One of my students recently asked me exactly what a white paper was since he had seen it used in different ways. He was right – it is used in different ways. There’s the American way and there’s the British way.
In American English, a white paper is an authoritative report, or a guide, that addresses issues and problems, and the different ways of solving them. It is generally used by businesses as a marketing or sales tool. For example, a white paper of a business that deals in technical products is a document that promotes the products by giving their details, their benefits, and if there are problems, ways of solving them. This information may be given separately, or all together. That is – there may be white papers giving technical details of the products (like how the products work), or white papers stating the benefits of the products, or those which are troubleshooting guides, or they may be combinations of two or more of these. The purpose of these white papers is to inform and educate prospective buyers about the products.
In British English, a white paper is a parliamentary paper stating government policy on a certain issue or issues. The topic is usually a current issue which the government talks about in detail in the white paper – what the issue or concern is, the government’s policy on the issue, how it proposes to deal with it, and whether a law will be passed or not.
In Britain and the Commonwealth countries, the term “white paper” has been used for several decades. The term originated when a shorter version of a “blue book” (a detailed government policy report bound in blue covers) was introduced for wider use. This shorter version was bound in the same white paper as the ones on which the text was written – hence the name “white paper”. But the use of the term in America and elsewhere is only as recent as the early 1990’s. It was adopted by the IT industry to describe technical documents (as defined above).
A relatively new term is a “video white paper’. This is the same thing as a “white paper” (as in the American sense) with the only difference that it is presented in video format. The information of the white paper is presented not only verbally, but also involves the use of graphics, graphs, and animations.
Do you know of any other definition of “white paper”? How would you describe it?