What Is The Difference Between A Literature Review And Research Paper

It is easy to get confused about the difference between literature reviews and essays because these two writing structures can be based on the same research.  However, the main difference is on where the emphasis is placed.

The purpose of an essay is to use what is known about a subject to prove an argument or point of view.  Not all of the knowledge of a topic may be used in an essay, but only what is relevant to the argument.  In an essay, mentioning the people who discovered or developed the knowledge is generally only for referencing purposes.

On the other hand, a literature review is designed to be a critical analysis of all the knowledge that has been discovered about a subject.  Its purpose is to examine all that others have already discovered about the subject and the researchers working on the subject are considered to be key.

At a sentence level, one way to emphasise a particular aspect of a subject is to place that aspect at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs.

In an essay, where the focus is on the knowledge itself, it is put to the front of sentences.  For example:

Playing computer and video games have risen dramatically in popularity.  It is estimated that three billion hours of gaming are played globally each week.  The major reason for this is because players are able to tap into a high level of emotional satisfaction that is difficult to experience in everyday life (McGonigal, 2011).

However, in literature reviews what is considered to be more important are the authors and researchers who found or developed the information.  Therefore they appear at the beginning of sentences.

Jane McGonigal (2011) estimates that three billion hours of gaming are played globally every week.  Her research suggests that the major reason for this is because players are able to tap into a high level of emotional satisfaction that is difficult to experience in everyday life.

This is not to say that both kinds of sentences can be used in both types of writing.  However, the overall trend for essays is to emphasise the information, whereas for literature reviews the trend is to emphasise the authors.

For more on the differences between the structure of essays and the structure of literature reviews,  check out QUT Cite|Write

A research paper is a primary source...that is, it reports the methods and results of an original study performed by the authors. The kind of study may vary (it could have been an experiment, survey, interview, etc.), but in all cases, raw data have been collected and analyzed by the authors, and conclusions drawn from the results of that analysis.

Research papers follow a particular format.  Look for:

  • A brief introduction will often include a review of the existing literature on the topic studied, and explain the rationale of the author's study.  This is important because it demonstrates that the authors are aware of existing studies, and are planning to contribute to this existing body of research in a meaningful way (that is, they're not just doing what others have already done).
  • A methods section, where authors describe how they collected and analyzed data.  Statistical analyses are included.  This section is quite detailed, as it's important that other researchers be able to verify and/or replicate these methods.
  • A results section describes the outcomes of the data analysis.  Charts and graphs illustrating the results are typically included.
  • In the discussion, authors will explain their interpretation of their results and theorize on their importance to existing and future research.
  • References or works cited are always included.  These are the articles and books that the authors drew upon to plan their study and to support their discussion.

You can use the library's article databases to search for research articles:

  • A research article will nearly always be published in a peer-reviewed journal; click here for instructions on limiting your searches to peer-reviewed articles.  
  • If you have a particular type of study in mind, you can include keywords to describe it in your search.  For instance, if you would like to see studies that used surveys to collect data, you can add "survey" to your topic in the database's search box. See this example search in our EBSCO databases: "bullying and survey".  
  • Several of our databases have special limiting options that allow you to select specific methodologies.  See, for instance, the "Methodology" box in ProQuest's PsycARTICLES Advanced Search (scroll down a bit to see it).  It includes options like "Empirical Study" and "Qualitative Study", among many others.  

A review article is a secondary source...it is written about other articles, and does not report original research of its own.  Review articles are very important, as they draw upon the articles that they review to suggest new research directions, to strengthen support for existing theories and/or identify patterns among exising research studies.  For student researchers, review articles provide a great overview of the exisiting literature on a topic.   If you find a literature review that fits your topic, take a look at its references/works cited list for leads on other relevant articles and books!

You can use the library's article databases to find literature reviews as well!  Click here for tips.

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