Literature reviews: a lost art?

I was rather concerned to see Alain Samson describing literature reviews as “the lost art of insight generation” in the October issue of Research Magazine, lamenting the fact that the process of reviewing existing literature on a research topic is often restricted, through practical constraints, to a “short phase of desk research”. At the same time, I was a little surprised. Based on my experience, I would have argued that the literature review is alive and well – very much a current and relevant research approach, especially at a time when resources for new primary research may be limited and we need to make the most of the evidence that already exists out there.

It may be that literature reviews are more common in the sustainability domain that Brook Lyndhurst works in, compared to other areas of research. In any case, just within the last year, I’ve worked on four literature reviews: one for Defra about communicating with consumers about the animal welfare provenance of food, one for Zero Waste Scotland on littering behaviour and anti-litter policies, one that we carried out early on in our segmentation of food SMEs project for the FSA, and one to provide background for the Oxfam Food Transformation report.

In these projects, I recognise the three (non-mutually exclusive) categories that Samson suggests literature reviews can be grouped into by their purpose:

  1. Mapping the landscape: understanding the current state of play on a topic of interest;
  2. Basis for empirical research: a grounding for the development of primary research; and
  3. Conceptual work: providing a framework to work with on a subject or concept.

The animal welfare and littering reviews are clearly in the first category, while the food SMEs review aimed to do both 2 and 3, and the Oxfam one was a blend of 1 and 2.

It’s very useful to think about the purpose of a literature review in terms of the kinds of aims set out above, as your aims are likely to influence the approach that you choose. Do you need to review each document thoroughly or just cherry-pick the most interesting or relevant facts from each? How rigorously do you need to assess the methodological quality of the reviewed studies? Do you wish to remain fully objective and only report the current state of the evidence, or add your own interpretation into the mix?

Samson goes on to list his top tips for writing a literature review. These include, among others, the need to involve the right people and draw on the expertise of those with background knowledge on the subject of interest and relevant publications; striking a balance between exhaustiveness and usefulness; and looking for patterns in information gleaned from multiple sources. These are all excellent points, and ones that again reflect my experiences of working on Brook Lyndhurst literature reviews.

The thing I enjoy most about literature reviews is the same thing I enjoy most about all research: it’s about finding out new things and putting them together in ways that result in exciting insights. It’s a real shame if literature reviews are indeed becoming a lost art, but I’m pleased that at least within Brook Lyndhurst that’s definitely not the case.

You can read more about Brook Lyndhurst’s approach to literature reviews here.

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