Evolution of Research Paper Writing: From Ancient Scrolls to Digital Age

Humans are curious creatures. Many believe our hominid ancestors even did some form of research, possibly millions of years ago. But the research paper has a much shorter timeline. Writing systems are a relatively recent phenomenon, with the earliest known writing dating back to 3200 BCE. Since then, what we recognize as the research paper has changed dramatically.

As we move into the digital age, we will see the research paper continue to evolve. Today’s students have access to a vast selection of digital resources. But it can be exhausting to sort through the noise to find quality sources for your thesis paper. If you’re considering buying your thesis paper, ensure you buy thesis papers or purchase thesis research from a reputable source, as writing research or a thesis paper is also becoming a highly specialized skill.

According to Studybay’s expert writer, Angelina Grin, this kind of writing help is handy if you are also planning to do summer internships to improve your resume. It can be challenging to do it all!

Are you ready to write your research paper and curious about how it all began? Let’s look at how research paper writing has changed over the years and what the future may hold.

The Earliest Writings

These mostly administrative writing samples were made with clay tablets. The ancient Mesopotamians used a stylus in a laborious process to press the marks that comprised cuneiform.

The ancient Egyptians invented a much more versatile writing material. The oldest known papyrus roll was found in a tomb in Saqqara, dating to around 2900 BCE. Most of the texts on the papyri from Ancient Egypt are religious. There are some historical recordings. But these works are not like the research or thesis papers we know today.

But there are ancient examples of recognizable, written research. At least as early as 500 BCE, ancient authors wrote about a clinical study conducted by King Nebuchadnezzar in the Biblical Book of Daniel. This account details how the king decided that his people should only eat and drink certain foods. A group of people asked permission to eat legumes and water instead, and he agreed. The account concludes the research by noting the outcomes of both groups of people after 10 days.

Despite this early written research, there were few examples of historical research papers until more recent times. Throughout history, literacy has often been a privilege. And access to education and academic writing was impossible for most people.

Printing Presses

We have records of research writing dating back to 500 BCE. But it was rare for research papers to circulate widely within society. People who wanted to read a research paper often had to travel to a library or monastery to access the original document. The printing press was invented in China sometime in the first millennium of the Common Era (CE).

By the time of the Southern Song Dynasty between 1127-1279 CE, baked clay printing presses produced books on many topics. These topics ranged from essays to children’s educational materials. In 1297, a magistrate named Wang Chen crafted a woodblock printing press that worked better and faster than previous wood or clay presses. Johannes Gutenberg developed his printing press based on Chinese examples more than 150 years later.

The First Scientific Journals

Scholars and academics throughout Europe often met and exchanged research papers with each other. But the first known scientific journal was the Journal des Sçavans, first published in 1665. It stopped in 1792 and returned in 1816 as the Journal des Savants.

The Royal Society of London also began to publish research in 1665. Philosophical Transactions was the first scientific periodical in Europe. Many historians regard the correspondence secretary Henry Oldenberg as the person who invented the modern scientific article. At the start of the periodical, there was no standard format. A more standard format emerged as publication continued into the 18th and 19th centuries. The research papers also began to focus more on experiments, methods, and results.

The Research Paper Gets More Organized

The 20th century is when research papers took on a more familiar look. Until 1945, it was common for research papers to have headings more like book chapters. But after 1945, many editors worked to adopt a standard across many disciplines and journals. This standard is often called IMRAD. It stands for:

  • Introduction
  • Methods (or Materials and Methods)
  • Results 
  • Discussion

By mid-century, it was also common for research papers to include visuals like charts and graphs. Although some researchers have criticized this format, it has remained the most used standard.

The Drawbacks of the IMRAD Research Paper

The critical review has shaped the evolution of the research paper through the centuries. Some view the modern research paper format as flawed because it often relies on hypotheses. Then, people develop methods and research based on what may be pure guesswork. The structure may also allow researchers to omit much of the lab work. In some cases, authors may use literary strategies to convince an audience in the absence of a clear conclusion.

Research is also becoming more specialized. This makes it harder to communicate results to those, not in that specialty. As researchers have entered the digital age, they’ve adopted computer programs to help organize the data. But these programs often muddle the data and make it even less clear for readers to understand the process and results.

The Future of the Research Paper

The digital age represents a fundamental change in how we share information. As technology grows more complex, many think it’s time to take a fresh look at the research paper. Some think that introducing better computer programs or AI help is crucial. Others suggest that it’s time to redesign the research paper altogether. Even digital research papers still look like their paper counterparts.

Soon, the research papers you write and read could look very different. Some editors and authors are already adding interactive elements. They are looking at how to break down the processes into small steps that allow the reader to see the mechanics behind each step. The growing prowess of the Mathematica notebook program created by Stephen Wolfram’s company may also hold answers. Wolfram has long championed the “computational essay” as an alternative to the paper-bound research paper. It would allow readers to interact with a fuller picture of the methods and the results.

Other scientists are working on other programs that can adapt to the changing research paper. They are adapting existing computer languages like Python or creating new tools. As these new tools become more accessible, finding ways to keep evolving with the changes will be vital.


Bhatt, D. A. (n.d.). Evolution of Clinical Research: A History Before and Beyond James Lind. PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3149409/

Handwerk, B. (n.d.). Human Ancestors May Have Evolved the Physical Ability to Speak More Than 25 Million Years Ago. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/human-ancestors-may-have-evolved-physical-ability-speak-more-25-million-years-ago-180973759/

Popko, L. (2014, August 29). History-Writing in Ancient Egypt. History-Writing in Ancient Egypt. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/73v96940

Somers, J. (2018, April 5). The Scientific Paper Is Obsolete. The Scientific Paper Is Obsolete. Here’s What’s Next. – the Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/the-scientific-paper-is-obsolete/556676/

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