources are better, and move on to one you can research. An overwhelming amount of data also can diffuse the research and its conclusions. The review suggests where the data tend to be focused within the topic.

  3. Narrow the topic

    You may start out with a very broad approach to the problem. Perhaps you thought you might look at all plays on professional stages in the United States and all commentary on them since 1995. The review of resources showed that it would be like trying to drink from a firehose. There was, however, some interesting discussion of a particular group of authors whose plays seem to be particularly violent. You might narrow the topic to that group.

  4. Develop specific preliminary bibliography
  5. Gather the data (read and take notes).

    The researcher always must be critical of her sources. It is important to ask questions of all written sources and other documentation.

  6. Go after what is missing.

    Analysis and critical thinking are ongoing as one encounters the data, evaluating the concepts and considering their implications. These inferences and discoveries typically lead to a need for more specific information on a topic.

  7. Develop a rough outline and articulate preliminary conclusions.
  8. Write the paper.

    This version of the paper exists as a work to be refined and reconstructed. Where one begins is less important than that one does begin. It is not unusual to begin with a narrative of the research experience. Many writers admit they don't know exactly what they think until they have written about it for a while. Some begin at the beginning with the expectation that it will be restructured. Some begin at points in the middle. Others find they can work through the preferred structure from the beginning.

  9. Determine the specific conclusions.

    At some point, the author must arrive at conclusions. Often, after writing for a while, the writer achieves insight, as in, "Oh, what this really means is . . . ." Every writer finds her own way to coax such insights, but all methods require some immersion in the data.

  10. Rewrite the opening and concluding sections.
  11. Edit and rewrite the body to focus on the conclusions.


There are many possible structures, but the preferred form for this project is the argument, a variation of the formal research report. As with the process above, the attention given to each step varies. Depending on circumstances, some elements may be covered in a single sentence, while others require considerable development.

The examples for our model case are necessarily simplified to serve the example. Neither are they to be understood in terms of their content, which is sometimes ridiculous.

  1. Introduction to the issue.

    In our model case, that would be the rise of violence in the culture and the response of the theatre.

  2. Statement of the problem.

    We have suggested we need to understand the relationship between stage themes and cultural behavior around violence.

  3. Statement of purpose of the paper.

    The problem embodies the purpose of the paper as investigating the relationship between these variables. The point, or hypothesis is outlined.

    The research hypothesis is a proposed, tentative answer to the research question or research problem. It supports a research prediction about the behavior of the variables. The purpose of research is to support or reject this hypothesis. Our hypothesis about the relationship among these variables might be: "When violence and death are frequent in the culture, playwrights write plays about violence and death." (There are a number of problems with this statement, but it serves as a clear, if imperfect, example.)

    It is less intrusive than it may feel to write very directly, "The purpose of this paper is . . . ," or, "In the following discussion I will argue that . . . ."

  4. Definitions and qualifications.

    One of the most important steps is to be certain that meanings of terms are clear to all. For the purpose of this study, for instance, one needs to be clear about the meaning of "violence," because different definitions can lead to different observations about its salience or frequency.

  5. Review of available sources.

    A formal study involves a review of the literature. It summarizes what other authors have said about the topic, and goes on to assess their inadequacy in resolving the problem. In this less formal paper, it is sufficient to summarize briefly the sources that were investigated to give the reader a sense of context and the ground upon which one's conclusions are based. What was used and why.

  6. Arguments.

    The main contention, or proposition is restated as proven for reasons of the main arguments, which are enumerated. This is an outline of the paragraphs that follow, setting out the author's reasons for her conclusion.

    "When violence and death are frequent in the culture, playwrights write plays about violence and death, because when violence is less frequent in the culture there are fewer plays about violence, and because playwrights are particularly sensitive people."

    1. First argument.

      This is followed by evidence for it and discussion.

      For our model project, the data may support a contention that plays with violent themes have increased as violence has increased. The evidence would be comparisons between the present and some past cultural and theatrical environment regarding violence.

    2. Second argument.

      Followed by evidence and discussion.

      We might argue that playwrights are very sensitive people, or that they are very mercenary people, and support it with their public statements, interviews and reports of their behavior.

    3. Additional arguments and support.

  7. Concluding statement of position.

    This involves restatement of the proposition and arguments. At this point the author addresses weaknesses in the argument and treats existing or potential opposing perspectives and the evidence for them.

