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Guide to Research Paper Format – Sections, Styles, and More

Written by David Santana
Posted: February 9, 2021
Last update date: March 22, 2024
13 min read

Writing research papers is a fundamental part of your studies, apart from serving as an avenue to contribute your quota to the general pool of knowledge. Plus, it’s a visual reminder of everything you’ve learned.

However, as every student knows, getting used to different formats is not that easy and, for many, a real headache. Sure, you could buy a research paper that is already formatted. But we want to give you another possibility and are going to explain all the styles in one guide. You’ll learn:

  • which style is the most suitable for which field of studies;
  • comprehensive ASA, Chicago, MLA and APA guidelines, with details of each composing element.

Ready? Let’s start!

Choosing the Right Research Paper Style


When you begin your research paper, you need to choose which style to follow. Now, you should know that each style has its unique set of formatting rules and conventions. We will take an in-depth look at that in the rest of the article. Before that, with our essay writing company, we want to tell you something about these styles. Who uses them? What do their acronyms mean?

Let’s start with the APA style research paper format. It stands for American Psychological Association, and it is frequently used in social sciences and psychology. It places a strong emphasis on clarity and conciseness in writing.

MLA (Modern Language Association), on the other hand, is commonly found in disciplines like literature and linguistics. The focus of the research paper MLA format is on source credibility.

Chicago style is a more complex scientific paper format and has two main variants: 1) Notes and Bibliography; 2) Author-date. It’s very versatile and widely used across various disciplines, including history and the arts. It’s characterized by extensive footnotes or endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography.

ASA (American Sociological Association) is the go-to citation style guide for sociology and related fields. This college paper format prioritizes clarity in presenting complex sociological concepts and encourages the use of in-text citations rather than extensive footnotes.

Research Paper Formatting Guidelines

When you start formatting research papers, remember that details are crucial. Now, we are going to talk about some of these details and compare the four formatting styles we have presented so far.


Feature/Style AMA APA Chicago MLA
Specific Subjects Medical & Health Sciences Psychology, Education & Social Sciences History, Arts & Humanities Literature, Arts & Humanities
Citation Guidelines The AMA Manual of Style (11th edition Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (7th edition) The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition) The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (9th edition)
Margins 1 inch all around 1 inch all around 1 inch all around 1 inch all around
Title Page Required Required Optional No separate title page
Identifying Information Top of the title page Top of the title page Top or bottom of the page Upper left-hand corner of the first page
Abstract Structured Required for most papers Not commonly required Not typically required
Header & Footer Running head & page number Running head (shortened title) & page number Page number (no running head) Right-aligned page number
Pagination Top right Top right Top right or bottom center Top right or bottom center
Section Headings Numbered, not bolded Varies by level, both numbered and bolded Not specific (can be numbered or lettered) No specific standard
Tables, Graphs & Images Numbered sequentially Labeled with “Table” or “Figure” and numbered Numbered and titled Labelled ‘Table’ or ‘Figure’ and numbered
References/Citations Listed numerically at the end Alphabetical order by author’s last name Alphabetical order or order of appearance Alphabetical order by author’s last name

Note that the font doesn’t always have to be Times New Roman. However, if it is, the font size has to be always 12.

Remember, these are basic guidelines, and the specifications can vary depending on the version of the style guide or specific journal/departmental preferences. It’s always best to consult the latest edition of the respective style manual for detailed and accurate formatting instructions.

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APA Paper Format: Main Features

Let’s start with the APA (American Psychological Association) standard research paper format, one of the most popular formatting styles used by students and researchers all over the world. One of the characteristics that students prefer about it is the lack of footnotes, unlike what happens with Chicago. This allows for more fluent and faster writing, although it sometimes might be more annoying to read.

Title Page


Your APA paper should start with a title page. The APA paper Title Page should be concise and informative. It must contain a page number, paper title, institutional affiliation, instructor’s name, and submission date.

Running Head

In the header of each page, except the title page, include a running head. This is a shortened version of your paper’s title. It should not exceed 50 characters. It should be on the left in uppercase letters, with the page number being on the right.



APA employs a specific hierarchy of headings to organize content effectively. These include headings like “Introduction,” “Methods,” “Results,” and “Discussion.” The proper heading for paper has 5 levels, and each is formatted differently. Through this, you can navigate your research paper structure more easily.


This is a 250-word max summary that provides a brief overview of your research problem, methodology, and results. It must be placed on a separate page labeled “Abstract” (centered and bold), followed by the text written in a unique paragraph. Reading various abstract sections is useful for deciding if the topic is relevant to one’s interests.

In-text Citations

APA style uses the author-date citation system. When referencing another work within your paper, include the author’s last name and the publication year in parentheses (Smith, 2022). For direct quotations (with quotation marks), provide page numbers as well (Smith, 2022, p. 45).

Reference List


The reference list is placed at the end of your paper and provides detailed citations for all sources referenced within your work. The title “References” must be centered and bold at the top of the page. Each entry includes author, year of publication, title, and source (which must be italicized). The rules are very strict and change depending on what you’re citing.

