So you want to publish a paper in a journal? Sure, sounds like a great idea, but do you know what type of paper it should be? There is not only ONE TYPE of paper you could write. Journals these days are highly specialised and offer a large array of different paper varieties that you could submit. Depending on your level of experience (somewhere between a novice or an expert), one paper type might be more suitable for you than another. Let us help you to decide by informing you what paper types are available and the most common.
In your academic routine, you will at some time be confronted by a request from your supervisor, your head of department, or your PI, to publish journal papers. You have to publish to fulfil the requirements of your degree, of your project, or simply to demonstrate that you are an active and successful researcher.
But … the times where you could ‘just write a paper’ are long gone. A paper is not a specific type of publication. It is an overarching label summarising a whole group of different TYPES of journal contributions that derive from researchers’ own work, their own scholarly experience, and their critique of other’s work.
You might wonder why it’s important to know the differences between the available paper types. Well, some are more common than others, some are more prestigious, some are quicker to write, some are more suitable for early-career researchers, some require very experienced authors, some are available only in specific fields and subjects, some give more credit, some are more popular with journals, some are … well, you get the picture!
What at first glance looks very clear – writing a paper – can on closer inspection be quite confusing, because you have many options and can make many choices. However, not all international peer-reviewed journals will accept all paper types. They have their preferences and state them in their guidelines. Often, it helps if you just investigate the journal to see what type of papers they accept.
To make things a bit more complicated, the different journals, publishers and academic communities do not always use the labels for the paper types consistently. A paper type label in one discipline may mean something other than the same label used in a different discipline. If you are a less-experienced author, or a first-time writer who doesn’t have a great deal of familiarity with journal and paper typologies, you can easily get lost. In our paper writing course “How to publish in peer-reviewed journals”, we regularly meet participants who are simply unaware of the differences between the various paper types and the choices they could and should make when writing papers.
Here, we’ll give you a quick overview of the 10 paper types that you might come across in journals. We want to achieve two things with our overview: First, we want to bring an end to the confusion so that you know what the differences are. Second, we hope our list can inspire you. When you are feeling a bit lost as to what you could write and publish, the list below may help you. It doesn’t always have to be a classic research paper, there are many good alternatives to be found.
In addition, we’ve prepared a super-handy checklist “Journal Paper Types” that gives you a quick overview of the main features of the various paper types below and indicates which paper type might be more suitable for beginners or for more experienced researchers.
(By the way, we’re using the term ‘paper’ as a synonym to the term ‘article’, thus journal-paper types are also journal-article types. We also use paper ‘type’ synonymously to paper ‘category’ here.)
The 10 most common journal paper types
1. The Research Paper
This is the most common type of paper. When academics talk about a paper, they usually refer to a Research Paper. They occupy a prominent place and a large portion of the space in peer-reviewed journals. Moreover, they are the key incentive behind why journals exist at all.
The key characteristic of this paper type is it’s a report of original research findings on a well-defined research question. The research is usually analytic, which builds on a hypothesis using an experimental approach, which can differ between disciplines of natural, medical, social sciences or humanities. The research that led to the paper was conducted by the author (team). The paper can first be completed once the research has been completed. It is the main example of primary research literature as it refers to research that has not been published before.
Typically, Research Papers follow a standard format of an introduction statement of the research problem and its relevance, followed by Methods, Results and Discussion and eventually a separate Conclusion section. The paper length is between 5,000-8,000 words depending on the journal.
Alternative names: Original Paper, Original Article, Article, Standard Paper
2. The Methods Paper
This paper type is dedicated to presenting a new experimental method, test or procedure. The methods discussed must be completely new, a significant development, or a better version of the established methods. The core focus of the paper is on presenting the new method, not so much the results that can be achieved with this method.
Structure and length of a Methods Paper are similar to the Research Paper. Typically, Methods Papers address questions like “How to do this …”, “How to improve this …”. While the results are not the core of the paper, most journals would still ask for some kind of proof or an application example of the presented methods.
Alternative name: Experimental Paper
3. The Review Paper
This paper type presents a comprehensive overview of the state-of-the-art of the research conducted in a specific field. It summarises the key primary research literature in the field, which can include approximately 50-100 references, or more. It also indicates research gaps and possible directions for future research. Major themes, theories, problems, debates, and trends in current knowledge may be highlighted and discussed, depending on the views/aims of the article’s author. Since this paper type summarises and builds on other research literature, it is a typical example of secondary research literature.
Review Papers aim at becoming a reference point for academics on the topic they address. They can attract a lot of citations and attention. As the paper does not require the author to report their own research findings, it can be written at an early project phase as part of the project’s literature study. Review Papers can be submitted unsolicited or are invited by the journal editors.
Three types of Review Paper are often distinguished:
- The Literature Review is the standard Review Paper, summarising and analysing published literature on a general topic, reflecting the state-of-the-art and pointing out knowledge gaps.
- The Systematic Review is far more structured and focused on providing an answer to one very specific research question, in reference to primary research literature, other review papers, and possibly also grey literature.
