writing a publishable literature review paper – four options

After you’ve spent loads of time reading, summarising and synthesising the literatures for your research, it’s hardly surprising that you might wonder whether all of this work can be turned into something publishable. I certainly encounter many doctoral researchers who want to do just this. I was a bit surprised to see that while there is a lot of material around about how to do different kinds of literature reviews – for example this,  this and this – there is actually very little around about how to write a publishable paper afterwards – a paper based solely on ‘the literatures’.

Surely the tome is not all there is...

Surely writing The Tome is not all I can do with all that reading?

I do need to clarify here what I mean by literatures. I don’t mean literature as in fiction/non fiction/poetry and plays but rather, the books and papers that are written by researchers about them. I don’t mean archival materials, but the books and papers that are written by researchers about them.  (Of course there is a grey muddy bit in the middle of what might be called primary and secondary sources and I take lots of words dealing with all of that, but for the sake of getting to the point of a necessarily brief blog post, I will stick with the binary I’ve created. It’s a heuristic right?)

And by literatures work I do mean the kind of work that you do when you begin a research project or the doctorate – you read a lot in order to find out what is already out there and what is ‘known’ about your topic and its wider framing/context/location. So, to recap, now you are wondering whether this work can become a paper.

Now, not all literatures papers are the same. There are different types of literatures papers and it’s worth understanding some of the differences. Here are four key variations on a literatures paper theme:

  • the what works or meta analysis

The what works, systematic review or meta analysis paper is typically generated out of a wide search and then the application of strict methodological criteria to select a small number of ‘valid’ empirical studies. While the two methods of producing these papers are different, the common intended result is to tell readers about ‘reliable evidence’ in the chosen field.  The literatures review paper that results from this kind of work goes like this… it usually begins with a warrant in a policy or practice problem; the writer argues that it is necessary to establish ‘reliable evidence’ as the basis for action/further thinking or research. The search criteria and process used is described, with the major exclusions noted. The search is followed by a report of the criteria that were used to select a smaller group of papers from the larger corpus. The results of the selection are then presented, usually accompanied by a table or list of the final group of papers in the body of the paper or presented as an appendix. Or if there has been  statistical work undertaken, this is explained and the results reported. The results make up the largest section of the paper. A conclusion spells out the implications for policy/practice of the synthesis/meta analysis.

So the paper structure is: warrant, search, selection, statistical analysis (optional), report, (perhaps a) discussion and conclusion.

  • the history of the field

The history of the field attempts to provide a definitive and comprehensive view of a particular area of scholarship. The field is defined at the outset. The paper may then take a chronological perspective, tracing the development of particular ideas and agreed ‘truths’, noting debates, influences and key thinkers. Another option is for the paper to identify dominant themes and their interconnections. Chronology and themes are however very often combined to examine how a field has changed its concerns over time.

History of the field papers are interpretive in nature and generally do not engage in a great deal of discussion about the process of selection and analysis; they may  locate the writer as someone with authority and standing in the field eminently suited to this kind of overview.

Once upon a time we used to think about this topic in this way....

Once upon a time you fellows used to think about the world in this way…

History of the field papers take two forms – they are either a report, that is they purport simply to tell the reader about the field – or they make an argument about the field and its strengths and weaknesses. The report is usually found in encyclopaedia entries (see Wikipedia for instance) although it may also appear in handbooks, edited collections and monographs. A history of the field argument usually has a so -what section at the end,

So the paper structure is:  definition and the a series of sections which are either major themes or chronological stages – the subheadings do major analytic work in naming each one. A report may have no conclusion, but further readings may well be provided at the end. An argument will have a strong conclusion.

  • the state of the art

A state of the art paper is a variation on the history of the field. It is always an argument; it takes a particular – and arguably new – angle on what has been written. A state of the art paper is usually generated through a narrative or thematic review, and is usually very explicitly selective. The paper suggests deficiencies, new approaches or particular challenges to the field. The state of the art review might be given as a presidential address to a learned society, or may appear in journals or handbooks with the specific goal of providing directions for other scholars. While the writer might define the field, and canvass its history and major themes as in a history paper, this is framed by an argument. The argument is generally flagged at the start by a warrant about the field needing to be re-examined, or by outlining a policy or practice problem.

So the paper structure is generally: warrant; definition; sections which are major themes or chronological sections, with either a separate discussion or the discussion integrated into the sections and flagged by the subheadings; and a strong conclusion.

