The Research Paper:
Step 1:  The Concept Paper

Copyright Martha J. Bianco, Ph.D., Portland State University. No duplication without permission.

As the flow chart to the right indicates, research begins with curiosity.

Academic research involves a special methodology that is not the same as that used by a journalist or the casual inquirer. 

Nevertheless, as the diagram shows, a variety of forces can stimulate one's curiosity:  something read in a newspaper or heard on the news, material covered in classes, personal experience....

We will begin the research process with a Concept Paper.  This may also be known as an abstract or a proposal, although these usually have more substance.

Follow the steps below to develop a Concept Paper.

1.    What are you curious about (within the general subject matter of this course)?  List a few areas of curiosity.

For example, I am curious about these different areas:

  • racial diversity in Portland
  • whether and why 18- and 19-year-old college students are more likely to be Republican than Democrats
  • the history of fairs and expositions, like the Lewis & Clark Exposition held in Portland in 1905

2.    Choose one of the areas of curiosity and develop some specific questions (this is called "question framing").  Many research questions can be classified as:
  • exploratory (just trying to find out about something)
  • descriptive (trying to obtain descriptive data, such as average age, income, etc.)
  • explanatory (trying to explain the relationship between variables, like your major in college and your future earnings)
For example, I choose to develop the issue of racial diversity in Portland.  Here are some questions:
  • What is Portland's racial breakdown?
      • This is a descriptive question.
  • Why has Portland's racial makeup developed as it has?
      • This is general enough to be considered exploratory.
  • Is there a relationship between certain factors and Portland's racial makeup -- for example:
    • geographical location (Pacific Northwest)
    • relatively late date of incorporation (1851)
    • economic activity (originally logging and natural resources, now more high-tech)
      • These are considered explanatory questions.

3.    Do any of your questions lend themselves to a research hypothesis?  If so, write out any hypotheses.

A research hypothesis is an "educated guess" about relationships that may explain behavior and phenomena.  Sometimes we refer to our research hypothesis as our thesis or theses (plural).

If research hypotheses involve quantitative data, they may be tested statistically through statistical hypothesis testing

Note that developing hypotheses may require some preliminary research or prior knowledge (which is why a hypothesis is called an educated guess).

For my example, I can develop the following research hypotheses, although not all of them can actually be tested statistically.  Obviously, these research hypotheses are based on information I have from previous research, reading, etc.:

  • I hypothesize that Portland has a relatively low percentage of non-Caucasians compared with cities of similar size and growth (measured by population change over past decades).
  • Of the non-Caucasians, I hypothesize that Portland is likely to have a relatively high proportion of Asian residents because of our location on the Pacific Rim as well as our more recent development of high-tech industry; in addition, older generation Asian-Americans are likely to be here because of railroad building during the 1860s. 
  • I also hypothesize that Portland is likely to have a relatively high proportion of Hispanic residents because of our location north of California and because of the part of our economy that is agriculture based.
  • Finally, I hypothesize that Portland is likely to have a relatively low proportion of African-American residents because of our geographical location (never a port of access for the slave trade) and our relatively late development of an industrial economy sufficient to provide a large number of jobs to attract migration from the South and Northeast. 
  • In addition, I hypothesize that Portland was, for most of its history, a conservative city, with an active KKK and leadership that did not encourage diversity.

4.  Identify the ideal evidence (data) and how you will probably try to gather that evidence (your methodology).

You are very likely to need multiple types of evidence (data).  For my example hypotheses, I need the following:

  • Census data regarding race and population growth over time
  • Census and other historical data regarding Portland's economy
  • Data regarding immigration rates and destinations of Asians, Hispanics, and African-Americans over time
  • Information about Portland's political, social, and cultural history

The methodology I will probably have to use will include the following:

  • Review of Portland's economic, social, and cultural history through secondary sources (books written about Portland's history)
  • Review of history of immigration of Asians, Hispanics, and African-Americans through secondary sources
  • Review of history about immigrants in certain sectors of the economy through secondary sources
  • Collection and analysis of Census, immigration, and employment data

5.    Write a Concept Paper.

Draw on what you have developed in terms of areas of curiosity, research questions,  research hypotheses, data sources, and methodology. 

  1. Begin with a very direct and explicit statement of your area of interest and your research question(s).  This should take about one paragraph.
  2. Move on to state your research hypotheses, or thesis statement.  This should take another paragraph or so.
  3. Conclude with a discussion of your proposed methodology.  This should take another paragraph.
The entire Concept Paper should be one to two pages, double-spaced.  Citations are appropriate if you used any sources in developing your Concept Paper.

See the Sample Concept Paper to the right for an example of what your product should look like. 



Sample Concept Paper

Racial Homogeneity in Portland, Oregon

This paper will explore the issue of the lack of racial 
diversity in Portland, Oregon.  First, it will describe 
Portland's racial breakdown in the present and in the past,
using U.S. Census data, if available, for 1900, 1920, 
1940, 1960, 1980, and the most recent data collected
in 1998.  This paper will then go on to attempt to account
for why Portland's racial breakdown is what it is, looking
at possible explanatory factors such as geographical
location, economic activity, and social-cultural attitudes.

The primary research hypothesis is that Portland's relatively
low percentage of non-Caucasian residents can be explained
by a combination of factors, including the city's geographical
location on the Pacific Rim (a point of entry for Asians), 
north of California (a port of entry for Hispanics); the
historical development of its economy from logging, railroad 
building, fishing, and agriculture, to the present emphasis 
on high-tech service-sector activities; the relative lack of
available job opportunities in industry calling for unskilled
labor; and a social and cultural environment that has 
historically been conservative, white, Anglo-Saxon, 
Protestant, and intolerant of racial and ethnic diversity
(Abbott 1983).

The methodology this research will employ includes a review
secondary sources about Portland's economic, social, and
cultural history; sources about the history of Asian, Hispanic,
and African-American immigrant; and sources about the history
of immigrants in certain sectors of the economy over time.  An
examination of Census and other statistical data will provide
information regarding population rates and growth, employment,
and racial diversity.

Abbott, Carl. 1983. Portland: Planning, Politics, and Growth
    in A Twentieth-Century City. Lincoln, Nebr.: Univ. of 
    Nebraska Press.
6.    Before turning in your concept paper, go through this checklist to make sure your concept paper is of the highest quality possible:
  1. Are you proposing to research something that is really of interest to you?
  2. Are your research questions truly matters appropriate for academic inquiry, or are they more appropriate for casual or nonscholarly consideration?
  3. Are your research questions actual questions that can be researched through academic means (e.g., library sources, interviews, surveys, etc.) or are they opinions or attitudes that can't really be researched?
  4. Does your concept paper attempt to research an area of interest to you and ask (and propose to answer) specific questions, or is it trying to solve some problem (finding solutions to problems is not appropriate for a research paper, although you may make policy recommendations as a result of your findings).
  5. Are your questions specific? 
  6. Are your questions answerable through research?
  7. Have you stated at least one hypothesis (research or statistical)?
  8. Have you identified the data you will need and how you will get it (methodology)?
  9. Have you included citations, if appropriate, and a reference list or bibliography?
  10. Have you checked your work using the Writing Checklist?

Key Points to Remember

This is a research paper.  That means, you must conduct research
about researchable topics, using library and other legitimate sources (including
but not limited to the Internet). 

This is not an opinion piece.  The paper  should remain neutral, unbiased, non-
judgmental, and value free.

This paper should not be a program assessment (for example, does practicing safer 
sex really decrease the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS?).

This paper should not be a consultant's report recommending policies or
programs.  You should not be trying to solve a problem