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The Problem with Literature Reviews

As any student knows, a literature review is the starting point for almost any article or essay. When at the level of writing a thesis or dissertation, a review of literature is critical. However, I have issues with reviews.

A few weeks ago, while digging through a whack of literature on sensemaking, the repetitiveness or the process started to irritate me. Almost every paper started with a literature review and then moved into the author’s ideas/research. In one stretch of six papers, I could have exchanged the first five pages of any of the papers and likely not impacted the quality of any. I was reading 7000 words when I really only needed the 2000 or 3000 that provided new information.

A literature review is a context forming activity. It lets the reader know that the author has spent at least some time trying to situate her research in an existing body of research. Context is important when you’re building on the intellectual work of other researchers.

But.

Literature reviews ensure that new ideas follow an existing stream of thought and work. Much like Kuhn’s “normal science” progresses through small iterative changes within the larger bounded structure (paradigm) of previous thinkers, literature reviews ensures that most authors will not significantly break from the intellectual heritage of a discipline. Put another way, a literature review is a controlling, heritage-preserving system. The system works well in the space of normal science – where the research areas are defined and we’re attempting to eke out small improvements.

As pace of change increases, the heritage-preserving aspect of literature reviews becomes a liability. Of necessity, a review is a backward-facing, historical-contextualizing activity. What happens when the very thing we are trying to change (i.e. the higher education system) serves as the foundation for enacting change? Obviously, we don’t get very far as the pull of the past and existing mindsets is instantiated in any attempt at a new vision.

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.

19 Comments

  1. Thanks for this challenge to the traditional ways of thinking. Last summer I completed my M.Ed. and clearly remember feeling (way too many times) like I was forced to follow a pre-ordained recipe. So much of what happened in my classes seemed to focus on what the ‘prof’ or university wanted – something I would never want my own students to feel in my own teaching practice. To often, this type of thinking causes students to avoid anything new, controversial, or (god forbid) not documented by several gigs of information.
    I should mention I teach Media Production, Creative Writing, and Drama and I am aware I have a lot more perceived flexibility than many of my colleagues teaching traditional core subjects. Still, my students must defend their decisions and consider the processes they used to form them.
    I would hope educators can look beyond existing structures to the what ifs? or why nots? or even, who knows?
    Maybe we’ll all discover something new and exciting…

    Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  2. Patricia Fidalgo wrote:

    Feeling the same George. Feeling the same.

    Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  3. Gregory Russell wrote:

    As a Ph.d. student, I agree with many of your ideas about the problems of literature reviews, but as a first-year Ph.d. student, I find that these reviews affectively summarize earlier research completed on unfamiliar fields. That said, I suppose one’s expertise the subject is inversely related to one’s desire for a detailed literature review.

    Maybe reading literature reviews become less important to experts who then change their reading habits. Maybe reading literature reviews becomes more important to experts who use them as barriers to entry. Like any tool, I suppose it comes down to who’s using it and why?

    On a related note, writing a literature review on of choice topic is a fantastic assignment for a novice researcher, especially if given the opportunity to think about future research, concerns, and possibilities. Like you wrote, George, “Sometimes, we need to get passionate about a new idea or dream of a new creation.”

    Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  4. Howard wrote:

    The dissertation is both a form of examination and a highly individualized model; a model that persists into subsequent research practice. If research could be re-thought as a collaborative community conversation that really focused on advancing social practices rather than building an individual’s vita; things might look much different. I think we are still waiting for someone to build a conversation platform that can support community wide collaborative research.

    Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 8:39 pm | Permalink
  5. David Jones wrote:

    But are there truly new ideas? Aren’t most ides, even radically new ones, informed by some insights from some previous work. Perhaps not from within the existing paradigm, but from other paradigms/perspectives. If I had some radical idea, wouldn’t it be informed by other insights that would form part of a lit review?

    I wonder if it being more common to find a literature review that aims to show

    that new ideas follow an existing stream of thought and work

    as more to do with broader pressures that encourage a focus on research that results in “small iterative changes”.

    It’s these broader pressures that I’m more worried about. Especially in Oz, the seem to be reinforcing the pragmatic rationale for small wins research.

    Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Permalink
  6. Keith Lyons wrote:

    George

    When I wrote my PhD in 1989 I decided to have a literature re-view. I told my story and then had a look at some of the ideas that influenced me. It seemed appropriate in a confessional tale to approach it this way round.

    Best wishes

    Keith

    Monday, May 2, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  7. Brent Muirhead wrote:

    Perhaps, the real problem is the lack of creative and reflective literature reviews. One of my doctoral students created a mind map of her entire literature. It was an excellent way to communicate ideas to others.

    Promoting original thinking requires developing cognitive skills, subject knowledge expertise, independent thinking and having a supportive environment for novel ideas. Those who write a literature review five or ten years after their doctoral dissertation could write a more refined product if they have continued to study and read in their field. Our colleges and universities need to encourage and foster creativity in their teachers and students. Teachers should support and model original thinking and allow students to take intellectual risks.
    Brent

    “If the next generation is to face the future with zest and self-confidence, we must educate them to be original as well as competent” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

    Monday, May 2, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  8. I agree. If we consider that once doing a PhD meant you could actually read everything in a particular field the literature review was a necessary part of the process. In the digital world with the proliferation of information and the increasing sophistication of search engines what should be valued most highly is the student’s evaluation and analysis of the quality of the current thinking in the field and the identification of where new knowledge should be created.

    Monday, May 2, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  9. Seth wrote:

    I alternate between sympathizing and disagreeing. On the one hand, I can see some articles bogged down in their literature review. Construction of literature reviews is also very time-intensive.

    On the other hand, the education field is swamped with redundant, unnecessary or vague terminology making the context-building not only helpful, but absolutely necessary. Depending on the sub-field the literature review communication is necessary just to establish a common language.

    Additionally, I think there is merit in seeing a person’s line of argumentation fully developed, including the premises that they take in. Having an author identify what they consider foundational to their argument can save time for readers and the author, who does not have to address those kinds of concerns after publication.

    Lastly, I think that there are plenty of opportunities to do blank canvas kind of writing. Self-publishing, whether it is on blogs or other platforms, is growing. Of course, getting the credibility that comes with a peer-reviewed journal is another matter.

    Monday, May 2, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  10. Roy Williams wrote:

    I have just examined a PhD (in Design) in which the candidate integrated her lit. review in the chapters – made a lot more sense. This might be a slight alternative, although not all examiners will even accept this.

    Two issues remain though.

    1. Positioning your research for the reader. It has been pointed out that its useful for the reader to see the ‘provinence’ or ‘genealogy’ of the argument – where it is ‘coming from’, although granted you dont need a 20-30 page lit. review to do that.

    2. More crucially, all we have is words, and we sometimes need to use them in very specific ways, to make very specific points. If we are to be creative, we either have to re-define existing terms (and then it is useful to differentiate your use from the use of other writers) or we have to coin new terms (e.g. Gibson’s “affordances”), in which case, again, its useful to differentiate this term from other terms – in other words, to say what it does NOT mean (e.g. ‘use’ v. ‘affordances’).

    Simply put, new creative insights re-arrange, or creatively add to, the existing ecology of words and meanings. Its useful to find a way to ‘map out’ your contribution, or re-arrangement to the concept ‘maps’ (graphic or textual) that are out ther.

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 2:55 am | Permalink
  11. ailsa wrote:

    I found my lit review tedious. As a synopsis of what had been and where it might go, it was perfunctory.
    And then i rewrote it.

    I performed it as an exercise in actor-networking, the theory i am using, to show how ideas are held or abandoned in similar ways to points of tension in a net. And to consider also how such ideas position people within organisations as this or that, abling and disabling.
    Not until then did my lit review serve what I considered a useful purpose beyond the fact that I have research skills and can find holes, make them bigger, tearing away at things, and can fill them.

    I now have a lit review that places a few more questions into the pool rather than making room for less. A lit review as provocation to further thoughtfulness.

    A contribution to the discussion.
    A starting point for fires, or as the following suggests with eloquence:

    “I cant help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life: it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind,, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgements but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes- all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightening of possible storms.”
    Foucault 1994, p. 326

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink
  12. gsiemens wrote:

    @Gregory – I don’t deny the value of literature reviews as helping learners make sense of what has gone before in a knowledge space. Many innovations are assemblies of previous work (see W. Brian Arthur or Will Rosen’s recent texts for greater analysis of innovation as assemblies). My argument is that if you want to create something new, the lit review method bounds thinking. Which is exactly what it’s supposed to do. But creativity requires limited boundaries. This isn’t to say that reviews are not important. Just that, as with everything else, context and need should drive the selection of the most suitable method (lit review or random free creative exploration).

