Reviewing the Literature

These penguins are probably talking about the latest climate change research. (Photo credit: .::elekronaut::.)

Have you ever tried to jump in on a conversation without knowing what anyone’s talking about? It’s awkward.

It’s the same thing when you’re writing a research paper without checking to see what other people have said about your topic. You don’t want to repeat the same idea someone else had. You want to make sure you’re adding to the conversation. Give the topic a different point of view, or connect it to another topic or issue no one has thought of before.

All this research is usually called a literature review, but the concept is similar to that of an annotated bibliography or a research paper. You’re learning about a topic by reading the conversations experts are having. These experts “talk” through their research, which they’ve published in research journals. You can track these conversations by checking out their reference list. Their reference list is more than a list of sources; imagine all these authors standing around talking, building on what the person before them said:

(The following conversation is adapted from the introduction/literature review in: MacKillop, J., Amlung, M., Few, L., Ray, L., Sweet, L., and Munafò, M. (2011). Delayed reward discounting and addictive behavior: a meta-analysis. Psychopharmacology, 216(3), 306.)

“Highly impulsive behavior is associated with pathological gambling,” said Reynolds. 

“That may be true,” said de Witt, Perry, and their friends, “But what kind of impulsive behavior? We’ve found that there are three kinds: Personality-based, response inhibition and impulsive decision-making.”

“We’ve looked at impulsive decision-making,” said Green and Myerson, “And found that the quicker a reward loses value to a person, the more impulsive the person is. We call it delayed reward discounting and –”

“Can we butt in with an example?” asked the American Psychological Association. Without waiting for a response, the Association added, “For example, drug dependence shows itself when a person would rather have the immediate effect of the drug, instead of the long-term benefits of not using the drug. That’s delayed reward discounting.”

“Well wait – lots of addicts are motivated to go to rehab,” said Hogue and friends.

“Yes but many either drop out of treatment or relapse after completing treatment,” said McKay.

“Delayed reward discounting, definitely. It’s hard to maintain the bigger, but delayed, reward of health by staying sober, when you could have an immediate, small reward of giving in to your drug addiction,” said Ainslie.

The “conversation” goes on for a quite a few pages in the literature review of the article, but once you’ve heard what all the experts have to say, you might have questions they didn’t answer. Maybe you want to know if age impacts impulsive decision-making, or maybe you want to investigate the other types of impulsive behavior, since that review focused on impulsive decision-making. You’ve identified an area of research, and can support your research question by explaining how it relates to what the experts have been saying.

For a short, easy-to-read literature review on a topic, the magazine Atlantic Monthly recently started a feature called “A Study of Studies.” This month’s topic is “You Can Be Too Beautiful,” about studies that examine beauty as a variable in different situations. The article cites its sources, so you can read any of the research mentioned.

What topics have you done literature reviews or research papers on? What do you think is the most frustrating part about writing a literature review?

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