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  • Charlesworth Author Services
  • 08 March, 2022

Concept Paper vs. Research Proposal – and when to use each

On the surface, concept papers sound like they do the same job as a research proposal – and essentially, they do. Both are designed to communicate the rationale, methodology and outcomes of a proposed piece of work. The difference between the two lies mostly in the level of detail and the potential audience, based on which your approach towards writing each will vary. In this article, we dig deeper into these and recommend when to use which.

Concept paper: Putting your idea to paper

  • What : A concept paper verbalises an idea and puts it to paper for the first time. Here, an overall rationale is presented, with a focus on the essential idea and potential impact of the expected outcome(s). However, what you would not include here is much in-depth detail.
  • When : Writing a concept paper is most useful when an initial expression of interest is made to either a collaborator or funder – provided the funder has mechanisms for you to do this, like an open call.
  • Why : The aim of your concept paper will be to win your audience over with your idea and its potential ramifications. 

(For more on concept papers, read: Understanding and developing a concept paper )

Research proposal: Showing how things will get done

Let’s say that through your concept paper, you find funding and collaborators for your proposed research project. You will now get into the nitty gritty of the project with a research proposal, while still keeping it “consumable” enough for a broader audience.

  • What : A research proposal builds on a concept paper by now including aspects like key deliverables, milestones and specific outcomes, as well as how you plan to achieve these. 
  • When : You will typically send a research proposal to sources of funding of an open nature, i.e. those that do not require a standardised form to be filled in, as is often the case with institutional internal funding or private investors.
  • Why : It is not necessary for you to first send someone a concept paper and follow it up with a proposal. However, you may often need to follow this sequence in order to provide only ‘need to know’ material depending on the stage of your relationship with potential partners.

( For more on research proposals, read: Writing a successful research proposal )

concept paper for research proposal

When both are needed, a concept paper precedes a research proposal

Deciding between a concept paper and a research proposal

Whether you send someone a concept paper or a research proposal depends entirely on two things: 

  • Your existing relationship with whomever you are reaching out to
  • What you are trying to achieve

If you are emailing an organisation or individual for the first time, you are more likely to receive a response by attaching a brief, snappy concept paper that is easily read by a multitude of people. On the other hand, some larger organisations, such as pharmaceutical companies, are very used to seeing full-fledged research proposals and may have a portal on their website where you would need to upload one, enabling them to skip the preliminary step of vetting your work through a concept paper.

Our recommendation : Given how pressed many people are for time these days, it would be prudent to send concept papers more frequently than research proposals. If more information is required, you will be asked for it.

Concept papers and research proposals do very similar things, but set out and achieve very different aims. They are often sent in sequence – the concept paper first, followed by the research proposal. The need for a research proposal arises when the concept paper has achieved its mark – when, for example, more information is required for a funding decision to be reached, or due diligence is to be performed, as a result of your concept paper gaining preliminary acceptance. Following up with a research proposal fills in the gaps and will aid in answering questions arising from the concept paper.

Read previous (second) in series: Writing a successful Research Proposal

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What exactly is a Concept Paper, and how do you write one?

Learn why a concept paper is important, what the main elements of a research concept paper are, and how to create an excellent one.

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Prior to submitting a formal proposal (business proposal, product, or research proposal), many private organizations have historically asked for the submission of a concept paper for review. 

Recently, organizations have begun to advocate for the usage of concept papers as a way for applicants to obtain informal input on their ideas and projects before submitting a proposal. Several of these organizations now demand a concept paper as part of the official application process. 

Simply described, a concept paper is a preliminary document that explains the purpose of research, why it is being conducted, and how it will be performed. It examines a concept or idea and offers an outline of the topic that a researcher wants to pursue. Continue reading to learn more about concept papers and how to create a good one. 

What a concept paper is and its purpose

A concept paper is a brief paper that outlines the important components of a research or project before it is carried out. Its purpose is to offer an overview. Entrepreneurs working on a business idea or product, as well as students and researchers, frequently write concept papers .  

