Standing on the shoulders of giants

In education research you often hear people proudly proclaim they carried out a very thorough literature review after carrying out their study. This is getting the cart the before the horse and is a reversal of the order in which a program of research should be carried out.

The literature review or introduction section of research has developed over centuries as a crucial structure to guide investigative thinking. Its main purpose is to show how the previous work in a field leads the researcher to their research question. It is crucial to this whole sense of a literature review that the research idea itself has emerged from and builds upon the established research in a field. Thus if the literature review is carried out after the study the study cannot evolve from existing knowledge.

It is implicit within this definition of a literature review that others may have previously made valuable progress in an area. It is also implicit that others in a field may have made contributions likely to influence a researchers thinking. In other words, alter reader’s a priori assumptions.

The alternative to reading around a topic before embarking on research is very appealing; not least as it saves the effort of wading through reams of dense research documents. But it is perhaps most appealing because it flatters the researcher. Not reading anything before you plan research implies an idea all researchers secretly harbour; that they are so clever that they can come to a research field ‘naked’ – unencumbered by established orthodoxy and figure out what’s going on.

It seems likely the requirement in scientific research to have knowledge of the literature before planning research has developed because this tendency not to bother has been found not to work very well.

There’s egotist in every researcher that fancies themselves a Copernicus, Darwin or Newton, imagining that they can make progress without reference to previous work, when the truth is all of them were inspired by what was previously known.

Reading the research on a topic before designing a study is important because it guides research down a path more likely to bear fruit. Building on what has been done before has been found over time to be more likely to yield progress than each researcher starting from scratch.

Perhaps this is because of an uncomfortable truth that investigating anything objectively is harder than it looks.

Literature reviews also seem important in another sense crucial to the success of research science. It seems that being objective is much harder that it appears. We start out in research pretty sure our perspective is fresh and uncontaminated by prejudice and assumptions. But determined commitment to enquiry often reveals we are riddled with naive assumptions colouring our view. First sight of the established methods used in research is often off-putting. Professional researchers seem to be very reductionist, and simplifying complex issues into measurements that don’t seem to relate to the real world. However, close examination often reveals that they are not doing this out of an autistic view of the world rather they are forced to by the constraint of only measuring what can be measured reliably. Its not that they would not prefer to investigate something much more thoroughly and more holistically, it is often that research resources won’t stretch to it.

It’s a wonderful thing that when many researchers act in good faith and in honour to the principles of being objective they tend to coalesce towards a consensus about the more reliable and certain way of investigating an issue. By understanding how others have ended up looking at things the way they do the reader can tap into the knowledge accrued from the long journey many have already been on.

It’s always worth considering that others might have already considered an issue from the position you currently hold. They may have already done work based on the same assumptions and found there are difficulties with them.

Reviewing literature doesn’t mean you have to accept findings or repeat others methods, often quite the opposite. A thorough review might lead a researcher to conclude with a great deal of certainty that findings made before are invalid or that they methods used were all wrong. But it is in the detail of the how, where and why other methods are wrong that justifies the reasonable case for studying things differently. The greater the clarity about why others got it wrong the greater your chances of avoiding their mistakes. In this way you are building on the work of others and working in a successful tradition of standing on the shoulders of giants.


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