This tip sheet, originally published in May 2018, has been updated to include preprint research, a type of research featured often in news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.
Journalists rely most often on four types of research in their work. White papers, working papers, preprints and peer-reviewed journal articles.
How are they different? And which is best?
Below, we explain each, pointing out its strengths and weaknesses. As always, we urge journalists to use care in selecting any research to ground their coverage and fact-check claims.
Peer-reviewed research — the kind that appears in academic journals and that we highlight here at The Journalist’s Resource — has undergone a detailed critique by scholars with expertise in the field. While peer-reviewed research is generally the most reliable, journalists should keep in mind that publication in a prestigious journal is no guarantee of quality and that no single university or research organization always does the best research on a given topic.
It is safe to assume, however, that articles published in top-tier journals have been reviewed and given a stamp of approval by a number of accomplished scholars. For journalists who are uncertain, we’ve put together a list of 13 questions to ask to gauge the quality of a research article.
Keep in mind that not everything that appears in a scholarly journal has been peer reviewed. Journals publish various types of content, including book reviews, editorials, letters to the editor and, sometimes, even poetry.
This broad category describes research papers that have not been peer reviewed or published in a journal. Working papers can be in various stages of completion. One might be ready for publication in a prestigious journal while another requires significant editing and other changes that could actually alter its main findings. Sometimes, working paper findings are so preliminary, authors will advise against citing their work.
Even so, working papers are a great way for journalists to gain access to new research quickly. The peer-review and publication process can take months to a year or longer, which means that by the time studies get published, their findings are sometimes not as useful or the data are old.
In choosing working papers, journalists should communicate with scholars about the progress of their research and how confident they are in their findings. It’s a good idea to seek corroboration from peer-reviewed research and to ask other researchers for help assessing a study.
A preprint is similar to a working paper in that it has not been vetted through a formal peer-review process. However, preprints tend to be more complete. Also, preprints submitted to public servers such as the Social Science Research Network and the health sciences server medRxiv get a cursory screening before they’re published online for public view.
Preprints, like academic journal articles, are assigned a Digital Object Identifier, or DOI, and become a permanent part of the scientific record.
A white paper is a report, often compiled by government agencies, businesses and nonprofit organizations, that outlines an issue and often explores possible solutions to a problem. For example, in November 2021, the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services released a white paper looking at factors that help or hinder law enforcement recruitment of Black Americans. Earlier in the year, the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center published a white paper on the American Rescue Plan‘s widespread implications for government agencies.
In the business world, white papers also are used for marketing purposes — to describe a new product or approach, for instance, or diagnose a problem.
While a white paper can help journalists get up to speed quickly on an issue, it’s important to note some white papers advocate a specific position or policy change. Some rely on incomplete research or research that has not been peer reviewed.
Looking for more guidance on writing about research? Check out our tip sheets on covering biomedical research preprints amid the coronavirus and what journalists should know about peer review.
The Journalist’s Resource would like to thank Matthew Baum, the Marvin Kalb professor of global communications and professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, for his help preparing this tip sheet.