The process of researching and composing a white paper shares some similarities with the kind of research and writing one does for a high school or college research paper. What’s important for writers of white papers to grasp, however, is how much this genre differs from a research paper.
First, the author of a white paper already recognizes that there is a problem to be solved, a decision to be made, and the job of the author is to provide readers with substantive information to help them make some kind of decision--which may include a decision to do more research because major gaps remain.
Thus, a white paper author would not “brainstorm” a topic. Instead, the white paper author would get busy figuring out how the problem is defined by those who are experiencing it as a problem. Typically that research begins in popular culture--social media, surveys, interviews, newspapers. Once the author has a handle on how the problem is being defined and experienced, its history and its impact, what people in the trenches believe might be the best or worst ways of addressing it, the author then will turn to academic scholarship as well as “grey” literature (more about that later).
Unlike a school research paper, the author does not set out to argue for or against a particular position, and then devote the majority of effort to finding sources to support the selected position. Instead, the author sets out in good faith to do as much fact-finding as possible, and thus research is likely to present multiple, conflicting, and overlapping perspectives. When people research out of a genuine desire to understand and solve a problem, they listen to every source that may offer helpful information. They will thus have to do much more analysis, synthesis, and sorting of that information, which will often not fall neatly into a “pro” or “con” camp: Solution A may, for example, solve one part of the problem but exacerbate another part of the problem. Solution C may sound like what everyone wants, but what if it’s built on a set of data that have been criticized by another reliable source? And so it goes.
For example, if you are trying to write a white paper on the opioid crisis, you may focus on the value of providing free, sterilized needles--which do indeed reduce disease, and also provide an opportunity for the health care provider distributing them to offer addiction treatment to the user. However, the free needles are sometimes discarded on the ground, posing a danger to others; or they may be shared; or they may encourage more drug usage. All of those things can be true at once; a reader will want to know about all of these considerations in order to make an informed decision. That is the challenging job of the white paper author.
The research you do for your white paper will require that you identify a specific problem, seek popular culture sources to help define the problem, its history, its significance and impact for people affected by it. You will then delve into academic and grey literature to learn about the way scholars and others with professional expertise answer these same questions. In this way, you will create creating a layered, complex portrait that provides readers with a substantive exploration useful for deliberating and decision-making. You will also likely need to find or create images, including tables, figures, illustrations or photographs, and you will document all of your sources.