Technical reports and journal articles are both used to report the results of research and development projects. There are differences between the two that are driven by the objectives of each form of reporting.
The primary objective of journal articles is to report results of experimental and/or theoretical scientific investigations to enhance the body of scientific knowledge. This is the primary way that (1) science advances and (2) the scientific community communicates among its members and practitioners. Typically, there are space limitations prescribed by the journal publisher that limit the length of journal articles usually to only a few pages. Journal articles are almost always subjected to a rigorous peer review process before they are accepted for publication.
The main objective of technical reports is to document the research findings together with the approaches and techniques to inform the research process. Unlike journal articles, technical reports face no space limitation. At OSTI, our technical reports range from a few pages in length to several hundred and average 60 pages in length. The content is more under the control of the author(s) and is rarely subject to peer review beyond that which the author(s) or their institution(s) may seek.
A commonality between electronic technical reports and journal articles is the use of Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) to uniquely identify each document. DOIs are used to ease the referencing of a technical report or a journal article in downstream publications. The advantage of using a DOI for a document is that it is a permanent identifier that will ride with the document even though the document’s location and other metadata may change. Referring to an online document by its DOI thus provides more stable linking than simply referring to it by its possibly less stable URL. DOIs for Department of Energy (DOE) technical reports are set up by OSTI, and DOIs for journal articles are set up by journal publishers.
Successful research projects are typically the only research projects that result in journal article publications. Exceptions do exist especially when there is controversy within the community around a particular finding or the interpretation of a particular result. By contrast, any result, successful or unsuccessful, can, and should be, accessible in a technical report.
Thomas Edison explained how important even unsuccessful scientific endeavors were as he invented the light bulb. He attempted 10,000 different designs before successfully creating the electric light bulb. Later, a young reporter asked Edison if he regretted having so many failures. Edison bristled, explaining that he had no failures; rather, he learned a lot about things that do not work. Each unsuccessful attempt was not a failure; it was a step in the path to ultimate success.
To document this process, Thomas Edison kept extensive notes that today would be the substance of many timely and substantive technical reports. However, only a single, or at most a few, journal articles would report the successful results and knowledge gained.
An especially important distinction between journal articles and technical reports is that the latter may contain classified or sensitive information, proprietary information, and results an organization wants to protect as intellectual property. In contrast, the information in journal articles is intended for public release so that it is available to journal subscribers that have an interest in the content.
It is impossible to imagine the success of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent classified programs of the Atomic Energy Commission without the use of technical reports. The Manhattan Project demanded the highest levels of secrecy; however the Project also demanded collaboration between many scientists, researchers, and technicians that were geographically dispersed. These combined demands could be met with technical reports. Journal articles related to the scientific discoveries made during the Manhattan Project had to wait until after the War.
As mentioned above, the review processes of journal articles and technical reports differ. Journal articles go through the well-established peer review process. Technical reports for investigations performed at DOE labs and for research funded under financial assistance awards and performed at universities or other external institutions, go through a review process that involves the sponsoring program office with or without the use of external experts. It is important to note, when comparing the review processes of technical reports and journal articles, the procedures utilized for technical reports, both those generated in the labs and at universities, require the involvement of the Program Manager. Journal articles do not have a procedure that calls for review by the Program Manager even though the articles, when published, are transmitted to the Program Manager and Office.
These differences in review processes and publication processes generally lead to a significant difference in the amount of time to publish results. Technical reports can be reported quickly at any time, and they are made every-word searchable and freely posted on the web by OSTI within one week of their submission. The time to publish journal articles is typically greater even for less formal communications and longer yet for full papers.
Another publication-related difference is the cost of access. Digitized technical reports suitable for unlimited distribution are freely available to anyone with web access. At OSTI, technical reports that have not been made available in electronic format are made available freely (including digitization), on-demand to DOE and DOE contractors. In contrast, journal articles are generally only available via purchase, typically costly, of an article or subscription. Unless you are at a major university, a major laboratory, a major library, or know where and how to request a reprint from the authors, it is likely you will not have access to subscription journal articles. Because of cost considerations, even at DOE Headquarters, only 5% of the employees have access to journals. Even technical reports that are restricted by security or proprietary considerations place no cost on the user, but access is of course limited to the approved audience.
At OSTI, we find that these open access characteristics of unlimited distribution technical reports allow us to extend their reach and impact through collaborations with major search engines, such as Google. Through the adoption of the Sitemap protocol every word of these technical reports has been made searchable to patrons of major search engines. A large percentage of the total number of information transactions on OSTI web products are a direct result of referrals from major search engines.
Finally, the last and perhaps most important contrast between technical reports and journal articles is that technical reports are required project or award deliverables. Journal articles cannot be required as project deliverables because there is no guarantee that a journal article describing project results will be accepted by journal publishers.
In conclusion, while there are significant differences between technical reports and journal articles, each is important and complementary in today’s research community and the publication process.