How to Escape the Literature Review Trap

Recently, I’ve been wondering why I didn’t name my book “Research Design and Literature Review” (Instead of Literature Review and Research Design).  To me, the heart of the book lies in prioritizing research design over some abstract  and poorly defined notion of “literature review.”  In retrospect, this seems ironic because the book grew out of my own attempts to define “literature review” and so I was focusing on an abstract and poorly defined notion of “literature review” rather than on research design.

The book had its inception in notes I wrote as a dissertation coach/editor for a researcher needing to finish a literature review. But there was some significant question as to what was needed.  The questions that we worked on together were ones that I had already encountered with other dissertation writers, and the notes that I wrote felt to me like the heart of a potential book. It felt like an opportunity to write something that could help people, especially dissertation writers like those that I had worked with over the years. In particular, it seemed like it could help people struggling with a set of related problems in dealing with the literature—a set of problems I have recently been calling “the literature review trap.” But, in a way, with that name, I also trap myself into thinking about “literature review” instead of the matter that is really crucial: research design.

The Literature Review Trap

Basically, the literature review trap is spending time and effort trying to deal with the literature instead of spending time and effort focusing on your own project.  There are three main manifestations of this: 1. thinking that you need to read more before you start your own project; 2. giving up in despair because you think you’ll never read enough; and, 3. writing extremely long literature reviews that don’t help you focus on your own project.

There’s a lot of literature out there, and with only a little effort, it’s easy to find new material that you could read that might be relevant to your project. This is especially true if your project is not clearly defined, because the fewer the limits on your potential project, the fewer the limits on the potentially relevant literature.

And the more literature that you read, and the more time that you spend reading literature, the greater the likelihood that you’ll learn a new idea that inspires you to go in a new direction.  It’s not that I want to discourage discovery, exploration, or learning from your readings; it’s just that finishing a project means committing to some plan, and sticking with that plan until it’s completed.

Research Design

Deciding what to do is hard. Making plans is hard. Committing to plans is especially hard if you aren’t sure whether the plans are good or not.  These are all general statements that apply to writing a dissertation.  It’s necessary to commit to a project and to stay focused on that project despite problems that come up. Yes, sometimes there are problems so serious that a project has to be abandoned, but at the beginning of the research process—at the times when the literature review trap is most dangerous—the real danger is not some problem that might derail a project, the real danger is to fail to commit to a project at all.

If you say “I’m doing a literature review to lay the foundation for my research,” it’s too easy to slip into thinking about other people’s research and other people’s projects, and then put off working on your own project.

It’s easy to think “my project isn’t good enough,” or some variation on that, especially early in the process when you’ve only started to define your project.  If you try to put it down in writing, you might well think how naive and silly it all will seem to your professors.  But only once you’ve put it down in writing can you start to set limits and to get other people’s feedback about how the work appears to them.  

Research and research design happen in a community

For all the stereotypes (and frequent realities) of a researcher toiling away alone, research and research design are not things that a researcher does alone. This is particularly the case for a dissertation writer who has to answer to his or her professors.  But even researchers who are at liberty to choose their next project work within a wider community of ideas–the ideas that have shaped an individual’s research and career are some sort of response to the idea that they have seen expressed elsewhere. Maybe the response is a wholesale rejection of a paradigm—the heliocentric solar systems is largely a rejection of a geocentric universe—or maybe it’s a small addition to an accepted paradigm. Whichever it is, every researcher is essentially responding in some way to ideas they have heard others express. (Saying “here’s a totally new idea” is implicitly saying “here’s an idea that no one has previously expressed.”)

A dissertation project, in particular, needs to be approved by members of the relevant research community (i.e., the professor(s) supervising the project). In the long run, the only way to avoid getting reviewed is to not submit any project proposal.  This can be comforting until you reach the point where your school starts threatening to kick you out for not making sufficient progress.

Invest less in being right; invest more in getting feedback

The literature review trap lies in spending too much time looking at what other people have read, and not enough time in developing individual projects.  Reading more (or writing about literature more) often feels like a good way to protect yourself from your own limits and to protect yourself from the critique of others.  If you have diligently studied, how can you go wrong?  Throughout students’ careers as students, diligent study is usually what’s expected, and it’s what usually leads to success as a student. This makes it potentially reassuring to read more: “If I have done all my readings, how can I go wrong?”  But, as I’ve said elsewhere, reading other people’s works can be a big distraction from your own project, especially if you haven’t defined your own project yet.

The idea of getting a project proposal rejected as ridiculous is frightening to many. But getting that feedback also provides the opportunity to learn how to make a project less ridiculous.  Every time you give a new draft to someone for feedback, you have the opportunity to learn what would be right for them. And while research shouldn’t be designed to please other people (you have to trust yourself to do good original research), it should be designed with an eye towards convincing people that it is worthwhile—after all, if you want anyone (from your dissertation readers to editors/reviewers for publishers/journals to actual readers) to care about the work you did, it’s reasonable to start looking for ways to present your work, and to start practicing the presentation by submitting proposal drafts.

Instead of trying to prevent error by reading, try to learn from the errors you make while writing about your ideas.

Invest more in identifying the practical dimensions of a project; invest less in theoretical exploration

There is no amount of reading that will eliminate theoretical doubts.  Theories are works in progress, not resolved with certainty. This is true from a theoretical perspective: while we may be able to prove something is false, it’s much harder to prove something is true. And it’s true from a more empirical perspective, for one, lots of literature discusses its own limitations, and for two, how much scholarly literature have you read that is universally accepted in your field? It’s common for scholars to discuss the limitations of their own work, so reading one single work may not lead you to certainty, and reading many will probably lead you into some disagreements. Many publications start from a place of “this research corrects previous research,” and publications that gather a lot of notice are likely to be disputed by someone. (If you want to write something that no one will disagree with, circulate it to as few people as possible.) So reading may give you good ideas, but it will hardly ever give you certainty.

Instead, focus on laying out the practical dimensions of your project.  What do you need to do? How much work is appropriate in your context? By focusing on the practical dimensions of the project, you will move more quickly towards completion, in part because you’ll have a better idea of what “completion” means in your context.  For many writers, setting the scope of a project is terribly difficult. It’s easy to try to do too much—not too much in terms of it being bad to be ambitious, but too much in terms of how much effort is necessary to complete a work and get credit for completing the work. If you could get your degree for two years’ work, isn’t that better than spending five years on the project? 


Dissertation writers can lose a lot of time dealing with the literature in their field while not working on defining and refining their own project.  There’s a lot of literature out there; there’s an expectation that scholars be familiar with the publications in their field; there’s a lot of doubt surrounding the choices that must be made to design a research project that can be completed.

But completing projects is good. The way to complete your project is to focus on defining it—what are you going to do for your independent, original work? How and why is it valuable?  The literature can be a valuable tool for this process of defining your own project, but it’s only a tool, and it’s available when you need it. Don’t delay working on your own project to read first. Define your project first, get feedback, and then, if necessary, you can do readings to deal with weaknesses in your original plan and presentation.