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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)

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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