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Research Paper Basics: MLA Style

According to the Modern Language Association “we undertake research when we wish to explore an idea, probe an issue, solve a problem, or make an argument in relation to what others have written.” Teachers and professors assign research when they want their students to look beyond their personal knowledge and explore what others are doing and saying about a topic. Writing a research paper is evidence of this process.

What are sources and why do I need them?

Pulling from a variety of sources is required in research because it helps you generate new ideas and support your arguments. It gives validity to what you are saying and ultimately makes you a more credible writer.

There are many types of sources you can pull research and opinions from, including books, magazines, professional journals, newspaper articles, websites, television interviews, documentaries, and more! Most likely, your teacher or professor will determine how many of each of these types of sources you need to use, but it is your responsibility to know how to cite them.

Citing your sources means giving credit to another person for his or her thoughts. It is critical to any level of writing because it helps you avoid plagiarism. Plagiarism is the use of another’s work, words, or ideas without giving them credit. It is stealing ideas from another and claiming them as your own. Plagiarism is dishonest and in many schools it results in detention or even expulsion.

Remember - when in doubt, cite.


Where do I start?

Style is like a language - when everyone in a particular field is speaking the same language it helps further scientific and social research more quickly. The Modern Language Association developed the MLA style to provide uniformity in formatting papers and citing sources within a document and across multiple documents. It is generally used for research in liberal arts and humanities.


The definitive resource for all questions about the MLA style is the MLA Handbook. Some branches of The Library have copies of this book in their reference collection, meaning you can only use it when you are in that library. Others will have copies available for checkout. Just ask a librarian to help you locate it.



The MLA has put forth some general guidelines for formatting MLA papers.

All public computers at The Library have Microsoft Word. A reference librarian or computer assistant can help you adjust the settings for fonts, margins, indents, and more.


What Are the Parts of an MLA Research Paper?

Heading and Title

Unlike other styles, MLA papers do not require title pages. Instead, type your name, your instructor’s name, the course number, and the date on separate lines, double-spaced, and flush with the left margin of the page. Double-space again and center your title. Hit enter twice and begin the body of your paper.  


The body of your paper is everything that comes after the title. This is where you will present your research and how it supports your opinions. Typically, a body will include an introductory paragraph, at least three paragraphs of discussion, and a conclusion. Your teacher or professor may have a particular way they wish for you to format the body of your paper but having an introduction, a body, and a conclusion is a good place to start.

Works Cited Page

The Works Cited page appears at the end of your research paper. It is a detailed list of every source you used to construct your paper. More details on that will follow.


How Do I Cite My Sources?: The Works Cited Page and In-Text Citations

There are two things that work in conjunction to help you demonstrate your work in a research paper: the Works Cited page and in-text citations.

Works Cited

The Works Cited page appears at the end of your research paper. It is a detailed list of every source you used to construct your paper. You want the reader of your paper to be able to refer back to your Works Cited page when he or she wishes to locate exactly where you found a piece of information.

Ideally, you should draft your Works Cited page before writing the main body of your paper so you will know what information to use for citations within the body of your paper. A typical MLA citation will contain the following information:

Author(s). “Title of Article”. City of Publication: Publisher, Year. Format.

The exact format of your citation will depend on where you found it, how many authors it has, what year it was written, and other factors.  For example, if you are using a magazine article, that may require the addition of page numbers.  The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers lists these out in great detail in Section 5. If you refer back to this portion of the handbook, you will always know exactly how to format a citation for your Works Cited page.

Entries in a Works Cited page should be alphabetical by author’s last name. If the author’s name is unknown, alphabetize by the title. Please refer to the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers Section 5.3.2 for more detailed information about indentations and spacing in your Works Cited page.

In Text Citations

In-text citations are words and numbers enclosed in parentheses throughout the paper after you quote or paraphrase someone else’s idea. Remember, it’s OK to use someone else’s ideas as long as you give them credit. You are using their ideas to support your ideas. The technical term for these in-text citations is parenthetical citations.

Typically, a parenthetical citation will include the last name of the source’s author and the page that you found the information on. For example:

“The demise of the Library of Alexandria was an absolute travesty to western civilization.” (Smith 85)

This parenthetical citation tells us that if we refer to your Works Cited page, we can find this quote on page 85 of an article written by someone with the last name Smith. The corresponding Works Cited entry might appear as such:

Smith, Allen D. The Library of Alexandria is Burning. Philadelphia: MacMillan, 2010. 74-95.

The format of a parenthetical citation will vary based on how you might wish to format the words preceding it. Please refer to Section 6 of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers for more information about formatting parenthetical citations.


Additional Help

There are many websites out there that will also help you correctly cite your sources both in-text and at the end of your paper.

These are owned and operated by universities and are typically kept up to date. While it’s tempting to go punching information into these sites, It’s important to learn the MLA style first and use these websites as supplemental resources to check your work.


So there you have it - the basics of an MLA research paper. Never forget our librarians are here to help you succeed. Please don’t hesitate to ask us for assistance in completing your paper. We are happy to help!

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