Writing Term Papers

Writing term papers

Within the framework of a term paper, you are to investigate a self-selected question from the subject area of the course in question on the basis of scientific literature as well as primary and secondary literature. The object of the term paper is solely the results of the investigation and the reasons that lead you to its conclusions, but not your own working and cognitive process.

Texts are generally written according to the rules of the new German spelling of 1.8.2006 (use the current Duden!).

1. Question

The linchpin of a successful scientific paper is the research question. Already due to the complexity of reality, even of an international institution or a foreign policy decision, you can never describe an object of investigation 'just like that'. You always have to concentrate on certain aspects and thus at the same time neglect others, which in themselves may also be important and worth investigating. In the research question you clarify which aspect of reality you want to work on.

  • The question should be as concrete as possible in order to fulfill its selection function. So not: "International institutions once and now", but for instance: "To what extent has the role of the World Security Council for the preservation of world peace changed by the end of the East-West conflict ?"
  • Look for analytical questions (why does something happen, how does an object of study change, what functions does it assume in the emergence or handling of a problem/conflict). On the other hand, avoid purely descriptive questions (what is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ?). Pay attention to the choice of words in the introduction: The aim of the paper is 'to investigate' or 'to pursue a question', but not 'to describe, or 'to present'.
  • Look for questions that are interesting or relevant. Relevance and interest can arise, for example, from an empirical observation.
  • Finding a meaningful question presupposes a minimum knowledge of the subject area to be worked on, because questions 'from the hollow gut' threaten to merely confirm preconceptions. The definition of the question is therefore not at the beginning, but somewhere in the middle of the work process. However, try to define it as early as possible, so that you can use the selection function of the question and concentrate on certain aspects.
  • The definition of the question presupposes that it is essentially clear on the basis of which material it is to be dealt with. If no material (or no suitable theoretical conception) is available for its treatment, a question, no matter how interesting, is useless.

2. Design of the study

On the basis of a (preliminarily defined) question, it is then necessary to clarify how you want to pursue the problem raised by it and in which steps you want to unfold your argumentation.

  • In many cases, you will be dealing with a case (e.g., the German decision to participate in the Kosovo conflict). Then the danger of descriptiveness, especially of chronological description, is particularly high. All the more important is the definition of a problem-oriented question ('why do Germans participate ?) and a reference to theoretical-conceptual literature (see below).
  • A comparative design is possible, identifying differences and/or similarities between two or more cases ("why did the Germans participate militarily in the Kosovo mission but not in the Gulf conflict?"). The work can then be directed at explaining variance (why the different behavior ?) or identifying existing commonalities despite different outcomes (what basic constants shape German foreign policy in the area ?).
  • Sometimes the comparative method can also be made fruitful within a case by comparing phases with each other. In this case, it is not a matter of describing a process over time, but of comparing, for example, an institution at two (or more) points in time (e.g. comparing the functions/performance/problems of the UN Security Council before the end of the East-West conflict [1985] and after [1995]).

3. Theory reference

Social scientific knowledge arises from the interaction of theory and empiricism. Theories are cross-case constructions (e.g., models, general relationships) that help us to order, systematize, and explain empirical observations. Within a scientific paper, theory and empiricism can be related to each other in different ways. Be clear about which of these forms you want to follow, and what role theory and empiricism then play in the context of your work.

  • Theory can serve to guide an empirical investigation. The aim is to gain knowledge about a case, e.g. an international institution, while theory provides the necessary analytical tools ("what can be learned about NATO when viewed from the perspective of cooperation theory ?"). The theory reference serves to explicate theoretical assumptions and to derive criteria of investigation ("which factors do I have to focus on, and which can I leave out ?").
  • A paper can also be designed to form a theory (e.g., in the form of propositions that apply across cases, hypotheses). In this case, theory building is the goal, while empirical observations serve as tools. Thus, it is important to select cases that are suitable for theory building. A single case is not sufficient for this purpose.
  • Finally, a paper may be designed to test an existing theory. The focus is then on deriving testable hypotheses from a given theory ("what does neorealism of international relations expect with respect to German foreign policy after unification ?") and testing them on suitable cases. Alternatively, the explanatory power of contradictory theories can be tested in the sense of a competing one on the basis of one or more suitable cases.
  • So think about what theoretical literature you can usefully connect your work to. This may be a single suitable essay (or book), or a series of publications in the same field. However, the point is not to do a literature review ("what all is there ?"), but to select a theoretical foundation tailored to your work. Keep in mind that theoretical contributions often start from different assumptions and concepts and are therefore not compatible with each other from the outset.

4. Procedure

Once you have determined the research question, the design of your paper, and the type of theoretical reference, you must decide in which steps you want to unfold your argument. This then leads to the structure of your paper. It is important that the individual steps hang on a 'red thread' and are related to each other.

  • Divide the main body of your paper into several (about 2-4) larger sense sections, each dealing with a central argumentative step. Longer sections can be subdivided into subsections if necessary.
  • However, do not divide your work into too small components. Each bullet point should unfold a sub-argumentation step - and this cannot be accomplished in one paragraph. As a guideline: No sense unit under one page text length. If necessary, combine sections that are too small into larger sense units.
  • Examine the content of each section, subsection if applicable, for the overall argument of the paper: What sub-question does the section address ? To what extent is it necessary in the context of your work (epistemic) ? What partial result relevant to the paper is obtained ? It helps you and the reader if you explicate partial questions at the beginning and partial results at the end. Difficulties in explication usually indicate conceptual problems. A section whose contribution to the overall argument is unclear can either be omitted altogether or it must be 'rewritten' accordingly.
  • Check the coherence of their sections and, if necessary, their subsections within a section: Does the preceding section prepare the following one ? Do the argumentative steps appear in the correct order ? Repetitions in the text usually indicate an unclear or problematic outline.

5. Literature selection

As a rule, scientific progress in knowledge does not take place through the development of isolated ideas, but is embedded in the respective current scientific discussion. The meaningful treatment of a topic therefore requires, on the one hand, knowledge of relevant information (e.g. data and facts, treaties, statements by states or party representatives) and, on the other hand, the most intensive reference possible to the relevant scientific literature in each case. Which information and which scientific discussions are relevant for you depends primarily on the chosen topic. In general, however, the following can be said:

  • Do not limit yourself to descriptions of specific developments or events, nor to books, but start from scientific articles published in reputable journals (e.g. Zeitschrift für Soziologie, Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, American Journal of Sociology ...).
  • Beschränken Sie sich nicht allein auf deutschsprachige Literatur.

6. Formalities (see also notes on the formal design of term papers)

The following formal requirements apply to term papers:

Components of the work:

  • Title page (includes: Name, e-mail; title of course, semester and program of study, title of thesis, date of submission).
  • Outline of the paper
  • Introduction

- delimits the topic

- develops the research question and outlines the problem under investigation

- gives reasons for concentrating on the aspect treated

- explains the conditions under which the topic is treated

- shows the procedure for dealing with the problem ("red thread").

  • Main part

- serves to work on the problem along a line of argumentation (the "red thread")

- contains the necessary data, facts and quotations for this purpose, but not such data, facts and quotations which are included for their own sake

- Structure of the main part according to the scheme 1.; 1.1.; 1.1.1.; 1.1.2.; 1.2.

  • Conclusion

- summarizes the results

- answers questions raised at the beginning

- contains personal conclusions

- refers to unsolved problems (outlook)

- can place the discussed problem in a larger context in the form of a thesis.

  • They agree on the length of the text with the teacher.
  • Three types of citations:

- Direct (verbatim) quotations should be used sparingly; they are useful when formulations are considered particularly typical, characteristic, or apt, or are needed to prove an assertion or view. Direct quotations are indicated by quotation marks and may not be altered (even slightly). No rearrangements, alterations, inserted comments ! Omissions in the quoted text must be indicated by three dots (...);

- Indirect (not literal) quotations are written in the subjunctive. They are not indicated in the text by quotation marks, but are accompanied by supporting documents beginning with 'cf.' (compare).

- The paraphrase is written in the indicative; it is substantiated in the same way as the indirect quotation.

Literature tip for theses:

Eco, Umberto 2007: Wie man eine wissenschaftliche Abschlussarbeit schreibt. 12. Aufl. Heidelberg: UTB

(Changed: 2021-04-30)