Writing your literature review

Within this journal, we have a few predilections about how the literature review should be dealt with:

  • We are keen to ensure that papers engage with ongoing debates in this field and that relevant work is cited and critiqued. We would like you to ensure that you have dealt with relevant previous papers that have been published in CM&E and related journal. You should critically evaluate both those that your work challenges, and those that your work vindicates. But we are not asking you to vindicate previous research just for the sake of it. And, of course, it may be that there is no relevant work in this journal, which would be a very interesting situation. If this is the case, then you should make clear the antecedents of your research, and explain why this journal should be extending its scope into what appears to be new territory. It is also important to connect your work to the wider research literature, in order to position your research appropriately. The contribution of your work to our collective understanding will be clearer if you can make the connections to the underlying disciplines that inform this research. Therefore, include citation and critique of research papers that develop the underlying science and/or approach in your research. This can be particularly problematic in an applied field like construction management. Researchers sometimes seem to assume that the construction sector is not part of the same world that the rest of us inhabit, and therefore set out to re-invent the wheel.
  • The citation of past research needs careful attention. When constructing an argument, it is common to use citations to other significant researchers as means of short-hand, because certain methodological stances, or particular approaches, or specific ideas, are strongly linked to particular authors’ names, and a passing citation to the seminal work in which that idea, approach or stance was definitively mentioned is a routine part of setting out an argument. But this kind of academic short-hand should not be confused with a critical review of past research upon which a research paper seeks to build. There will be citations in your paper that require more comment because of their importance to the work you have reported. In these cases, use a sentence or two to explain what these people did to get them to the conclusions that you cite. Interestingly, when I ask people to explain what past researchers did, the answer usually only explains what they said. I am constantly flummoxed by the difficulty that people have in distinguishing what someone did from what they said.
  • It is not very useful to pepper the text with arbitrary citations without making a specific connection to the construction of your argument. Avoid long lists of author names in brackets. Unless is it just a form of academic short-hand, explain why the work you cite is important. At the very least, your phrasing should make clear whether you are citing past research, guidance documents or polemical arguments, for example.

By dealing with these issues in your first draft, you can reduce considerably the amount of work that will have to be done in revising your paper. At the same time, you may find that the referees are more impressed than usual with your work.



About Will

Professor of Construction Management and Economics, University of Reading, UK. Editor-in-Chief, Construction Management and Economics (1992-2016). Programme Director, MSc Construction Management. School Director of Postgraduate Teaching Programmes.
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