The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is painfully aware that the lives and duties of academics can look very strange to outsiders. We’re a peculiar, insular tribe at times, and our rituals
are always can sometimes be off-putting to civilians. That’s why Spoiler Alerts occasionally likes to write about the academy, and to point out the sometimes very justifiable reasons for why we do the voodoo that we do so impenetrably.
Today’s civilian rant comes via Twitter from Adrian Wooldridge, the management editor and author of the Schumpeter column at the Economist:
Odd that academic papers start with an interminable & tedious literature review and end by saying that "more research is needed".
— adrian wooldridge (@adwooldridge) October 22, 2015
Adrian, I’m so glad you point this out, because it allows me to admit a guilty secret. Sometimes, when I’m nearing the completion of an academic paper, I fantasize about writing the following paragraph:
This paper definitively proves the hypothesis stated at the outset. No further research on this topic is necessary, we’re done here. Additional scholarly inquiry is not only unnecessary, it’s totally pointless. I have completely worked out this puzzle for all of time. Seriously. Everyone else conducting research in this field: give up and move on to new topics, because I have solved the living s**t out of this problem.
I will never actually put this paragraph in any paper I ever write, because, alas, it can never be true. In the world of social science, things change, there are few universal truths, there are always different ways of testing a hypothesis, new theories and new data to contemplate, and so forth. Even if a theoretical argument looks pretty good, replication is really, really useful, as psychologists have recently discovered. So the reason that academics say “more research is needed” is that even the biggest egomaniac in the academy wouldn’t have the chutzpah to claim that no more research is needed, end of sentence.
As for literature reviews, this is a curious objection coming from a civilian, because in an odd way the literature review is the most useful gateway for neophytes to read academic papers. Done well, a literature review states what the extant research has to say about a topic. Is there a scholarly consensus on the question or not? Are there contending schools of thought? What puzzles persist? What data controversies are there?
Peer referees like to see literature reviews in papers, because it sends a signal that the author is keenly aware of what preceded his or her article. An inadequate literature review can be the kiss of death to a paper if the author then proposes an argument or test that the referee knows about but goes uncited.
More importantly, a literature review is the way for someone who is not an expert on this particular topic to digest the current state of play. As someone who is a bit of a generalist in international relations, I find literature reviews extremely helpful, because they let me get up to speed quickly on a new area of research.
And if I’m an expert in the field? Well, then I’ll just skip or skim the lit review. It’s usually clearly marked. So if Adrian or other readers find themselves bogged down in an uninteresting literature review, my advice is to skip the entire section, except for the last paragraph.
But if you’re new to a topic, and want to learn what people have said about it, I’d suggest that you read a fair amount of literature reviews. They can save your scholarly life.