Reviewing past research: notes from a frustrated editor

Nearly every paper that crosses my desk these days seems to need comment on how the literature review has been reported. Too many authors simply string sentences together that they have picked up from other authors, and then stick the originator’s name in brackets at the end of the sentence. Where does this sloppy practice originate from? Is it taught in schools? Here is some feedback that I recently provided to one author that is typical of what is becoming an hourly mantra:

When constructing an argument, it is common to use citations to other significant researchers as a 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 are citations in your paper that really need more comment because of their importance to the work you have reported. You have not explained the work that past authors did; you have merely told us what they said. In order to develop a critical review of past work, it is important to engage with what key researchers did in their research, not merely what they said as a result of their research. In commenting on what they did, we want you to mention the kind of research they carried out, the approach that they took, the nature of their theoretical stance and so on. This is more than simply summarizing what they said. Please use a sentence or two in each of these cases to explain what these people actually did in their research to get them to the conclusions that you cite (i.e. mention their methods, not simply 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. In doing this, it will be inevitable that you have to avoid 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.

It reminds me of a pretty widespread problem when talking to researchers. Here is an experiment for you: Ask them what they did. Many will not tell you what they did; they will tell you anything but. Try it next time you are talking to someone about their research, and see how many times you have to say “yes, but what did you actually do?” before the penny drops.

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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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One Response to Reviewing past research: notes from a frustrated editor

  1. Torbjorn Stenbeck says:

    I would say that ideally the literature review should just take place to the extent it frames what you have done yourself, so that the own work is positioned into the setting. Many, however, fill the paper with everything they have read, and at the end there is no room for hearing their contribution, if there was one.
    There is a risk, however, that instead of restricting the literature review part, which is what they should do, your advice above will make them think that they should deepen it.
    To leave room for more than one best solution – let those who wish to cite others write such papers, and let us who are only interested in new findings and methods write and read papers where the literature review part is just a short introduction not intended to be exhaustive.

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