While in general writing an undergraduate research paper can be a painful experience, once you get to the graduate student or academic level, research papers become very important to your work, as a method by which you can let the world know about what you are doing in your PhD or in your (hopefully groundbreaking) research. This is especially true in the science discipline, since people in other disciplines (arts doctoral students, for example) are much less likely to publish a paper and are much more likely to give an exhibition or present a portfolio.
Research papers generally come in two broad types:
An academic somewhere, usually an experienced professor, decides that they want to get together all of their peers into one place, where they can all talk about their research and share ideas common to a single topic. So, they send out a call for papers, asking academics to submit relevent papers (or paper abstracts, in some cases) to their conference, before a predeterminded date (usually about 6 months prior to the conference).
Once the papers are in, the professor (now the conference general chair) sends them off to other academics (electronically, these days), who are the people that make up a technical committee for the conference. The technical committee reviews the papers (obstenantly for technical content, but also to a lesser extent for the readability and structure of the paper) and either accepts or rejects the paper. At times, the general chair will then reject more of the papers, depending on the number of people that can be catered for at the conference.
Finally, the result is forwared to the author, who is usually asked in the review to make some changes to the paper. The final paper is called the camera-ready version and is published in the conference proceedings.
All that then remains is for the group of accepted academics to turn up at the conference (usually in a posh hotel or resort somewhere) and give a presentation of their work. Networking with your peers at conference dinners and cocktail parties (read: getting drunk) is an optional but highly encouraged activity at these events. They they collect their conference proceedings and go home, to start thinking about their next paper.
The other common type of research paper is the journal paper. In many respects, journal papers are very similar to conference papers, except they are generally considered to be more prestigious than a conference paper. Once an academic thinks they have made a significant contribution to their area of research, the begin to look for a journal to publish in. Nature and Science are examples of very famous journals, but there are also many other journals out there, specific to selected areas of research.
Once an academic has selected a journal, they put together a paper to the specifications outlined for the journal (no. of columns, no. of pages, formatting guidelines etc) and submit it to the editor. As with a conference paper, the editor forwards the paper to a reviewer who is an expert in the field the paper is in. The reviewer reads the paper and accepts or rejects it, and also usually suggests changes that should be made to the paper. This decision is then forwarded on to the author, who is asked to make the changes. The process can repeat two or three times before the paper is ready for publication. Finally, assuming the paper is accepted, it is slated for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal. Once the journal is published, copies of the paper are usually sent to the author (for bragging rights, among other things). The author then continues with their work, waiting until they have enough material to publish again.
Despite the similarity between the two, there are two big advantages to journal papers over conference papers. The first is that, because a journal paper requires more groundbreaking research in it, a journal paper is much more respected than a conference paper. Secondly, journals are generally collected by libraries and put on their shelves, while conference proceedings (except those for exceptionally large conferences) are not. This means that your research is more accessible by other researchers, which means you will be cited (referenced in other work) and people will know you. This in turn improves your reputation, gets you promotions and makes your work more likely to be accepted in the future.
Of course, this w/u
mentions nothing of the other major method of academic publication, book writing
! But, that is probably best left for another node....