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The central role of questions

Selecting and deciding how to use literature

Literature reviews serve a mix of purposes, and vary across different contexts, but most have a dominant function overall. Like the research publications they discuss, reviews report what other researchers have done. Research reports might involve some complex analysis and interpretation of data, but they tend to avoid interpretations that others might find difficult to share. Still, we can think about a report as answering specific questions (what, how, why?), explaining something, and offering recommendations on how a problem might best be managed.

Literature reviews also argue - they make a case for doing further research. An argument typically presents a series of points, organized into a logical order, and addresses questions that are very open to interpretation (is, does, should?). It leads the reader from a proposition to a conclusion, by substantiating claims with some kind of explanation and believable evidence.

Whether you see your own review as more a report or an argument, it should be designed to clarify the motivation and the need for the further research you’re proposing to do, and to critically discuss the literature rather than just describe what others have done. Drafting a list of good questions will help you identify what you really want to know and discuss, select the most relevant sources, and design your review as an interesting discussion.

It’s easy to find information on any topic – the hard part of the process is deciding which sources are most useful to you, and why. A simple list of specific questions helps you make these decisions, because each publication can then be read in terms of whether or not it gives you the very specific answers you need. However interesting a paper might be to read, you need to put it aside if it doesn’t provide information on the specific questions you want to discuss. The following short list of questions was drafted by one of our Masters level students, during this middle stage of developing their literature review.

  • what is currently known about the causes of brain tumors?

  • what role do enzymes play in the development of cancers?

  • how does polycomb repressive complex 2 normally function in the human body?

  • does anyone know what triggers mutations in the PRC2 gene?

They obviously needed some knowledge of the topic to formulate questions like these, but formulating some specific questions at this stage really accelerated their process of deciding which publications were most worth referring to in discussing the topic. Listing a few questions also sparks desire to know more. You might read that list of questions and immediately start thinking of different things you’d like that person’s review to answer. Formulating questions of various kinds is a great way to start imagining the structure of your review, so start formulating a list of questions for your own review to answer. Your literature review will take shape around the questions you want it to answer, so as you continue to gather sources of information on your own topic, start including specific questions in your notes and annotations. This will help ensure that when you are reading papers, you are thinking about how you will use information for a specific purpose within your review.

Your list of questions should include some that are quite easy to answer with available published information, others that are more open to interpretation and require discussion of various sources. Soon we will look at some more examples and share our progress on the development of useful questions. Meanwhile, the quick quiz coming up next will help you think about the relationship between questions and claims.

Conversation starter

  • How do you know when a sentence is making an arguable claim?

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This article is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong