The Literature Review
A Step-by-Step Guidefor Students
London: SAGE Publications (2nd Revised edition), 2012
Paperback. xi+214 p. ISBN 978-1446201435. £19.99
Reviewed by Robin Ganev
University of Regina (Canada)
“Your university library bookshelves are lined with books in printed from...” 
“...we can say that reading contributes to the research process...” 
Admonishments with this level of insight are myriad in Diana Ridley’s The Literature Review : A Step-by-Step Guide for Students. These quotations give a hint of what may be wrong with the book. Before I go further I want to acknowledge that I am a historian, and some of my objections to this book may reflect the limitations of my own discipline. I do not claim to speak for all disciplines or all scholars. If scholars in other disciplines have a different perception of this kind of study guide they may not agree with my criticism. The blurb on the back states that this is a bestselling book, and indeed, this is its second edition, so if I am wrong, I will gladly hear the arguments and take note.
Most of the book is aimed at graduate students (Masters or PhD), though on p. 2 the author states that she also wants to target undergraduates. This right here could be one of the central problems, and I will return to it below. The author works in the UK, but the book’s larger ambitions are evident in its being published not only in the UK but in the US as well as New Delhi and Singapore. The book focuses on the role of the literature review in academic writing and does a good job in the introduction of making a case for the importance of the literature review and explaining what it is. There are also chapters on doing research, reading and note-taking skills, citations and writing strategies. The presence of these makes the book’s scope considerably larger than the title would suggest.
Although they are buried among pages of embarrassingly obvious observations, and can be found only after careful excavation, there are some good insights and ideas in the book. The best sections have to do with electronic research. This area is growing and changing so quickly that many aspects of the digital world will still be new to beginners and even more experienced researchers. The advice on evaluating online sources by investigating authorship and publication date is very useful to undergraduates. The descriptions of COPAC (a combined online catalogue for university and research libraries in the UK and Ireland) and BublLink (a catalogue of internet resources) are useful to all students. Ridley also talks about the snowball technique, discovering new literature through citations in the books/articles you are reading and how that has acquired a new dimension through electronic journals that allow you to track forward citations: for example, when reading an article from 2004 you could track forward to see all the subsequent articles/books that have cited it in following years. There are good sections on Boolean and wildcard searches. Ridley’s description of CiteULike (a social bookmarking site for sharing scholarly papers) is also very intriguing . She suggests choosing among these many possibilities the ones that work best for you. There are sections on being critical and foregrounding the writer’s voice that could be helpful to undergraduates.
It is difficult for anyone to create a good and genuinely useful study guide. It makes for tedious reading, and most good students do not acquire study skills by reading study guides, they do so by engaging actively with their classes and teachers and by practice. Nonetheless, a study guide can be helpful, particularly when introducing a beginner to a specific discipline. An old, but great study guide of this kind (now outdated because of the digital revolution) is Richard Schneider and Norman Cantor’s How to Study History. It is an excellent introduction to the philosophical and methodological underpinnings of the discipline and could be useful to sophisticated undergraduates as well as beginner graduate students.
Diana Ridley’s book was flawed from the very beginning in its insistence that it would be relevant to any of the liberal arts. In fact, the blurbs on the back and the introduction evade stating what disciplines the book applies to, but from reading it one can glean that it is about the humanities and social sciences rather than hard science. In trying to be all things to all people, the book fails to say anything concrete. It is not possible to create a serious guide for PhD students in any discipline. By the time they begin a PhD program students are already highly specialized, and what they need most is to refine the knowledge of their specific field.
Clearly the book suffers from a poor definition of its intended audience. Leaving aside the issue of interdisciplinarity, it is not a good idea to create a study guide that appeals to both undergraduate and graduate students, because these are two very different groups of people. If the book were meant for undergraduates, the sections on the literature review (the book’s supposed focus) are much too detailed and complex. Undergraduates do not write prolonged, exhaustive literature reviews. For them it is an accomplishment to put together an essay that makes sense and is in their own voice. What they need is advice on how to write in the first place, rather than advice on the literature review. (Unless they are exceptional students, in which case they do not need advice.)
If the book is intended for graduate students, then much of the advice is of little use. No graduate student will need advice like this: “Find the shelves in your university library which have the books most closely connected to the topic you wish to research” and “all the books you need may not be in the same location.” If you are not aware of this by the time you are a PhD student, you are extremely unlikely to complete your program. Ridley also explains how to access the internet, pointing out that you need a personal computer with a modem, a telephone connection, and a WiFi connection . It is odd to see this in the same book that offers interesting and sophisticated ideas on using digital research tools. Advice on speeding up your reading urges you to “Avoid saying the words aloud to yourself as you read” . At one point Ridley even defines the terms “theory” and “concept” explaining that “The use of concepts gives us a means of making sense of the world” . Forget PhD students. How uninformed does an undergraduate have to be to be impressed by this advice?
The book suffers from a lack of focus not just in its intended audience but in its theme. It appears to be extremely specific, focusing on the literature review, but much of it is actually about general study skills. The two themes are at odds with each other. I am not certain you need a guide to how to write a literature review if you are a PhD student. That is something you will have learned from your reading and from writing papers.
Some sections are simply unnecessary, like the sections dealing with bibliographic form, citations, and copyright. Every discipline has a preferred method of citation and bibliography, and there are online guides to this like the Chicago Manual of Style. You have to consult these guides when doing academic writing at an advanced level, and you are not likely to rely on Ridley. The section on copyright is helpful but specific to the UK.
In conclusion, there are sections in this book which could be useful, but the book needs to be rethought with a specific focus, specific discipline or at least inter-related disciplines, and carefully defined readership in mind. As it stands, it is difficult to obtain enlightenment from it.
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