Writing style in a literature review

The style of writing in a literature review is very important. There is a lot of sloppy practice in the research literature. These guidelines and suggestions might help to overcome some issues that are commonly found in the way that literature reviews are written:

  • It is importan that papers engage with ongoing debates in their field and that relevant work is cited and critiqued. Clearly, it is important to ensure that you have dealt with relevant previous papers that have been published in the core literature of your field. You should critically evaluate both those that your work challenges, and those that your work vindicates. But this does not mean you should vindicate previous research just for the sake of it. And, of course, it may be that there is no directly relevant work in the literature , which would be a very interesting situation. If this is the case, then you should find research that is like the research you want to do. This means finding work where the authors’ interests are similar to your interests, even if they looked at at entirely different phenomenon in their empirical work. 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 has to be done carefully. 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 claims 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 referees, supervisors and examiners  are more impressed than usual with your work. For advice on how to sort your literature review into themes, please see http://wp.me/p1J7za-eq




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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