Research paper vs white paper is a conundrum white paper writers frequently encounter. Most people had to write research papers when they were in high school and college, and many people work in industries where researchers and scientists publish research papers to inform colleagues and industries of what they’ve learned. So when they hear someone mentioning white papers, they can’t be faulted for assuming they’re the same thing. (Originally, a white paper was an official government report.)

What are research papers?

Research papers are formal documents or scientific articles exploring a particular subject in detail, and supporting the writer’s contention or arguments by including evidence from outside experts and other sources. Most research papers follow standardized structures, often beginning with some type of a thesis statement, presenting a series of arguments or sources in support of that statement, and ending in a statement about whether the thesis was successfully proven.

For students, academic papers are usually assigned to determine their mastery of a topic or their ability to write in traditional academic style. Professionals use peer reviewed research papers for a different reason. They want to share an idea they had and whether it proved to be possible, useful, or even valuable.

Scientific papers

Peer reviewed research papers are particularly important in the sciences. For example, many medical advances are first documented by the doctors or other scientists who discovered and tested them. An oncologist may stumble upon a combination of treatments that’s particular effective on a difficult-to-treat cancer. The doctor tests his idea following standard procedures and protocols and discovers it’s effective 86 percent of the time, so they write a research paper explaining the treatment and recommending the next steps for researchers.

The scientific research paper process is designed to explore all existing knowledge to create new ideas and discoveries, then document everything to help the scientist who pushes the frontiers of knowledge even further.

Publishing research papers

Recognition of the value of what a particular research paper analyzes often comes in the form of being published in an peer reviewed academic journal. Generally, an academic journal uses a peer review process in which several professionals read papers that have been submitted before publishing research papers. They ensure a logical framework is used and also make sure any statistics and other information used reflect peer reviewed research standards.

What is a white paper?

White papers are documents that explore complex issues to educate audiences. When used in a marketing or policymaking context, a white paper provides enough facts and arguments to convince people that your product, service, or strategy offers the best solution for the situation, educating them about the issue and making a case for your position or advice. Potential customers search for the information found in white papers.

White papers offer an excellent way to explain what makes your solution better than competing alternatives. You can use them to provide a technical discussion or summarize key information about a particular issue or problem to help the reader develop a stronger understanding. You describe common problems current and prospective customers face and provide detailed explanations as to how your approach provides the best solution.

Unlike ads and brochures, white papers are generally not promotional, without a strong sales pitch. Because the audiences that white papers target — such as engineers, CFOs, and CEOs — tend to distrust materials that appear to be more “salesy” than informative, most white papers are simply set up to look like trade magazine articles with fewer pictures.

So research paper vs white paper?

As in how they are different? First, they have two very different purposes. The purpose of a research paper is, for students, to prove mastery of a subject. For professionals, it’s to advance knowledge by sharing discoveries. A white paper, on the other sheet, is a tool to share information and influence decision-making.

Research papers explore all existing knowledge and can never have enough of it. White papers focus on a handful of points. Just enough knowledge to help someone make the right decision and nothing more. Research papers expand the mind, white papers attempt to narrow it.

Typically, research papers are written in the stiff, formal style that’s used in the academic world. You’ll have no trouble recognizing it from your memories of 8th grade English or your college composition class (or whatever fancy term your college came up with because they didn’t think you were smart enough to realize it was a composition class). Remember that long list of rules Mrs. Handsdown recited and all the red ink on your graded papers? Now when you write an email, you sometimes worry that she’s somehow going to see it, and you’ll feel her hovering over your shoulder.

The most effective white papers are written in a friendly, conversational way. Mrs. Handsdown would be very disappointed in you, but your boss will think you’ve become a genius. How so? It starts with the voice and tone of the written word. So you’re already a little confused. How could the written word make sound? Well, I didn’t say that. I said the voice and tone and not sound.

