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Review Paper vs. Research Paper: Purpose, Structure, and Timeframe

Feb 23, 2021

Review papers and research papers play essential, but distinct roles in communicating scientific findings. As researchers, it is important to know the different ways to communicate your findings to the scientific community. There are three key differences between a review paper and a research paper: purpose, structure, and timeframe.


Review papers are a special type of paper that summarizes a body of research within a specific field. The purpose of a review is to give the background knowledge of a field and to tell a story of innovation within a specific field. In contrast, a research paper details the work and findings of a specific project or innovation. If you imagine a review paper to be a map, then your research papers would be individual stops on that map.

A review paper should serve as a roadmap for those who are new to the field. It should lay the groundwork of the basic information a new person would need to understand the field. Then, it should walk them through the research in the field. Just like a tour guide would point out interesting spots, a review paper should navigate them to what studies they may want to read more about. Then, in your research papers, you should dig further into every aspect of the research completed. If you want a full guide to completing and publishing your research papers, get my scientific paper checklist!


Due to their different purposes, review papers and research papers have different structures. A review paper attempts to cover a large range of research briefly, whereas your research papers cover a smaller amount of research in-depth.

Review Papers

A review paper like any paper should tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. There are three major sections to a review paper: introduction, research story, and conclusion/future directions. Now, each of these sections includes multiple different components. A great way to structure a review paper is to answer the following questions in order:

  • Why is your field important?
  • What is your field?
  • What are the problems that the research of your paper addresses?
  • What is the story of the research your paper covers?
  • What conclusions can be made from this research as a whole?
  • What should be done next in this research?

The most important part of a review paper is your research story. This should be the bulk of your paper and it covers the individual research papers that you will discuss. However, your paper should not read like a library catalog, where each paper has a paragraph synopsis included that doesn’t connect to those around it. Instead, your paper should read like you are telling a story. To accomplish this, you should illustrate the imaginary links that exist between different papers.

Research Papers

Similar to a review paper, a research paper should be told as a story. When this is done right, your research paper can engage a reader. When it is done wrong, it can make your paper feel impossible to read. Writing a well-constructed paper that flows can increase your likelihood of getting accepted into journals.

The structure of a research paper is something we have all seen before. A research paper consists of an introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. There can be some variation within these, but they are the major components of your paper. However, what makes or breaks your paper is how each of these sections is structured.

Before you even start writing your paper, you should create the story of your research. Arrange your figures in a logical order so that you can tell a story with them. Once you know the story of your paper and the conclusions you draw, it will become easy to create the story of each section. However, if you write your paper before establishing your results story, you will likely have a disjointed paper that takes a long time to write and is difficult to read.

Therefore, a good structure for your research paper is:

  1. Introduction
    • Why is your field important?
    • What does your reader need to know to understand your research?
    • Why is your research necessary?
    • What was accomplished before your research?
    • How did you accomplish this research?
  2. Methods
    • Why did you complete a specific experiment/comparison/analysis?
    • What was the experiment/comparison/analysis?
    • How did you complete the experiment/comparison/analysis?
  3. Results
    • What results did you obtain in your research story?
  4. Discussion
    • What is the impact of these results?
    • How do these results fit in the context of previous work?
  5. Conclusion/Future Directions
    • What is the impact of this study?
    • What should be done next from this project?

Answering these questions while telling your story will result in an incredible research paper that is crafted for the reader.


The final major difference between a review paper and a research paper is when you should write them. A research paper should be written once all the data is collected and a story of the results has been established. On the other hand, a review paper should be written later in a scientist’s career after they have written at least one research paper and have a solid foundation in the field.

One key mistake made by many researchers is writing both papers too early. I know many researchers will write the introduction, methods, and sometimes results of a paper, where they are still collecting data. In my opinion, writing a paper this way will create a highly disjointed paper that will take longer to write and edit. It is better to focus most of your energy on collecting your data. Then, writing after all the data has been collected and analyzed.

On the other hand, review papers are often written too early in a scientist's journey. I have seen multiple 1st-year graduate students spend the bulk of their time writing a review paper. I have yet to see one of these papers successfully be published. The simple reason is that you need to be an expert in your field to write a successful review paper. You must know what to include and remove from your paper to allow it to flow. You also need to synthesize something new from previous research. A review paper is not simply meant to be a synopsis of the research in the field. This can be easily accomplished once a scientist has performed research in their field and can generate their own ideas.

Major Takeaways

Academic writing includes both research papers and review papers. However, the purpose, structure, and timeframe for writing these papers differ. Here are three important differences to craft incredible research papers and review papers:

  • The purpose of a review paper is to serve as a roadmap for newcomers to the field, whereas your research paper should give a reader all the information they need to reproduce your experiment and understand its outcomes.
  • Both your review and research papers should tell a story. A review paper will tell a story of multiple research studies. On the other hand, a research paper will tell the in-depth story of a specific project.
  • A common mistake is writing both research papers and review papers too early. For research papers, you should wait until all the data is completed and analyzed. For review papers, you should become an expert in your field first.

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