Term Papers Versus Research Papers: What is the Difference?

Last Updated: 04 August 2023

College and university students do many writing assignments involving intensive research, planning, and writing. Although many students are familiar with research papers, only a few understand a term paper and how to write one.

If you are confused about the differences or wonder whether there is any difference between the two, you are not alone. Many students cannot distinguish a research paper from a term paper and end up not performing as required.

In this brief term paper versus research paper guide, we narrow down the differences and similarities of these typical college and university assignments to clear your doubts and prepare you for the task ahead.

What is a Term Paper, and what is a Research Paper?

A term paper is an academic writing assignment involving comprehensive research with a specific focus on certain concepts, topics, or issues covered within a given course over a semester. Term papers can take many forms, including essays, reviews, projects, or reports. Term papers must demonstrate a deeper understanding of the topics and course content, mostly exploring information gathered throughout the semester.

A research paper, on the other hand, is a formal writing task that involves research into a specific subject and examination of data. It entails systematic research to explore a specific topic. Although some research papers might require data collection, analysis, and reporting, some research papers are longer essays that expound a research thesis statement. Research papers may include primary research such as surveys, interviews, focus groups, and experiments. It also involves using secondary sources such as peer-reviewed journal articles, government or institutional documents, and other secondary sources.

Related Blog Article: How to write a terrorism research paper.

Research Paper vs. Term Paper: The Differences

If you have written a term or research paper, you might conclude they are the same. However, these two pieces of assignments are not similar. Let's categorize the comparison into themes to explore the differences and similarities better.

Purpose and Scope

A research paper is a comprehensive document that reports the results of a given research process. It entails synthesizing information from primary and secondary research to answer a research question or prove a hypothesis. Research papers contribute new insights or knowledge to your field. When writing a research paper, you must conduct an in-depth investigation, critical analysis, and examination of existing literature to support claims and findings.

On the other hand, a term paper covers the materials, concepts, and theories studied during a specific academic term, semester, or course. The core role of a term paper is to assess the student’s level of understanding of the subject matter. When writing a term paper, you synthesize information from assigned readings, lecture slides and notes, and class discussions.

Related: How to write a research thesis statement.

Time Frame

Writing a research paper is time-consuming and requires considerable planning and execution. You can spend several weeks or months working on a research paper. Some professors will require a research proposal at first before approving you to conduct the research and write a research paper.

Term papers are usually assigned within shorter frames. Your professor will expect the term paper within a few weeks or the entire semester. The course timeline dictates how long you will be expected to deliver the final draft. The main thing is that they are assigned when you have covered a lot of material to prove that you have a good grasp of the contents.

Originality and Contribution

Unlike a research paper that requires in-depth inquiry into new topics and testing new theories, a term paper only requires structured arguments supported by evidence. The main aim of a term paper is to demonstrate that you have comprehended the concepts and can apply them in real-life situations. A research paper, on the other hand, must be original as you can. There is an emphasis on generating new ideas, insights, and knowledge to the already existing body of knowledge. When writing a research paper, you can critique the existing theories, fill existing research gaps, and combine theories to explain different issues. Research Methodology

Research paper writing entails conducting either primary or secondary research. This way, you must design a study, collect and analyze data, and write a paper showing a well-ordered discourse. You have to conduct original research on a given research topic. A short research paper can also involve synthesizing information from published research studies or journal articles. On the other hand, a term paper relies on secondary sources such as articles, textbooks, and other scholarly or credible materials. Some professors will also direct you to conduct primary research, although you are not limited to the extensive methodology as with research papers.

Related Reading: Steps for writing a research paper.

Format and Structure

Research papers might be prose, like longer essays with headings and subheadings. They can also take the scientific paper format, including an abstract, introduction, literature review, methodology, research findings (results), discussion, conclusion, and recommendations (IMRAD format). A research paper is written in a formal, objective, and concise format, focusing heavily on academic phrases and words.

Term papers have an introduction, main body, and conclusion. If you must write a literature review or formal methodology section, the tone is generally conversational and less formal than in research papers.


A term paper is generally longer than a typical essay but less voluminous than a research paper. Most term papers range between 7 and 20 pages, with some professors assigning short papers ranging from 1000 to 1200 words.

Research papers are longer than term papers. Although there are shorter research papers, 7-9 pages long, most research papers are typically 10-40 pages or more. A standard research paper is 4000-6000 words long, excluding the abstract, references, and appendices pages.

Sources and references

A research paper is anchored on your primary or secondary research. You need to design and conduct primary research. The only part you are to use secondary data is when introducing the research paper topic, stating the problem, literature review, and the discussions section to expound on knowledge.

A successful research paper must prove an in-depth understanding of the topic, theories, and concepts so that you can synthesize information from various sources.

When writing a term paper, you primarily use secondary scholarly sources such as journals, articles, book chapters, dissertations, theses, biographies, commentaries, and other materials. You will learn from lecture notes, class discussion posts and responses, and other assignments. While a term paper also synthesizes information, it also summarizes findings from other scholars to help advance knowledge.

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Similarities between Research and Term Papers

You are not doubting, nor is it false, that a research paper and a term paper share similarities. There are certain features that you will find in either of the assignment. Here are some of the similarities between research papers and term papers.

Topic Selection

Both the research paper and term paper topic selection process are the same. In many cases, your professor or instructor will assign you a topic to explore, or they can let you choose a topic you are comfortable handling. When you can select a research topic on your own, which is more likely, go for a narrow, engaging, and manageable one. Select a topic you can spend many hours researching and writing about without changing your mind midway.

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A research paper and a term paper prompt might be the same. You need to adhere to standard academic writing conventions. You should also frame the papers in a given format and include citations in APA, MLA, Chicago, ASA, AMA, Turabian, Oxford, Harvard, etc. You must also adhere to the submission deadlines and ensure the paper is entirely plagiarism-free.

They can mean the same thing

A term paper can be a research paper. Yes, although this might come out as confusing, it is true. Your instructor can assign you a research topic and expect that you conduct in-depth research that includes a methodological approach. For instance, you can be asked to research a given issue or problem using qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-methods approaches and then write a 10–12-page term paper. In this case, you must write a research paper using the IMRAD format.

As you Ruminate Everything …

Understanding the difference and similarities between a research paper and a term paper helps you differentiate what to include when assigned either assignment.

Both share some slight similarities, but they also have glaring differences. The next time you are required to write a research paper assignment, you will know what scope to cover. The same applies to term paper writing.

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