Let’s see some examples:

Books: Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1990). Understanding Cultural Differences. Intercultural Press, INC.

Article from online journal: Hsieh, H. C. L. (2014). Evaluating the Effects of Cultural Preferences on Website Use. Cross-Cultural Design, 162–173. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-07308-8_16

Website: Liu, F. (2021). Modify Your Design for Global Audiences: Crosscultural UX Design. Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/crosscultural-design/

Use of Numbers

When it comes to numbers, you are supposed to spell out numbers below 10 and use numerals for numbers 10 and above. However, use numerals for measurements, percentages, and dates.

Here are some illustrative examples:

Example: three cats, 15 dogs

Beginning a Sentence, Title, or Heading: Always spell out the number if it starts a sentence, title, or heading, regardless of its size.

Example: “Fifty-two participants were involved in the study.”

Common Fractions: These should be spelled out.

Example: two-thirds, one-quarter

Percentages: Use numerals to represent percentages, followed by the word “percent” for numbers under 10% and the “%” symbol for numbers 10% and above.

Example: 5 percent, 15%

Decimal Quantities: Always use numerals with decimals.

Example: 3.45, 0.89

Age: Always use numerals to represent age.

Example: 5 years old, 65-year-old woman

Specific Units of Measurement: Use numerals when you’re specifying any units of measurement.

Example: 6 mg, 9 km

Scores and Points: Use numerals.

Example: scored 7 out of 10

Money: Use numerals for all exact amounts of money.

Example: $5, £100

Group Numbers: For specific, exact numbers representing a group or sample size, use numerals.

Example: 5 out of 10 students, group of 12 participants

Date Format

Date formats in an APA research paper vary depending on context. Use the day-month-year academic research paper format in-text citations and the year-month-day format of a research essay references.


Dates: Always use numerals for dates.

Example: April 3, 2000

Time: Except for noon and midnight, use numbers to represent time.

Example: 3 a.m., 2:30 p.m.

Feel free to check a full guide on writing paper in APA style to be sure.

URLs and DOIs

When referencing online sources, include the full URL in the reference page for web pages that aren’t easily located. Use a DOI (Digital Object Identifier) whenever available instead of a URL. Always ensure that hyperlinks are active and accessible. Though it’s formally required to include “http://” or “https://“, make sure that your instructor’s guidelines don’t say otherwise.

MLA Paper Format: Useful Guideline for Humanities

Learning how to format a research paper in MLA for your project is essential, especially if your research paper is centered on literature and language. Created by the Modern Language Association, this research paper format type enjoys wide acceptance in arts and humanities.

You must use a legible 12-point font, often Times New Roman. You should maintain 1-inch margins on all sides for a polished appearance. Finally, double-space the text and indent the beginning of each paragraph.

Cover Page


Unlike APA style, MLA doesn’t require a separate title page. Instead, your name, instructor’s name, course, and date should appear on the left-aligned first page of your paper.

Page Header

If your name is on the left, the page header will be on the right. This means that on each page, and not just the first one, you’ll have to write your last name and page number. It might look weird to those who are used to APA, but it should be something like this: “Smith 1.”

In-text Citations

MLA employs a very straightforward author-page format for citations in-text. When referencing a source within your paper, include the author’s last name and the page number (Smith 45). For sources with no page numbers, omit the page number (Smith).

Works Cited Page


Your research paper layout should end with the Works Cited page. Like any reference page, it contains all the sources you’ve cited in your work. Entries should be arranged in alphabetical order by the author’s last name, double-space all items and, if more than one citation is present, indent them by 0.5inch.

Endnotes and Footnotes

MLA discourages the use of endnotes and footnotes for citation purposes. Instead, you should incorporate information into the main text or use parenthetical citations, for example (Burroughs 66). Endnotes or footnotes may be used for explanatory or supplementary content but you should only use one of them. In both cases, number them consecutively.


Aside from common abbreviations like “et al.” (and others), “ibid.” (in the same place), and “e.g.”, abbreviations interest various other parts of the text.

These are some examples:

  • Months in dates (e.g., 18 Feb. 2021)
  • Time (2 am)
  • Units of measurement (271cm)
  • Publisher names (Oxford University Press > Oxford UP)

Usage-wise, never begin a sentence using an abbreviation. Finally, remember to be consistent when using them, especially concerning acronyms (like MLA). Declare its meaning first (Modern Language Association), then never switch back from the acronym.

Date Format

In MLA, dates are typically formatted as day-month-year, abbreviating the month when composed by 5 or more letters (e.g., “15 June 2022” and “3 Feb. 1991”). In the Works Cited page, the specific format of a research paper may vary depending on the source type.


While including URLs is not mandatory in MLA, it can be advisable to use a permalink when the source is unstable, like a webpage or a social media post. Ensure the URL is accessible and accurate, but don’t provide a direct hyperlink, omit the “http://” or “https://” part and enclose it in angle brackets,<www.example.com>. Similarly to APA, always give preference to a DOI over a URL.


In MLA citation, the concept of “containers” plays a central role in helping readers locate your sources accurately. The primary container is the larger work that houses your source. For example, if you’re citing an article from a scholarly journal, the journal itself is the primary container. Sometimes, though, your source may be within another work, like an essay in an edited collection. In such cases, the edited collection becomes the secondary container.

