FEATURE24 October 2012

Shelf help

Never mind desk research, psychologist Alain Samson says. Researchers need to rediscover the lost art of the literature review.

Academics begin the empirical research process by writing a thorough literature review of theory and past research findings on a particular topic in order to formulate testable hypotheses and, ultimately, to advance scientific theory. Some literature reviews are self-contained projects that systematically describe the state of knowledge in a particular domain. In market research, by contrast, a project usually starts with a brief outlining a practical problem that needs to be solved or questions that need to be answered. Researchers often draw on their own experience and know-how to respond to a brief and put it into research practice. Reviewing the professional or academic literature may be part of this process, but practical constraints are likely to limit it to a short phase of desk research.

I suspect that literature reviews have become the lost art of insight generation. Lost in places where business became disconnected from academic thinking over time. Lost as individuals make professional transitions from universities to the real world. Or simply lost in the practical constraints of corporate life.

But as marketers, business consultants and market researchers have become increasingly interested in the behavioural sciences, a resurgence for the literature review could be on the cards. There may also be a growing realisation among market researchers that more time and resources should be invested at the front end of a research project – not only in formulating hypotheses and research design but in understanding the theoretical background of an issue. What’s more, adding a literature review to your research proposal may help you
stand out from the competition.

In my own work spanning the boundaries between academia and applied research, I have come across different types of literature reviews, which I would group into the following non-mutually-exclusive categories:

  1. Mapping the landscape: A literature review can help a company better understand ideas (aspects of consumer behaviour for example) that are central to its research or consultancy business. It may present new and more up-to-date perspectives on taken-for-granted ideas or assumptions. Or it may simply justify existing views. A landscape-mapping literature review can also provide vital insights to a company’s positioning or repositioning efforts in the research or consultancy space.
  2. Basis for empirical research: The classic literature review represents the first stage of the empirical research process. While the aim of more self-contained reviews is to answer questions, this type of review tends to be more critical, generating new or better questions, which can then be tested empirically. A basic literature review is useful for ad hoc research and often indispensable for research companies engaging in their own R&D.
  3. Conceptual work: A review can provide tools for thought if it summarises ideas that have emerged in the literature, such as the behavioural sciences. This kind of paper can give teams a framework or encyclopaedia to work with when they grapple with ad hoc or continuing projects. A conceptual review usually attempts to outline real-world applications and may be particularly useful for consultancy work or qualitative research.

If you need an in-depth literature review, the obvious place to go is academia, where you’ll find people with the relevant domain-specific expertise and most importantly access to libraries. But if your budget is limited or you are facing other constraints you may decide to write the review in-house. This option has become much more feasible in the age of Google Scholar, which indexes a variety of academic journals and institutional repositories. (The dissemination of knowledge in most academic disciplines occurs chiefly through journals rather than books.) While journal access is often restricted to subscribers, the proportion of articles available in the public domain is growing.In some cases individual (but generally quite expensive) articles can be purchased online.

Here are a few simple tips for writing a literature review that draws on scholarly sources.

“More time and resources should be invested at the front end of a research project – not only in formulating hypotheses and research design but in understanding the theoretical background of an issue”

Involve the right people. Draw on the internal expertise that you already have at your organisation by involving colleagues with relevant backgrounds. This may not only improve the quality of the review but also boost the morale of the graduate who may feel that his or her degree has found only little application in everyday work.

Do it like the profs. Let juniors do the legwork. If your own time is limited, consider having junior members of your team first collect articles or book abstracts for your review. Once you’ve made a pre-selection of potentially interesting sources, have them write short summaries that can then be used as the building blocks of the literature review.

Start with secondary sources. The number of potentially relevant sources for a literature review can be overwhelming. An easy way to get started is to follow up references listed in the popular science books that may already be sitting on your bookshelf. In addition, you may want to look for comprehensive review articles that have already been written about the topic of interest in the academic literature, then branch out into primary sources where necessary.

Balance. One of the challenges in writing a literature review is to balance exhaustiveness with usefulness. You probably won’t have the time to be as thorough as an academic researcher, but in doing so you’ll have to avoid one of the pitfalls that come with skimming the surface: reading too much into the significance of individual pieces of research. Similarly, cherry-picking interesting research findings (perhaps fuelled by confirmation bias) makes for great storytelling, but may also turn a literature review into a selection of anecdotes.

Structure and content. The fundamentals of a well structured paper are probably familiar to most of us. Unlike narrative prose, however, a literature review needs to make connections between multiple sources. These connections are usually chronological, thematic or methodological. An expert reviewer may see patterns in the literature and engage in a relatively organic review writing process. A less experienced writer may want to start the process by organising the literature and writing an outline before embarking on the actual writing task.

Think about applications. Whether you’re writing a literature review as the starting point for empirical research or to simply explore a particular area, you’ll need to think about practical implications at some stage. Many consumer research journals, especially those closer to marketing (Journal of Business Research, Psychology & Marketing, Journal of Marketing), frequently publish articles with a discussion of managerial implications. These sections provide food for thought if you’re interested in bridging theory and practice.

Learn something about methodology. As you research and write a literature review, it’s tempting to make shortcuts and only read introductions and conclusions of articles. Even if your review only has a conceptual aim, you can make the whole process a methodological learning experience as well. In quantitative research, for example, market researchers are generally very skilled at designing surveys, but sometimes struggle to grasp the logic of experiments. While the underlying principles of experimental design may easily be learned in books or courses, the methodology sections of academic papers provide an abundant source of cases studies to deepen this understanding.

Make it required reading. A literature review may share the fate of other written work done within organisations if it is exposed to a limited number of readers before collecting dust on a hard drive or desk. Circulating the work internally (or maybe even externally), continuing to use it as a reference for future work or turning it into the basis of a conference paper will help you get the most out of your efforts.

When a literature review is successful, it will deliver better designed research, allow you to develop as a researcher and advance knowledge within your organisation and beyond.

Alain Samson is BrainJuicer Lab’s scientific advisor and a consultant for LSE Enterprise, the commercial arm of the London School of Economics. He entered the world of market research while completing a PhD in Psychology at the LSE and now works mainly in the area of consumer psychology and behaviour


9 years ago

Alain is absolutely right in underlining the importance of literature reviews. I fully endorse his points. As Editor of the International Journal of Market Research, I welcome literature reviews as submissions as they can be can be especially helpful to practitioners looking for detailed knowledge on a particular aspect of research. So, make sure you look at IJMR for information - and also think of submitting any you do yourself for possible publication & add to the existing body of knowledge in a particular field. Also see the paper by Nairn, Berthon & Money, 'Learning from giants' (IJMR 49/2, 2007) on more on how to get the most out of a literature review, which we published to help authors construct more insightful reviews.

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9 years ago

literature review is important, it is unfortunate not much emphasis is put on it compared to its importance. it is also not easily accessible. there is need for training sessions on how to best look and where to look for data for a specific topic when doing a literature review.

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