I can’t find anything written on my topic… really?

Sometimes people tell me that they can’t find any literature that is relevant to their research. They are doing something that nobody else has researched and written about and so there isn’t anything to read. What, they ask, can they do for their literature chapter.

A lack of literature is very rarely a real problem. The real problem is that the researcher with the nothing-written-on-my-topic question has drawn the boundary around their topic too tightly. They haven’t thought about the kinds of literatures that might be relevant, even if they are not written on exactly the same question.

Let me give an example. Say a researcher is doing a project on the use of whiteboards in science lectures. OK, I don’t know why, but let’s go with this for argument’s sake. Its just a hypothetical. The researcher has searched and searched through the literatures and they can only find one paper written on the use of whiteboards in science. Hooray, they say, I’ve found a gap. My research is needed. But there is nothing written on it. That’s a problem. What will go in my literature chapter?

Well, no. That’s not the case. Of course there’s something in print.  Even if it’s not directly on the exact same topic, it’s related. Let’s think of some of the other literatures that might be connected and relevant to our pretend inquiry. There’s probably research about the use of whiteboards in subject areas other than science. There is some research into the lecture as a form of teaching and learning (I know this to be the case!). And there is certainly material about general teaching and learning in science. So all of these different literatures have a connection with our imaginary topic.

But wait, there’s more. There is an enormous literature about the use of digital technologies in higher education, some of which quite specifically addresses the pedagogical strategies that they do and don’t afford – this is relevant to the way in which whiteboards are used in science lectures. And there’s material about students’ experiences of lectures and their own personal use of digital technologies. And of course all of this related research is framed within a broader scholarly conversation about learning and teaching – and our mythical researcher concerned about whiteboards in science lectures is certainly going to have to establish their work within a general pedagogical conceptual framework – so there’s more reading.

So it’s not that there is no literature for the pretend researcher on their topic, it’s rather that they have to think more broadly about what they might need and use. They have to map the possible areas that are linked to their question and then sort out, by skimming and noting, what’s most relevant and related. They must then bring these selected literatures together in a way that supports the research they are going to do.

The answer to the no literature question is always, always, always – what else is pertinent. The resulting strategy is to widen the boundaries of the search to include related and framing scholarship. Take off the blinkers and look further… There is another answer of course. It’s one that always lurks behind the nothing-written-on-my-topic question. And this answer is a scary one, but its always one worth asking. Nothing in your area? Maybe there is nothing specifically written on the topic because it just isn’t that interesting. The topic is too narrow and specialised, and studying it isn’t that important. There’s a good reason no-one has looked at the use of whiteboards in science lectures in any great depth… Asking why no-one has been here before is a scary proposition. But it’s one that’s very important to dare to consider if you do happen to find yourself asking the nothing-written-on-my-topic question.

For more on strategies for doing a review of literatures – see scoping, mapping (here and here) and focusing (here and here).

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in focusing in, literature mapping, literature review, no literatures and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to I can’t find anything written on my topic… really?

  1. Hello, I have answered similarly to colleagues saying there is not literature written about my context. How to write a chapter about my context? I had the same issue when I come to write about the context of language and policy in Syria. There are not standard classic books to use and copy when writing my context chapter I made my own, it is even better. I used history, politics, and economy books to map out what influenced education policy and philosophy from the time before independence till after independepceSo I draw the context and compared policies in the Middle East and in Assia regarding language, policy and identity.

    And when it comes to defining one’s methodological (philosophical positions), some students feel insecure due to their lack of knowledge of the Western thinking development. Why worry? Even better, try to draw on your own philosophy using your own history in China and other parts of the world – decolonize yourself and take the best from both worlds.

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  2. Also–if there is absolutely nothing on your topic, it’s not a good topic for a thesis or article. Your thesis demonstrates your ability to contribute original work to an existing scholarly conversation. Radically new work is better saved for a scholarly monograph.
    I extended the scope of my PhD by 5 years to include the extensively researched 1930s and later 1950s, to frame my work on the mostly neglected 1940s in English poetry.

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  3. Interesting. When I started, my topic was a candidate for the “no literature” complaint. I had to look at theories that might apply and write it as a test case of existing theories. I also had to face the “why?” topic. I disagree that the answer is necessarily “because it’s a bad area”. In newer disciplines, it could be more related to funding priorities, existing ideologies or even fashion. The important thing is still to find which conversations it relates to and then make the argument that this new case (or set of cases) has something important to add.

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  4. I remember feeling perplexed at the apparent lack of literatures when I started out on my project, which is located primarily in a social work context. After some fruitless weeks of searching social work and sociology databases, I happened upon an article in a nursing journal, and – ta da!!! – it was like opening the jammed door to a dragon’s treasure trove. The gold spilled out and now I’m busy trying to contain it all and regain my focus. Sometimes broadening your search is not only about looking for a wider set of related concepts, but searching more widely in general. The existing work in other disciplines, and in particular their epistemologies, led me to an exciting (well, I think it is) space for my own work. It just took some time and patience, and a willingness to think beyond my own discplinary assumptions.

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  5. Pingback: Unintentional Plagiarism - A Story

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