Is a literature review publication a low-cost project?

Discusses if focusing on a literature review publication is your best choice when you don’t have research money

In reaction to my post on whether PhD students should or should not publish their literature review as a paper, I received a number of comments saying that a literature review is the only feasible way for students from under-resourced institutions to have a publication, because empirical data collection is too costly.

I followed up with the authors of these comments to clarify what exactly they meant by “resources”. All of them meant “money”. In other words, some people claim when you don’t have research funding, a literature review paper is the only way to go.

I think there are two assumptions in this claim that are worth some scrutiny. One assumption is that writing a literature review paper is less resource-intensive than an empirical paper. Second is that an empirical paper – that is, the data collection part of it - always requires funding to be completed. I think both of these assumptions are misconceptions.

Myth 1: a lit review paper requires few resources

First, publishing a literature review paper does require a lot of resources: it is a very time-consuming process. For example, for each of the three literature reviews that I published so far, we did between two and four rounds of data re-analysis, that included additional searches to identify new articles, revising the coding scheme, and coding the whole dataset anew.

In addition, it is not only a labour-intensive task, but also a very brain-intensive one. To publish a literature review, you need to craft a strong contribution. In my previous post, I explain that making a contribution with a literature review paper is often more challenging than making a contribution with an empirical paper. Indeed, if others in your field have already read the same literature, what is it new that you are going to say about it?

Myth 2: empirical research always requires funding

In response to this, one reader explained to me that doing a time-consuming project is not a problem for them, while having no research money is. They said they were ready to invest two years of their time in working on a literature review publication because they didn’t have money to collect empirical data. To me, this is a misleading idea.

No doubt, data collection is resource-intensive, but it does not necessarily mean money-intensive. If we put aside some specific research methods that do require expensive equipment (e.g., MRI scanning or eye-movement-tracking technologies) – and such methods are a minority in management-related disciplines – the key resource needed for data collection is actually time. Your time!

For instance, for many of my own empirical projects, I didn’t receive funding for collecting data. Our main investment was time – spent by myself and my coauthors in talking to various organisations, building relationships with potential external partners, “selling” our research idea to them – in other words, building and leveraging our networks to get potential study participants on board.

In sum

So, if you, like one of my readers, have two years of your time to invest in a paper project, I would encourage you to consider how much of the interesting, high-quality data you can collect in two years, if you put all your efforts and creative thinking – because getting access to data often requires this as well - into it.

I think an honest answer to this question will most likely bring a empirical paper project on an equal footing with a literature review paper in terms of resources needed. And in the light of the potential risks associated with a literature review paper (I discuss them here), let’s see which of the two potential project wins.   

So, if you are making your decision to focus on a literature review publication based on the money considerations, I do think you are on the wrong track. I invite you to reconsider.

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