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While making some paper search in my scientific field, sometimes I find articles that are not published in journals or conference proceedings, but as technical reports.

In my experience, I've never written a technical report, and I've never even been asked to do it.

So I was wondering: what's the difference between a technical report and a scientific paper? Why some researchers publish a work as technical report instead of sending it to a conference or a journal?

When do you suggest to write one instead of addressing it to a conference or a journal?

PS: It seems to me that writing technical reports is more diffused in English-speaking world than in Continental Europe. Is it true? Why?

  • 10
    Technical reports are just a slightly more formal form of preprint. It's not an alternative to conferences or journals, except in rare cases when something is judged worthy of disseminating but somehow unsuitable for publication. Occasionally something inadvertently stays as a technical report forever, for example if the authors try and fail to get it published, or if they lose interest. (For example, sometimes a student who is leaving academia writes a technical report before going, but nobody else cares enough to try to get it formally published.) – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 25 '12 at 14:26
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The main advantages of a research report is that it's published very fast, and without reviewing process. From what I've seen, a research report is basically used:

  • to publish a longer version of a paper, for instance including proofs or detailed examples that couldn't fit in a version submitted to a conference.
  • to put a timestamp on an idea, in order to be able to claim "We did it back then"
  • to create a reference that can be cited for project reporting, even though the work has not been published (yet).
  • to make a pre-print document freely available, for instance if the published version is behind a paywall.

Such features are particularly useful when one wants to disseminate (for instance sharing with some colleagues) some unpublished material. Basically, I'd say that most of this can also be achieved by submitting the paper to a public repository, such as arXiv.

EDIT: considering the language question, intuitively, I would say that when research reports are used in the publication process, it's likely they are written in English. If a non-English speaking university does not offer a mechanism to submit research reports written in English, that might explain why it's not used. However, I've written research reports in France and Italy (in English).

  • Thanx Charles. About the question, it was not about language, but about geography. I wrote "English speaking world" to group Usa, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, etc, and to distinguish this world from Continental Europe (gallons, inches Vs grams, meters) ^_^ – DavideChicco.it Apr 25 '12 at 14:16
  • Yep, but this distinction also happen to distinguish the official language of the universities :) I guess what I'm trying to say is that you might not have a strong incentive to publish a research report written in English in France (for instance), on the contrary of other English-speaking countries. But that's really just a guess, I'm not even sure there is actually an actual cultural difference when it comes to publishing RR. – user102 Apr 25 '12 at 14:22
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    This answer seems exactly right. Historically, I think the point of technical reports was that they were gathered and distributed by universities, which was a real advantage in long-term accessibility. Just last year, I tracked down an unpublished tech report from the 1970's. The author had died in the 80's, but his university still had the report in its archives, which wouldn't have been the case if the author had just distributed it privately. However, nowadays the arXiv and similar sites have taken over that role, and I think technical reports are just a slowly dying tradition. – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 25 '12 at 14:23
  • I think for patent purposes the technical reports may still hold significant value. I would love to hear the counterarguments though. – bobthejoe Apr 26 '12 at 20:38
  • @bobthejoe better value than a publication? Because in my experience, most technical reports end up published anyway. – user102 Apr 26 '12 at 20:52
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Perhaps it varies by field but other uses I have come across in my field are;

  • Required by a grant funding agency (i.e. a report of the findings from the study to the grant agency). Here is such an example of a NIJ report. These tend to be much longer and more detailed than a single journal article.
  • Reports disseminated by other institutions. For instance, the non-for-profit I work for releases technical reports that we want to disseminate to the public (the same goes for the state agency I work for). The material may be the same as subsequent journal articles but the intended audience is not limited to academics and is much broader. Here is an example of this by the RAND corporation. Another popular one in the Social Sciences is the Campbell collaboration library of meta-analysis.

These are similar to what Charles stated, but I would nit-pick a bit with the motivation. They aren't always just another means to disseminate what are otherwise journal articles. It is also a very potential heterogeneous field of papers. The RAND and Campbell articles I cited above are typically considered very high esteem (and go through a similar peer-review process to more typical journals). But pretty much any agency can release a technical report (put your agency name on it and post the pdf on the internet) so they can vary dramatically in quality.

5

In the particle physics world---where we have large organization that operate for decades---"technical report" is one of the several names given to internal documents and communications with the funding agencies that are intended to

  • communicate important technical details between units (e.g. the accelerator division needs to inform the experimental scientists of the operational limits of the beam position monitors)
  • propagate and preserve specialized knowledge and competencies
  • to document details that won't be written up in a paper for many years (large experiments often leave off writing a detailed description of the experiment as built and run until after several data papers have appeared; by the time you get ready to write this "instrumentation paper" many of the people who installed the device may have moved on)
  • provided supporting justification for grant requests and project proposals
  • demonstrate readiness to actually start spending money on conditionally approved projects (which is essentially all US projects in the post SSC era; and both the Europeans and the Japanese have similar administrative protections)

Accordingly most particle physicist will spend some time writing such documents every few years.

4

In addition to the answers already posted, sometimes when a professor is given a professorial chair (endowment), he or she is required to submit formal documentation describing the research done while "sitting in the chair." Some departments/colleges/universities will accept (non-refereed) technical reports in lieu of refereed papers just to get around the technicality.

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