Literature Reviews and the Review Process: An Editor-in-Chief’s Perspective

This article orginally written by Murray E. Jennex (2015)

Here I just highlight the main keywords of this article. Lamb (2013) defines the literature review as a review of secondary sources documented in text that considers the critical points of current knowledge, including substantive findings and theoretical and methodological contributions to a particular topic. 

The University of Arizona (2011) notes that the literature review has two purposes. The first is to justify the review by showing there are gaps of knowledge that are worthy of closer investigation, that the contribution is original, that the research has been approached in a rigorous manner, and whether existing research contradicts or supports the research approach. The second is to develop an argument by showing an understanding of the critical literature, identifying issues, and framing the research into what is known, what remains to be learned, and how the research will contribute. Dennis and Valacich (2001) summarize the literature review’s purpose as identifying theory that can be used to explain findings and conduct the research. Dennis and Valachich (2001) also identify the top two ways of getting rejected by a quality journal as avoiding theory in favor of summarizing prior research and omitting key papers from the literature review. As such, as these sources indicate, the literature review is more than just summarizes the literature—it also frames the research in theory. This is important to understand because it shows that the literature review is a very important part of research and not just something that we are required to do.

What impacts the quality of literature reviews? I have reviewed many reviews and offer the following observed reasons that I’ve deduced from the reviewer comments to answer this question:
1. Literature reviews of convenience: these literature reviews are usually done by authors who do not have immediate access to all the relevant papers. I commonly observed such papers occur when a paper’s literature review contained papers from only one or a few relevant journals, usually the open access journals or those journals available through online repositories. Authors commonly respond to this issue by saying that their university cannot pay for access.
2. Weak search criteria: these literature reviews are usually done by authors who want to ensure that they are doing new work. I commonly observed such papers occur with students and new/junior
academics/researchers and with search criteria that were not consistent with the logical breakdown of the subject being examined (e.g., using partial ontology such as knowledge transfer and not associated terms such as knowledge flow or knowledge sharing, or using new names for constructs that already have agreed- on ontology such as a knowledge management repository system rather than the common term knowledge management system).
3. Artificial search criteria: these literature reviews are usually done by authors who want to limit the number of papers they need to include in the literature review. I have observed such papers in several cases with no discernable pattern for its use. These literature reviews are characterized by constrained search criteria (examples include search criteria that only look at journals in the AIS Senior Scholar basket, search criteria that are regionally constrained such as search criteria that only look for papers in South Africa papers written in a language other than the language of the journal such as Chinese, or search criteria that only look at quantitative papers instead of also qualitative papers that use quantitative measures).
4. Not going to the source: these literature reviews are done by authors who may not know better than to use original papers or who do not have access to them. This is rapidly becoming a major issue due to the open source movement and the Internet. Reviewers who understand seminal works and key concepts typically identify this issue. These literature reviews cite a paper that cites another paper instead of finding the source document (e.g., an example would be citing Jennex (xxxx) for a point made by Alavi and Leidner (xxxx) because the author has the Jennex paper but not the Alavi and Leidner paper). This issue is potentially the most damaging because it causes authors to not build on the existing body of knowledge and can potentially damage colleagues by not giving the appropriate credit where it is due. The issue is becoming more prevalent due to authors citing Wikipedia instead of the source citation, authors citing an edited book’s editor instead of the chapter’s author, or authors who cite an open source paper instead of the cited source in the document. I suspect that this could also be an issue with journals in other languages due to translation errors or lack of knowledge on how to cite properly by the translator.
5. Not understanding the source: these literature reviews usually do a good job of summarizing the literature but fail to synthesize it or, even worse, incorrectly synthesize the knowledge in the source. Reasons for these literature misinterpretations vary and many may be due to translation issues for non-native English speakers. Of course there are other literature review issues but the above five account for the vast majority that I have seen.

I recommend that editors should:
- Not burden reviewers with reviewing unacceptable or low-quality literature reviews: desk reject the paper and explain what it is expected for the literature review to the author(s). 
- Assist authors in finding appropriate literature from their journal and encourage reviewers to suggest their own papers if they are relevant as Jennex (2009) suggests.
- Be aware of the journals in their field so that they can ensure authors are covering them. 
- Do not automatically accept the reasons of the practical screen (Okoli & Schabram, 2010) for limiting literature reviews. Require authors to explain why applying the practical screen is acceptable and ensure reviewers concur.
- Include guidance and best practice for performing literature reviews in the guide to authors. 
- Include standards and expectations for literature reviews in the guide to authors.

Lastly, I recommend that reviewers should:
- Not perform the literature review for the author: it is okay to tell the author to do their job. 
- Understand the ontology of the field and ensure that the methodology used to perform the literature review is appropriate.
- If authors are applying a practical screen, ensure that the reasons used to justify it are reasonable and acceptable.
- Recommend a strategy for doing the literature review when there are significant issues with it. 
- Recommend your own work when it is relevant; build the body of knowledge as per Jennex (2009). - Ensure the critical papers in the field are reviewed as appropriate (Dennis & Valachich, 2001). 
- Ensure that authors synthesize the literature and demonstrate correct understanding of it; expect more than a summary of papers (Dennis & Valachich, 2001).
- Not consider the literature review as just something that needs to be done: it is an important part of research and ultimately the goal is to further the body of knowledge.

source:  http://aisel.aisnet.org/cais/vol36/iss1/8

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