By Cally Guerin
We’ve written about literature reviews before: see, for example, Trust yourself, Demonstrating criticality, and Writing while still uncertain. But there is always something more to say about these sections of the thesis that are so challenging for most doctoral writers. I was reminded again recently of just how big a source of anxiety this can be for novice researchers who feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they feel required to absorb. In the following, I debunk some of the main misconceptions that seem to hobble doctoral writers; in the process, I hope to offer reassurance that the task is more manageable than it can feel at times.
It is necessary to read absolutely everything that has been written on the topic: NO!
One of the biggest challenges seems to be the notion that the literature review needs to be an exhaustive summary of everything that has ever been written on the topic under investigation. This leads to enormous stress for many authors – how can they be sure that their literature searches have comprehensively turned up every single piece of writing on the topic? What if they’ve missed something crucial that could undermine the main argument of their thesis?
As knowledge continues to expand, including all the new material generated by the numerous doctoral scholars around the world, it is simply impossible to cover every tiny thing. Remember, too, that the space allowed for the literature review is not endless: most universities will have a word limit on the final thesis. Rather, the task is to demonstrate a good grasp of the field, to understand the most important studies and writings that have shaped the development of the field, and to describe the most recent contributions to the discussion thereby delineating the current state of knowledge in the field.
Everything that has been read must go into the literature review: NO!
The literature review is not a record of every single thing the writer has read that is vaguely related to the project. Instead, this is an important moment to display critical thinking: what gets left out of the literature review can be just as important as what gets left in. Being capable of working out what is relevant to the project is one way of demonstrating that the author understands how aspects of knowledge in the field fit together and how the new project will advance that knowledge.
One of the most important aspects to note when doing the reading is how this book or article links to all the other pieces of literature explored as the preliminary background for the project, and then how it links to the new project. The literature review is there to demonstrate that the project is relevant to the broader field of enquiry. Staying focused on the project as the outcome of the review helps make decisions about what to include and what to delete.
Every piece of writing must be read in full and thoroughly understood: NO!
Learning to distinguish between what is key to the project and what is background knowledge is another part of the critical thinking puzzle. It can feel at times that every text must be read in detail, carefully noted and learned (almost memorised!). But again, there is a vast amount of material to work through, and strategic decisions must be made about where to spend time and energy. I particularly like the filming metaphor used by Rudestam and Newton (2001) to explain how to approach this aspect of the literature review. They encourage doctoral writers to consider whether the item requires a long shot, a medium shot or a close up.
- Long shots are used for background information and context setting. The reading might be a relevant book or an early study in the field. The doctoral writer needs to show they know about it, but the details are not crucial for this particular project. Very often, it is sufficient to read the introduction and conclusion of these items (and the table of contents if it is a book) as a first pass; the doctoral writer can always return later to glean more details if it becomes clear that this is more important to the project than initially recognised.
- Medium shots require more detail as they move closer in to the specific focus of the study. Summarising notes that go further than the accompanying abstract will be necessary, but probably a quick read of introduction, headings and subheadings, and topic sentences will suffice.
- Close ups are where the fine details start to matter much more. These are the articles and theories that are central to the project, and yes, they do need to be read carefully, probably more than once, to ensure very clear and accurate understanding of their contribution. These are the key texts for the project and provide the core of the literature review.
Recognising which category each piece fits into can then indicate the appropriate reading strategy – and save an enormous amount of time and energy. It is always possible to re-read any text if it does become necessary as the research develops. But it is not an effective strategy to expend valuable time and energy ploughing through great volumes of material, taking copious notes and committing them to memory, when the texts may have only marginal relevance to the study.
Masses of reading means it will be an excellent literature review: NO!
To continue reading and making notes and trying to patch another citation into the literature review can feel like the scholar is diligent and focused. But if that reading doesn’t actually advance the project, it’s really not getting on with the job at all. What is really happening is a very effective form of procrastination that allows the writer to feel that they are working hard, but in reality disguises the fact that they are avoiding getting on with the next stage of actually doing the research. This kind of ‘busy work’ should be discouraged as a focal point day in, day out. Putting strict timelines on the project and allotting set periods for reading can help limit such behaviour; planning how many texts are to be read each day or week, and how much time is allowed for each text, can restrict this distraction. Yes, it is important to keep up to date with the relevant literature, but not at the expense of advancing the research itself.
What is the real purpose of the Literature Review?
So, to go back to basics, it is important to consider the key reasons to write a literature review in the first place. I see the most important purposes of this section of the thesis being:
- to demonstrate that the scholar knows the field;
- to show where the new project sits in relation to what is already known about the topic;
- to demonstrate where the gap in knowledge lies that allows this doctoral project to contribute original knowledge to the field;
- to join the conversation in the field; and
- to show that the scholar understands the boundaries of a three-year doctoral research project.
By keeping these points in mind, the task of writing a literature review can be at least a little bit less daunting! Are there other misconceptions you think we should warn doctoral writers about? I’d love to hear more from our readers.