When writing a paper, maybe the only thing more daunting than actually writing it is deciding what you're even supposed to be writing about. Research reports, research papers...it gets confusing. They are actually not the same thing, and knowing the difference between them will save you time and frustration, help you stay on-target and ultimately help you get the highest possible grade.
According to Webster's Dictionary, research can be a "careful or diligent search," a "studious inquiry or examination... aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts...in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws" or "the collecting of information about a particular subject."
While research reports and research papers both involve much of the first definition, a research report is more concerned with the second, and a research paper with the third.
What is a Research Report?
A research report is a paper reporting research that has already been conducted. As such, it is used primarily in the sciences to tell other scientists (or your instructor) about the process, findings and significance of your experiment.
According to a guide prepared by the American Chemical Society, a good research report of any kind should be organized in a way that parallels the method of scientific reasoning. The usual parts of this report are Title, Abstract, Introduction, Experimental Details or Theoretical Analysis, Results, Discussion, Conclusions and Summary, then References.
What is a Research Paper?
A research paper, on the other hand, is the research itself. In other words, a research paper typically presents quotes or information from books or scholarly papers or even movies, then analyzes them to reach some sort of conclusion. It does not report on an objective, reproducible experiment done elsewhere but instead focuses on establishing the author's thesis and arguing in favor of it. Research papers are usually used in the humanities. The format for a good research paper includes an introductory paragraph, two or three body paragraphs and a conclusion.
A Word of Caution
This explanation covers how these terms are typically used; there is no universally agreed upon definition of either term. Sometimes an instructor will assign a research report when he really meant a research paper or vice versa. You can usually tell what is required by what kind of class it is and what the instructor says he wants (for example, if a laboratory experiment is involved, chances are a research report is required) but if you are really unsure, ask.