Master's Paper Overview


Two-Possible Approaches 


Registration and Deadlines

Frequently Asked Questions 

Master's Paper Guidelines

Completed Papers

The guidelines below apply to students who entered SILS prior to Spring 2022 or to students who entered in Fall 2021 and opted to completed the older curriculum. For students who entered SILS in summer or fall 2021 and who have opted in to follow our new curriculum should follow our new capstone requirements. 


 The final Master's paper requirement gives you an opportunity to demonstrate that you are capable of:

  • envisioning and carrying out a sustained, coherent, and significant process of work resulting in a tangible product;
  • managing that process over several months; and
  • presenting that work in written form.

There are two routes that you can take toward fulfilling this final requirement: you can focus on answering a question, or you can focus on solving a problem. (Answering questions and solving problems are, of course, interrelated, but for the purpose of planning a Master’s paper this can be a useful distinction.) In either case, you will be required to present your work in the form of a substantial paper.

Two Possible Approaches



Question-oriented papers

Question-oriented papers should be on topics relevant to the work of information professionals, following the conventions appropriate to published papers or theses in the relevant domain. Question-oriented papers may fall into two broad categories:

  1. Answering questions through empirical research. This is probably the most common type of question-oriented paper. Empirical research papers seek to answer a well-defined research question and thereby advance knowledge in a particular area relevant to the work of information professionals. These papers should describe the research design and the use of qualitative and/or quantitative methods for data collection and analysis. If the collected data is sharable, it should be deposited in the Carolina Digital Repository ( with the paper itself upon submission. Interviews, usability studies and surveys are some of the most common methods that fall into this category.
  2. Analytical investigations. Some question-oriented papers advance knowledge by investigating, analyzing, and/or synthesizing ideas, texts, and datasets collected by others. Much important research in law, economics, and policy, as well as the humanities, takes this form. To fulfill the final requirement, a paper of this type must involve original research. It should be of publishable quality, and go beyond expectations for the final paper of a course. Historical studies, policy-oriented papers, and theoretical analyses fall into this category.

Either type of question-oriented paper will include 1) an introduction that provides a rationale for the research (i.e. the question), 2) a literature review, 3) presentation of results or ideas, and 4) the development of conclusions or recommendations. The conclusions should include some evaluation of the impact of your work, either with respect to related work, or with respect to your initial plans or expectations. Ideally this evaluation will include feedback from potential users of the results of your research.

Project-oriented papers

A project-oriented paper reports on an attempt to build or do something that solves a specific problem. Project-oriented papers must have a “stakeholder”: a person or organization that has the problem or is willing to invest in its solution. Examples of potential stakeholders include campus organizations; local companies, non-profits, or public sector organizations; labs or research groups; or venture incubators. stakeholders are expected to provide timely feedback in exchange for the work being done on their behalf.

The stakeholder cannot be yourself: part of the experience of working on a project-oriented paper is to deal with other people, organizations, constraints, and deadlines. Nor should the stakeholder be your paper advisor, as this would present a conflict of interest.

A project-oriented paper also involves investigations, similar to those that would be performed in a professional work setting. A successful project-oriented paper will span two or more of the areas listed below, with a dominant focus in one of them.

  1. Situation analysis. User requirements, needs analysis, and usability assessment.
  2. System design. Information architecture, data modeling, document engineering, metadata design. Representing information and process requirements in a formal and computer-executable way.
  3. Interface/experience design. User-centered design, iterative prototyping.
  4. Implementation. The creation of an artifact or process that can actually be used and has real potential to be deployed or published. Examples of artifacts are a software application, a website, a series of pamphlets, or a documentary video. Examples of processes are an organizational workflow or a community outreach strategy.
  5. Testing and evaluation. Empirical assessment of a design or implemented artifact or process.

If you are planning to complete a project-oriented paper on your own, you should expect to start early: analysis, design, implementation or evaluation work should begin early in your second-to-last semester at the latest.

In many cases, it may make more sense to coordinate your work on a project-oriented paper with 1 or 2 other students. Each student would then focus on one of the areas above.

Some project-oriented papers may involve coordinating with the work of other people (possibly other UNC students, faculty, or staff, or even members of outside organizations) who are not being evaluated for their final Master's requirement. If you are coordinating with others who are not being evaluated for the final Master's requirement, you should all agree in advance on expectations about time commitments, work commitments, and goals.

Each person being evaluated for work done on an project-oriented paper must submit his or her own individual paper that 1) analyzes possible strategies that could have been employed to solve the problem, 2) presents the development over time and latest version of any data gathered or artifacts or processes designed using this strategy, and 3) evaluates the potential for the use and impact of the gathered data or designed artifacts or processes. The evaluation of use and impact should include feedback gathered from the stakeholder.


The student may choose any topic related to library or information science. A faculty member, who will direct the research and paper writing process, must approve the topic.

