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Expectations and common problems

Talking openly about expectations is the best policy.

Everyone doing research of any kind is expected to read and critically discuss the previously published research on their topic, but the processes involved in this are not always made explicit. Very often it’s just assumed that researchers know what to do, and that writing about others’ research is a simple, straight forward process. Actually, many research students get into deep trouble when there’s silence around this, because fear and shame set in, preventing them from asking simple, basic and essential questions.

Those of us who teach literature reviewing and talk often and openly about it with researchers across the disciplines encounter quite a range of expectations, experiences and beliefs about the processes of finding information, analysing it and writing about it in an academic style - it all depends on context and experience. When we investigate the experience of research writing, some interesting patterns emerge – not only in what is regarded as normal in different disciplines, but also in the types of problems writers experience when they start doing this kind of writing for the first time.

A key finding in this area of educational research over the past decade or so is that the literature review tends to be experienced as the most difficult part of a research project, especially at PhD level. It has also become clear that as the number and diversity of students engaging in research rises, the need for explicit discussion and instruction in this area has become more important and in demand.

One of the most common problems that readers of literature reviews notice is a tendency to want to display and prove how very much they have read. This may lead to impressively long bibliographies, but that can evidence poor selection and discussion of sources. What supervisors, examiners and general readers prefer to see is careful selection of sources that show you recognise what is most important, and what you think about those publications that you have decided are most relevant and valuable to the particular question you are aiming to answer in your study.

Rather than a simplistic listing of previous research on the topic, what supervisors and critical readers want to see is a carefully considered digest of how the various studies out there might relate to each other and to your new investigation. Readers of any literature review want to be given a clear focus and ‘synthesis’ in the presentation of existing research – they want you to offer something they haven’t had opportunity or energy to do themselves, namely, think seriously about those publications, understand what is brilliant about them, and what they have not paid attention to, and what might yet be known about the topic. So while the job of a literature reviewer begins with broad reading, it quickly moves on into careful selection and critical analysis. It describes what others have done, but it also has to explain what the casual reader might miss. A proper review prioritises and interprets the reading material it presents. It’s intellectually satisfying, for both the writer and readers of the review. Easier said than done!

Another common problem in student writing about published research is a tendency to shy away from serious critique, and to misunderstand what ‘criticism’ means in academic contexts. Being ‘critical’ of the literature is not a matter of finding fault. It is often a matter of finding value in what has been done by others. Being critical means asking questions, and discovering the relevance, value and limitations of previous studies. It’s careful, informed appraisal, aiming to identify what is most useful from past studies for the new study being proposed or presented. It’s a matter of carefully explaining how the work of others informs the new research project’s vision and planning. It’s about proper analysis of previous publications – in terms of their findings and their method of creating and analyzing data, and their theoretical perspective.

Other problems that research supervisors observe in draft research writing have to do with the need to keep up to date with the literature, to move beyond the comfort zone of an already familiar intellectual environment, to understand how various researchers relate to each other, and to design a literature review for the reader. These various concerns inform the rest of this course.

Conversation starter

  • Are you clear or confused about the size and shape of your own literature review?

  • How long do you think your literature review will take you to complete?

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This article is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong