The Value of Literature Reviews

There’s an interesting discussion on George Siemen’s blog about the problem with literature reviews –

As we have seen from the comments on his blog post, anyone who has had to write a Masters or PhD dissertation recognises the problem. Maybe even some under-graduates come up against it too.

The points made include:

  • A literature review is tedious to produce and read – I don’t think this is a given in all aspects of a literature review. Coming across a good paper can be highly stimulating.
  • For a given topic very similar reviews will turn up in a variety of papers. I would agree with this. I have certainly seen this quote from Etienne Wenger ‘Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly – in many papers and I have used it myself. Some authors simply write in a way that is difficult to improve on 🙂
  • Literature reviews look backwards and don’t bring new ideas to the table – Yes of course – the nature of a review is to look backwards – but the review might lead to new ideas
  • Literature reviews follow existing streams of thought – Yes, that is to be expected – it’s what’s said/written after the review that is important. When I read journal articles I usually read the Abstract and Conclusions first. If I find them interesting I then try and find out whether anyone else is also interested and what else has been said about the topic.
  • A literature review is a controlling, heritage-preserving system. Again – I don’t think this is a given. I think it depends on whether you take a glass half full or glass half empty view of literature reviews. They can be stepping stones to ‘greater things’ 🙂

And George finishes up with this:

Perhaps what we need is periods of writing without literature reviews. Write for the sake of having a new or novel idea. Grad students in particular would benefit from periods of writing for newness. Who cares if someone has had it before? Who cares if it doesn’t line up with existing research? Sometimes, we need to get passionate about a new idea or dream of a new creation. A literature review is a paint-by-numbers scheme that tells us what has been done and gives us a sense of which little areas our research can fill in. In times of change, we need a blank canvas to guide our thinking, not a largely-filled in “normal science” view of the world.

I personally find digging into the literature can be stimulating. However I do find it very time consuming and also that I need to get ‘steeped’ in it to get anything useful out of it. I can’t just dip in and out. I need a concentrated period of uninterrupted time to follow through from literature review to literature review to get a feel for what the general consensus of opinion is, what the evidence base is and from that what do I think of the ideas.

Perhaps it’s not the literature review that is the problem, but how people interpret them and react to them. I personally find that I need to review the literature even if I don’t write about it. How do I know that my idea is ‘new’ or ‘novel’ unless I have had a good look round first? In fact it is usually the case that someone else has always already thought about what initially for me might be a ‘new’ idea. I have my doubts about whether genuine ‘new’ ideas exist.

A literature review prevents me from ‘jumping in with both feet’ and ‘getting egg on my face’ – making claims that can’t be substantiated, offering opinion instead of evidenced ideas. Even with a literature review I still fall into these traps. George has written – Grad students in particular would benefit from periods of writing for newness. Who cares if someone has had it before? – I think this must be a ‘slip’ because obviously we can’t be writing for newness if someone has had the idea before.

So overall I think I am in favour of literature reviews for the learning process – and somehow we need to find ways of sharing and evidencing what we have found with our readers without our writing becoming tedious and boring as a result.

Perhaps what is needed is not to get rid of literature reviews or the process of reviewing the literature, but to explore new ways of presenting the information gathered from literature reviews that would more readily engage and inform readers. I suspect though that it will be difficult to break the traditional patterns of presentation, and I’m not promising to be able to do this myself 🙂

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