The Difference Between a Literature Review and a Research Paper

Traditionally, in high school, when you were asked to write a paper, you were asked to write a research paper. However, in college (and, if applicable, in a professional) setting, you can be asked to write a literature review. The two papers are significantly different and it is important to be aware of this difference. This is why Project IVB is a literature review, rather than a research paper. You are familiar with the latter; not so much with the former. The goal of this project is to expose you to a different style of writing and also to give you an opportunity to practice that style.

The central difference between a research paper and a literature review is that a research paper makes an (oftentimes biased -- although it is not supposed to be) argument, whereas a literature review does not. In high school, your arguments were not new -- i.e., they most likely did not contribute a new idea to the field of research -- since your research was done on a basic level.

You can also think of the difference between a literature review and a research paper in terms of convergent and divergent. (Remember: we talked about these terms in reference to the different discipline communities.) A research paper is an example of a convergent text. You are pulling ideas from several sources together to make one, unified argument. For example, for a history paper, you might argue that superior military forces and tactical skills enabled the North/Union to win the American Civil War. Your main point focuses on the military forces/tactical skills and your research will support that point. In a way, you are ignoring, or selectively choosing against, differing viewpoints (such as the idea that the Union won based on sheer dumb luck or because of the South's lack of ammunition/food).

A literature review is an example of a divergent text. In this text, you start with a topic and explore different avenues and opinions and ideas that branch off from that idea. For example, for that same history class, you might write a literature review on why/how the North won the Civil War. That is your starting topic and your paper would cover multiple answers/ideas without privileging or prioritizing one over the others. You might discuss the greater population of the North, their greater manufacturing power, the advantage of having an efficient transport system in the railroads, the immigrant population, and the superior military tactics, etc. You are not arguing that one of the proposed answers is THE answer, but rather exploring different options or possibilities as to why/how the North won. You are attempting to be as neutral and objective and unbiased as possible -- exploring several answers rather than putting forth an argument.

Similarly, a research paper in the sciences might address the topic of the effects of excessive video game participation in children. A literature review would explore the various effects: for example, it might look at the physical effects (such as obesity, lower intellectual performance), the behavioral effects (increased aggression with peers), the mental effects (increase/decrease of certain brain chemicals/hormones, etc.) or the lack of effects (playing video games is completely harmless). A research paper, on the other hand, would pick one of the above ideas and argue it's case -- that, for example, excessive video game participation causes childhood obesity. It would, effectively, disregard the other studies on behavior effects and mental effects and would try to oppose or contradict the studies which argue that there is no effect at all.

Another way to think of this is as the difference between the job of a lawyer and that of a police officer (an activity we will mimic later in the unit). Say, for example, that a murder has been committed. It is the job of the lawyer (or the research) paper to make an argument or a case. It is the job of a lawyer to prove Prime Suspect #1 guilty or innocent. Oftentimes, they will ignore (or manipulate) evidence to prove their point. For example, a District Attorney might ignore Prime Suspect #1's alibi (or disprove it) in order to prove his/her guilt.

Conversely, it is the job of a police office (or the literature review) to present the evidence in an objective, unbiased manner. (Ignore the corruption of law enforcement.) The police are the ones who explore all possibilities -- investigate all suspects, collect their statements, collect evidence, etc. They then present a report (the literature review) to the DA's office. The DA will then choose the most likely suspect to prosecute.

In much the same way, a literature review is often the preliminary step of an advanced research paper. You have to know what others have already done and what conclusions they have come to before you can come up with a new argument. This way, you avoid repetition and wasting time doing what has already been done.