CYGNA: Writing a literature review paper: whether, what, and when?

Reports on our 41st CYGNA meeting on the challenge of publishing literature review papers

Since founding CYGNA in 2014 we have had 30 physical meetings. When COVID-19 hit, we moved the meetings online and increased their frequency, offering a full year of monthly meetings. We alternate topics related to gender in academia with academic skills development. This month we focused on publishing literature review papers.

We had 53 attendees, 49 of which can be seen above. As has become common in our online meetings, we had many international member joining us, including from Australia, Austria, China, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Mauritius, Norway, Portugal, and Spain. This time only 1/3 of the attendees were from the UK.

The session included a record number of new attendees, including a lot of PhD students. A special welcome to Anne Kurzmann, Catherine Welch, Danqi Wu, Denisha Seedoyal-Seereekissoon, Doy Ayeni, Ina Aust, Jia Ren, Lisa Graesli, Miriam Bachmann, Nafisat Olabisi, Nidia Veitch, Pia Adibe, Sara Zaeemdar, Sasa Ding, Xinran Wang and Yan Liang who all attended for the first time.

Why this topic?

We regularly do literature reviews as a part of our research process. Could (and should) these literature reviews be published as a separate piece of work?  In this session we peeked behind the curtain of the publication process of several literature review papers and based on this explored what the challenges of publishing literature reviews are and offered some tips how to address them. We discussed this issue through the different lenses – from a PhD student to an established scholar (and a PhD supervisor).

Organizer Tatiana Andreeva (Maynooth University, Ireland) had put a lot of thought into the topic of this meeting and had already published three excellent blogposts on this topic on my blog. They are going viral (well at least for academic standards) every time we share them, so they clearly hit a chord. Make sure you read them before embarking on the process of doing and writing a literature review paper.

Catherine Welch: a senior scholar reflects

Catherine's presentation (slides can be downloaded here) shared her story of publishing a literature review on a topic she has been researching for years before that. One might think that it would be an easy task for someone who knows the literature and its weaknesses well. Indeed, Catherine and her co-author had a clear idea from the start what they wanted to say with this paper – in other words, what would be their paper’s contribution.

Despite this, Catherine pointed out that publishing a literature review is never an easy journey. She highlighted that it is very important to 1) define clearly and negotiate with reviewers the scope and the boundaries of the review – what is to be included and excluded; 2) be very transparent about the chosen methodology for the review, and choices made at every step; and 3) articulate the need for, and contribution of, the review in a way that is convincing even for those who may not share your understanding of the relevant literature.

Ciara O'Higgins: a PhD's first publication adventure

Ciara's presentation (slides can be downloaded here) told the story of her journey as a PhD student, and how she fell into the common pitfalls of doctoral students, i.e. thinking a literature review has to be done for the dissertation so why not publish it too; and literature reviews are fashionable and everyone seems to be doing one, so it must be easy. The path to overcome these myths and face the hard truths of publishing was long and emotional.

The first lesson she shared was how proactively seeking feedback from friendly scholars and colleagues (at conferences, doctoral consortia or academic networks such as CYGNA) was essential to both improving the paper and better understanding the written feedback received in rejection emails.

The second lesson was that managing feedback (hearing, digesting and addressing) is a key competence novice researchers must learn; and the role of (kind, empathetic and generous) supervisors, mentors and senior scholars is absolutely vital in this process.

She also talked of the struggles she and her supervisors / co-authors faced regarding really honing in on a theoretical contribution and thus going beyond just summarising the literature. This was eventually overcome by treating the papers in the literature review as if they were data and viewing it like any other empirical paper: just summarising findings never constitutes a theoretical contribution, the paper must contribute with a novel way to approach the field in the future. 

Ciara also participated in our CYGNA's 5 year anniversary: MDX writing boot-camp and was kind enough to mention the network in the acknowledgments for the paper. We are super-proud!

Helene Tenzer: a mid-career scholar's advice

Helene’s presentation (slides can be downloaded here) echoed the others in emphasizing that it does not suffice for literature reviews to summarize their field’s state of the art and specify gaps future studies may fill. Whereas such descriptive approaches provide readers with orientation and therefore enjoy popularity among academic peers, they are unlikely to find acceptance with high-ranking business and management journals.

To succeed in these outlets, literature reviews need to provide a fresh theoretical perspective on their field, categorizing the existing literature in novel terms and offering perspective-changing ways forward. Helene advised would-be authors of literature reviews to take particular care in defining the concepts at the heart of their papers, as these definitions determine the scope of the literature to be covered. Literature reviews require tremendous patience, she concluded, but if fought through, they can turn into highly cited papers and make their authors known in the academic field.