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.

19 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.


  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.


    • Tomy Ncube says:


      By saying “Radically new work is better saved for a scholarly monograph”, I wonder what role junior and upcoming scholars have to play in our time of science and knowledge production.

      Its like saying lets not invent, rather lets keep polishing on the old inventions because there is no need to reinvent the wheel.


  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.


  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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  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m currently trying to wrangle together articles for the literature review that will go into my masters thesis proposal. My thesis topic has no directly related literature. Your article has helped – I will attempt to look at closely related topics.


  7. jlshylla says:

    Hi Pat, thanks for some insights into writing a lit review in the apparent absence of any literature on a research topic. You are absolutely right about the tendency to have the parameters narrowed to such an absurd point that nothing else can fit in. Good point.

    There will always be something relevant to write about if we can have fresh eyes to look at our research approach.


  8. Samuel Taiwo says:

    Awesome. Thank you


  9. Tomy Ncube says:

    I needed to hear/read this.
    I have tried to go beyond my speciality and the existing parameters before, I guess l have been missing the mark somewhere.

    I feel rejuvenated and eager to go back and dig out that bone


  10. Hayley Lawson-Wood says:

    Hi, I am currently working on my doctorate in nursing and I am writing the first part of my systematic review. What is written in this blog is super helpful, but my question is when writing your literature review you have to have a research question, how do you then justify a ‘change’ of question when you cant find relevant research, I absolutely get changing the stance on your question as there will be research out there that is relevant, but is it appropriate to say this is my RQ and this is my literature review question and justify why they are different? Are there any good papers or texts out there that discuss this query? Thanks


  11. Ph. Thianlal says:

    Very resourceful. If there is no previous research how to write previous research part of the research process?


  12. dasjulchenm says:

    I would say this is difficult to defend in some areas.
    What about presenting a point that is based on public press releases, such as 5G deployment commitment by companies? Officially there would be little to no research published on press releases that suddenly appear within a short time frame, which can be the case for technology races. How can there be any research cited if something on the topic is to early to be available? How to go about this? Of course parallels could be drawn to other technology deployment races and their evaluation in research, none would be able to address the current one without citing news. And this ties in to the question, can sources such as press releases be considered viable sources?
    I do agree that there is always something somewhere, but I feel this heavily ties in to “informaiton freshness” and what can be considered a good source.


    • pat thomson says:

      Even thought technological,advances are one of the areas which by definition has less published research, there would surely still be relevant literatures related to the problem framing, theorisation or literatures on adaptions to previous or similar innovations? The point is that what’s relevant is not necessarily on your exact topic.


  13. Anna says:

    What if your not researching for academic papers? I want to know more about a specific thing but can only find one article on it other than the news articles about the article i have read. I want to read research that doesn’t seem to exist. How do you tackle that? I do not have the qualifications to do the research myself but I need to know more about the topic. What does one do then?

    For reference I want to understand more about the presentation and signs of abuse in affluent children. I have read much about presentation of abuse in children but it focuses on poorer disadvantaged children, or states emotional changes that I need to know more about and how that may present differently in private schools and boarding schools. I have found information on emotional neglect in affluent families but I want to know more about signs of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in these affluent families. I want to read research on why teachers in private schools seem to miss/overlook signs of abuse far more than there government school counterparts. I want to find papers on underreporting in these communities or even papers contradicting these presumptions. How do you find information that doesn’t seem to exist.


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