Complete and unambiguous complementarity

In commenting on a paper, I raised a question about the mobilization of the literature in relation to a particular point an author was making. The point made by the author was, she said, an illustration of a phenomenon mentioned in the literature by four different authors. She cited all four at the end of the sentence. I added a note to the paper on the specific question of whether their were any tensions between these four works that she might have helped to resolve; or whether there were tensions between her work and theirs as a whole. In other words, I realized that the phrasing indicated complete and unambiguous complementarity between her work and theirs. And it struck me that this was a general issue in many papers I read. Authors frequently structure their citations to the literature as if there were complete and unambiguous complementarity, even when there is not. I think that, as an academic community, we would do well to be more nuanced in the way that we mobilize the literature in support of what we say. Perhaps we need to articulate the tensions in order to emphasize the precise aspects of complementarity between our work and previous research.


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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3 Responses to Complete and unambiguous complementarity

  1. Dumo Mac- Barango says:

    prof, this is an articulated observation.would it not even be better if the author;:s write up is used as an example to illustrate the issues of the subject.This is likely to further enhance clarity and assist some group of readers appreciate the issues at stake. Many thanks for your contributions to the community.

    • Will says:

      Dumo: Thanks for the feedback. I think it might be helpful to post that paragraph, but I also think that it would be unfair on the particular author to put her draft work into the public domain. You can easily find numerous examples if you look in any issue of any journal. It seems quite common for authors to insert several references in support of a point, without explaining how each one supports the point. Best wishes.

  2. Simon Smith says:

    Will – couldn’t agree more. You’ve made very similar points in your editorial comments on papers reviewed and I try to pick this up in both my own work, my students and also in reviews. To me its quite lazy to simply list strings of citations at the end of the sentence without any context of what that work actually says.

    I wonder how well this is covered in research methodology & practice modules that most PG students will take?

    But you have now provided a great term for this and I shall use “Complete and unambiguous complementarity” to refer to this when I advise students from now on! I hope you do not mind.

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