As so many doctoral students working on their dissertations have discovered, writing the literature review chapter is a tedious process involving many steps and pitfalls. To help save you time and heartache, this article will show you the most common mistakes encountered when putting together your literature review. These common literature review errors are broken down into three general categories:
- Writing & Stylistic Issues
- Issues with Literature Review Structure & Elements
- Credibility/Validity Issues
Common Errors Category #1: Writing & Stylistic Issues
Using emotional phrases – Avoid using emotional phrases in your literature review section. Remember, you are writing a literature review for the purpose of presenting the existing currents of thought on your research topic. This means you are only relaying what already exists in the research world of your topic. Thus, there should be no subjectivity and, hence, no words of emotion.
Giving personal opinions in a literature review– Although this issue should not be an issue, I see it all too often. Again, for the same reasons you do not use emotional phrases in a literature review, you also don’t insert your own personal opinions. The literature review is supposed to be an unbiased display of already-existing thought and research around your topic. It is supposed to be objective, never subjective.
Unwittingly plagiarizing – I will not focus on all the aspects of plagiarism that exist in a dissertation or thesis but, for literature reviews in general, there are a few issues you should take important note of:
- Unjustified claims
- No referenced page numbers for direct quotations
First, you must be very wary of any unjustified claims you may make. To illustrate this common mistake of doctoral students, refer to the following example of an unjustified claim:
In general, rice is known to be a staple food in Taiwan. The Taiwan Council of Agriculture states that there were originally no indigenous species of rice from Taiwan. Rice cultivation and technology was brought into Taiwan before the Qing Era. Shortly after, the Indica rice became the most productive and efficiently-grown rice grain, especially because of the ample construction of water reservoirs near rice fields. During the Japanese colonial period.
This example is full of unjustified claims and bring up several questions like how did the author know all this? And where was the information taken from? Remember, no matter what the claim and information, you must reference it. No reference for information like the example above means it may be considered as plagiarism, so be extra wary.
Using an author’s first and last name inside the text – When discussing authors and/or researchers inside your study, do not use the first and last name (whether inside or outside parentheses). Use the last name only, followed by the year of the study’s publication is you are required to use APA style.
Inserting long URLs in the body of a study – Often times, doctoral students insert long URLs to provide links to mentioned research studies or articles inside their paper. Do not do this. Instead, cite the source with the last name(s) of the author(s) followed by the year of the work. Then, in the references section of your paper, under the particular reference to that citation, you would insert the URL.
Common Errors Category #2: Issues with Literature Review Structure
Giving no background/definition section – This is an all-too-often occurrence and, unfortunately, many students forget to insert a pre-literature review section that gives relevant background information and key definition of terms. If you don’t define key concepts and present the necessary background information about your topic, you will alienate a huge potential audience to your work, especially if you aim to publish your dissertation in the future.
When defining certain concepts, do not provide too many definitions lest you confuse your audience. Keep it simple and cite only the most common definitions for any relevant terms and concepts.
Bad organization and structure – This is perhaps the most common error since badly organizing a literature review requires doctoral students to rewrite and restructure many parts. To prevent a bad structure from penetrating your literature review, use sub-headings and then organize your literature reviews under each of these sub-headings. Doing this will help you maintain focus on the details while keeping focus on the big picture and the overall chain of logic inherent in your review. This will help you avoid illogical structure and bad organization.
Irrelevant content – It is common that doctoral students get caught up in the details of their literature review especially while reading other studies. As a result, many students tend to mention studies or points that are unrelated to the topic and the research question(s) at hand. Therefore, make sure your literature review mentions studies fully relevant and, at the same time, make sure that the relevant points you mention about a study are also relevant to your sub-heading and research question(s). Just because a study is important to your topic does not mean that all the details within it are relevant to your task.
Not going over the methodology section of a reviewed article – Usually, doctoral students working on their dissertations like to focus only on certain aspects of articles they review such as the abstract, results, and discussion sections. However, these students fail to realize that reading through the methodology section of any reviewed articles, even a cursory reading, provides immensely valuable information to help them produce a top-notch dissertation. Do not lose the opportunity to gain valuable insight into honing your research study by learning from the methodology of others. Remember, the research methodology, the way you conduct your research, is perhaps the most difficult aspect of any PhD dissertation. Learn from others. If you ignore this advice you will waste time because your will surely need to add these details later (after your chair or mentor tells you it is required)!
Common Errors Category #3: Credibility/Validity Issues
Writing a narrowly-focused literature review – Too many doctoral students write their literature reviews in terms of general categories instead of writing on focused topics (and subtopics) sufficiently narrowed down. This results in a literature review that is too general and not directly related to their research questions. Thus, you should avoid topics or categories that would require an entire book to sufficiently cover. In addition, as previously discussed, you must make sure that the studies you include in your review are framed in terms of their relation to your research question(s). Finally, make good use of subheadings in your literature review and make sure these subheadings and their respective content are relevant to your research question(s) as well.
Relying on direct quotations – Another bad habit commonly found in doctoral students working on their dissertations involves the insertion of too many direct quotations. Although it is ok to insert direct quotations in your study, you should not rely on them too much. Doing so will prevent you from using your critical thinking skills and applying them to appropriately analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the studies you include.
Using non-scholarly sources – Something I see too often is doctoral students relying too much on professional opinion articles rather than searching for more authoritative or scholarly sources. They tend to avoid authoritative sources because these sources are usually the most arduous to read. Do not take shortcuts (or what seem like shortcuts). Spend quality time reading authoritative sources, no matter how much effort this requires. Doing so will make your literature review sparkle and compelling to read. It will also give you extremely valuable insight into appropriately conducting the rest of your study, making the long road ahead so much easier.
Citing only ‘supportive’ source – It is human nature to be attracted only to those arguments that support our own point of view. You must remember that your dissertation committee fully anticipates opposing opinions to exist in your literature review and they expect you to discuss them. Understand that citing dissenting opinions will only strengthen your argument, not weaken it. Although it is not necessary to focus too much on them, it is vital that you mention some dissenting studies and explain why they depart from your own thinking.
A Final Word – Get Help When You Need It!
Following the aforementioned guidelines to avoid common errors in the literature review will go a long way to help you create an awesome chapter. However, no matter how much you try to do so, you may still find yourself frustrated.
Your dissertation advisor or mentor may be unwilling, or unable, to give you the help you need. If you refer to your colleagues, you may find them unable to explain the process appropriately or, if they can explain it to you, their process may not work for you, since there is no one single strategy to write a literature review.
In these cases, you don’t have to worry. You can find the dissertation help you need. Just contact a dissertation consultant who can give you the expert help you need, or at least guide you far enough to do it on your own. Remember, your doctoral dissertation is not only a precursor for your PhD, but it is also a key that can open many doors for you. Don’t waste your time and energy because you were hesitant to seek assistance!