Several years ago—at least five—I was helping a dissertation writer with her dissertation literature review, and it wasn’t exactly clear what kind of literature review was expected. In the course of that endeavor, I wrote up a bunch of notes that seemed to me to be a good kernel of material for a book on writing literature reviews. After a lengthy journey, that basic idea and those basic questions finally resulted in the release today (December 16, 2019) of my book Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice. (Amazon; Routledge) In its final form, the book actually present a return to issues that I had abandoned for most of the book’s development.
Moving away from “Literature review”
One of my first moves as I wrote was to move away from “literature review” per se, and to focus on the more general question of how a researcher/dissertation writer uses literature. This was generally prompted by the fact that there are a lot of people who don’t write anything explicitly titled a “literature review.” Scholars in the humanities and liberal arts often are doing work in which interaction with other literature is so embedded that it’s not really useful to have a “literature review” per se, because so many separate issues are raised that each earn their own brief discussion of relevant literature.
And it seemed to me that the worst problems of dealing with the literature—including problems writing a “literature review”—were more about dealing with the literature in the process of designing and developing an independent research project. Probably the most common problem with the literature is to say “I haven’t read enough yet,” and then to burn several months reading. That problem is closely related to people who fall into despair, saying “I’ll never know enough; I might as well give up.” Neither of those are explicitly “literature review” problems, but they are closely related to the problem of writing a very long literature review that still needs “just a few more” additions. So I moved away from a specific focus on literature reviews.
The self-help spin: Getting the Best of What You Read
At the time I began the book, my main project and main efforts were directed toward finishing my first dissertation-writing book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation: Practical Perspectives for Effective Research. It seemed to me a neat idea to make the book on using literature a companion, and to follow in the basic tone of the other, so I wrote the main drafts with the working title Getting the Best of What You Read (the subtitle wandered a bit—trying variations on the “practical perspectives” them of my previous), which was the title under which I proposed the book to publishers.
Realistically, a large part of my argument is essentially a big “you have to believe in yourself,” and my aim as a writing coach/dissertation coach is generally to help people help themselves, so I feel pretty good about looking at the book as a self-help book for graduate students. In addition to encouraging dissertation writers to believe in themselves, I emphasize the importance of using what you already know—which is more of the general “help yourself” motif than any really deep academic consideration.
My competition: Systematic literature reviews
When it came time to propose the book to publishers, I had to explain who was going to be interested in the book and why there might be some hope that people would buy the book, and in particular. Publishers want books that will sell, and one question they ask is what books are competitors. When writing the proposal, then, I had to identify competitors, and the books that seemed closest to what I was working on were the books written about literature review. On a certain level, these books are my competitors, inasmuch as they often argue that what they are describing is how to do a literature review for a dissertation. On another level, I view these books as simply talking about something else: what they describe is not, on the whole, the specific kind of literature review that interests me. And their concern—often with systematic methods for literature review—was, in a way, fundamentally at odds with what I wanted to teach. The problem of “I need to read one more article,” is not a problem that is banished by a systematic literature review—all it takes to recur is for a researcher to learn something new that inspires a different perspective on the problem they had been considering. Instead, I argued in my proposal, what the dissertation writer needs is to develop a practice that allows them to learn and develop new perspectives while also making progress toward completing a dissertation project. This was, in many ways, a return to some of the main ideas that I explored in my doctoral dissertation, though I was not yet making that connection quite as clearly as I have now come to do.
Back to Literature Review
When my book was being considered by Routledge, they offered a contract conditional upon my changing the title. They wanted the phrase “literature review” in the main title because they wanted it to hit when people search for “literature review.” Their concern for the phrase seems entirely reasonable to me, and also seems, to some extent, a product of the way I pitched the book to them (as competitor to “literature review” titles). And, as I was no longer self-publishing, I felt the connection to my previous book less important. So I agreed to alter the title. Their initial suggestion seemed rather bland to me, and after some consideration, I offered the title that has been adopted: “Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice.” I’m satisfied with this title because it captures the ideas that seems to me to be at the heart of it: the problem that a lot of people have dealing with the literature and with carrying out literature reviews in their dissertation process has to do with where literature review fits into the process of designing and developing an independent research project. I would go so far as to say that approaching the literature wrongly can lead to big problems for dissertation writers, especially if fueled by the idea that a systematic literature review is a good place to start work on a dissertation.
A longer return: Back to design theories
My graduate work was in the field of design theories and methods, and I was primarily concerned with how people envisioned their work, and how that vision shaped their actions. These theories had been central to my work helping dissertation writers—I had for a long time recognized how research shared many characteristics with design. But it was not until I was searching for a new title that I explicitly started thinking about “research design.” Using that phrase obviously made an explicit link back to the design theories and methods that I had studied. In my dissertation, one important theme was the sense that at the highest levels, the best designers needed to rely on practice to help them build understanding and judgment that carries them through the places where systematic methods don’t help. This notion, indeed, was captured in the subtitle of my own dissertation: “From scientific method to humanist practice.”
Once I had made this connection explicit, the book suddenly felt like a return to these old ideas. I did a substantial rewrite to refocus on the idea of research design, on the difficulties of research design, and a how a research can benefit from being approached as a practice, and the literature as a particular tool within that practice.
Not a Summary
If I could have fit all the ideas in the book onto one page, I wouldn’t have written a whole book. There’s plenty more I can say about the book. Do you have any questions about it?