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How to refer to other studies or literature in the different sections of a research paper

There are many articles which discuss how you can include and discuss existing studies and research in the literature review section of a paper. However, in addition to the literature review, there are many other opportunities to discuss or engage with prior studies in your research. This article offers guidance on how to include other studies or literature in different sections in a research paper.

Engaging with literature in the Introduction

Prior studies are often mentioned in the Introduction, generally as high-level summaries without much detail. Although some people may choose not to use existing literature or research to motivate a study, this is not an uncommon practice. Researchers sometimes rely on prior studies to emphasise the importance of the current study – for example, in challenging a standing argument or addressing an outstanding gap. Prior studies are also often discussed to build the foundation of the arguments of the research paper in question. 

Working with previous studies in the Methodology

It is also common practice to refer to prior literature in the Methodology. You may refer to prior studies as you design the study, collect and/or select data and perform the analysis. If this is the case, it is important to explain clearly why you are using and drawing from previous studies and how these are relevant to your own research paper. 

It is also possible to refer to prior studies to highlight the different methodological choices you have taken in your research. For example, there may be a comparison of the data sources, the sample or subject selections. Or, you might offer a comparison in the decisions made for different parameters, constructs, factors, model selection preferences and so on. Highlighting these differences can help you to clearly present new perspectives and why your study provides value to the field.

If you are offering a comparison between your current and previous studies, try to avoid solely comparing and contrasting, or simply stating what you have performed. What is more important is to explain why you have made these different decisions so that readers can understand the rationale behind your methodological decisions and your project design.

Referring to the literature in the Discussion and Conclusion

It is always a good idea to refer to prior studies and existing literature in the Discussion or Conclusion sections. This is a good time to reiterate the arguments, research questions/hypotheses and objectives that you introduced in the earlier sections of the paper and to discuss your results and findings.

Integrating other relevant literature into your Discussion serves two key purposes. First, it outlines what has already been achieved in prior studies. Second, you can explain how your study builds on this existing work to advance the knowledge in the field

Sometimes, through this discussion, you can also demonstrate why or how your findings are the same as or different from prior studies. 

Three common mistakes to avoid

When forging connections between prior studies and your own research paper, it is important to be aware of three common mistakes that authors make.

  • Some researchers sometimes focus too much on the existing literature, so that their research paper does not, ultimately, seem to provide many new insights. 
  • Because of the way authors might present and discuss prior studies in the Introduction, readers may become distracted or be led to raise more questions that are not relevant to the present research paper. [Tip: In this and the above instances, it is advisable that you ensure your discussion of the literature is relevant at all times to the specific issues that you are discussing in each section and does not overshadow the main idea(s) in the research paper.]
  • Although you can critique prior studies to highlight the unique approach or key message of your study, it is a good practice to avoid subjective assessments, so as not to introduce any personal biases into your discussion of either the literature or your own research. 

In conclusion

Remember that engagement with the literature serves primarily to set the scene and contextualise your own research. It should provide enough information for your reader to understand the relevance and significance of your study, but not take over the main focus of the paper.


Read next (fifth/final) in series: Difference between a literature review and a critical review

Read previous (third) in series: Deciding what to include and exclude as you begin to write your literature review


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