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’.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.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.