What is a literature review? Imaginings and re-imaginings (James Burford)

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

A desk that has become overgrown with piles of paper.

Puzzle pieces, some of which are currently blank.
Idea bubbles that are linking and sometimes looping back.

This week I have been coordinating workshops that encourage researchers to think about writing literature reviews.

Somewhere in the middle of each workshop I have asked participating researchers to pause and reflect on a question or two: “What does a literature review look like for you? What comes to mind when you think about it?” The sentences you see above are just some of the many images that researchers conjured at these workshops. On the back of these descriptions, I want to use this blog post to think about how we might imagine literature reviews, and the lessons these imaginings might teach us.

A desk that has become overgrown with papers

Let’s start by unpacking the first description: A desk that has become overgrown with piles of paper.

This common description of the literature review alerts us to the fact that research in general, and literatures work in particular, involves a lot of reading. Reviewing other studies is an important aspect of undertaking research. It is a practice that allows us to:

  • develop a warrant for our particular study
  • locate ourselves within the flow of a scholarly conversation
  • acknowledge our intellectual forebears
  • articulate what our contribution to knowledge will be. 

In order to achieve all of these aims, we really need to get stuck in to reading across literatures associated with our study.

Often, when we think about reading, we think only of the act of sitting down to cast our eyes over the page or screen (or listening to our screen reader). But there is a lot of activity that surrounds reading.

In order to read, we have to search for things to read. We may need to develop a particular strategy for searching databases, and set up journal alerts to keep on top of key texts that we should add to our pile. Some of us will allow for more or less serendipity when it comes to finding things to read. For some, a literature search will be a systematic and structured affair with strict criteria for inclusion and exclusion. For others, these decisions might be a little looser. We might find ourselves reviewing papers sent to us by our supervisors, doing backward or forward citation searches (e.g. via Google Scholar), or reading things we accidentally come across while lost in the library shelves. Wherever we sit along this continuum, we need to make judgements about how to go about searching, with an awareness of conventions in our discipline and the particular needs of our own knowledge project. We might make time to talk to a librarian, or enrol in a library course to figure out how we want to go about this.

The image of the desk that has become overgrown with piles of paper also reminds us that we probably want to develop systems to manage the literature we have located. How are we going to save the things we’ve found so that we don’t lose them? How do we store references to ensure that we can accurately attribute the information we are collecting? And how will we know how to retrieve particular things if we go looking for them?

In our workshop, researchers shared the different systems that they use to store their literatures. Some people prefer to work with paper copies of journal articles that they can annotate and scribble over. These paper copies may be stored in categorised boxes or folders. Others use an Excel table and arrange their literature by themes and categories. Some researchers in our workshop have piles of paper that they don’t know what to do with. Many researchers are thinking about and also re-thinking their current system of managing information.

One of the things I always do is to encourage researchers to talk to each other not only about the ‘what’ of the literature review, but also the ‘how’. I encourage researchers to talk to their supervisors, too. It can be really interesting to ask our mentors about what happens behind the scenes with their own literature synthesising practice. How do they store notes? How have they arranged literature reviews in the past? What successful models have they seen or examined? When do they draw the line and say ‘enough is enough’? Getting curious about the ‘how’ of literature reviews is often a good first step to figuring out what to do next.

Puzzle pieces, some of which are currently blank

The second description Puzzle pieces, some of which are currently blank might remind us of a couple of things. First, reviewing the literature often involves a lot of doubt. As we encounter the literatures (yes – plural!) associated with our topic, we often don’t know what we will find until we find it! This is one of the joys of research, as well as one of its biggest frustrations. As researchers, we  need to be open to the possibility that the things we find as we survey our field may change the way we think about the field itself. Often researchers wonder if they are doing something wrong when working with literatures results in changes to their topic, research questions, or scope. They wonder if they are unique in finding that their topic is shifty and that unanticipated papers disrupt their smooth and orderly plan. Often an audible sigh ripples across the room when other researchers talk of tentative starts, false starts and restarts.

A second thing that this puzzle description might teach us is that working with literatures is an active thing that researchers do. The puzzle pieces won’t arrange themselves, and they probably won't fall onto the page in the order that we need. Synthesising what’s out there in our literatures, and what it means for our study, involves making judgements about what’s in and what’s out. It involves deciding where the research needs to be situated and why. The puzzle cannot assemble itself. The researcher needs to work with all the pieces and find a way to bring some of them together, often in a context where some pieces remain blank.

However, unlike a puzzle, a literature review doesn’t necessarily have a ‘correct order’, or even a full set of pieces. There are so many ways in which the puzzle might be assembled, and the researcher can choose which pieces to use or not. It is up to the researcher to figure out which way of presenting the pieces works for their project. Often, making decisions about how to assemble our own work will involve lots of time looking puzzled! We might spend lots of time thinking, making outlines, moving things around, drafting and re-drafting, and looking at other texts for inspiration.

Bubbles of ideas that are flowing, linking, and looping back

Another thing we talk about in our workshop is the fact that there are many ways of thinking about reviewing literatures. For some of us, this is likely to be a stand-alone chapter in our thesis. For others, engagements with the literature might be spread across several chapters/publications. We need to make careful decisions based on how we relate to conventions in our discipline and the needs of the project at hand. However, when we arrange literature in our research there are certain things that tend to happen.

One of these is that there needs to be some situating of how various positions in the literature sit in relation to each other, and how our own project sits in relation to these positions (these might be called the ‘bubbles of ideas’). In our literature review, we are never merely an observer to these discussions. Rather than a witness, we are an active participant who is doing the ‘linking’ that is described above. The literatures we read often won’t come pre-linked, they might not seem to ‘flow’, and may instead seem scattered and disconnected. The linking that occurs is the intellectual work that we do to make sense of them.

Another thing to note is that literature reviewing is usually a circular kind of practice. It is unusual that we would deeply engage with literature once and then just leave it at that. Instead, sustained and rigorous engagement with the literature is something that occurs throughout a research project. It often involves drafting and re-drafting. As new papers are published, they might alter the flow of the conversation or allow us to see the debates in a new light. As such, we might return to sections we have previously drafted in order to update them. Rather than a ‘stage’ to pass through, deep engagement with the literature might be an ongoing part of our research journey.

There are lots of useful posts out there on reviewing literature. If you are keen to know more, take a look at this collection of posts by Patter and this collection by The Thesis Whisperer.

How about you? What do you see when you imagine the literature review? And what might that idea teach you about what it means to be reviewing literature itself?