Organize literature reviews by ideas, not authors

A few days ago I received a draft manuscript from some friends who asked for comments. The manuscript was prepared for a handbook meant to summarize the state-of-the-art in an emerging field and thus was intentionally focused on reviewing the literature and identifying trends. I first checked the references and saw that they had included what I expected. Therefore, the review was certainly up to date. I settled in for a good read.

Wilhelm Hofer

Wilhelm Hofer “Medir a Coherencia da Vitalidade.” Santiago de Campastella

The first paragraph announced the paper’s purpose and then laid out the plan of the paper. It was organized into thematic sections, with short headlines identifying the themes. No surprises so far.

However, as I read through the paragraphs, I noticed a pattern that has become all too familiar to me over the years, in my roles as reviewer, editor, and commentator on other people’s work. The first sentence of nearly every paragraph began by mentioning a particular author’s work, often with the author’s name the first words in the first sentence. For example, “Smith (2014) studied 94 entrepreneurs in the process of beginning their first ventures, focusing on how they picked the industries they wanted to enter.” Subsequent sentences provided more detail on what Smith had done. Occasionally the paragraph included mentions of other authors, but often the entire paragraph was devoted to a single author.

In the paragraphs that followed, the pattern recurred. Each told us about a particular author or authors and their work. Sometimes the authors were strung out in a narrative that presented the work chronologically, but often the organizing principle wasn’t clear, beyond the fact that all the authors in this section could be grouped under a common theme.

By the third page, I was ready to throw in the towel. The authors were asking me to do the work that they should have done, before beginning to write the paper: group the papers reviewed by concepts and principles and then use topic and concluding sentences to tell us why the work reviewed is important. Rather than organizing the review by authors’ names, they should’ve organized it by ideas and concepts.

Thus, the paragraph that now began with “Smith (2014),” should have instead begun with “Most studies of how entrepreneurs choose the industries they want to enter have found that entrepreneurs enter industries in which they have worked, rather than taking a chance on coping with unfamiliar environments.” Smith’s contribution could then have been placed into the context set by a strong topic sentence. For example, Smith might have conducted a particularly valuable study because it included a large nationally representative sample and well – documented indicators of the concepts under investigation. By contrast, Jones could’ve been mentioned in the same paragraph as conducting a study that seemed not to support the topic sentence’s empirical generalization but, in fact, the study should be discounted because of fatal flaws in methodology.

Literature reviews that follow a simple narrative structure of serially presenting author after author are easy to write but do little to advance our understanding of how to interpret previous research and how much confidence we should place in it. As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, a better strategy is to read all the relevant works and write interpretive notes on them. Then, the interpretive notes should be sorted into conceptual categories and further ordered along the dimensions that emerge from a close reading of the notes. For example, one dimension might be “research designs used,” and another might be “theoretical perspectives framing the research.”

The resulting emergent conceptual categories and principles should then be used to organize the literature review, with authors’ names subordinate to the higher-order principle of capturing central tendencies and the extent of diversity in the literature.

So, the next time you read a literature review and notice that nearly every paragraph starts with an author’s name, ask yourself, did the authors really do the tough analytic work required to add value to the literature? If not, perhaps here is an opportunity for you to step in and do more! Organize your own review by ideas, not authors.

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