literature reviews – beware The List

One of the most common problems in thesis literature reviews is The List. This is when the doctoral researcher produces a chapter which is basically just a summary of various texts.

The reader gets “So and so said this… so and so said this.. so and so said this… “ Or “One definition of the topic is x. Another is y. A further option is z….” or “There are many approaches to topic. Here they are….a b c d…. “ There are page and pages organised under headings, but it is basically a set of summaries. Indeed, you can put a bullet point next to each new text as it’s introduced, start it on a new line, and reveal the basic list structure.

What’s wrong with The List?

Well, first of all it’s pretty tedious to read. Thinks about what gets made into lists – laundry, shopping, things to do. Hardly the most riveting reads. And, presenting a reader with something that is destined to bore them to tears is not a good idea.

But the other more important problem is that The List shows that the reader doesn’t know which of these literatures is more important than the others. Each item on the list appears to be pretty much the same. The writer hasn’t indicated which is the most relevant to the specific research they are doing, what they think about them or how they relate to each other. So the reader hasn’t got a clue where the writer actually stands in relation to any of the literatures being presented.

But, when the reader is the thesis examiner they may well conclude from a literature review as The List that:
(1) it’s possible the writer hasn’t sorted out the relevant and irrelevant material they’ve read and has simply put down everything
(2) it’s possible that the writer doesn’t know how to be critical because there is no evidence in the text that they have done any evaluation, they have simply summarized a lot of texts
(3) it’s possible that this is a random selection of texts rather than a systematic survey of the field, and
(4) it’s possible that if the writer lacks the critical capacity to sort the literatures, then they may well have the same uncritical approach to their data.

Who needs their examiner to think this?

Now the problem with The List is often not any of the above. It is actually because the writer has written their literature chapter far too soon.

Summarising and making lists IS part of literature work. It’s just not the final part. It’s a stage you have to go through in order to produce the kind of literature review that’s actually needed and expected.

A good literature review is one where the writer steps back to consider the field or fields as a whole. They are then able to discuss the development of the field, foundational and key texts and debates as well as indicate the literatures which provide the basis for their work. They are able to discuss the relative merits of this work and show where their contribution will be located.

You can only do this if you’ve done the summaries.

But that’s not all that needs doing. Stop at this point and sort the pieces into groups – and all you have is The List.

Stop at this point and present The List and chances are you may well be asked to rewrite. At the very least the examiner-reader will have made some negative judgments about what comes next.

And that’s just not good enough.

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 reviews, summarising, The List and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to literature reviews – beware The List

  1. Pingback: Literature reviews | #hullbiotips

  2. I am having some problem with the LR . I cannot find latest editions within my field of research. My Supervisors Committee has advised me to make use of the most latest resources/articles/books etc. available within the subject area to develop/write my thesis.
    But I cannot find any.
    I Need your advise please.


    • pat thomson says:

      You do need to ask your supervisors for a lead here on some of the key new texts, also ask them about they search terms. Your library rain also can help if you something more specific to tell them.


      • Hi,
        I am doing a Distance Learning PhD. so my supervisor is miles away! But yes I can subtly and very politely raise/share some of the points you mentioned with him.
        By the way you are my “unofficial supervisor”, because I always follow your blog to seek academic writing knowledge and guidance.
        The University’s virtual e- library is useless. So I cant reply on it.
        Well I guess my thesis will be a leap into the darkness and than I have to find my way out of the tunnel inch by inch? All done happily in pursuit of knowledge.
        Will keep you and other members posted as my thesis evolves.
        Thanks a lot again for posting your replies.

        Much appreciated.


  3. Rosie says:

    This is really really helpful


  4. Jane S says:

    Pat, you have become a ‘must-read’ here! It’s a huge leap up from taught degrees to research, but neophytes might need confirmation that ‘laundry lists’ should be avoided in ALL spheres of writing.
    Your advice and comments are far more enlightening than the average PhD handbooks (none of them of much use.) I’d already figured out the LR should come way down the line, esp. as regards sorting wheat from chaff.
    Reading around the field, my evaluation of texts and sources is gradually separating itself into those which *genuinely* inform my thesis, those which are acknowledged authorities (even if they don’t directly support my theory, it’s necessary to have read them) and will make it into the LR, and those which def. won’t because they are irrelevant, or even specious.

    @sahriskmanager, the advice you’ve received is vague and generic. It’s lobbed the onus of responsibility back onto you. I suspect many of us waste time floundering in the first year, trying to get a grip on an amorphous topic. However, you don’t indicate whether your field is arts or science. IMO there’s pos. more emphasis on ‘latest’ etc. in the scientific?
    Bibliographies of relevant publications are good sources of info., ditto keyword searches, university catalogues, JSTOR and so forth.


