Journalists rely on three types of research papers most often in their work: White papers, working papers 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 Journalist’s Resource – has typically 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.
This broad category describes research papers that have not been published in a journal or vetted through a peer-review process. 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. Some working papers’ 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 relevant and 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 the claims they are making. It’s a good idea to seek corroboration from peer-reviewed research and to ask other researchers for help assessing a study.
A white paper is generally a report that outlines a complex issue and sometimes also explores possible solutions to a problem. Government agencies issue a lot of white papers. For example, in May 2018, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission authored a white paper on election technology. Earlier in the year, the White House Council of Economic Advisers released a white paper discussing healthcare costs and policy options for reforming drug pricing.
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 a public policy issue, they should be aware that some white papers advocate a specific position or policy change. And some may 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 think tank research and searching for academic papers.
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.