Chicago Formatting Style

Chicago is possibly the most complex style. Yet, it’s also considered to be the most elegant one and will give your paper a very intellectual vibe. It is known for its two main systems: the Notes and Bibliography system and the Author-Date system. Chicago style, and its twin Turabian, often requires a title format with specific details, a standard paper and double line spacing. However, you can choose the have larger margins. Font choice instead is flexible.

Title Page

The title page in Chicago should include the title centered about one-third of the way down the page, followed by your name and the course details. The title page for research paper sets the stage for the reader, offering a glimpse of the key information of your research.

Footnotes and Endnotes

Chicago is renowned for its extensive use of footnotes or endnotes. Footnotes are placed at the bottom of the page (about three spaces below the text, separated by a 1.5-inch-long line), use the same font as the text but with a smaller size. Endnotes keep the same format as footnotes but are collected at the end of the paper. These notes are used for citations, explanations, or supplementary information.

Bibliography or Reference List


Here, the differences between the two systems start to emerge. The Notes and Bibliography system has a bibliography at the end of the paper or book, while the Author-Date system’s research paper template has a reference list. They both show the same kind of information (Author, title, publisher, year) but with some slight differences:

  • Notes (in the footer): 1. John Doe, The Book of Examples, 1st ed. (New Orleans: Free Press, 1969), 34-35.
  • Bibliography: Doe, John. The Book of Examples. New Orleans: Free Press, 1969.
  • Author-Date: Doe, John. 1969. The Book of Examples. New Orleans: Free Press.

As for their use, Notes and Bibliography is commonly used in humanities, arts, and history disciplines. Author-Date is favored in natural and social sciences.

There’s also the choice of using an annotated bibliography to provide extra information about your sources. Basically, you can explain why you chose them and what’s their impact on your research. As for formatting, indent the text one line after the source and keep it within 200 words.

Numbering Pages

Page numbers are typically placed at the top right corner of each page, 1inch from the top and the side of the paper.

Use of “Ibid.”

“Ibid.” is a commonly used abbreviation in the Chicago research paper writing format. It’s employed to reference the same source in consecutive citations.


First citation: Smith, John. Title of Book. Publisher, 2020, p. 45.

Second citation: Ibid.


The main rule of Chicago capitalization in titles is that you should capitalize major words like nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. Most conjunctions need to be in lowercase letters. Also, the first and last word of each title and subtitle must be capitalized, whatever it is.

URLs and DOIs

When citing online sources in Chicago, include the URL or DOI when available. The format and presentation of these elements follow the Chicago manual style guide and give preference to DOI whenever possible.

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ASA Format Standards

Created by the American Sociological Association, this style is commonly used by sociological students. Let’s dive into this sociology research paper formatting outline, and see what are its key elements. This style is heavily influenced by APA and the main striking difference lies in the use of footnotes. Let’s analyse it in more detail.

Title Page

ASA style requires a separate title page including title, author’s name, and institutional affiliation. The elements are centered at the top of the page, and could also include extra information such as class and professor’s name or acknowledgements.

In-text Citations

In ASA style, in-text citations use the author’s last name and the publication year in parentheses (Smith 2022). When quoting directly, include page numbers like this (Smith 2022:45). Pay close attention to the subtle differences between ASA and MLA. If you are confident with one, make sure to closely check the general guidelines of the other.


The reference list is at the end of the research paper, as usual. Here, you can write all the sources you cited in the literature review and the rest of the paper. ASA employs a reference list at the end of the paper, providing detailed citations for all sources cited within your work. Entries should follow ASA guidelines meticulously, as they are pretty similar to other styles.


When you use ASA, you should put footnotes only to write additional content that could better explain something you wrote in the body. For example, to explain research methods. The sources, as mentioned, will be listed only at the end of the paper.


ASA uses a three-level system when it comes to heading. Each level of the research paper headings will be different. A first-level heading for a research paper is left-justified and all-capitalized. The second level is in italics and uses a title case. The third level only has the first word capitalized. For example:

  • Second: How to Write an Introduction
  • Third: How to write an introduction

Use of “et al.”

ASA allows the use of et al. when citing sources with multiple authors (three or more). It simplifies citations by replacing lengthy lists of authors’ names with et al. (Smith et al. 2022).

URLs and DOIs

When citing online sources in ASA style, use a DOI whenever possible and rely on URLs as a second choice. Acting as a permalink, the DOI grants stability and persistent access to the source.

As for formatting, follow this example:


Final Notes

Only research papers that are formatted flawlessly are accepted by reputable journals, whatever their thesis statement is. And if you consider that you can only rise through the academic ranks and file by the number of publications in such journals, the format for a research essay is crucial.

In this style guide on writing a research paper, we have gone through the four main types of paper formats, hoping to have succeeded in showing their differences and similarities. We have also emphasized how crucial it is to have an eye on the guidelines of your chosen style as you refine your paper.

Now it’s your turn, choose your style and write the research paper that will change your academic journey!

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