(Notice: This version has been modified from the original for use in my classes. I'll post the original as soon as possible. I will also eventually post a "blended" version of McCartney's original paper and our more recent work:

Using the Internet to Prepare a Term Paper for a Geology Class.

Any criticisms or suggestions      are welcome. - Clay Harris)

Preparing a Term Paper for a Physical Geology Course
Journal of Geological Education, vol. 40, 1992, p. 62-65.

Kevin McCartney
Mathematics-Science Division
University of Maine at Presque Isle
Presque Isle, Maine 04769


A college-level term paper is essentially a research project. The writer chooses a specific field of study, reads enough on that subject to be thoroughly familiar with it, and then presents what s/he has learned and the conclusions that can be drawn from this work in his/her own words.

The term paper assignment is not simply to make work for the student. Term papers are essential for preparing the student for the "real world." Indeed, the kind of job that most students hope to get upon college graduation generally requires exactly those abilities learned in writing term papers. The employee is frequently assigned a topic or problem to solve and is expected to seek the relevant literature, digest it, and prepare a report summarizing the problem or contributing to a solution. This would be written in a form understandable to the manager or client for whom the research was conducted. While an oral presentation may be given, the final report will almost certainly need to be in written form. The ability to write a clear and succinct report is a major vehicle to promotion, and may even be more important than your depth of knowledge in a technical field.

The purpose of this handout is to offer suggestions for researching, preparing, and presenting a college-level paper.

Choosing a topic

One of the most important aspects of writing a paper is choosing a reasonable topic. Some topics make good papers, while others put the student at a disadvantage before s/he even begins. Basically, the topic should be restricted enough that a thorough discussion can be presented within the length limits. A topic that is too general, such as "The Planets" or "Glaciers," cannot possibly be discussed thoroughly in a few pages. On the other hand, "The evidence supporting liquid water on Mars" or "Recent developments concerning the Valdez Glacier" might make an interesting research project; with such a topic the student can present a more detailed, concise and informative discussion.

A good suggestion is to choose a subject that is specific enough that the instructor will learn something s/he does not know. Otherwise, why do it? This should not be difficult, since most instructors will have only a general knowledge of the topic and a detailed discussion would likely present material that is new and thus more interesting to the reader. This requires a topic that is somewhat specific, such as "The influence of soil types on road construction," or "Geology in the writings of Henry David Thoreau." Remember that an imaginative topic is always more impressive than the "S.O.S." ("same old stuff"), and this in often reflected in the grade. Examples of topics that are too general and unimaginative include "energy," "diamonds," or "the greenhouse effect." A thorough discussion of any of these topics might take several hundred pages; a paper on some aspect of the greenhouse effect is far better than one on just the general topic.

In choosing a topic it is good to keep in mind what a college-level term paper, at least in a science course, is supposed to be. The paper should be the result of detailed study of a problem or issue and should suggest a resolution of the problem or should relate this issue to a broader context. It is the final product of a gathering of information achieved by reviewing the relevant literature, including alternative points of view, and presenting a knowledgeable discussion and analysis of it. The term paper should be a synthesis of information obtained from a variety of sources, but it should be in your own words, not those of your sources. Be careful not to write a "book report," which is the result of taking one or a very few sources and simply summarizing the information within them.

A good way to select a topic is to begin research in a broader field of interest and note the literature that turns up. A popular article or book might refer to additional sources, suggested readings, or include a list of references. Reviewing these will lead to even more sources of information, and the research is well on its way. Of course, it will still be necessary to narrow the topic to a manageable one - but that is much easier once you have a general idea of what is available.

Because this initial review of the literature takes time, an early start is critical. This is the detail that students most often tend to overlook or minimize. Those who make a rush job at the end of the semester do not have time to explore the available resources and narrow the topic. They tend, therefore, to offer a poorly organized "cut-and-paste" shotgun report that gets a bad grade and is often plagiarized.

