The Role of the Literature Review

The role of the literature review by the
Learning Centre. If you’re doing research, you’re probably excited about going into the lab, analysing your data, compiling your primary sources or interviewing your study participants. The prospect of writing a literature review, however, might seem a bit daunting. Some students feel that the lit review is just a convention to reach an acceptable word limit or make the thesis look thicker. But in fact, doing the lit review conscientiously will certainly enrich your understanding of the research problem and improve the quality of your thesis. For a research project to be accepted at doctorate level, there are basically two requirements. One, that it is original work and two, that it is a significant contribution to knowledge. I know the words ‘original’ and ‘significant’
may make you think that you have to produce something worthy of a Nobel prize, but that isn’t quite the case. So, how do you know if your work is original enough? Well, first of all you need to find out what’s been done before. You’re not supposed to reinvent the wheel, but make progress on previous work. That would also help you to base your work on well established theories or methodologies. That said, you also need to establish what has not been done before, what areas have not been explored, what requires further testing and also, are there different, potentially more effective ways to find an answer to your research question or solve your problems? In every field there are also areas
where different studies yield contradicting results. For example, should we let babies cry themselves to sleep, or is a vegetarian diet healthier than a paleo diet? For both questions, further research is required to obtain enough evidence to support one particular conclusion. Another example: Should you be interested in researching lung cancer and smoking, a quick literature search would provide you with studies dating as far back as 1956. A recent one even states that there is no longer any discussion as to whether cigarette smoking causes cancer. So it would be hard to find an original angle to this topic. However, if you wanted to find out the connection between smoking cannabis and lung cancer, you would be onto something. Look at the language being used here. This topic is begging for further research, as a definite conclusion has not been reached. This is what is called finding a research gap,
which you will attempt to fill. Now, this gap may challenge, expand or complement existing theories, or it may approach the study with a different methodology or with a combination of existing methodologies, or it may have different but related objects of study, or carry out the research project in a new context. Let’s illustrate this with an example. Imagine you’re studying ADHD — Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. To identify the gap, you could look at what theoretical frameworks have been used to study this issue. For instance, it might have been studied from the perspective of bio-psychology, which focuses on chemical activity in the brain, or from counseling psychology, which focuses on behaviour analysis. Another aspect is what methodologies have been used. Randomized control trials, where one group is given a drug and another a placebo, or have interviews with teachers and parents been conducted to determine changes in behaviour. As we’re dealing with humans we will refer to them as participants. You can determine what population is more commonly studied — boys or girls, children or teenagers. You could also look at the different contexts where research on this topic takes place. Have there been any studies in Australia? How about rural areas as opposed to the city? All these are possible gaps which you will attempt to fill with your research project. So, to summarise, The first purpose of the lit review is to
demonstrate how much you know about your topic. You do this by presenting an
overview of previous work that is relevant to your research. But merely listing this work is not sufficient. You need to demonstrate analysis by grouping works according to their similarities in aspects such as theoretical approaches, methodologies, objects of study or results. Should there be any
controversies in the field, you need to outline these. Your role is not simply to report and analyse these works but, most importantly, to evaluate them — that is, to take a position regarding the validity of the research you have summarized. What aspects have they missed? What issues may have led to inconsistent results? What methodologies may yield more reliable findings? These are all possible gaps. Pointing out the gap is what the literature review is all about, because this gap is the justification for your research project; the evidence that it is needed. By pointing out what others have missed or haven’t found a conclusive answer to, you are saying my research is needed and is important and I’ll do it better — although you’ll express it as “contributing to filling the gap in the research on” your topic. As a PhD student, you may feel unwilling to question the authority of experts in the field. However, this is how knowledge and science progress. If the scientific community did not question knowledge, we’d still think that the world is flat and that the Sun revolves around the earth. Well sadly, some people still do. You do need to remember that you are standing on the shoulders of giants, and that’s why you have a better view.

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