Researchers may be required to prepare a concept paper when submitting a project proposal to a funding authority to acquire the required grants.

As a consequence, the importance is based on the fact that it should help the examiner determine whether the research is relevant, practicable, and useful . 

If not, they may suggest looking into a different research area. It also allows the examiner to assess your comprehension of the research and, as a result, if you are likely to require assistance in completing the research.

Illustrate your Concept Paper with infographics 

Infographics are very useful to explain complex subjects in a very short time. Use Mind the Graph to create beautiful infographics for your Concept Paper with scientifically accurate illustrations, icons, arrows and many other design tools.

Concept paper’s elements for an academic research 

To produce an effective concept paper, you must first comprehend the essential elements of academic research:

  • Title page: Mention the applicant’s name, institution, project title, and submission date.
  • Background for the research: The second section should be the purpose section, which should be able to clear out what has already been stated about the subject, any gaps in information that need to be filled or problems to be solved, as well as the reason why you wish to examine the issue.
  • Literature review: In this section, you should provide a theoretical basis and supporting material for your chosen subject.
  • State the problem and your goals: Describe the overall problems, including the research questions and objectives. State your research’s unique and original aspects, concentrate on providing and clearly discussing your goals towards the problem.
  • Methodology: Provide the data analysis system to be utilized, data collecting method, tools to be used, and research participants in this section.
  • Timeline: Include a realistic timeline estimate that is defined in months and years.
  • References: Add a list of all sources cited in your concept paper , such as books, journals, and other resources.

Tips on writing an effective concept paper

A concept paper is extremely crucial for a project or research, especially if it requires funding. Check out these simple tips to ensure your concept paper is successful and simple.

  • Choose a research topic that truly piques your curiosity
  • Create a list of research questions. The more, the merrier.
  • When describing the project’s reasoning, use data and numbers. 
  • Use no more than 5 single-spaced pages. 
  • Tailor your speech to the appropriate audience.
  • Make certain that the basic format elements, such as page numbers, are included. 
  • Spend additional time on your timeline as this section is critical for funding.
  • Give specific examples of how you plan to measure your progress toward your goals.
  • Provide an initial budget when seeking funds. Sponsors will want to obtain an idea of how much funds are required.

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What is a Concept Paper and How do You Write One?


  • By DiscoverPhDs
  • August 26, 2020

Concept Paper

What is a Concept Paper?

A concept paper is a short document written by a researcher before starting their research project, with the purpose of explaining what the study is about, why it is important and the methods that will be used.

The concept paper will include your proposed research title, a brief introduction to the subject, the aim of the study, the research questions you intend to answer, the type of data you will collect and how you will collect it. A concept paper can also be referred to as a research proposal.

What is the Purpose of a Concept Paper?

The primary aim of a research concept paper is to convince the reader that the proposed research project is worth doing. This means that the reader should first agree that the research study is novel and interesting. They should be convinced that there is a need for this research and that the research aims and questions are appropriate.

Finally, they should be satisfied that the methods for data collection proposed are feasible, are likely to work and can be performed within the specific time period allocated for this project.

The three main scenarios in which you may need to write a concept paper are if you are:

  • A final year undergraduate or master’s student preparing to start a research project with a supervisor.
  • A student submitting a research proposal to pursue a PhD project under the supervision of a professor.
  • A principal investigator submitting a proposal to a funding body to secure financial support for a research project.

How Long is a Concept Paper?

The concept paper format is usually between 2 and 3 pages in length for students writing proposals for undergraduate, master’s or PhD projects. Concept papers written as part of funding applications may be over 20 pages in length.

How do you Write a Concept Paper?

