Literature Reviews: Valuable Tools
The importance of a good literature review
Performing a good literature review is not an easy task, but it is a task that most of us, like to think is an important skill for most academics. And I of course agree.
During my career as a researcher and supervisor of PhD-students, I have realized that if this work is carried out reflectively it can help scholars in numerous ways. For instance, literature reviews can help:
distinguish what had been done from what needs to be done
discover important variables relevant to a specific topic
synthesize and gain a new perspective
identify relationships between ideas and practice
establish the context of a topic or problem
rationalize the significance of a problem
enhance and acquire the subject vocabulary
understand the structure of the subject
relate ideas and theory to applications
identify main methodologies and research techniques that have been used
place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments
Overall, good literature reviews thus accumulate existing knowledge for scholars, help to specify new knowledge and always give an overview of central aspects of a research object.
But the relevance and importance of a literature review is not only of academic interest. At the company level, desk research is often an important part of the collection and evaluation of a company's intelligence. It can inform policy formulation and business practice and can provide guidance for professionals seeking to understand the market in which they are integrated.
Different starting points
Before engaging in a literature review I think that it is worthwhile for scholars to be aware of the diverse types of literature reviews that exists. Too often we speak of literature reviews as if they are conducted on the same conditions. But this is not the case. Some literature reviews demand a more explorative approach than others when identifying relevant literature.
At least three general types of reviews exist:
literature reviews dealing with a well-researched topic where an accumulated body of research is compiled and analysed.
literature reviews dealing with an emerging topic where scarce research is assembled and interrelated.
literature reviews dealing with an interdisciplinary topic (typically also an emerging topic) where widely scattered research and often scarce research is assembled and linkages sought.
Whereas it is often easier to identify relevant literature to the first type of a literature review the two other types often require a more exploratory and widespread search for relevant literature.
No matter what type of literature review scholars conduct, they are often overwhelmed by the vast amount of information they encounter and may have trouble in identifying and organising the information in the context of their research.
Questions to guide the literature review
My experience is that the below listed questions often is valuable to make use of when I initiate a literature review. The questions sort of help me structure my reading and the findings that I need to synthesize:
What are the key sources?
What are the key issues and debates about the topic?
What are the different standpoints?
What are the key theories, concepts and ideas?
What are the epistemological and ontological grounds for the discipline?
What are the main questions and problems that have been addressed to date?
How is knowledge on the topic structured and organised?
The questions thus help to identify what is known about a topic, as well as highlight what is not yet known. The latter in turn can identify the direction of where the research field or topic can develop and where there is a need for further research.
As literature review findings often have consequences for other activities, such as politics, management and the way people approach their business lives, we should all be able to look deep into each literature review for knowing for certain what the review is capable of and when the review might have missed important points or studies. In the end, it is us, the scholars, who needs to interpret and decide on whether a literature review is well conducted or not and offers the insights that are needed.