  • the reframing

Like the state of the art review, the reframing of literatures review has an agenda and an argument to make. Reframing papers often bring literatures from other fields to an established area of scholarship to address a particular topic of interest/ongoing concern/new challenge. The writer establishes the warrant for the paper through presenting some kind of challenge or deficiency in the field – this might be a policy or practice problem, or it might be derived from an analysis of the literatures within the field via a deconstruction of a way of thinking or an identification of a blank or blind spot. After the warrant, the reframing is presented as a series of moves which show the new opportunities/advantages of taking up the approach being advocated. The paper may introduce literatures from other disciplines as one or more of the moves. The writer concludes with some next steps, perhaps an assessment of obstacles, and a final plug for the importance of taking up their reframing. Reframings are published in journals, edited collections, handbooks and monographs.

So the paper structure is generally: the warrant, the reframing established in several steps, some critical assessment of the new approach and a reinforcement of the need to change (as per the initial warrant).

So what, I hear you ask?

Well, if you are thinking about whether you can get a paper from your literatures review, the first step is to consider which of these four types of papers your work might suits. Knowing the type of paper you might write also tells you something about how it might be structured and where it might be published.

However, knowing the type of paper is not all that matters in a literatures paper, as I’ll go on to explain in the next instalment, next week.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, journal, literature review, literatures paper and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to writing a publishable literature review paper – four options

  1. rivathuds says:

    Very helpful, but could you re-do first hyperlink as it currently takes you to ‘forbidden’ area.


  2. rral says:

    Hello Pat, very interesting post. I think I understood most of the what you suggested. Can you give me/ us an example – real life example in a paper that follow one of you methods? I couldn’t quite visualize how it works in practice.. Best, Val.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pat thomson says:

      HI Val
      Its very hard to do this as the papers will be heavily disciplinary in content. I can refer you to education or sociology papers that follow these ‘types’ but that may not be helpful, I avoided examples for this very reason! What is your field – and is there one of these that you can’t imagine? Im afraid I don’t really have time to search and find examples of all of them!


      • Charlotte says:

        Dear Pat,
        This is really very useful, thank you. I’d also be very grateful if you could give examples. For me, examples from your fields cited above would fit perfectly.
        Many thanks in advance if this is possible. Many thanks in any case for this useful piece.


  3. lenandlar says:

    Thanks for sharing this very useful post. Working on a lit review to publish and I can see clearly now where it fits and more importantly how to not let it be all 4 of the above …bits of this and that.


  4. rral says:

    Hello Pat, thanks for answer me. I’m in political science but I have a good background in sociology. As in most PhD thesis, mine included a literature review. I was trying to find papers who fit your examples – so I could one day publishing my literature review. But it has been hard to find one that exemplify your suggestions… I’m more of a visual learner. Thanks for you time anyway =)


    • pat thomson says:

      Try googling meta review, systEmatic review. Go to a handbook in your discipline and an encyclopaedia. Look for the genre characteristics I’ve suggested. Go to a feminist or post colonial journal and looks for the literature papers, they are likely to offer reframing arguments. You’ll find them if you link the search to the characteristics I’ve listed.


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  6. chuashuyi says:

    Dear Pat,
    Thank you for your very informative article. As a graduate student, I was greatly encouraged by it. Very few people recommend others to do a literature review paper, despite the critical role reviews do in consolidating vast amount of research. I recently asked a question on Quora, over here, https://www.quora.com/What-are-your-experiences-of-publishing-the-literature-review-of-your-dissertation-as-a-review-paper-in-a-journal, inspired by your article and also my personal experiences. May I know if you would like to post an answer to that question? 🙂 I hope to invite people who have such experiences to join the conversation, to enliven the discussion!


  7. RmNoleks says:

    Hi Pat,

    Great Article, and very useful. Can I ask though. For a reframing paper, would you still include a methodology to ground the literature search, or in such a paper would it be acceptable that the authors knowledge of the field is sufficient enough to just bring in the relevant literature as appropriate?

    I am leaning towards the latter for a current paper, however a review of similar papers in the same journal shows that they nearly always include a strict methods section.

    Thanks for the continued good reading, keep up the good work,


  8. Ardian says:

    Thanks for sharing Pat 🙂 very useful.


  9. Janine says:

    Dear Pat,
    Thanks for your article. I did manage to have my lit review published but it is a completely different genre to the thesis chapter, as you point out. I had beside me the entire time a ‘how to write a narrative lit review’ because it’s not often done as someone as already said. I also decided to write the abstract first (which I’d not done before) and that helped keep my focus, plus I emailed the editor of the journal early on to make sure it would be considered and so I could keep the target audience in mind as I wrote. I’m pleased to say the blind peer review process was quite painless – one of the revisions was to include the methodology for the lit search (which I’d removed but had in an earlier version). Phew!


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