All posts by Vickie Deneroff

What is the Difference Between a Literature Review and a Term Paper?

Austrian painter Carl Schleicher's A Controversy Whatsoever on Talmud.
Austrian painter Carl Schleicher’s A Controversy Whatsoever on Talmud.

Merriam-Webster  defines a term paper as “a long essay that usually requires research and that is written by a student as part of a course or class.” In a term paper, the writer makes an argument about what the research says on a particular topic.

For example, I wrote an undergraduate term paper on marriage practices of the nobility in 17th Century France. I read a number of secondary sources and looked at some of the estate records that were compiled in volumes in the library. I came to the conclusion, surprising to me, that most members of the French nobility in the 17th Century did not marry, but were forced into the convent (women), the army or the priesthood (men). I wondered about how this contributed to the long-term consequences for French society, the consolidation of power that led to the explosion of the French Revolution.

The purpose of a literature review, however, is to lay out the scholarly conversations that are relevant to your topic. What kind of research are people doing, and what are they writing about? Where does your topic fit in?

Books on how to do research— one of my favorites being The Power of Questions: A Guide to Teacher and Student Research by Beverly Falk and Megan Blumenreich (2005)—commonly suggest that the novice writing a lit review for a research proposal identify research articles related to their topic, and pull out three or four themes that seem to emerge in reading them.

This is good advice, but it misses the point: Research is a conversation.  People who do research talk with each other, build on each other’s work, refute each other’s work, etc. The literature review is your “map” of that conversation. What you do in your literature review is show where your proposed study fits in.

I have found that graduate students don’t understand they are making a transition from being an undergraduate who consumes knowledge to a master who produces knowledge. Many students feel stymied, and bemoan, “I can’t find anything on this topic!”

“That’s great,” I say. “That means you are doing research on something we don’t already know. What are the conversations your study is related to?”

Plagiarism—Using Sources Ethically

Al Capone mugshot, Miami, FloridaI have found that many students are confused and helpless when it comes to understanding why a professor, including myself, has accused them of plagiarism. It seems to be a common practice for student writers to find an online article and then copy and paste a sentence into their paper. They often put a sentence from one article in the same paragraph as another one. Sometimes the original articles are cited, but more often not. When we sit down in my office to talk about it, they tell me this was how they wrote all their papers in high school. Some students from outside the US have told both Harvey and me this is how they were taught to write papers.

But let me make it clear. In the US, at university and professional levels, scholarly writers are expected to generate their own words and not copy any strings of words from sources. If you do lift a sentence or phrase, it must be in quotation marks, with the source properly cited, with page numbers. There is only one reason to use a sentence verbatim from a source: The author of that work says something really important to your argument and there simply is no better way to say it.

If you do use ideas from a source, you must cite the ideas you use, not just direct quotes. Basically you must cite any time the question arises in the reader’s mind: How do you know that?

Merely assembling sentences from online websites and PDFs of articles and books is not writing. It seems like some kind of word salad. The writing you produce comes from your own thoughts and opinions, not a goulash of other people’s ideas.

P.S. Most professors at American colleges and universities have access to software that checks student assignments against what’s on the Internet and elsewhere, so the chances of getting caught for plagiarism are much greater than ever.

The Secret of Academic Writing

All academic writing is an argument.Depiction of scribe writing in a multi-quire codex

If someone had told me this explicitly at the beginning of my grad school career, I would have been spared a lot of grief and rejected articles I later submitted to journals. I say explicitly because I think probably a couple of professors intended their assignments to identify the arguments in various articles to drive home this point. But even though I’m pretty smart and was judged to be a good writer, I didn’t get it.

I finally learned to be ruthless in paring down my paragraphs to include only those that served the argument I was trying to make. Sometimes the argument is not clear to me until I’ve written a draft. Writing is, for me, and I think for most good writers, a thinking tool. As I’m writing things fall into place, and I make connections and nail down insights as I write. I don’t know what I think until I write.

But since the next most important function of writing is communication—and notice I put it in second place, because writing has to be about ideas, and it will be a mediocre piece if I’m not putting myself into the work—once I’ve gotten that first thinking tool draft done, much more needs to happen.

If I wasn’t clear about my argument before, or if the argument turns out to be different from what I thought I was starting with, then I have to rewrite the opening. The argument needs to show up in the first, or at the latest, in the second paragraph.

My personal technique is to then write an outline of the draft. I know it is recommended you start with an outline, but that usually doesn’t help me. I make an outline of what is already there, and it quickly becomes evident where the evidence does not back up the claim I made in the opening paragraph. Usually I find a lot of extraneous material— nice paragraphs, nice thinking—but they don’t support the argument. They have to go. If there are two arguments, which often happens, again, for a journal article, one of them has to go.

Something with the unwieldy name of Science Writing Heuristic has helped me immensely with writing conclusions for scholarly essays. You can find it on my education blog here. (If you’re not a science educator it might not make much sense. I used to use the framework with both middle school students and teacher candidates.) What I took from this approach is that my conclusion needs to explicitly state how the evidence supports the argument, in some detail, perhaps a paragraph or two.

Happy writing!