not all literature ‘reviews’ are the same

I was trying to explain to a doctoral researcher the other day that the literature work that you do at the beginning of the doctorate is not the same as the literature work for the actual, final thesis that is handed up. I was doing a Not Very Good Job of this explanation when I remembered the book Doing your literature review. Traditional and systematic techniques, by Jesson, Matheson and Lacey (Sage 2011).

Jesson and her colleagues suggest that there are two basic types of literature review – they use the term review so I will too – the traditional and the systematic. I’ve adapted what they have to say in the following account and the argument I’m making is mine, not theirs. It’s the point I was trying unsuccessfully to make with the doctoral researcher.

The systematic review is what is also sometimes called an evidence-based review. It applies measures of the ’quality’ of research as a way of filtering and evaluating what texts are included and excluded. According to Jesson, Matheson and Lacey, the systematic review’s hierarchy of research usually has randomized controlled trials and meta-analysis at the top, followed by other quantitative studies such as cohort studies and surveys. Then follows various forms of qualitative research; these are generally, but not always, omitted from systematic reviews. The decision about what comes on top of the quality hierarchy is of course highly contentious, and there are lots of published debates about it. I don’t intend to canvass those here, just to understand this as a type of review.

The traditional review by contrast is usually based on a critical assessment of a personal selection of material and has different purposes. Jesson and colleagues offer five different variants of the traditional review. None of these are completely separate, in fact they overlap quite considerably. Nevertheless, there are some discernable differences in purpose and process.

The five types of traditional literature review are :

(1) a conceptual review. This synthesises and critically assesses literature to see the way in which a particular issue is understood. The conceptual review might also examine how the issue is researched, how those understandings are produced. The purpose of the conceptual review is to produce a greater understanding of the issue.

(2) a state-of the-art review. This examines the most recent contributions to a field or area of study in the light of its history of research. It particularly looks for trends, agreements, and debates. This is the kind of review that editors of journals write at periodic intervals in order to position their journal and its future directions.

(3) an expert review. Rather like the state-of-the-art review, but undertaken by a senior figure in the field and heavily inflected with their own particular interests and contributions. This is the kind of review that presidents of learned societies give to the assembled masses at a conference.

Now the next variation is the one that is undertaken at the start of the doctorate or in a research bid in order to position the new research project:
(4) the scoping review. This review sets out to create an agenda for future research. It documents what is already known about a topic, and then focuses on the gaps, niches, disputes, blank and blind spots. It delineates key concepts, questions and theories in order to refine the research question(s) and justify an approach to be taken.

The final variation is the literature review as it appears in the final humanities/social science thesis or in a journal article or book, after the research has been completed.
(5) the traditional review. This is somewhat like a scoping review, but its argument is not to create the space for a research project. It is to position a piece of research that has already been undertaken. In essence the reader gets what’s-already-known, plus the newly conducted piece – this research as the contribution. The literature is used to locate the contribution, the what-we-now-know-that-we-didn’t-before-and-why-this-is-important. Some texts and themes that were in the initial scoping review are omitted, and other things are now emphasized in order to make clear the connections and continuities, similarities and differences of the new research to what’s gone before.

So, (4) scoping and (5) traditional just don’t do the same job. They are different in purposes. One justifies the research to be done, the other locates the contribution in the field of completed research.

The obvious implication of this difference is that you can’t just dump the literature work you did for the proposal in the thesis text. You have to do more work on the literature when you are writing the thesis. It has to be modified in some way from what you did at the outset. Not just because you’ve read more since you started, but because the argument is somewhat different.

Well you can, and some do, just cut and paste the proposal literatures into the final dissertation text – and there’s nothing wrong with using the proposal as a kind of ‘holding text’ while you’re working on the results. However, there are consequences for not changing it before submission. The lack of awareness of the difference between beginning=scoping and end=traditional literature work is often why examiners ask people to write more/write again.

And we don’t want that – neither doctoral researcher, nor their supervisor!

Jill K Jesson with Lydia Matheson and Fiona M Lacey (2011) Doing your literature review. Traditional and systematic techniques. Los Angeles: Sage (pp 76, 117)

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in literature mapping, literature review, literature themes, systematic review, traditional review and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to not all literature ‘reviews’ are the same

  1. This is an excellent post for student researchers and their supervisors. I have always struggled with helping students to write a proper literature review. This helps.


  2. Thank you!
    I think I’m a #4,


  3. the seeker says:

    Reblogged this on Lectio Divina, or daily seeings.


  4. Nolu says:

    This a good food for thought at all stages of engaging with literature review in my struggle for PhD proposal writing for some time now. Tough time.


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