What Is a Research Paper Outline?

A research paper outline is a generalized, organized overview of a research topic. Outlines are useful as they help the writer think about a topic in more detail, revealing areas that may require more research. Like most outlines written for academic papers, there are at least three sections: the introduction, body and conclusion. A research paper outline, however, will also have a hypothesis or thesis as part of the introduction. Whether the main idea is called a thesis or hypothesis depends on the discipline. For scientific research papers the term hypothesis is often used. For non-scientific papers, like liberal arts research papers, the main idea of the paper is often called the thesis.


The introduction of the research paper outline needs to have a thesis or hypothesis that illustrates the claim the paper is trying to prove. Following the introduction the points needed to prove the thesis are provided. These ideas may be given in sentence or phrase format, depending on what the professor requires. The more formal method is to use a sentence format, which, according to the Purdue University Writing Lab, is often used for essays. When using the alphanumeric outline format, the introduction will start with a Roman numeral one: "I." The thesis is then written next to it. Next, capital letters A,B,C and so on are written below the thesis. These letters are subheadings that provide more detail about the ideas presented in the thesis.

Body Paragraphs

For a research paper, several paragraphs are most likely required to thoroughly discuss the topic and help prove the thesis. Using the alphanumeric format mentioned above requires that a Roman numeral be used for the general title of the first body paragraph. Capital letters are required for the subheadings under the title. Then Arabic numerals are used for subheadings revealing more detailed information on the topic. Subheadings under this are illustrated by lower case letters. The following section illustrates how a body paragraph may look.

Example of a Body Paragraph Outline

Note that in this example, each level of the outline should be indented. The Roman numeral "II" would be on the left margin, and "A" and "B" would both be indented one tab, for example. "1" under "B" would be indented even further than "B" and "a" would be indented further than "1" and so on.

II. Overview of the Works of Classical Composers A. Time Period B. Composers 1. Haydn a. symphonies b. string quartets c. choral music d. other music 2. Mozart a. symphonies b. string quartets c. choral music 3. Beethoven a. early symphonies b. early string quartets

Further Subheadings

For topics that require even more subheadings, the Arabic numerals are placed in parentheses and the subheading under these require the lower case letters be placed in parentheses. If more subheadings are needed, than you may want to consider combining some of your topics so that there are not too many subheadings. The following illustrates the subheadings (don't forget the indentions of each level):

  1. Mozart a. symphonies (1.) Early Symphonies (a.) Symphonies 1, 5, 20


The conclusion to the research paper follows the same alphanumeric format. The topics outlined in this section does not extensively cite new research or expert opinion, but rather sums up the main ideas discussed in the paper to further prove the point the paper sought to make. It also ends with a statement or quote that gives the reader information for further consideration.

Important Qualities of Good Outlines

Regardless of the section, there are certain qualities that each part of the research paper outline should have. These include parallelism, equal relevance and multiple headings. Parallelism means that if a title starts with a verb, all the other titles in the outline should start with a verb. Thus, in an outline about buying a car, the first title or topic of the body paragraph might be:

II. Look for New Cars Online A. Search for cars at Vehix.com B. Search for cars at Cars.com

Note that the topics of A and B are of equal relevance. One is not more specific than the other. More detailed information should be described in the subheadings to each of the A and B headings. Also, outlines should have multiple headings. Note again the example above. Under Look for New Cars Online there are two general subheadings. There should always be at least two subheadings for each topic.

Decimal Outlines

Besides the alphanumeric outline, a research paper outline may use decimal points. This can make it easier to see how one idea in a paragraph relates to another. Below is an example of a decimal outline (the same type of indention pattern as the body paragraph outline follows here):

2.0 Overview of the Works of Classical Composers 2.1 Time Period 2.2 Composers 2.2.1 Haydn symphonies string quartets choral music other music 2.2.2 Mozart symphonies string quartets choral music 2.2.3 Beethoven early symphonies early string quartets