Researching the topic

The best place to begin researching the topic is often through recent magazine articles. These provide up-to-date references that often lead to other sources of information. Magazines such as Time and Newsweek regularly carry timely, succinct articles on scientific subjects. They are a good starting point from which the student can formulate ideas and define an interesting topic. An even better start would be popular scientific magazines such as Discover or Scientific American. Such articles, however, should be used only as a starting point; merely paraphrasing an article out of a magazine constitutes a review, not a term paper. The General Science Index lists articles in popular science magazines and journals by subject. By starting with the most recent volume and working backwards, you should easily find any recent articles that address your topic.

Recently an alternative to printed search indexes has become available. Nearly all university libraries now have software for performing computer-based literature searches. Libraries often have a variety of services available, so you should check with a research librarian to determine which services to use and how to use them. These services usually consist of either CD-ROM products, like GeoRef, or information from an on-line database, such as Expanded Academic Index/ASAP.

The Internet is also a source for vast amounts of on-line information. Search engines, such as Webcrawler and Lycos, are easy to use and quickly locate available World Wide Web resources. Archie and Veronica provide search services for the wide-ranging resources available through Gopher as well. Instructions for using these services, and for doing on-line research with Gopher or on the World Wide Web, should be available on campus.

The card catalog can give supplemental sources, but it is not the best place to begin, as many of the books found using this method will be relatively old. Most libraries also have files of newspaper articles that are organized by subject; these can provide good examples to include in the paper.

In general, the reference list at the end of your paper, which shows the sources of information used in preparing the text, should show a diversity of source material. At least some of the source material should be recent. For most subjects, and especially in science, it is unacceptable to base your paper solely on research that is more than ten years old. Also, while encyclopedias might be a ready source of information, nearly exclusive use of them in a term paper indicates that the writer has done only the most superficial research into his/her topic. Encyclopedias can serve as a starting place - go on to detailed research from there.

Most technical journal articles will reference other articles, which will, in turn, provide additional sources of information. In this way, you can often conduct a thorough search of the literature in only two or three hours. It is best to start with the most recent article available. It is also wise to become familiar with the title and nature of the popular and technical journals available in your library. That way you can focus your search on periodicals that are readily available to you.

Writing the paper

This is very important: complete the initial literature search and read all articles before putting pen to paper. This produces a paper with a much better "flow." Before the actual writing begins prepare a simple outline that includes where to start, the general order in which things will be discussed, and concluding points. In the long run this can save you an enormous amount of time.

The precise organization of your paper will vary according to the topic, but may include the following sections: 1) an introduction identifying the focused topic to be explored, or the question or problem to be solved, 2) a brief background surveying various points of view and placing the topic into a broader context, 3) a presentation of the topic including evidence supporting or contradicting your thesis, 4) a discussion on how the topic relates to some broader issue, or implications that this may have for the future, 5) a conclusion, and, 6) a list of cited references.

Only after you complete all of these sections should you write an abstract to be included at the beginning of your paper. An abstract conveys, as concisely as possible, the central thesis of your paper and your conclusions. To learn more about how to write an abstract, read a few papers in the technical journal of your choice, and closely examine the contents of the abstracts.

Remember that all parts of the paper must be in your own words. The paper should not consist of quotes strung together or of sentences pulled from various sources; these usually appear disjointed and can also verge on (or be) plagiarism. Indeed, in a science paper there should be very little use of quotes in any form unless there is a special reason for presenting verbatim the words of another writer. "Borrowing" (plagiarizing) the words of others may be especially tempting when using on-line resources. When on-line, students can "cut-and-paste" whole documents with a few clicks of a mouse button. Resist the temptation. Such practices can lead to expulsion from a university or termination of employment! This is not only unethical -- plagiarism of published material may be a violation of copyright law.

It is generally not a good idea to write in the first person, even in the introduction. That is, the paper should not include the words "I," "you," or "we." Another word to avoid is "one," as in "one can clearly see that." It is also a good idea to avoid using the same words or phrases more than once or twice in a paragraph. Such redundancies are evidence of a poor proof-reading job.