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  13. gsiemens wrote:

    @Howard – I haven’t thought much about community-wide collaboration wrt research – though I believe it falls under the science 2.0 umbrella. I’m content to have a learner struggle with his/her thesis/dissertation. I subscribe to the notion of “connected specialization” rather than “collaborative creation”. We need community spaces to gather and exchange our expertise – but even open source software projects requires that contributions are connected, rather than truly collaborated.

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  14. gsiemens wrote:

    @David – hopefully my comment to Gregory addresses your comments somewhat: I agree that innovation is often about new/novel models of connectedness, not an entirely new creation from ground up.

    Perhaps a simple illustration:
    I’ve spent the last 7 or 8 years following discussions on “fixing higher education”. I’ve encountered very few new ideas. Most relate to improving economics of education, pay of faculty, new courses, etc. Put another way, most try to work in the education system rather than on the education system. Even when U of California (Berkeley) try to move content online, I hardly see that as new. The language is still dominated by “courses” “faculty” “economics”. Can people within a system like higher education produce something dramatically new if they continue to use the language and concepts that serve to maintain status quo?

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  15. gsiemens wrote:

    @Brent – good points re: competence/originality. I think it’s important that students know the literature that defines their field. I’m certainly not arguing that lit reviews are irrelevant. As part of their degree work, I would like to see students spend more time *not citing* literature and more time in creating new ideas/concepts.

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  16. gsiemens wrote:

    @Sue – great statement “the identification of where new knowledge should be created”! Knowing where knowledge can be created does require awareness of the knowledge landscape. But creating that new knowledge requires creativity (often in methodology)

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  17. gsiemens wrote:

    @Seth – I agree their are plenty of opportunities for “canvas writing” – especially with social media. Having that writing recognized by educators is, as you note, a key concern. Most students have enough work to do that they won’t take on tasks that aren’t required for grades. If something is important – i.e. creativity – it will need to be embedded into the teaching/learning process. Fields don’t develop by looking backwards. Past research is helpful for providing context (again, as you note) for current research. But that doesn’t address the need for creativity.

    I recall reading (no idea where so this isn’t a good review :) ) that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s father took him out of a particular education program because he felt it would normalize his talents rather than foster creativity. To me, this sums up the challenge between tradition and creativity…

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink
  18. Jimmy wrote:

    I think this is a great rant on lit. reviews. Perhaps because I am engaged in my dissertation and I’m finding little information on my topic, so I completely sympathize with the monotony of this process. I think most of my thoughts have been conveyed in the comments, or you have at least commented back with a similar perspective I would have taken. So the only thing that really comes to mind when you discuss this is that it sounds almost as if what you are talking about here is a radical change. Depending on the paradigmatic perspective you want to take, it seems as though you are wanting to reside in a Radical Structuralist or Radical Humanist paradigm (See Burrell & Morgan, Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis for definition/description). What I mean to say is that to change the status quo, at least in higher education and in my opinion, one needs to revamp many parts of the system to see change. Also I think some may say that to change the system you have to work from within, again that’s one perspective and is probably more incremental. Much of the processes, or the status quo, are so socialized within people that it can be incredibly difficult to change, even if you are cognizant of it. So lit reviews have their place in this, but I totally agree that some reviews are almost exactly the same. The other problem is the other structures that exist forcing the perpetuation of this (tenure for example). So although I am young in this process, I too agree that things must/need to change. Hopefully I can help with that to produce something positive.

    p.s. Wow, didn’t mean to write a whole blog here :)

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  19. Sanjaya wrote:

    Great thoughts in deed for and to list the problems of literature review. But, is not each peice of research supposed to be different and therefore essential to review the ‘related literature’ to find ingights into the problem, the methodologies, and the previous findings?

    Is creativity restricted by review of literautre? I do not think so. It may add to more creative thinking due to a broad understanding of literature. I think, literature review adds to connective learning!

    Is there any alternative to the exiting literture review?

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 6:05 am | Permalink