    • Yes thank you for your advise. I have noted everything down.
      My area of Research is “Islamic Capital Markets” with a focus on “Financial Risk Models/Methodologies”. So the problem is that not a great deal of research is available within this field in context of local financial markets. Hence the subject as the field suggest,can be classified as a brittle “Science” because it focuses on Actuarial Finance and Econometrics Techniques to explain data trends and co-movements between risk factors..
      Yes I use “JSTOR” and few related websites to mark and cite previous author works in my field of research. But not much available over there. Therefore I Collected a few outdated scholarly articles written way back in time.
      The other problem is that I am doing a Distance Learning PhD. Hence supervisor interaction is very very limited and only form of interaction of some kind takes place via email exchanges. Also the university’s virtual library contains no articles or other e-material which can help me write my thesis. So I have to rely on extraneous resources and sources to mark and collect relevant research material for citation and development of my PhD. thesis. .
      Anyways I appreciate your feedback.
      Have a good day!


      • HallaH says:

        @sahriskmanager I am sure doing a distance PhD must be frustrating at times. I do some distance PhD supervision, but I do get to meet them on and off so this is a better solution. I agree with @Jane S that it sounds like the responsibility is lobbed back onto you. Not sure if you are aware but there is a good text from 2013 (somewhat recent) that you might look at (you might of course already know about it). Islamic Capital Markets: A Comparative Approach from Wiley publishers (see more info. Looking more at the work of the two authors might be a start. Good luck!


  5. tjhunt says:

    Another way to look at it is that a good literature review should be at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy. It should be synthesis and evaluation. The list falls short of that.


  6. Pingback: literature reviews – beware The List | Ar...

  7. Martin says:

    This is a great post.

    With regard to papers and journal articles, I also observed another reason for bad literature reviews: people have great ideas, go ahead and investigate them, get interesting results, being to write it up, and THEN start looking for related work.

    Then, it may often turn out that most of the things they have been done before. A list helps very well to hide this fact.

    Your post helps to remember that a thorough literature review should come second, right after having the first ideas.


  8. Kate Thomas says:

    A timely reminder, thanks Pat. This post makes a good companion to Explorations of Style’s Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines posting.


  9. Pingback: literature reviews – beware The List | Rhonda Wilson MHN

  10. great advice…. I pressed it to my blog… I hope that is OK – it is the first thing I have pressed – so I am still learning the rules for blogging….. thanks! Rhonda (near completion PhD!)


  11. This is a very useful post. Thank you. I was taught that the literature review remains a work in progress from beginning to end. It is similar to a process diary which tracks our growing knowledge of the field and resonates with our own ideas and data.


  12. Kate Maxwell says:

    Doing my PhD I kept to bibliographies – one of which was annotated. The annotated one contained a paragraph on each thing I’d read, raw thoughts (sometimes effusive, sometimes, ahem, more derogatory) on everything I’d read. Everything. When the time came for the literature review, I put what I needed to into proper academic language. As there was so much to read, I was very happy I’d kept all those annotations. Made entertaining re-reading too, seeing what I’d thought first time around and how far I’d come (i.e. how wrong I’d often been).


  13. Pingback: Diigo links 09/24/2013 | DrAlb

  14. Pingback: Some thoughts on a literature review in progress | How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)

  15. Pingback: learning to supervise: some personal turning points | patter

  16. Pingback: patter’s 2013 top ten | patter

  17. Pingback: how long will my viva be? | patter

  18. Dear Pat,
    Many thanks as usual for your very useful suggestions.
    Please a quick question if you don’t mind. My doctoral research explores the relationship between organizational routines and employee creativity. The literature is divided between scholars who see routines as fixed entities and thus, argue that routines impede creativity and others who view routines as generative systems and hence are able to facilitate change including creativity. Though I largely agree with the latter group, I am not sure if it is appropriate to indicate that in my literature review(proposal stage) because my study is expected to be an exploratory one and I think that means that I am yet to find out how routines actually affect creativity. How do I prevent the literature from being a ‘list’ without stating directly what position I undertake right from the onset since this is still the proposal stage?

    Thanks again.


    • pat thomson says:

      Hi Gloria, sorry. Just found this. Probably too late now. I’d indicate the divide just as you have in the comment above. You don’t need to take a side at this stage, although you could,indicate that your work is positioned with one group and draws on those authors.


  19. Pingback: Writing up a PhD – The final straight? | The Digital Doctorate

  20. Pingback: literature know-how – beware too much naming, not enough framing | patter

  21. Pingback: working with literatures #phdknowhow | patter

  22. Pingback: Organising and searching the literatures | The Digital Doctorate

  23. Pingback: Slow down you move too fast – Literature reviews | annie's blogette

  24. Pingback: Writing literature reviews | Dissertation in Youth Work

  25. Pingback: welcome to the archive of lost literatures papers | patter

Leave a Reply to Unenlightened Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s