The following is an excerpt from the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, ed. Joseph Gibaldi and Walter S. Achtert (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1977), pp. 1–7.

  1    The Research Paper

Like other forms of writing, the research paper should be characterized by lucid, coherent exposition. No set of conventions for preparing a manuscript can replace lively and intelligent writing. Unlike some other forms of writing, however, the research paper requires writers to seek out and investigate sources of information other than their own personal knowledge and experience. Research into a topic will yield new information, sharpen perception of a problem, and lend authority to some hypotheses. The research paper, the final product of research, is not a collection of other persons’ opinions but a carefully constructed presentation of an idea—or series of ideas—that relies on other sources for clarification and verification. Learned facts and borrowed opinions must be fully documented in the research paper, usually through endnotes or footnotes, but always in such a manner that they support rather than overshadow the paper itself.

  2    Selecting a Topic

All writing begins with a topic. If you have some freedom in choosing a topic, look for one that interests you and that can be treated effectively within the imposed limits of time and space. “Twentieth-Century Literature” would not be a suitable choice for a term paper or even a dissertation. Students and scholars alike frequently begin with a fairly general topic and subsequently refine it, by research, into a more specific one. The student whose initial topic is “The Imagery of Wordsworth’s Prelude,” for instance, might, after some careful thought and reading, decide to focus on “Nature Imagery in Book I of Wordsworth’s Prelude”; the topic “Modern Aviation” could be narrowed to “The SST and the Environment.” …

Before beginning any writing project, make sure you understand the amount and depth of research required, the degree of subjectivity permitted, and the type of paper expected—a report on the process (what you did) or the product (what you discovered) of your research.

  3    Using the Library

Many academic libraries offer programs of orientation and instruction to meet the needs of all students, the freshman as well as the doctoral candidate. Nearly all public and academic libraries have desks staffed by professional reference librarians who can help in locating information. These librarians can also provide information on the instructional programs offered by the library. …

As a first step, students should learn to use the central [electronic] catalog of the library and become familiar with the [system] of classification most frequently used in [Canadian] libraries: the Dewey Decimal [system]. They should also become acquainted with the range of reference works available, not only encyclopedias and dictionaries but periodical indexes, bibliographies, and abstracts that are kept in special sections or rooms. … Each subject area has its own specialized indexes: … Social Sciences Citation Index. Abstracting services provide useful summaries of the contents of journal articles ….

Students should also learn where to find current periodicals, special collections (e.g., rare books or government documents), and copying facilities and how to use both a microfilm and a microfiche reader …. Graduate students in particular should become familiar with interlibrary-loan procedures and any privileges available to those engaged in advanced study ….

  4    Compiling a Working Bibliography

The first stage in research is to discover where to find useful information and opinions on your topic. Usually this involves compiling a “working bibliography”—a  list of books, journal articles, recordings, and other sources that should be consulted. The working bibliography usually changes frequently during the research, reflecting a changing perception of the topic that develops through research, the discovery of possible new sources, and the discarding of sources that do not prove useful. The initial working bibliography is usually compiled from bibliographies and reference works like those mentioned in §3; additions are often made by noting the sources that these works have drawn upon (an article on Goethe located through the MLA International Bibliography may list in its notes books and other articles relevant to the topic).

In compiling a bibliography, make a note in a shortened form of the exact source of each reference (MLA Bib., 74, I, 2333 would suffice for 1974 MLA International Bibliography, Volume I, item 2333). This record is essential when items must be borrowed from other institutions, since a printed source of information is always required for verification before an interlibrary loan may be requested. Keeping track of which tools have been consulted also helps the researcher become aware of the most fruitful resources.

  5    Taking Notes

Although everyone agrees that note-taking is essential to scholarly study, probably no two students or scholars employ identical methods of taking notes. Some use index cards; others use notebooks, beginning each new entry on a fresh page; still others use loose-leaf pages clipped together according to one system or another. Regardless of the method, take down all the information you will need for documentation and bibliography (see §§ 31, 33, 35 and 41). Although you may paraphrase or summarize ideas when the original working is not of prime importance, transcribe exactly, word for word, all material that you might want to quote directly, in whole or in part, in the research paper. Be sure to use quotation marks scrupulously in your notes to distinguish between verbatim quotation and paraphrase. Cite page numbers accurately for both. When a quotation continues to another page, be careful to note where the page break occurs, since only a small portion of what is transcribed may ultimately find its way into the paper.

  6    Plagiarism

Derived from the Latin word plagiarius (“kidnapper” and also “plagiarist” in the modern sense), plagiarism is defined by Alexander Lindley as “the false assumption of authorship: the wrongful act of taking the product of another person’s mind, and presenting it as one’s own” (Plagiarism and Originality, New York: Harper, 1952, p. 2). Plagiarism may take the form of repeating another’s sentences as your own, adopting a particularly apt phrase as your own, paraphrasing someone else’s argument as your own, or even presenting someone else’s line of thinking in the development of a thesis as though it were your own. In short, to plagiarize is to give the impression that you have written or thought something that you have in fact borrowed from another. Although a writer may use other persons’ words and thoughts, they must be acknowledged as such. The following passage appears in Volume I of the Literary History of the United States:

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 following, given without documentation, constitutes plagiarism:

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.

But one may write the following with an accompanying note:


It has been suggested that the chief subjects of Emily Dickinson’s poetry include nature, death, love, and poetry as a divine art.1

Note (see §30 on the placement of notes):

 1  William M. Gibson and Stanley T. Williams, “Experiments in Poetry: Emily Dickinson and Sidney Lanier,” in Literary History of the United States, ed. Robert E. Spiller et al., 4th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1974), I, 906.

If there is doubt concerning plagiarism, cite the source or sources. On common knowledge and note logic, see §28.

  7    Outlining

Many writers find that an outline or a brief prospectus is a necessary intermediate step between the research and writing stages. The outline helps the writer organize ideas and accumulated research into a logical, coherent whole. Some instructors require that an outline be submitted with a research paper. …

  8    Writing Drafts

Writers are rarely satisfied with the expression of their ideas as first set down. Most begin with a quickly executed first draft that follows their outline and presents their ideas in rough form. In subsequent drafts, they may add or delete material, improve the wording, make the style consistent, and correct mechanical errors. The number of drafts depends upon the time allowed for a project and the personal standards of the writer.

  9    Guides to Writing

Effective writing depends as much on clarity and readability as on content. Grammar and diction, usage and sentence structure are important considerations, as are the mechanics of writing—punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and so on. In recent years, writers, teachers, and publishers have also become increasingly concerned about the social implications of language. The careful writer not only avoids unsubstantiated generalizations about persons on the basis of factors such as age, economic class, national origin, political and religious beliefs, race, and sex but also gives consideration to the implications of language. For example, many writers now avoid the use of the generic pronoun “he” in referring to a person whose sex is not specified so as to avoid the possible implication that only a male person is intended. For advice on current practices, consult an instructor or [a fairly recent guide-to-writing text].

A good dictionary is an essential tool for any writer. An instructor can recommend a standard … dictionary such as the [Oxford English Dictionary (OED)]. Because standard dictionaries vary in matters such as hyphenation and preferred spelling of words, use one dictionary throughout to maintain consistency. Students who will frequently be using a language other than English should invest in a standard dictionary of that language. In all cases, avoid inexpensive dictionaries, which are often too incomplete to be of more than rudimentary help. …