There are 6 important aspects to consider when writing a concept paper or research proposal:

  • 1. The wording of the title page, which is best presented as a question for this type of document. At this study concept stage, you can write the title a bit catchier, for example “Are 3D Printed Engine Parts Safe for Use in Aircraft?”.
  • A brief introduction and review of relevant existing literature published within the subject area and identification of where the gaps in knowledge are. This last bit is particularly important as it guides you in defining the statement of the problem. The concept paper should provide a succinct summary of ‘the problem’, which is usually related to what is unknown or poorly understood about your research topic . By the end of the concept paper, the reader should be clear on how your research idea will provide a ‘solution’ to this problem.
  • The overarching research aim of your proposed study and the objectives and/or questions you will address to achieve this aim. Align all of these with the problem statement; i.e. write each research question as a clear response to addressing the limitations and gaps identified from previous literature. Also give a clear description of your primary hypothesis.
  • The specific data outputs that you plan to capture. For example, will this be qualitative or quantitative data? Do you plan to capture data at specific time points or at other defined intervals? Do you need to repeat data capture to asses any repeatability and reproducibility questions?
  • The research methodology you will use to capture this data, including any specific measurement or analysis equipment and software you will use, and a consideration of statistical tests to help interpret the data. If your research requires the use of questionnaires, how will these be prepared and validated? In what sort of time frame would you plan to collect this data?
  • Finally, include a statement of the significance of the study , explaining why your research is important and impactful. This can be in the form of a concluding paragraph that reiterate the statement of the problem, clarifies how your research will address this and explains who will benefit from your research and how.

You may need to include a short summary of the timeline for completing the research project. Defining milestones of the time points at which you intend to complete certain tasks can help to show that you’ve considered the practicalities of running this study. It also shows that what you have proposed is feasible in order to achieve your research goal.

If you’re pitching your proposed project to a funder, they may allocate a proportion of the money based on the satisfactory outcome of each milestone. These stakeholders may also be motivated by knowing that you intend to convert your dissertation into an article for journal publication; this level of dissemination is of high importance to them.

Additionally, you may be asked to provide a brief summary of the projected costs of running the study. For a PhD project this could be the bench fees associated with consumables and the cost of any travel if required.

Make sure to include references and cite all other literature and previous research that you discuss in your concept paper.

This guide gave you an overview of the key elements you need to know about when writing concept papers. The purpose of these are first to convey to the reader what your project’s purpose is and why your research topic is important; this is based on the development of a problem statement using evidence from your literature review.

Explain how it may positively impact your research field and if your proposed research design is appropriate and your planned research method achievable.


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How to write a concept paper effectively

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How to write a concept paper effectively

What is a concept paper?

Simply put, a concept paper is a preliminary document that sets out to explain what a proposed study is about, why it is being undertaken, and how it will be carried out. It scrutinizes a concept or idea and provides an overview of the project a researcher wants to embark on.

A researcher might need to write a concept paper to obtain permission to undertake the research project or to seek financial support for it. This means that a well-framed and compelling concept paper has high chances of convincing the target reader that the proposed research project is worth carrying out. In other words, an impressive concept paper might help a researcher secure the approvals or grants they are looking for.

concept paper for research proposal

Why write a concept paper?

Concept papers are typically prepared by entrepreneurs working on a business proposal or product, or by students and researchers in academia. Such documents are aimed at securing feedback on a research idea and seeking potential investors or funders. In fact, such a document might even help determine whether a project idea is feasible in the first place.

In academia, a concept paper might be needed before an undergraduate, master’s, or doctoral candidate commences work on a research project with a supervisor. Even advanced career researchers or principal investigators might need to draft a concept paper when submitting a project proposal to a funding body to obtain the necessary grants.

Listed below are some reasons why concept papers are important.

1. To explore and expand an idea: Researchers can use concept papers to transform an incipient research idea into a focused, high-quality study proposal. The paper is also a means to obtain feedback that can be used to strengthen a detailed proposal at a later stage.

2. To draw the interest of funding agencies : Through an effective concept paper, an investigator can justify why their project is worthy of funding. If the project is within the mission of the funding body and has potential to advance the field, the investigator has a high chance of success in obtaining the required grants.