    "We can see that playwrights respond to the violence in the culture by writing about it, because when there is less violence there are fewer plays about it, and the sensitivity of playwrights prevents them from ignoring it.

    "This study finds some preliminary conclusions. The number of plays about violence might be stimulated by some other factor that may also provoke the cultural violence, such as economics or war."

  8. Final summary.

    The focus of the summary, beyond the restatement above, is to suggest the larger implications of what has been learned, and to suggest what additional questions might be investigated to expand understanding on the topic. It tries to say what we now know and what we need to know on the particular question.

    In our model, we might suggest that we find a cultural barometer in the theatre. We might encourage research further confirming these conclusions by comparing other periods, and perhaps exploring other correlations between cultural behavior and themes in drama.

It is important to understand that the examples above are idealized, very simplified examples of the step. Many statements are ridiculous, but are constructed to model a point.

Academic writing style

The written style of the paper is important. Style refers both to conventions of arrangement and layout, and to conventions of written language. The two dominant styles for research reports are those articulated by the Modern Language Association (MLA style), and those specified by the American Psychological Association (APA style). Either style is acceptable, but the paper should be consistent with one or the other.

The selected style will govern:

Some additional pointers regarding style (Please check your work!):


The primary rule in documentation is to properly attribute all intellectual property to its originator. The MLA Handbook (Gibaldi & Achtert, 1988, 155) notes:

In writing your research paper, you must document everything that you borrow—not only direct quotations and paraphrases but also information and ideas. Of course, common sense as well as ethics should determine what you document. For example, you rarely need to give sources for familiar proverbs ("You can't judge a book by its cover"), well-known quotations ("We shall overcome"), or common knowledge ("George Washington was the first president of the United States"). But you must indicate the source of any appropriated material that readers might otherwise mistake for your own.

The problem for most students is understanding what to attribute. Certainly, quotations and significant ideas, but the "common knowledge" exception above can cover a wide range of information, some of which may be subject to dispute. What is, indeed, common knowledge, even within the discipline, can be used without attribution, provided it is not important to the argument of the paper and not subject to dispute.

The second important reason to attribute ideas or even facts has to do with the credibility of your statements. The reader can judge your statement from his own opinion of your sources that support it. In other words, if you contend that Shakespeare's Globe had three prosceniums, your source would be critical because this is not a currently accepted perspective. By the same token, if it is important to your argument that Burbage built his Theatre in 1575, which is subject to dispute, your source really must be cited. If it is not important to the argument, it need not be because it has a level of acceptance as common-but-disputed knowledge in the theatre.


Most people would not intentionally plagiarize. Few people would admit to lifting passages and using them without attribution. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to avoid using the author's words or unique insight, and the citation rules just seem so cumbersome for a few words. The following is abstracted from the MLA Handbook (Gibaldi & Achtert, 1988, 22-25):

Source statement:

The major concerns of Dickinson's poetry early and late, her "flood subjects," may be defined as the seasons and nature, death and a problematic afterlife, the kinds and phases of love, and poetry as the divine art.


The chief subjects of Emily Dickinson's poetry include nature and the seasons, death and the afterlife, the various types and stages of love, and poetry itself as a divine art.

==Acceptable (Present the information if you credit the authors):

Gibson and Williams suggest that the chief subjects of Emily Dickinson's poetry include nature, death, love, and poetry as a divine art (906).

The parentheses refers to a citation of the source (not included here).

Source statement:

This, of course, raises the central question of this paper: What should we be doing? Research and training in the whole field of restructuring the world as an "ecotopia" . . . will presumably be the goal. (From E. N. Anderson, Jr., "The Life and Culture of Ecotopia," Reinventing Anthropology, ed. Dell Hymes [1969; New York: Vintage-Random, 1974] 275.)


Humankind should attempt to create what we might call an "ecotopia."


Humankind should attempt to create what E. N. Anderson, Jr., has called an "ecotopia" (275).

In addition to using their phrasing, one should not borrow a specific term or present someone's line of thinking without giving that person credit.


Gibaldi, J. and Achtert, W. S. (1988). MLA handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Third edition. New York: the Modern Language Association of America.

All original content protected by copyright © Arthur L. Dirks, Taunton, MA., 2005.