Registration & Deadlines

Registration for INLS 992 (Masters Paper or Project) is required for both MSIS and MSLS. Students must register for INLS 992 for 3 credit hours. The registration for the Master Paper will be handled electroncially and now follows a slightly different process:

  1. Fill out the SILS Class Enrollment Request Form
  2. Attach the required learning contract and copy of your INLS 781 proposal to your form. We have come up with several example learning contracts: for a survey, an experiment, an example for a tool/software development project, and an example for a full-scale system development.
  3. Once you have uploaded all the required documents, finish completing the form
  4. Agreed to the honor code statement and hit submit
  5. The form will be routed to the appropriate people for approval
  6. Once your request is approved, you wil be registered for INLS 992. 

Students who do not complete the master's paper during the term in which they are first registered for INLS 992, must re-register for INLS 992 in the semester in which they complete the master's paper.

Frequently Asked Questions 

When should work on the Master's paper start?

Work on your Master's paper could start as early as your second semester, during which you would typically take INLS 581 (Research Methods Overview). As you learn about different research methods in 581, you will have your own ideas about how you might investigate something of interest to you. During your second-to-last semester, you should plan to take INLS 781 (Proposal Development), in which you will be expected to articulate those ideas by developing a proposal for your paper.

By the end of your second-to-last semester you should have: 1) a well-defined proposal that outlines the proposed plan or work; 2) a rationale for it as a capstone and integrative experience; and 3) (if you are coordinating with others) an explanation of the team participants and their roles. This must be approved by your paper advisor. Your paper will then be completed toward the end of the following semester (your last), during which you should enroll in INLS 992.

How much work should a Master's paper involve?

Work on your Master's paper may begin as early as your first year (see the answer to the question “When should work on the Master's paper start?”).

During your final semester, you should expect to spend ten to twenty hours a week on work related to your paper. You will enroll in INLS 992 to receive credit for these hours.

Some of the work might take place as part of a course. For example, a student taking a course about designing educational programs for library patrons might also be part of a team designing, implementing, and evaluating an educational program for the Chapel Hill Public Library. If the course included a project component, it would might make sense for the student to do a project for the course that would also further the goals of the Master's paper. Note that this does not imply that deliverables for a course can be simply repurposed as a Master's paper, or vice versa. If in doubt, consult both your paper advisor and course instructor.

How and when are papers approved? Who supervises them?

Early in your second-to-last semester, you must turn in a paper proposal signed by a faculty member (see the answer to “When should work on the Master's paper start?”). By signing the proposal, a faculty member has agreed to supervise and evaluate your paper. All papers are to be supervised by a faculty member and the satisfactory completion of a final paper is determined by that faculty member. All proposals to work in coordination with other students are subject to review by the Master's Committee.

How will question-oriented papers be evaluated?

Question-oriented papers will be evaluated on 1) the clarity, organization, and relevance of the literature review, 2) the clarity and originality of the results or ideas presented, and 3) the extent to which the student has provided significant conclusions or recommendations.

Empirical research papers may also be evaluated on the appropriateness of the research design, the care involved in data collection, and the presentation of the data itself (which should be deposited in the Carolina Digital Repository if possible).

Analytical investigations may also be evaluated on the extent to which they involved original research.

How will project-oriented papers be evaluated?

Project-oriented papers will be evaluated based on 1) the clarity, organization, and relevance of the analysis of various design approaches, 2) the originality and quality of presentation of the designed artifact or process, and 3) the potential for use and impact of the designed artifact or process. The paper should be a substantial piece of writing, even if the style and tone will typically be closer to a white paper or a consultant's report rather than an academic paper.

Project-oriented papers may also be evaluated based on the documentation of any of the problem-solving activities. To be considered for evaluation, this documentation must be deposited in the Carolina Digital Repository. Documentation could include: user scenarios, data models, design prototypes, source code, testing data, images and videos, etc. Students are strongly encouraged to also publish this documentation on a public website.

Can a team of students work on a question-oriented paper?

It is possible that more than one student might write question-oriented papers looking at closely related phenomena from different perspectives or using different methods. Each student would still be solely and wholly responsible for her own paper, but coordinating in this way would allow each author to discuss and compare the others’ findings.

However, this coordination would differ from the coordination of a team working on an project-oriented paper, because in an project-oriented paper the parts for which different students are responsible will depend on one another. For example, understanding the needs or desires of some group of people is a process separable from, but interdependent with, the process of designing an interface for that group. Question-oriented papers, in contrast, should be able to stand on their own, regardless of how the complementary papers turn out.

How will team efforts be evaluated?

Each team member will be evaluated on the basis of her own paper.

In the case of project-oriented papers, the coordination should be organized so that each team member who is being evaluated should be responsible for one aspect of the work. For example, suppose the solution to a problem involved both user interface design and usability testing. One student might take responsibility for delivering a paper that reviews influential UI designs and the relevant design literature and presents various iterations of the design prototype. The other would take responsibility for delivering a paper that reviews the relevant usability evaluation literature, describes the specific evaluation methodology used, and presents and analyzes the results. See the answer to “How will project-oriented papers be evaluated?” for more on what is expected.

In addition to the paper advisor’s assessment of the papers, it is expected that students working in coordination will provide assessments of their peers in terms of how much work each student contributed to the overall collaboration. The exact format of the peer review will be determined jointly with the students and their paper advisor when in the process of completing the paper proposal form.

Master's Paper Guidelines

For a complete list of guidelines, please see our Guidelines page. 

Completed Papers

Search for past papers that SILS students have written