Literacy — the ability to read — is a relatively recent development in the evolution of our species. From the time we were magically created, hatched, or (whatever your image of life celebrates), until mere centuries ago, we had no way to communicate in writing. So we spoke. More important, we listened. Listening could keep us alive. Gradually, we learned the value of sharing what the old had learned from life so the young could take their places.

That was a long time ago, but you know what’s funny? Much of our mental wiring is from that era. Our brains do a great job of collecting and managing information. Was that the doorbell? Did a bird hit the window? Is that noise coming from beast of sharpest teeth? Your brain reacts to all three events the same way. It triggers hormones to kick up your energy and sharpen your senses so you don’t miss a thing. Thanks to some mutual ancestor who managed to stay a step ahead of a sabertoothed tiger, sound gets our immediate interest.

So we’re conditioned to listen for and pay attention to voices. Think of how many of the best times you can remember were spent in conversation with friends or family. Think of the number of interactions you have with other people on a given day, and what percentage include at least some conversation, even if it’s just “mornin’.”

As children, we grasp reading by connecting words with their associated sounds. And because the spoken word is so comfortable for us, we begin to recognize it in what we read. As we read a paragraph, we “hear” a voice in our heads. The voice is how we think the author or the character sounds. Not sure what I’m saying? Have you ever read a book and then seen a movie made from the book? A character speaks and you think, “Hey! He doesn’t sound like that!” You heard his “voice” when you read the book.

Based on the voices they hear, people draw very important conclusions about you. They decide whether you can be trusted. How you will treat them. Whether you’re genuinely friendly or just acting nice. You can control that impression, because you can control that voice.

Sometimes, presenting the right voice means ignoring some of those grammar rules Mrs. Handsdown drummed into your head. Why? Effective copy talks to people, and people don’t speak with textbook grammar. We start sentences with conjunctions, we end them with prepositions. We even use fragments. (That doesn’t mean grammar is unimportant. Forgetting basic agreement or structure can make you sound uneducated. Don’t be afraid to break rules – but do it selectively and with reason.)

By writing a white paper in a friendly, conversational way, you’ll tap into our desire to listen to voices and do a better job of capturing the reader’s full attention.

Is grammar for research and white papers different?

As I mentioned, research papers are usually written in that formal, stuffy academic style taught in high school English and college Composition classes and often used by technical writers.

But writing white papers isn’t about trying to please strict English teachers or jaded Composition instructors. Writing white papers is about selling. Telling. Convincing. Entertaining. Emphasizing. Doing that effectively demands copy that’s individual and personal. In fact, the more copy sounds like conversation, the more effective it tends to be.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore basic rules of grammar and syntax. The degree of grammatical correctness should reflect the situation and the audience. If the primary audience for your white paper is a group of university professors, you’ll want to make it more formal. But if you’re writing to industrial purchasing agents, your white paper should use the kind of language they use every day.

How should white papers be written?

Again, the most effective kind of language to use in a white paper is conversational. It really is okay to use contractions (like “can’t” or “won’t”) because they keep copy talky and friendly. It’s also okay to start sentences with conjunctions like “and” or “but,” and to end them with prepositions. And while you learned not to use “you” when writing for school, using it in a white paper will make it seem more like a conversation you’re having with the reader.

Some companies believe in hiring technical writers for white papers, but technical writers are usually more geared to projects like documentation or manuals, not white papers.

As for format, white papers usually begin with a general summary of the issue or the problem, and then go into depth about that issue or problem. Once it has been explored at length, the paper explains the solutions or approaches that have been developed to address the issue or problem, with a focus on the solution or approach that you want to advance. White papers often end with a brief message about your company and what it offers to prospective customers.

Some white papers include a short abstract at the beginning of the paper to summarize the key messages and conclusion. You can also place a list of other references and sources that the reader may find informative at the end of the paper.

Are there different types of white papers?

Companies may use several types of white papers companies as part of their marketing communications efforts. Most white papers fall into one of the following four categories.

