Most common mistakes in college research papers

Taking the time to perfect your research paper is well worth it to receive the grade you want.

Taking the time to perfect your research paper is well worth it to receive the grade you want.

Having good research paper topics is not the only thing that’s important when writing your college research paper. There are many other considerations, including narrowing your topic, meeting deadlines, citing sources correctly, using secondary sources badly, staying on topic, and avoiding plagiarism. Here are some common errors and how to avoid them.

The basics: Deadline, proofreading and presentation

Your ideas might be the best ever, but teachers also consider presentation, format and readability.

Deadline. It’s a no-brainer—get it in on time. Working within boundaries and deadlines is good practice for the real world. If you’re a procrastinator, make a schedule or outline of what needs to be done by what date (Week One-research, Week Two-outline and table of contents, Week Three-writing). Do whatever works for you so you can finish on time.

Proofreading. Don’t just rely on a spellchecker—it can’t tell you if you’ve used “compliment” or “complement” correctly. Leave enough time before the deadline so you can set aside your paper for a day or two, then go back to it and read it slowly and carefully cover to cover. Common problems to watch out for:

• Run-on sentences

• Sentence fragments

• Pronoun agreement

• Grammar problems

• Subject/verb agreement

• Apostrophe usage

• Incorrect spelling of proper names and places

• Incorrect dates, data, table and chart information

Formatting. Some teachers may have given you formatting requirements (double space, margins, font, page numbering system, subject headings, table of contents, footnotes). Follow them! Also check that tables or charts are not split between pages.

Plagiarizing. Don’t.

Other common errors and advice

Narrow your topic. Many times students choose a topic or theme for their research paper that is too broad — “An Analysis of British History”! “Choose one lens through which to view the research problem, or look at just one facet of it [e.g., rather than studying the role of food in Eastern religious rituals; study the role of food in Hindu ceremonies],” suggests R. Labaree in “Organizing your social sciences research paper,” posted on University of Southern California’s USCLibraries page January 6, 2014. More advice: “Determine if your initial variables or unit of analyses can be broken into smaller parts, which can then be analyzed more precisely [e.g., a study of tobacco use among adolescents can focus on just chewing tobacco rather than all forms of usage].”

Stay on subject. Now that you have a manageable topic or theme, stick to it. It’s tempting to add into your paper all that good research you’ve just done. But take a step back and decide: Is it really necessary? “A research paper should be circular in argument. That is, the formal aim of the paper should be stated in the opening paragraph; the conclusion should return to the opening, and examine the original purpose in the light of the data assembled. It is a prime error to present conclusions that are not directly related to the evidence previously presented,” explained Ralph Berry in The Research Project: How to Write Itpublished 2004 found on

Citing sources correctly. Why is citation so important? “Scholars and students cite to inform their readers of the sources used in their research and to credit individuals whose previous efforts have facilitated their work,” noted Joan Reitz, Haas Instruction Librarian at Western Connecticut State University. There are several styles of citation: MLA, APA, Chicago Manual of Style. Ask your teacher which is preferred.

Weak use of material from secondary sources. Evaluate how effectively you use material from sources to support and develop your thesis. “Avoiding the five most common problems with research papers” from Illinois Valley Community College, suggests you ask yourself these questions:

  • Does all material from secondary sources provide meaningful insight into your topic? If any material only summarizes your topic or conveys information that is obvious from your paper itself, you should put the information into your own words and delete your citation of the secondary source.
  • Are all of your sources credible?
  • Does your paper reflect that you understand well the meaning of the words and ideas you use from sources?
  • Do you avoid using long quotations and instead smoothly integrate shorter quotations into your own sentences?

For reference materials on how to proofread and find grammar problems in your paper, consult’s Language and Linguistics page for sources. Also check out’s vast library for ideas on a variety of academic subjects for your paper topic.

What are some ways you can improve your research paper? Let us know in the comments below!

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