If you have any doubt about the spelling of a word, look it up in a dictionary. Misspelled words are unsightly, very unprofessional and inexcusable. Avoid overuse of technical jargon. Remember that technical words need to be defined; you must demonstrate an understanding of these words rather than simply throwing them out to confuse and befuddle the uninformed reader.

Use of citations and references

Citations within the text are used to -

1. indicate the source of information, data, or a concept if not new or original

2. give the reader other sources from which s/he can learn more

3. save space by referring to material elsewhere instead of having it in the body of the text

4. give a historical perspective or show very recent developments

5. allow the reader the opportunity to confirm your interpretation of another 's work

6. help the reader to evaluate the evidence used in your discussion by comparing it to others' work

7. indicate your familiarity with previous and current work in a topic area.

Many students mistakenly believe that citations are required only when quoting another author's work. On the contrary, a citation must be included within the text of your paper for all statements of fact, or ideas, acquired from outside sources -- even if you do not quote the source directly. The only exception is when the information is common knowledge and cannot be attributed easily to a single source (e.g., "Florida is a peninsula" is a statement of common knowledge). Failure to properly acknowledge sources can lead to a charge of plagiarism.

Citations generally include the author and year, which refer to a particular reference in the bibliography at the end of your paper. Some citations (especially those for a book) also include one or more page numbers. A typical citation might appear as (Jones, 1986) or (Jones, 1986, p. 43). A detailed discussion of the citation and reference styles to be used in this class is included below. These styles are based on those used by the Geological Society of America (GSA) in its publications. There are other citation styles; indeed, even the citation and reference systems used by journals in the same field are often considerably different. However, GSA format is widely used in the geosciences.

An alternative to standard citations is footnotes. These are generally inconvenient as they require space at the bottom of the page or constant flipping to the back of the report. Footnotes are not common in recent publications and are very seldom found in scientific journals. They will not be used in this class.

Your reference list must include all the sources cited in your paper -- in the text, figures, tables, etc. -- and nothing more. During proofreading, it is crucial that you compare your citations and your reference list to ensure that they correspond exactly.

Citation format

Citation format varies with the journal and field of study. In this class, we will use the following format, typical of science papers, to cite:

a) the author's name in the sentence:

. . . Romer (1974) . . .

b) the source referenced parenthetically:

. . . (Romer, 1974) . . .

c) a personal communication (letter, memo, e-mail, telephone conversation, etc.):

. . . S. B. Swartz (personal communication, April 24,

1996) . . .

. . . (S. B. Swartz, personal communication, April 24, 1996) . . . .

You may instead use the abbreviation, pers. comm. Personal communications are not included in the bibliography, only cited in the text. You can, if useful, include a page number:

. . . (Romer, 1974, p. 651).

It is sometimes useful to have a brief comment with the reference:

. . . (see fig. 3 of Archibald and Clemens, 1984) . . .

. . . (e.g., Romer, 1974). . .

. . . (but see Williamson, 1996). . .

[if you want to cite a contrasting viewpoint.]

If there are two authors you must cite both:

. . . (McCartney and Nienstedt, 1986).

If there are more than two authors use either 'et al' or 'and others' after the first author:

. . . (Clemens et al., 1981).

Having chosen one of these styles you must be consistent throughout your paper.

The following paragraph (McCartney and Nienstedt, 1984, modified) is an example on the use of citations:

Reference format

The reference list (bibliography) at the end of your paper should use the format shown in the reference list for this paper. Note that formatting differs somewhat when referencing a journal article (e.g., McCartney and Nienstedt, 1984; Clemens et al., 1981), a book (Romer, 1974), or an article from a book someone else edited (Archibald and Clemens, 1984). Additional references are included to show the format for electronic sources such as CD-ROM's (see Charig, 1993), the World Wide Web (see Williamson, 1996), or Gopher.