1. White papers for background information

Some white papers are designed to provide background information about an issue or a challenge. Their goal is educating the reader about the matter so they can make more informed and/or confident decisions. An example might be comparing the advantages of shipping by truck with those of shipping by train, so a decision-maker is better able to evaluate which is the right choice for their company.

2. White papers for problems and solutions

Many white papers begin by describing a common problem the audience faces — whether that’s machinery that’s breaking down too often because of contamination issues or erosion tearing the topsoil from newly built slopes. Then the white papers examine the solutions available for that problem. With the machinery, it might involve a different type of lubrication or changes to the maintenance schedule. With the erosion issue, it might involve woven mats of organic materials that help plantings become rooted more quickly so they’re better able to withstand water.

3. White papers about processes

White papers can be an excellent way to explain and explore processes, from the many steps in bringing fresh produce from a farmer’s field to a restauranteur’s table, to the insight professionals like architects bring to design and construction of buildings. A well-written white paper can bring these processes alive for people who need to know about how these things work, such as lawmakers who are considering legislation about affecting those processes.

4. White papers presenting collections of information

This strategy is best when you have many bits of information or advice that would be helpful to readers, but none of them warrants a full-length white paper of their own. They’re often presented as numbered documents with titles such as “20 simple ways to improve your fleet maintenance program.” Readers are often attracted to this type of white paper because it’s easy to read and normally simplifies otherwise complex topics.

Could our business benefit from white papers?

If you can answer “yes” to any of the following five questions, it’s likely white papers can help you. In fact, more “yes” answers you provide, the more likely white papers should be part of your organization’s toolkit.

1. Is what you offer complicated, innovative, or different than your competitors?

If your company’s product or service is complicated, innovative, or significantly different from what your competitors provide, creating a white paper may be one of the most effective ways to convince people it’s the best choice for them.

That’s because selling something complex or innovative demands helping the prospect see why it represents a better choice. It’s hard to do that convincingly in an ad or email, but a well-written white paper provides enough facts and arguments to educate them while helping them reach the decision you want.

2. Is advertising not sufficient to explain the advantages of what you offer?

While advertising or other traditional marketing methods can be effective channels, they rarely allow you to get into detail about what makes your product or service better.  Plus, many people are wary of channels such as advertising because they know it’s a blatant sales effort.

A well-crafted white paper is an informational tool that seeks to educate the reader. Because the white paper doesn’t appear to be as promotional, people will give it more credence. Plus, people tend to hang onto white papers longer than they retain ads, giving your message a longer life.

3. Do prospects and customers find it hard to grasp your value proposition?

Like you, your customers and prospects are hungry for good information, but they’re also busy. Because their time is limited, they appreciate practical guidance that’s focused on their specific needs, and they trust white papers more than other channels.

They’re willing to take the time to read white papers because they need to know something. Maybe they want to better understand a new technology. Perhaps they’re desperately seeking a solution for a problem that’s hurting their business. Or it could be that they want support for a recommendation they’re making to their bosses. Whatever the reason, white papers provide trustworthy information and improve their perception of your organization and what you offer.

4. Is your sales process lengthy?

If your product or service is a commodity, is easily understood, or typically is purchased on impulse, a white paper probably won’t do much for you. But if you’re selling a high-value product or service that takes many weeks or months to move from initial interest to finished deal, a white paper can help you speed the process along.

5. Does your customers’ decision-making process involve many people?

Often — particularly with items that involve a significant investment of capital, such as plant equipment — purchase decisions are not made by just one or two people at your prospect. They may have the status and authority to recommend what you offer, but getting final approval may require the blessing of everyone from production engineers, to the operations team, to the CFO and CEO. Unfortunately, you and your team can’t speak with everyone who will play a role in the decision.

That’s when a white paper can stand in for you. A white paper that discusses the advantages of what you offer, contrasts it with other options, and explains how users can get the greatest value from it will help you communicate with decision-makers you can’t reach directly. When your contact attaches your white paper to their recommendation, it not only provides evidence that it’s the right choice, but it may help to answer questions and overcome objections other people in the process may have.