Logical flow

Logical flow is when ideas follow each other in a rational sequence. A literature review with a logical flow makes the reader feel they are on an intellectual journey. The opposite is to just describe one piece of research after another in an apparently random fashion until all are covered. Just reporting a summary list of what others have done, as A did this, B did that, C did the other, etc. presents as a “What I read in the weekend report and is an undergraduate style. A literature review should analyze past research not just report it. Analysis means not just describing past research papers but also looking at how they connect.

Organize by key issues. One way to structure a literature review is by issues, so on one issue compare and contrast many authors, then “rinse and repeat” for other issues. Bring out agreements, conflicts, contradictions and gaps in the literature by looking at how past papers connect to each other. For each issue, maybe start with an archetypal advocate then add in those who agree and disagree. A literature review organized by themes is much easier to follow than one that just lists many papers one after the other. Analyze the literature by themes not just as a sequential list of other research.

Start easy. When writing a literature review, it pays to start with what people agree with, including yourself. Don’t start the literature review by outlining your contentious new theory then explaining why everyone else is wrong. Not only does this offend, it is backward thinking. Start with what is agreed and work forward to points of difference. Then at the end progress to a preferred conceptual framework and a question to test it, i.e. demonstrate forward thinking. Do the analysis rather than start with a research question and then try to justify it. If you do this, you may be surprised where it will lead.

Impartiality. Report other research in its own terms, as those who espouse it would. To describe papers that disagree with your approach in a biased way is dishonest. Even if you think another person is wrong, describe their work like a professional reporter who reports even what they disagree with. By all means report one author’s critique of another but don’t take sides early on. Leave your conclusions till last. Only after honestly representing others do you add your opinion, as one doesn’t evaluate without first understanding. Also, the paper may be reviewed by those who know the works you report, even the authors themselves. Describe current research impartially, in its terms not yours, before criticizing it.

Avoid opinion statements. An opinion statement is a statement that is not necessarily true but stated as if it is without justification. Avoid unjustified opinion statements as they are to reviewers like a “red flag” is supposed to be to a bull, i.e. they invite attack. For example, to say that “Everyone lies” can’t be defended as it is not possible to check “everyone”. It must either be stated as an assumption, or moderated to something like “Most people tell lies at some point in their life“, and even then one needs to reference a study that supports this. Many people saying a thing doesn’t make it true, so statements must be justified by evidence. Avoid opinion statements that are red flags to reviewers.

End with the research question. The whole point of the literature review is to end up with a research question that naturally “falls out” of the previous work. In contrast, a bad literature review describes all the previous work then suddenly, for no obvious reason, jumps to some research question based on an unexamined author bias. Such discontinuity suggests a lack of analytic thinking. Creating a logical flow is like stringing pearls into a necklace – one pierces though beautiful ideas and joins them up with the string of logic.

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