Do you really want to publish your literature review? Advice for PhD students

[Guest post by CYGNA member Tatiana Andreeva]

Almost every PhD student I met had an idea that the literature review paper would be the first academic paper they publish. They thought of it being the first paper for two reasons - naturally literature review was the first stage of their PhD journey, but also they thought it was something relatively straightforward to do. To reinforce these ideas, in some PhD programmes I know publication of the literature review is routinely put as a milestone in the PhD progression plans.

At the same time, if you talk to academics who actually tried to publish a literature review, you would most often hear that it is a very challenging thing to do. Moreover, I recently realized that we rarely teach our graduate students how to do a literature review, let alone how to publish it. A weird mismatch, isn’t it? So, dear PhD students, I’d like to put some clarity around it for you. There are two key reasons why publishing literature review as your first paper may not be a good idea.

Not all literature reviews are made equal

First, the literature review you do as a first step of your PhD journey and publishable literature review are two different beasts: they have a different purpose, focus and audience.

The literature review you do as a first step of your PhD aims to inform you as a novice about existing literature and to help you identify an interesting research question or situate it better in the existing research landscape. You are likely to read different literatures and/or focus on different aspects, as you are trying to find your own research voice and space. As your PhD progresses and you get new ideas or unexpected empirical findings, you are likely to review the literature again (and again…)

Even if you do this literature review(s) following the best standards, it is very likely that parts of it will never be published – neither as a separate article, nor even as a literature review section of an empirical paper. Not because they are bad, but because they may end up being not so relevant for the final focus of your PhD. I know it is heartbreaking to discard pieces of work, especially our own writing, but if you think of them as steppingstones rather than final products, it becomes easier.  

In contrast, the literature review that is done for publication aims to inform others - many of whom are likely to be experts in the field - about something beyond existing literature and to propose future research agenda for them (and maybe for you as well, but it is not the main goal). Therefore, it needs a clear and single focus - on a specific research problem within a specific body of literature. And, if all goes well, it should be published – at least, that is the plan.

The table below briefly summarizes these ideas:

 

Literature review for your PhD

Literature review for publication

Target audience

You (the novice in the field)

Others (including experts in the field)

Purpose

Your RQ

Future RQs/ideas for others

Focus

Multiple foci or stages

Clear & single focus

Publication

Parts may not be published at all

Main goal

Easy publication of literature reviews is a myth

Another reason why I think that planning to publish a literature review as a first paper in the suite of PhD publications is not a good idea is: the notion that such papers are easy to publish is a myth! I think it is actually even more difficult to publish a literature review than an empirical paper.

In an empirical paper, you always have an element of uniqueness, which is your empirical data. Indeed, nobody has collected something like this so it is unique. Sometimes when your data is interesting, it could happen that reviewers come back to you and say: "you need to improve your theory and develop a much stronger positioning of the paper, but your data itself is very interesting, so we give you a chance for R&R".

In my experience, this would never happen with a literature review paper – because your data is not unique, it is something that has been already written and published. Everybody, if they want, can access it. So with the literature reviews is really becomes critical that from the very start you have a very clear and strong idea of what is the problem that hasn’t been solved that your literature review solves, and what would be your theoretical contribution. This is a challenging task for everyone, not only for a PhD student, so it might be too risky to start from it your publication journey.

All that said, it does not mean that you cannot - or should not - do a literature review publication. Indeed, at some point it may stem from the literature review you did for your PhD. I hope that understanding the differences between these beasts may help you to master both – and plan your PhD publication portfolio better.

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