"White papers" are widely used in the GIS world by tool developers to showcase new software and new features that have been added to existing software. While there's no single agreed-upon format for white papers, they generally weave in bits of science among bigger bits of marketing-speak. Companies also use white papers to highlight case study applications of their tools, for example, on the use of a network analysis tool to route cargo during a crisis situation. The focus on marketing that often appears in white papers does not render them useless, however, as white papers are frequently one of the best ways to quickly find out about new GIS technology and make a judgment before you pursue further contact with a particular company. The impossible-to-kill Esri shapefile format owes much of its popularity to the fact that it is completely described in this 1998 white paper. The alternative to white papers usually involves seeing a demonstration in person or by the web, which introduces obvious scheduling issues.
For the purposes of designing a GIS system, it's important to be able to find white papers, critique them, and then make a decision regarding whether or not you will adopt a solution for your system.
Discovering White Papers
Here are a few starting points (besides simply plugging in "GIS White Paper" in Google) for finding GIS-related white papers on the web:
ERDAS White Papers(see link at bottom of page)
This is by no means an exhaustive set - this is just to get you started, and I strongly encourage you to branch out into the specialty areas that you are familiar with in your work experience. For example, if you work on Utilities/FM GIS, then, by all means, go find white papers from the consulting groups that implement those types of GIS solutions.
Please see the Lesson 4 White Paper Critique Assignment in Canvas for submission details.