Very often I hear the same comment from students:

“I never really understand the difference between a research paper and a thesis” (Confused Student, 2017).

No problem at all my friend. Sit back, relax and let me try to explain in brief what the main differences and similarities between the two are and hopefully after this there will be very little doubt as to how they differ. All you have to do is read along.

ATTENTION 1: In this article I will use the terms thesis and dissertation interchangeably. If you are in the UK, for example, your university will refer to your final research project as a “dissertation“. In you are in Germany, as a “thesis“. It is all good, no matter how your institution calls it, ok?

ATTENTION 2: In this article, I will discuss mostly format and structure to differentiate a research paper and a thesis. Only a brief part is devoted to content. Thus, please note: discuss content of your work with your supervisor, as it is beyond the scope of this article.

ATTENTION 3: Formats of research papers and theses also vary according to the organization. For example, research conferences and universities have their own guidelines. So make sure to check the guidelines of your university, the research event or journal you aim to participate in or submit you work to.

First, What Are Their Similarities?

The purpose of a research paper and a thesis is the same: to explain in detail a study that was conducted. In essence, that is what both will tell you.

A short format is a research paper and an extensive format is a thesis! However, despite their differences, there are many similar points among them. For example: Their structure is roughly the same

In general, both formats have the same overall structure and rationale:

  1. INTRODUCTION: It will start with a contextualization of the study, allowing the reader to quickly acquire an overview of the study. Since in this section the initial purpose is to “introduce” the topic for the reader, academics had the super creative idea of calling this section “introduction”. Impressive title, right?

Ps: Learn here how to develop a great Introduction chapter!

  1. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND (LITERATURE REVIEW): Following this, for a reader to understand a study one must be familiar with the main concepts described in the study. Thus, after introducing the context of the study, an author should explain the main concepts that are important for the reader to understand the entire study.

For example: If an author is describing the results and mentions a concept such as “information overload” and the reader has no clue of what the author is talking about, it will be impossible to understand the findings.

Thus, in this section an author should explain the main theoretical concepts related to the study to develop a background for the research.

In addition, this section should also provide a review of the existing literature (previous studies related to a similar topic of research) to reveal what other studies that have tackled similar topics have found. Incredibly, this section is usually named “theoretical background” or literature review”.

  • Finally, and very importantly, authors should explain what he/she intended to investigate. This is normally framed as a “research question(s)”, “research aim” or “one or a set of hypotheses”.

Ps: Learn here how to develop a great Theoretical Background!

  1. RESEARCH METHODS: After contextualizing the study and providing explanation of the main concepts, what previous studies in similar fields have found and what the researcher intends to investigate, the logical next step is to explain “HOW” the study was conducted. This section is usually named “research methods”, or “methodology”. In order to explain how the study was conducted, researchers usually discuss:
    • Research design: describing the overall nature of the study
    • Research method: which method(s) from the design chosen, will be used to address the research question (aim or hypothesis, depending how the study was framed).
    • Data collection: explaining systematically how the data was collected.
    • Elements of measurements: explaining what exactly was measured and how it was measured.
    • Sample: explaining the size and profile of your sample.

Ps: Learn here some Research Methods tips!

  1. RESULTS: After explaining “how” the study was conducted, the logical step is to explain “what was found”, in other words, the results found. Thus, authors will explain how the data was analyzed, which statistical tests were used or how a qualitative analysis was conducted (if applicable).

Ps: Learn here some Statistical Tips with a SPSS guide created for you!

  1. CONCLUSIONS: After discussing the results, studies will present a “conclusions” sections. Here authors provide a personal reflection on the results in light of previous findings and concept descriptions previously debated in the theoretical background.
  1. MANAGERIAL RECOMMENDATIONS AND LIMITATIONS: In management or business studies it is very common to have a later section named “managerial recommendations” in which the authors discuss what companies or organizations (depending on the context of the study) should actually do, given the findings resultant from the study.
  1. REFERENCES: Lastly, papers and theses will display a full list of references used in the study.

DOWNLOAD here a simple research paper template: - Research Paper Template.pdf

Second, What Are Their Differences?

As seen above, research papers and theses have pretty much the EXACT overall structure and rationale. So you may ask yourself: WHAT ARE THEIR DIFFERENCES?

Their difference lies on the depth with which they explain the rationale above. Research papers are briefer while theses are much more detailed.

For example:

  1. Length
  • Research papers: Are commonly written for courses, conferences and forums. They usually have a length range from 5 to 17 pages. Many conferences, for example, will determine the maximum amount of words or pages. Thus, authors must be very objective and “straight to the point”.
  • Theses: Can range from 40 pages (bachelor degree) to over 300 (doctoral level). As theses are much longer, authors have greater room to discuss each section. This is exactly where the difference in depth lies.

2. Format

  • Research papers: Do NOT include parts such as list of figures, list of abbreviations, list of tables, cover page.
  • Theses: Include additional parts such as list of figures, list of abbreviations, list of tables, cover page.

3. Introduction

  • Research paper: Brief, usually a few short paragraphs including industry data, description of general concepts of the study and research aim or objective.
  • Theses: In a thesis, an introduction chapter can be divided into sub-sections in which the author will discuss also the motivation for the study, the overall structure of the thesis and more.

4. Theoretical background

  • Research paper: Might be structured into a few sub-sections describing concepts and previous research.
  • Theses: Much more detailed, with thorough discussions of each concept. The chapter often ends with an original theoretical model created by the author to provide an overview of how the concepts used in the thesis interconnect and interrelate.

5. Methodology

  • Research paper: A research paper most likely will discuss different relevant topics (e.g. research design, method, sample, data collection) in a single section due to limitations in word count.
  • Theses: Authors will usually structure the chapter into many sub-sections, explaining in detail each section, providing definitions and explanations of “why” a specific design or method has been chosen. Authors may also choose to develop a framework to visually explain all stages of data collection.

6. Results

  • Research paper: Often authors will focus simply on the most relevant or revealing results, commonly without tables of graphs (as these may take too much space in the document that could be devoted to other sections).
  • Theses: Authors will once more divide the chapter into sub-sections, describing the profile of the sample, describing all results found, with additional tables and graphs to facilitate the understanding of results.

7. Conclusion

  • Research paper: Authors are once more very objective and discuss solely the most interesting findings, highlighting their main contribution.
  • Theses: Authors are much more extensive; discuss in detail all findings and the limitations of the study to provide a greater overall understanding of results.

7. References

  • Research paperDisplays ALL sources referenced in the paper.
  • Theses: Displays ALL sources referenced in the thesis.


In order to illustrate more clearly, check their differences and similarities on the table below:

Hope it is now clear how a research paper and a thesis differ?

And remember, coffee is always good for productivity. Personally, I suggest cappuccino with brown sugar.

I also recommend music without lyrics or in a language you can’t understand. For example, while writing this article I listened to Sigur Ros. I have no idea what the lyrics are about, but it sure sounds good!