Research paper outline

A research paper outline is a useful tool to aid in the writing process, providing a structure to follow with all information to be included in the paper clearly organized.

A quality outline can make writing your research paper more efficient by helping to:

  • organize your thoughts.
  • understand the flow of information and how ideas are related.
  • ensure nothing is forgotten.

A research paper outline can also give your teacher an early idea of the final product.

Research paper outline example

Research paper outlines can consist only of notes or be extremely detailed. Your teacher might provide guidance as to the kind of outline they wish to see; if not, choose what works best for you.

Topic: Measles and the vaccination debate

  1. Introduction
    1. Definition of measles
    2. Rise in cases in recent years in places the disease was previously eliminated or had very low rates of infection
    3. Figures — number of cases per year on average, number in recent years. Relate to immunisation.
    1. Symptoms and timeframes of disease
    2. Risk of fatality, including statistics
    3. How measles is spread
    1. Immunisation procedures in different regions
    2. The immunisation debate, addressing two sides: why immunisation is recommended and why there are groups questioning its validity
      1. Different regions, focusing on the arguments from those against immunisation
    1. Outbreaks in USA, Australia, Thailand
      1. Immunisation figures in affected regions
    2. High number of cases in non-immunizing regions
    1. Dangers presented by measles as linked to other diseases
      1. Illnesses that can result from the measles virus
      2. Fatal cases of other illnesses after patient contracted measles
    1. Summary of arguments of different groups
    2. Summary of figures and relationship with recent immunisation debate
    3. Concluding statement based on gathered data
      1. Which side of the argument appears to be correct?
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How to write a research paper outline

Follow these steps to start your research paper outline:

  1. Decide on the subject of the paper
  2. Write down all the ideas you want to include or discuss
  3. Organize related ideas into sub-groups
  4. Arrange your ideas into a hierarchy — what should the reader learn first? What is most important? Which idea will help end your paper most effectively?
  5. Create effective headings and subheadings
  6. Format the outline in either alphanumeric, full-sentence or decimal format

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Formatting your research paper outline

There are three different kinds of research paper outline: alphanumeric, full-sentence and decimal outlines. The differences relate to formatting and style of writing.

An alphanumeric outline is most commonly used. It uses Roman numerals, capitalized letters, arabic numerals, lowercase letters to organize the flow of information. Text is written with short notes rather than full sentences.

    1. First point
      1. Sub-point
        1. Sub-point of sub-point 1

Essentially the same as the alphanumeric outline, but with the text written in full sentences rather than short points.

  1. First body paragraph of the research paper
    1. First point of evidence to support the main argument
      1. Sub-point discussing evidence outlined in point A
        1. Additional sub-point to conclude discussion of point of evidence introduced in point A

A decimal outline is similar in format to the alphanumeric outline, but with a different numbering system: 1, 1.1, 1.2, etc. Text is written as short notes rather than full sentences.

  1. 1 Body paragraph one
    1. 1.1 First point
      1. 1.1.1 Sub-point of first point
      2. 1.1.2 Sub-point of first point
    2. 1.2 Second point

Language in research paper outlines

To write an effective research paper outline, it is important to pay attention to language. This is especially important if it is one you will show to your teacher or be assessed on.

There are four main considerations: parallelism, coordination, subordination and division.

Parallelism — be consistent with grammatical form

Parallel structure or parallelism is the repetition of a particular grammatical form within a sentence, or in this case, between points and sub-points. This simply means that if the first point is a verb, the sub-point should also be a verb.

Example of parallelism:
  1. Introduce the immunization debate, addressing two sides: why immunization is recommended and why there are groups questioning it
    1. Include different regions, focusing on the different arguments from those against immunization

Coordination — be aware of each point’s weight

Your chosen subheadings should hold the same significance as each other, as should all first sub-points, secondary sub-points, and so on.

Example of coordination:
  1. Introduce outbreaks in USA, Australia, Thailand
    1. Include immunization figures in affected regions
  2. Outline dangers presented by measles as linked to other diseases
    1. Illnesses that can result from the measles virus

Subordination — work from general to specific

Subordination refers to the separation of general points from specific. Your main headings should be quite general, and each level of sub-point should become more specific.

Example of subordination:
    1. Outline dangers presented by measles as linked to other diseases
      1. Illnesses that can result from the measles virus
      2. Fatal cases of other illnesses after patient contracted measles

Division — break information into sub-points

Your headings should be divided into two or more subsections. There is no limit to how many subsections you can include under each heading, but keep in mind that the information will be structured into a paragraph during the writing stage, so you should not go overboard with the number of sub-points.

Ready to start writing or looking for guidance on a different step in the process? Read our step-by-step guide on how to write a research paper.

Is this article helpful?
Courtney Gahan

Courtney has a Bachelor in Communication and a Master in Editing and Publishing. She has worked as a freelance writer and editor since 2013, and joined the Scribbr team as an editor in June 2017. She loves helping students and academics all over the world improve their writing (and learning about their research while doing so!).


Lisa Gomez
November 24, 2020 at 12:46 AM

I need help using the plagiarism checker for my research paper that's due in a couple of weeks.


Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
November 26, 2020 at 12:30 PM

Hi Lisa,

The Scribbr Plagiarism Checker is easy to use – simply upload your document here. The check only takes a few minutes. Then you can check out our guide to understanding the plagiarism report.

If you still need help, you can contact our support team by live chat, email or phone. Hope that helps :)


حياة يوسف
October 21, 2020 at 9:33 PM

bundle of thanks
I gained valuable knowledge.


October 11, 2020 at 10:48 PM

I would like to understand Intextcitations APA format


Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
October 20, 2020 at 11:00 PM


You can check out our guide to APA in-text citation. Hope that helps!


July 25, 2020 at 12:26 PM

Dear Courtney,

I have done research work on my topic and obtained the results.Now I am trying to write the research paper for journals.But my technical writing is not up to the mark.Please help.


Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
July 29, 2020 at 8:00 PM

Hi Shivi,

When you've written up your paper, you can use our Proofreading & Editing service to improve your text and get better at academic writing. Our editors can't write the paper for you, but they can check it for language errors and make sure it's up to standard before you submit. They'll also give you targeted feedback on clarity and structure if you choose these additional services.

Good luck with writing!


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