What are the major differences between a thesis and research paper literature review? Despite the volume of literature citations between thesis and research article what are the other major differences?

3 Answers 3


A literature review in a thesis is there to put your own work into context. It should make it clear that you are familiar with what has been done in the field before, that there is a gap that your work will address, and that you have chosen your approach to the problem carefully in light of previous work.

A literature review section in an original research paper has a similar purpose, but should be much shorter. It should focus on making clear why your work is needed.

A stand-alone review paper has a very different purpose. A review paper should help readers to understand the state of the art in the field with respect to the review topic. It should cover important recent contributions to the field (and make clear why they are important). It should document recent trends and changes (for instance, if one theory or method seems to be falling out of favour while others are emerging). It should document important open challenges and problems.

In all types of literature review, it is important to show critical thinking: not just covering what has been done before, but thinking about how appropriate or successful that work was, or how relevant to current circumstances.


A thesis generally grants a diploma. Its literature review possesses a part narrowed down to the part where the (junior) researcher is supposed to bring "novelty" or "innovation".

An overview paper generally has at least a more senior author, since more experience is required to compare approaches. There, the authors may credit less known sources, the ones a junior may have overlooked, or spot the major paths. Since they will not be awarded a diploma, wisdom is what readers will look at. However, such a paper may attract more citations than a thesis.

Finally, PhD or MSc students should be advised that a thesis is a good place to learn and prepare for a review paper, later. In some fields (I think about bioinformatics) brand new "doctors" sometimes publish survey papers comparing the most recent works, in short-time frame reviews.


Let me first help you reframe the question slightly: What kind of literature review is necessary to support a thesis, what kind of literature review is necessary to support a research article, and how are these two types of literature review different?

It is hard to give a general answer, because there are many different kinds of theses (and thus different kinds of literature reviews to support them) and different kinds of research articles (and thus different kinds of literature reviews to support them, too). However, in general, I could say:

  • The purpose of a thesis is to partially demonstrate your qualification to receive an academic degree, usually a graduate degree. From this perspective, the best answer concerning what is expected in the literature review is: Ask your supervisor! Different supervisors have different expectations, and so no matter what kinds of general answers you might find here on Stack Exchange, what your supervisor thinks is what really matters. You wouldn't want to spend a lot of time doing work based on what you've read on the Internet, only to find that your supervisor in fact has very different ideas on this point. That said, I would say that in general that a doctoral thesis literature review should serve three main purposes:

    1. Prove that your thesis contribution is original: Show that in spite of all the related and similar work that you are presenting in the literature review, what you are offering as your main research in the thesis is original and different from what anyone has ever done.
    2. Demonstrate your knowledge of relevant literature: Prove that you have read very broadly and are a general expert in the topic of your thesis and in related work.
    3. Contribute to the scholarly conversation: By reviewing related work, you can present how your thesis fits in the ongoing research stream and adds to what is already known, and establishes a platform upon which other researchers can further build.
  • The purpose of a research article is to make a concise original contribution to knowledge. In general, you should write everything you need to present the new knowledge, but you should not waste your readers' time by writing any more than is necessary. Thus, the literature review here is the minimum needed to help present the new knowledge. From that perspective, while all the three points above for a thesis are still relevant, points #1 and #2 (prove originality and demonstrate your knowledge of the literature, respectively) should be heavily abbreviated and are less important. #3 (contribute to the scholarly conversation) is probably the most important aspect for a research article literature review: you need to explain what the related work is, where it has gone so far, where your new contribution fits, and where you or others can go on in the future. (Strictly speaking, the last aspect on where to go in the future usually goes in the conclusion section, but you should have this in mind as you prepare the literature review section.)

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