- The Meta-Analysis has a similar focus to the Systematic Review, but uses statistical methods to analyse results from several similar studies on a research question, instead of presenting and relying on the data from a single study only. The similar studies are reviewed and the results are brought together using statistical methods rather than a pure description of the single result.
Alternative names: Overview Paper, Survey Paper
4. The Short Communication
This paper type includes relevant research findings that necessitate or benefit from rapid publication, thus it is a type suitable for time-sensitive research subjects and disciplines. It could include anything that the journal editor considers of great interest to the journal’s readership. The detail and scope of the research reported is limited, but the paper benefits from a short time until publication, so it will reach readers quickly. Usually, there is a strict word limit, ranging from 1,000-3,000 words. Style and structure of Short Communications follow Research Papers.
Alternative names: Letters, Rapid Communication, Brief Communication, Short Reports, Brief Reports, Micro Article, Research Note
5. The Discussion Paper
This paper type allows for a discussion of a relevant topic from the perspective of the author. It refers to examples from existing literature without reviewing this body of knowledge, the paper states the author’s opinion on the topic presented.
A Discussion Paper can also present the author’s viewpoint on the interpretation, analysis or methods used in a published study. It is a short piece based on constructive, evidence-based criticism on this work. It also allows authors to propose a new hypothesis or suggest a new interpretation of published data.
The author’s own research results are usually not presented and the paper’s length varies from 2,000-4,000 words.
Alternative names: Perspective Paper, Hypothesis Paper, Opinion Paper, Commentary
6. The Data paper
This paper type is dedicated to describing data sets and observations that support innovative research and theoretical developments. The paper usually provides insight or examples of a relevant scientific application, to demonstrate the usefulness of the data. The data sets described may refer to experimental studies, lab measurements, modelling output, or observations.
Alternative name: Resource Paper
7. The Theory paper
This paper type does not report empirical research of the kind presented in Research Papers. It can, however, draw evidence and support from empirical research. A Theory Paper introduces and discusses ideas and principles, either new or established, that are related to a specific field of study or body of knowledge. Papers in philosophy, literature studies, anthropology and other subjects from humanities and social sciences are frequently theoretical in nature. In medical, natural and engineering sciences, Theory Papers are less common but equally valuable.
8. The Case Study
This paper type reports a case in which an individual, place, event or phenomenon is the subject of study. The goal of Case Studies is to make other researchers aware of the possibility that a specific phenomenon might occur. Thus, the paper is based on an observational study. In contrast to typical empirical experiments, where the researcher intervenes or manipulates the conditions of an environment, this paper type reports real-life, unaltered conditions, as observed. As such, a Case Study is a descriptive paper that gives answers on the basis of observations, although it can make use of empirical approaches.
This type of study is common in natural sciences, social sciences and often used in medicine to report the occurrence of previously unknown or emerging pathologies. In a medical (clinical) context two sub-types are separated:
- Clinical Case Studies are also observational studies, where details of real patients from medical and clinical practice are reported, and signs, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatments of a disease are discussed to develop new insights into diseases.
- Clinical Trials are interventional studies where new treatment methods on human volunteers are tested following a pre-determined research protocol.
Both types are about the same as a Research Paper in length, yet, they require good insight into and experience in clinical contexts as well as high standards of ethics and reliability.
Alternative name: Case Report
9. The Educational Paper
The main focus of this paper type is to give instructions on how a method, a procedure, a technique or knowledge can be applied and implemented. Whereas a Methods Paper also aims to give insights into the application, an Educational Paper goes one step further, and aims at providing very concrete instructions for the reader’s guidance of the acquired knowledge. It can also tell readers how to share their own knowledge and expertise with learners or specifically adopt an instructional mode to teach readers how to do something (usually something new) rather than simply telling them how it was done.
Alternative names: Tutorial Paper, How-to-Paper
10. The Book Review
This paper type is a short contribution where authors provide a critical and unbiased evaluation of a current book that’s been determined to be of interest to the journal audience. Readers get a summary of the book’s content and an assessment of its originality and value by a scholar who is an expert in the field of study. If you come across a new, interesting book in your field, you can contact a journal editor and suggest a review of the book yourself.
The variety of paper types in current journals is huge and goes beyond the 10 most common paper types we’ve referred to above. The good news is, you do not always need to have a completed super relevant empirical study in order to write a journal paper. Journals offer many alternatives that you can write long before your own project is finished or your results are ready. If you need the papers for your degree, Research Papers, Methods Papers, Case Studies and Review Papers might be your first choice, but there are many other great opportunities to write. Check out our checklist “Journal Paper Types” and happy writing!
If you want more help with writing a great journal paper, join Paper Writing Academy.
- Checklist “Journal Paper Types”
- Writing course “How to publish in peer-reviewed journals”
- Smart Academics Blog #5: How to get started with writing papers?
- Smart Academics Blog #36: 5 tips to get a paper accepted this year
- Smart Academics Blog #62: Twenty things you should know when writing a journal paper
- Smart Academics Blog #79: 5 decisions that make writing your paper so much easier
- Smart Academics Blog #91: Find the right journal for your paper following these 8 steps
- Smart Academics Blog: #103: How to find a paper topic
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