Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Article, Essay, Research Paper... What's the Difference?

My intention was to write a post describing the structure of articles, essays and research papers, and how these differed. However, I haven't been able to find any information on the matter. I do not know why some papers published in high-ranked periodicals are considered to be academic essays and others to be articles. By my understanding it has to do with the structure - essays don't require e.g. a section on methodology. Instead of outlining the essay and article structures, I will give you what I hope is the next best thing: a brief (because I didn't find much information) comparison between the two, and an outline of the general structure of a research paper.

An essay can look very different, and there seems to be no decided structure how it's supposed to be written. I read somewhere that it is generally a short written piece, but I have read (and written) many long essays in my life, so I hold little value in that. However, they can be short, but they can also be many pages long. An academic essay (which is my focus here) must have factual support, in referencing other works, and sometimes one's own research results. Essays have some form of argument that the writer must express and defend.

Articles, on the other hand, don't actually have to make a point but exists rather to inform. However, there is very little difference between an academic essay and a non-fiction article. Articles that are peer-reviewed obviously have higher quality standards than those that aren't, but that is more to content than to style of writing. Often there can be short paragraphs added during the editing process in response to criticism that has come up in reviews, which might disrupt the flow of the text. Other than that, an article is very much like an essay. More so too, I think, in reality than when analysed in this way.

Now, this outline that I will draw up applies to many circumstances, but is usually adapted to the situation or rules of the teacher/paper that you're writing for. Everyone has different standards, so this is not a universal, but rather a basic outline of the sections required.

1. Title page
  • Present the title of the paper, your name, and any other information required.
2. Abstract
  • The abstract is in essence a brief summary of your entire paper, including your results and conclusions.
3. Table of Contents
  • This isn't always needed; I mostly added it to the list because I wanted to show that the abstract should come first, even before the table of contents.
4. Introduction
  • You should look at the introduction as a funnel (yup, a funnel) - i.e. start with the general and work your way to the more specific. Introduce your area of research, other related research and what you intend to do within the paper.
5. Method
  • Here you present how you performed your research. This is always a tricky part to write unless you have a really clear methodology for your research. I have mostly written literature studies, or analyses, which makes this part even more difficult to write. Consult with your supervisor what kind of information you should include here if you are having problems. The rule is that others who would want to should be able to reproduce your result with the information given in the method section, though this is difficult regarding non-scientific (for lack of a better word) research.
6. Result
  •  This is the most important part, since it is what you came up with in your research. Here you present your results, plain and simple.
7. Discussion
  • After presenting what you've come up with, you can write slightly more freely and discuss your findings. This is also a great place to suggest future research, and to answer any potential criticism that you might receive. 
8. References
  • There are many ways to write a list of references, e.g. according to APA or MLA (and many others). If you keep an eye on this blog I will, at a later date, write a post about referencing since it is one of my areas of interest (yes, I know I'm weird). You can also check out the OWL for more information.
9. Appendix
  • If there is anything that you weren't able to present in the paper, but is essential to the research, you can always add it to the appendix. Some things that might be needed here are e.g. copies of questionnaires. 
I hope that this has made the subject matter slightly less confusing, though I have to admit that I don't feel much less confused than when I began myself. It seems as though there is no clear answer as to what the difference is, so if you know one you know them all - just with some slight variation. It is up to you to decide whether you're writing and article, essay of research paper. It seems to me as though the situation is more the judge of that than any rules that I can find.

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