Table of contents for research papers

What’s a Table of Contents?

When writing a research paper, master’s thesis or PhD dissertation, the table of contents is one of the most important elements to include. Why? Because it provides a detailed and accurate list that examiners can use as a map, guiding through each respective chapter, including all relevant sections and subsections of material. Including a Table of Contents (or ToC for short), helps readers understand the general gist of the content. In this article, we will take a look at what goes into a table of contents, what the most important elements are, and how we can create automatically formatted ToCs.

For short articles, such as those published in a scientific journal, a table of contents is not usually required, and if an essay or article forms part of a larger body of writing by other authors, the publisher will generally compile the ToC at a later date before going to print.

Of course, while writing your research paper, it’s worth taking note of all the different heading levels required (e.g., Level 1, 2, 3, etc.).

Modifying the format of each heading level will help you to construct an accurate and professionally formatted table of contents. However, unlike the days before computers, ToCs no longer need to be constructed manually, since word processing programs the likes of Microsoft Word allow the user to create automatic ToCs tailored to specific styles and formats.

Fig 1. An example of heading levels in a typical Table of Contents in Microsoft Word.


So, how do we construct a table of contents? First, start with the title and main chapter headings of the research paper. List all relevant chapters and sub-headings in chronological order from first to last. Under each chapter heading, include any additional subheadings.

For other heading levels, consult the style guide or submission guidelines to note the format of all the heading levels. Then, modify each heading level in Microsoft Word to reflect those specific headings. In academic research papers, dissertations, and other manuscripts, level two and three headings are often indented and placed below chapter headings. In some of the cases, italics may be used, or otherwise a number system (e.g., 1, 1.1, 1.2, 1.2.2, etc.).

As is standard practice in all books, the table of contents is positioned after the acknowledgments section and before the introductory section. Depending on the format specified by the institution or publisher, some sections may be left out of the table of contents, such as the abstract and acknowledgment sections. However, concluding sections, such as the references/bibliography as well as any supplementary materials included in the appendix, should also be included.

Now, let’s talk about how to format an automatic table of contents in Microsoft Word. We can use the automatic ToC creator to not only build a list of headings, but also to record accurate page numbers; for example, if you insert material or make changes, the page numbers may not always line up correctly. To get around this, you can use heading levels to specify the importance of each subsection. For example, chapter headings generally fall under a level one heading, and smaller subsections under level 2.

Each heading style can be modified to taste in the ToC formation toolbar in MS Word to apply them automatically. As some headings may require bold for italic text, while some others may be indented, Word can customize each level accordingly.

A note of caution regarding level 3 headings when the main text body follows directly after the heading in the same paragraph. We might run into some problems here, given that automatic ToCs include the entire paragraph as a heading; however, there are ways to get around this, such as by turning on the special characters to see page breaks and line breaks, etc. There are many tools available online to help you with such issues, so there’s no need to worry.

Now, let’s take a look at a few examples of different Table of Contents styles; namely, those used in academic dissertations and theses. Some of these ToCs use numeration to designate the heading level, whereas others are more traditional.

Fig 1. Example of a typical APA-style Table of Contents.

Fig 2. Example of a numerated Table of Contents.

Now, let’s summarize the advantages of creating an automatic table of contents.

  • The table of contents forms an essential part of any academic paper.
  • Through the use of headings, sub-headings, and page numbers, we can construct an accurate road map to assist reviewers, evaluators, tutors, and general readers.
  • The table of contents shows how effective the writer is at dividing the thesis into relevant and manageable sections. Without sections and headings, there would just be a series of unlabeled paragraphs.
  • A well-structured ToC allows readers to click on a section and go directly there. This is particularly useful when cross-referencing references and citations or jumping to illustrations and figures.

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