3. To identify potential flaws or gaps beforehand: Putting in time and effort in writing a concept paper will help develop a focused description of the project and will allow the researcher to examine the problem from all angles. At early stages, experts or funders might spot potential gaps and weaknesses in the proposed project. Accordingly, the researcher can identify solutions and improve the proposal (e.g., in terms of the goals or methodology).

4. To serve as the foundation of the full proposal: A concept paper is preliminary, as it precedes a full proposal. Funding agencies often ask for concept papers before the full proposal submission. This helps assess whether the identified experimental methods are appropriate and can be performed within the specific timeframe drawn up for the project.

5. To help a researcher stick to project timelines: A concept paper defines a timeline, which helps the investigator to keep the project on track, manage time effectively, and reach the targeted milestones successfully.

How should a concept paper be structured?

A concept paper could be within 5 pages for proposals for master’s or PhD projects. Concept papers written as part of funding applications might even be up to 20 pages long. The format and flow of the paper would depend on the type of project and expected outcome.

Funding bodies requesting concept papers might provide a template or format, which should be adhered to. However, if templates or formats are not specified, a concept paper may be structured according to the chief elements described below.

1. An impactful title: The title should be sufficiently informative and leave a lasting impression. It should reflect the purpose and significance of the study. The title should not be too long (ideally within 15 words). The title could even be in the form of a question.

2. A clear mission statement: In a few sentences, the study objective(s) or research question should be stated. Given that the main objective of a concept paper is to convince the reader that the proposed project is worth executing, it must convey the novelty and research rationale in a convincing manner.

3. A brief yet effective overview:   A concept paper should present a survey of the problem, supported by a preliminary literature review of the research topic. However, the review need not be too detailed. The paper should provide a summary of what is already known about the topic and an explanation of what knowledge gaps the research is expected to fill. Any contradictory theories may also be indicated.

4.   An outline of the proposed methods: The methods that the researcher plans to use to answer the research question should be described. This section would cover ethical issues (if applicable), experimental materials and methods, the type of data to be collected, and the methods by which the data will be collected and analyzed. The estimated time to achieve different research goals should also be indicated.

5. A statement of the expected implications : A concept paper would be incomplete without a concise section on short-term and long-term impacts of the research, potential applications, impact on society and policies, and any other future visions. Know how to write a statement of the problem in a step-by-step way.

What are the key points to remember when drafting a concept paper?

1. Keep the reader in mind: If the concept paper targets experts in the field or potential collaborators/partners, it should be tailored accordingly, e.g., it can contain technical language. If the audience comprises potential sponsors/funders, the concept paper should be streamlined, keeping in mind their priorities and requirements. Such a version should contain minimal jargon and be easily digestible by non-specialists.

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2. Note that a concept paper is not a journal article: Concept papers differ from journal articles in that the primary aim of a concept paper is to convince a sponsor of the feasibility and significance of a project. In that sense, it is akin to a sales pitch! It should highlight the project’s purpose and impact. To strengthen one’s case, previously awarded grants or published papers may also be indicated.

3. Make a good impression: While a concept paper should be cogent and compelling, it goes without saying that the document should be well-written and well-formatted, as well as free of grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors. Clarity, consistency, and conciseness are key. In the absence of a formatting template, basic formatting should be in place, e.g., uniform font, adequate line spacing, and appropriate margins. Under Editage’s Scientific Editing Service , a researcher can have a concept paper assessed by a subject matter expert for an in-depth critique on the content and further checked and corrected by editors for language and readability.

Are you brimming with ideas for a research project? Now that you know the main elements that might give your proposal an edge over others, maybe you are ready to set a project in motion by starting with a concept paper. 

Related reading:

  • 5 Practical tips for writing your first scientific paper [Download publication schedule planner]
  • The basics of writing a statement of the problem for your research proposal
  • What reviewers look for in a grant proposal

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