If you have a source that does not fit any of these categories, then examine a copy of the GSA Bulletin (or see GSA, 1996 for complete details) and try to find a similar reference. If in doubt about an electronic source, then try Li and Crane (1996), at least until GSA develops its own guidelines. If you still cannot find a suitable example, follow the general format given here and include enough information so the reader locate your source.

Preparing the paper

Preparing a term paper is a lot of work. There are few short cuts. Some students feel that their first draft is sufficient, but this is seldom true. A product that is not well constructed or well thought out can very easily cost you a promotion in the real world, so now is the time to develop good writing techniques. A final draft should be the result of perhaps as many as ten or more revisions, in which sentences, phrasing and paragraphs are rewritten and reorganized so that they flow together better than before. This takes time. It is a very good idea to begin writing the term paper at least one month before it is due. This gives time to smooth out the rough spots, as well as find additional material to improve your presentation.

All drafts must be typed and double-spaced with margins of an inch all around and page numbers. Hand-written letters, reports, and memos are not found in the business world. If you do not know how to type and use a word-processing program -- learn. It is now essential in all levels of professional employment. You will find that the time involved learning to use a word-processor is well spent. Just imagine the time saved when, instead of retyping your entire paper, you need only make the corrections your instructor or employer suggests.

After typing your paper, read it through and check it closely for errors. These can be easily and quickly corrected using a word-processor. If the report is typed on a typewriter, simple corrections marked in pencil are sufficient, provided there are not too many. If there are more than four errors on a page, it should be retyped. Submitting a poorly edited report may result in the paper being returned for retyping. In the working world, it might leave your employer with an unfavorable impression that may never be overcome.

The paper should be bound, either by staple, folder, or other means. Paper clips are not sufficient. Reports should have a cover page with a title and an alphabetized reference list (a.k.a. bibliography) must follow the report. Figures should be included within the report (not at the end) and must include captions; remember that if a figure is not of your own design then the source should be cited at the end of the caption. If you photocopy an illustration be sure to eliminate any unwanted material that may surround it or appear within it. This usually means cropping the figure from the first photocopy and pasting it neatly onto another page, adding a caption and photocopying the paste-up again. Neatness counts, so whiting-out stray marks or adding explanatory symbols may help.


Successful completion of a term paper is a combination of two things: attitude and effort. This is a chance to either learn something you didn't know before, or groan to your roommate about the lousy paper you have to write. The work you put into your paper will only be wasted if you hate every minute of it. The more you know about your topic, the easier and more enjoyable it is to write about. If you are having problems deciding on a topic or fully developing an idea, talk to your instructor or anyone else you think will give you good advice. A term paper is a mini-lesson in real world expectations: it must be narrowly focused, carefully researched, intelligently written, and professionally presented, or it will be rejected and will reflect badly on the author (that's YOU). A solid term paper is a satisfying challenge, but more importantly, the ability to write clearly and informatively is a skill that will benefit you for the rest of your life.

Summary and checklist

Follow these guidelines when researching, writing, and preparing your paper -

1. Research your topic thoroughly so that you can write the paper in your own words.

2. Be concise and clear in defining your topic.

3. Carefully organize your ideas and then convey them in a concerted writing effort.

4. Cite all sources of information within the paper.

5. List all sources of information at the end of the paper.

6. Carefully type, edit, and proofread your paper before submitting it.

References Cited

Archibald, D. J., and Clemens, W. A., 1984, Mammal evolution near the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary: in Berggren, W. A. and Van Couvering, J. A., eds., Catastrophers and Earth History, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, p. 373-386.

Charig, A. J., 1993, Disaster theories of dinosaur extinction: Modern Geology, v. 18, p.299-318, from: SilverPlatter CD-ROM file, GeoRef item (1996, August 23).

Clemens, W. A., Archibald, D. J., and Hickey, L. J., 1981, Out with a whimper not a bang: Paleobiology, v. 7, p. 292-298.

