Review papers

One question that crops up from time to time concerns the difference between a literature review for a particular research project and a review paper.

A review paper should be focused on a particular research question or should aim to delineate a topic of research that has not previously been delineated. The main aim is to summarize the current position of the field as a whole in relation to a particular topic. If this is a new topic that has not previously been identified as such, then the aim will be to draw together its antecedents in order to explain what is covered by this new topic, and what the scientific community has already done in relation to this. This involves an effort to:

  • identify comprehensively and exhaustively everything that is relevant, according to a systematic set of criteria identified for the task
  • classify, categorize and critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of past work
  • filter the important progressions in the field, identifying who are the main researchers in the field
  • position the key works in relation to the underlying theory and methodological issues and identify significant issues
  • summarize current thinking and provide suggestions for where this strand of research is headed

Thus, there are key differences between a literature review for a piece of research, and a review paper that sums up the current state of knowledge in a particular field. Summarizing the most relevant pieces of work in order to carry out a particular piece of research is a routine step in any research paper. Merely extending this is not the same as producing a review paper. A good review paper will form the platform for future researchers to build on. It will provide the basic structure of the understanding that underpins the topic.

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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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