Academically acceptable length of a good research paper
How many pages should a good research paper be? To answer this question, we need to look at a few technical aspects of the paper—how it’s written, what its purpose is and what format it should be in. These and other features should help you to gauge, with a high level of certainty, at what point your paper is long enough to be academically acceptable.
How it’s written
Most professors require written projects to be typed in size 12, Times New Roman font. Bearing this in mind, a full Word document page will consist of approximately 500 words (including your heading and other format requirements). Your research text should contain a total of between 2500 to 3000 words.
A note on relevance
Going a little bit over or under this word count isn’t exactly academic suicide, but bear in mind that your professor will want to dedicate enough time to your paper to give it a good score, and at the same time won’t want to waste too much time reading irrelevant information.
The purpose and subject
Certain research papers require additional information besides words; such as images, graphs, tables or other illustrations. Try to remember not to use up as much space as you can when using any of these mediums so as to minimize the word content (professors have seen all these tricks before). If your research paper unavoidably requires lots of space-robbing mediums, then always make up for that space by writing an acceptable amount of content too.
Headings, subtitles and captions will affect your research paper length, but don’t exclude these from your word count. Each one of them is just as much a part of your paper as the rest of the plain text, and should be treated as such. Involve the reader with catchy subtitles and enthral them with captions that actively describe your photo or graph.
Your main heading should be moderately large, but don’t overdo it. Making it look like you’re trying to take up space will most often result in a negative score.
Considering all of these points, we can comfortably conclude that about 7 pages is an acceptable length for a good research paper. Falling back to 6 pages is fine, but try not to go over 8 pages as this will just start becoming too long for your professor to give your research paper the attention it deserves.
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Four steps to preparing your first draft
Here is the process I use:
- Think about the topic you want to present, for some days or weeks.
- Make figures and tables.
- Then write as quickly as possible, as if thinking out loud. Get everything down, ignoring spelling, grammar, style and troublesome words.
- Correct and rewrite only when the whole text is on paper.
Do not split the manuscript among the co-authors. It is better to write a first complete draft, and then the co-authors can amend and add new text. In this way, the internal coherence of the paper is ensured. Ask each reviewer to track their changes.
Polishing your manuscript
Use good English
Unfortunately for non-native English speakers, language is an important problem. If the language prevents reviewers from understanding the scientific content of your work, the possibility of acceptance will be lowered greatly.
At the minimum, you should use the best English you can manage in presenting your high-quality science. Get a skilled writer or someone fluent in English to check your manuscript before submission. Now, most publishers have a service of English correction with a cost around €250 ($285) per paper. (For example, Elsevier has an English Language Editing service.)
You must save your readers the trouble of guessing what you mean. Look at this complaint from an editor:
(This) paper fell well below my threshold. I refuse to spend time trying to understand what the author is trying to say. Besides, I really want to send a message that they can't submit garbage to us and expect us to fix it. My rule of thumb is that if there are more than 6 grammatical errors in the abstract, then I don't waste my time carefully reading the rest.
Write with clarity, objectivity, accuracy and brevity, presenting your scientific research in a way that is logical and understandable. To improve your language skills, you can practice reading and writing English in other parts of your work, for example, by keeping records in English during your research and reading as many papers as you can in English.
Avoid these common problems:
- Sentences that don't follow each other logically
- Sentences that are difficult to understand by non-initiated readers (e.g., "The Annex IV of the MSFD includes the definition of GES to be applied by MS."
- Grammatical errors
- Spelling mistakes and typos
Simplify your language
- Original: "Numerous studies in recent years, such as those by Miller (1995) and Smith (1998), have shown that low salinities enhance oyster recruitment."
- Suggested: "Low salinities enhance oyster recruitment (Miller, 1995; Smith 1998)."
Avoid long sentences
- Direct and short sentences are preferred!
- Long sentences do not make the writing more professional; they only confuse readers.
- Nowadays, the average length of sentences in scientific writing is about 12 to 17 words.
- It is said that we read one sentence in one breath. Long sentences choke readers.
Some languages (e.g., Spanish) tend to have long and complicated sentences, which can be expressed with fewer words in English. You have to change your style when writing in English. One idea or piece of information per sentence is sufficient. Avoid multiple statements in one sentence. In writing the following passage some years ago, I understood my science well – but with 78 words in a single sentence, it's unlikely that anyone would have understood it.
… Conversely, applying M-AMBI the explained variability reaches until 43.4%, for linear regression, and 53.8% for logarithmic regression, and the highest explained variability was found in high and low mesohaline and polyhaline areas (53-63%), whilst the lowest explained variability was in the oligohaline area (6%), being the mismatch in the comparison of both methods in terms of degraded-undegraded equivalences was of 16.4% of the cases in M-AMBI, and 12.7% in B-IBI, with a high spatial level of agreement.
After the reviewers recommended using shorter sentences, I modified it to the following:
… Conversely, applying M-AMBI the explained variability reaches until 43.4%, for linear regression, and 53.8% for logarithmic regression. The highest explained variability was found in high and low mesohaline and polyhaline areas (53-63%). In turn, the lowest explained variability was in the oligohaline area (6%). The mismatch in the comparison of both methods in terms of degraded-undegraded equivalences was of 16.4% of the cases in M-AMBI, and 12.7% in B-IBI, with a high spatial level of agreement.
Problems with long sentences:
Dr. Angel Borja is Head of Projects at AZTI-Tecnalia, a research center in the Basque Country in Spain specializing in marine research and food technologies. Formerly he was also Head of the Department of Oceanography and Head of the Marine Management Area. His main topic of investigation is marine ecology, and has published more than 270 contributions, from which 150 are in over 40 peer-reviewed journals, through his long career of 32 years of research. During this time he has investigated in multiple topics and ecosystem components, having an ample and multidisciplinary view of marine research.
Dr. Borja is the Editor of several journals, including Frontiers in Marine Ecosystem Ecology, Revista de Investigación Marina, Elsevier's Journal of Sea Research and Continental Shelf Research. In addition, he is a member of the editorial boards of Elsevier's Marine Pollution Bulletin, Ecological Indicators and Ocean & Coastal Management.
Read more about his work on ResearchGate, ORCID and LinkedIn, and follow him on Twitter (@AngelBorjaYerro).