Chapter 3 Literature Review

3.1 Introduction

The literature review is often the weak part in master theses.

There are various reasons for this.

One is that doing a proper literature review is not an easy task, and time-consuming.

It is not easy because two things may happen.
- Either there is so much literature that summarizing it all is a daunting task.
- Or there is little or even none to be found.

Then what?

Too much literature is a luxury problem.

The way to handle this problem is by using a mind-map approach.

If your topic is, say, university performance, then zoom in on those aspects that you think are especially relevant.

If you still want to stick to the broad topic of university performance, then you can limit your search to recent items. For example, in Google Scholar you can customize the time range in a search to the last 5 years, thereby reducing the number of hits.

Likewise, refined or advanced searches can be applied in e-libraries like Ebsco and Science Direct. Still, if your research is on historic thinking on your topic, you need to adopt an alternative strategy to narrow down the number of hits.

Obviously, your objective in searching from whichever databases you are using, is in detecting the most relevant items and filtering out irrelevant ones. It takes experience, trial-and-error and common sense thinking to come to good results.

Given the sheer endless of papers, reports, books, newspaper articles and other items that can be found on any topic, the probability that two researchers – equally brilliant – on the same topic will end up with identical reference lists, is zero. For that reason, it is good practice to explicitly state your search strategies at the beginning of chapter 2.

3.2 Search Strategies: Snowballing

One strategy that saves a lot of time, is snowballing.

The idea is that in a first step, you identify, say, three of four key articles which are recent, high quality (published in A or B journals), and relevant (in the sense of being very close to your topic).

Since the authors of these articles have dealt with the same challenge of finding relevant articles, you can select articles from their lists of references. Then the snowball starts rolling and growing, as the second-wave articles again will contain some interesting references.

In this way, you will quickly acquaint yourself with the relevant theories and empirical studies in your field of interest.

The disadvantage of snowballing is that, by definition, you will travel back in time. So, make sure to start with recent articles, published no earlier than two or three years ago.

3.3 Be Selective!

We cannot emphasize enough that the review has to be critical. Often, students tend to write their literature review in the fallen-bookcase style. That is, as a collection of summaries of things that various authors have said but lacking a clear structure, leaving the reader with a why-am-I-reading-this feeling.

The messages are:
- Write with an objective in mind
- Structure the review
- Use your own words and interpretations
- Make clear why and how the items reviewed are important to your study.

3.4 Structure

With regard to the structure of your literature review, there are various way to do it. As long as the structure is clear and deliberate, it will ensure that the literature review becomes a relevant part of your thesis.

Three main structures are:

3.4.1 Chronological

This is especially relevant if you want to describe the trends in thinking on the topic over time.

For example, the views on the role of labor continue to change.

Nowadays, robotization and 3D-printing are efficient substitutes for human labor. But already in 1995, Rifkin wrote about the decline of the labor force. What can we learn from the views on the matter, over time?

Note that the snowballing-technique might miss out this old item!

Rifkin, J. (1995). The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons

3.4.2 By schools of thought

It is possible that even today, there are differing views on a certain topic.

For example, while globalization is seen as a trend of converging cultures, many researchers from empirical evidence find that cultural differences between nations persist – and are even reinforced in the face of globalization. Here, it makes sense to group the arguments of both camps, rather than use a chronological structure.

3.4.3 By (sub)topic.

Especially if your topic is broad, like in university performance, it makes sense to break down your discussion by topics.

For example, you can have sections on:

  • Student performance
  • Citations of university publications
  • Performance of private versus public universities
  • And so on.

3.5 Critical Review

One indicator of a critical review, is your ability to summarize the various items that you have reviewed in your own words, and in relation to one another. Reviews in the style of Johnson (2010) said “[literal quote]”, and Peters (2017) claimed “[literal quote]”, leave it very much to the reader to give it an interpretation. The value added of the researcher, is more than just selecting or collecting a number of papers. Without structure, and without paraphrasing and interpretation, the review is simply not a critical review of literature.

3.6 Role of the Literature Review in your Research

The literature review is an input to both your research questions and the design of your study.

As we have said before, in the initial stages you start reading driven by your initial research ideas, and you refine your ideas based on reading. It is a creative, circular process – rather than a linear from-goals-to-decisions process.

But once this part of the process is done, a linear type of project appears on the horizon.

The end-point of the first stage is a research model plus methodology.

The research model, in a nutshell, contains all the variables on which you need data, and the relationships between these variables.

The methodology is the way you are going to collect the data, for example doing a survey with a number of respondents in this region and that period of time.

It helps to see the literature as the bridge between the creative process (what do I want?) and the research project (how to collect and analyze the data?). The research model is, in essence, that bridge. The elements of the model are based on your research questions and the literature. We would not expect to see variables in your research model that are not discussed in the review of literature. In the same vein, why would you discuss issues in the review of literature that are not included in the research model?

There are exceptions to this black-and-white view. In your research model, you may include variables that have not been described in literature, like for example country or organization specific actors that you think are of relevance to the solution of the problem at hand (remember: it’s applied research!). You can also deliberately exclude variables that are discussed in the literature as being relevant, on the grounds of the need to focus on the issues that you think are most prevalent. Adding more variables to your research, and questions to your survey, may have consequences for the time and resources available.

3.7 Beware of Plagiarism

Plagiarism is defined as:

  • To use the ideas or words of someone else as your own
  • To use someone else's work without crediting him or her
  • To present as your new and original idea, a work that is derived from an existing source.

Plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else's work and lying about it afterward.

All of following are considered plagiarism:

  • Turning in someone else's work as your own
  • Copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
  • Failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
  • Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
  • Changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • Copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work - whether you give credit or not.

Plagiarism can be avoided by properly citing sources.

Acknowledging that material has been borrowed and providing the reader with the information necessary to find that source is enough to prevent.

However, as indicated above, a soft form of plagiarism occurs if a substantial part of your thesis is based on ideas from others, and the added value in terms of discussion, interpretation and putting the reviewed items into the context of your thesis, is limited. Even if this soft form of plagiarism is not punished as such, then still the score on your literature review will be low – as it can hardly be called a critical review of literature.

3.8 Referencing

In referencing, it is mandatory to use the so-called APA-style. APA stands for American Psychological Association. A detailed overview of the APA-style can be found using this link.

Detailed information on referencing, using tools in MS Word and Mendeley is provided in the next chapter.

3.9 How To Write A Literature Review In Three Simple Steps

As a guideline, use the three-step approach:

  • Step 1: Find relevant research
  • Step 2: Log, catalog, & synthesize
  • Step 3: Outlining & Writing up

Details on each of these three steps are in the video below.