GSA, 1996, Guidelines for authors of papers submitted to the Geological Society of America Bulletin, Part I: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 108, p. 1068-1072.

Li, X., and Crane, N., 27 July 1996, Electronic Sources - APA Style of Citation: <http://www.uvm.edu/~xli/reference/apa.html>, (23 Aug. 1996).

McCartney, K., and Nienstedt, J., 1984, The Cretaceous/Tertiary extinction controversy: Journal of Geologic Education, v. 34, p. 90-93.

Romer, A. S., 1974, Vertebrate Paleontology (third edition): Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 468 p.

Williamson, T. E., 24 Jan. 1996, A strange duckbill dinosaur from New Mexico: <http:/www.aps.edu/htmlpages/parasaur.html>, (22 Aug. 1996).


I thank John Ernissee, Helen Walker, Harry Smith and Kate McCartney for valuable comments, and the many students whose term papers have contributed to this guide.

About the Author

Kevin McCartney is an assistant professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. He has previously taught at Weber State College (Utah), Tallahassee Community College and Florida State University, where he completed his doctorate. His research interests include micropaleontology and the Cretaceous/Tertiary extinctions. He has been assigning term papers in his Physical Geology course for the past 5 years.


Imagination and innovation in choice and presentation of topic: (20 points)

Is the topic one that can be adequately covered in the assigned length?

Is innovation shown in choosing a topic and presenting it?

Is the paper interesting to read?

Does the paper emphasize concepts over terminology?

Poor            0-4
Fair             5-8
Average       9-12
Very good   13-16
Excellent     17-20

Organization and presentation of subject matter: (25 points)

Does the paper adequately cover its topic?

Is its purpose clearly defined?

Does the writer show good knowledge of the subject?

Does the paper not read like a book report?

Is the paper well thought out?

Is it adequately proofread?

Are measurements in metric?  (English with metric equivalents acceptable)

Poor            0-5
Fair             6-10
Average       11-15
Very good   16-20
Excellent     21-25

Use of evidence to support paper's thesis: (20 points)

Are points or discussions illustrated with good examples?

Are contrasting arguments treated fairly?

Does the discussion not raise unasked questions?

Are figures or other supporting evidence present when necessary or useful?        

Poor            0-4
Fair             5-8
Average       9-12
Very good   13-16
Excellent     17-20

Ability to use the English lanuage: (25 points)

Does the paper read well?

Is it relatively free of gramatical errors?

Is it free of redundant words or phrases?

Is it free of spelling errors?

Poor            0-5
Fair            6-10
Average       11-15
Very good   16-20
Excellent     21-25

Use of references: (20 points)

Is the proper referece style used?

Are statements of fact clearly referenced?

Are the references from diverse sources and include recent work?

Do the references indicate thorough research/thought?

Note: Papers relying exclusively on encyclopedias or the geology textbook will recieve low scores.

Poor            0-4
Fair             5-8
Average       9-12
Very good   13-16
Excellent     17-20

Incidental: Does this paper meet my expectations of a college student? (5 points)
YES 5, NO 0

============ Explanatory Note to the Instructor (as a sidebar)

The assignment of a term paper in an introductory Physical Geology course assumes the student knows how to write a research paper. This, unfortunately, is often not the case. When I first began assigning term papers in my Physical Geology class I learned very quickly that many students have no idea what a term paper in a science course should be. Many students have previously been able to get away with poorly done papers (or no papers at all) and consequently have little idea what is expected of them or how to go about writing a good paper. Guidebooks on the writing of research papers are generally too long (and boring) and oftentimes have advice that is not necessarily pertinent to science courses. What follows is a simple and concise guide for students preparing to write a research paper for Physical Geology. The guide includes information on the use of references and a specified reference format. A sample grade sheet is also included so that students can see what criteria is often used by the instructor in evaluating a research paper assigned in a science course. A copy of this can be provided by the author to anyone who supplies a stamped self-addressed envelope and a 3 1/4 or 5 1/2 inch computer disk.

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