Lit reviews are (almost) functionally worthless

The other day I got an email from ACJS about the most downloaded articles of the year for each of their journals. For The Journal of Criminal Justice Education it was a slightly older piece, How to write a literature review in 2012 by Andrew Denney & Richard Tewksbury, DT from here on. As you can guess by the title of my blog post, it is not my most favorite subject. I think it is actually an impossible task to give advice about how to write a literature review. The reason for this is that we have no objective standards by which to judge a literature review – whether one is good or bad is almost wholly subject to the discretion of the reader.

The DT article I don’t think per se gives bad advice. Use an outline? Golly I suggest students do that too! Be comprehensive in your lit review about covering all relevant work? Well who can argue with that!

I think an important distinction to make in the advice DT give is the distinction between functional actions and symbolic actions. Functional in this context means an action that makes the article better accomplish some specific function. So for example, if I say you should translate complicated regression models to more intuitive marginal effects to make your results more interpretable for readers, that has a clear function (improved readability).

Symbolic actions are those that are merely intended to act as a signal to the reader. So if the advice is along the lines of, you should do this to pass peer review, that is on its face symbolic. DT’s article is nearly 100% about taking symbolic actions to make peer reviewers happy. Most of the advice doesn’t actually improve the content of the manuscript (or in the most charitable interpretation how it improves the manuscript is at best implicit). In DT’s section Why is it important this focus on symbolic actions becomes pretty clear. Here is the first paragraph of that section:

Literature reviews are important for a number of reasons. Primarily, literature reviews force a writer to educate him/herself on as much information as possible pertaining to the topic chosen. This will both assist in the learning process, and it will also help make the writing as strong as possible by knowing what has/has not been both studied and established as knowledge in prior research. Second, literature reviews demonstrate to readers that the author has a firm understanding of the topic. This provides credibility to the author and integrity to the work’s overall argument. And, by reviewing and reporting on all prior literature, weaknesses and shortcomings of prior literature will become more apparent. This will not only assist in finding or arguing for the need for a particular research question to explore, but will also help in better forming the argument for why further research is needed. In this way, the literature review of a research report “foreshadows the researcher’s own study” (Berg, 2009, p. 388).

So the first argument, a lit review forces a writer to educate themselves, may offhand seem like a functional objective. It doesn’t make sense though, as lit. reviews are almost always written ex post research project. The point of writing a paper is not to educate yourself, but educate other people on your research findings. The symbolic motivation for this viewpoint becomes clear in DT’s second point, you need to demonstrate credibility to your readers. In terms of integrity if the advice in DT was ‘consider creating a pre-analysis plan’ or ‘release data and code files to replicate your results’ that would be functional advice. But no, it is important to wordsmith how smart you are so reviewers perceive your work as more credible.

Then the last point in the paragraph, articulating the need for a particular piece of research, is again a symbolic action in DT’s essay. You are arguing to peer reviewers about the need for a particular research question. I understand the spirit of this, but think back to what function does this serve? It is merely a signal to reviewers to say, given finite space in a journal, please publish my paper over some other paper, because my topic is more important.

You actually don’t need a literature review to demonstrate a topic is important and/or needed – you can typically articulate that in a sentence or two. For a paper I reviewed not too long ago on crime reductions resulting from CCTV installations in a European city, I was struck by another reviewers critique saying that the authors “never really motivate the study relative to the literature”. I don’t know about you, but the importance of that study seems pretty obvious to me. But yeah sure, go ahead and pad that citation list with a bunch of other studies looking at the same thing to make some peer reviewers happy. God forbid you simply cite a meta-analysis on prior CCTV studies and move onto better things.

What should a lit review accomplish?

So again I don’t think DT give bad advice – mostly vapid but not obviously bad. DT focus on symbolic actions in lit reviews because as lit reviews are currently performed in CJ/Crim journals, they are almost 100% symbolic. They serve almost no functional purpose other than as a signal to reviewers that you are part of the club. So DT give about the best advice possible navigating a series of arbitrary critiques with no clear standard.

As an example for this position that lit reviews accomplish practically nothing, conduct this personal experiment. The next peer review article you pick up, do not read the literature review section. Only read the abstract, and then the results and conclusion. Without having read the literature review, does this change the validity of a papers findings? It for the most part does not. People get feelings hurt by not being cited (including myself), but even if someone fails to cite some of my work that is related it pretty much never impacts the validity of that persons findings.

So DT give advice about how peer review works now. No doubt those symbolic actions are important to getting your paper published, even if they do not improve the actual quality of the manuscript in any clear way. I rather address the question about what I think a lit review should look like – not what you should do to placate three random people and the editor. So again I think the best way to think about this is via articulating specific functions a lit review accomplishes in terms of improving the manuscript.

Broadening the scope abit to consider the necessity of citations, the majority of citations in articles are perfunctory, but I don’t think people should plagiarize. So when you pull a very specific piece of information from a source, I think it is important to cite that work. Say you are using a survey instrument developed by someone else, citing the work that establishes that instruments reliability and validity, as well as the original population those measures were established on, is certainly useful information to the reader. Sources of information/measures, a recent piece saying the properties of your statistical model are I think other good examples of things to cite in your work. Unfortunately I cannot give a bright line here, I don’t cite Gauss every time I use the normal distribution. But if I am using a code library someone else developed that is important, inasmuch as that if someone wants to do a similar project they could use the same library.

In terms of discussing relevant results in prior studies, again the issue is the boundary of what is relevant is very difficult to articulate. If there is a relevant meta-analysis on a topic, it seems sufficient to me to simply state the results of the meta-analysis. Why do I think that is important though? It helps inform your priors about the current study. So if you say a meta-analysis effect size is X, and the current study has an effect size much larger, it may give you pause. It is also relevant if you are generalizing from the results of the study, it is just another piece of evidence in addition to the meta-analysis, not an island all by itself.

I am not saying discussing prior specific results are not needed entirely, but they do not need to be extensive. So if studies Z, Y, X are similar to yours but all had null results, and you think it was because the sample sizes were too small, that is relevant and useful information. (Again it changes your priors.) But it does not need to be belabored on in detail. The current standard of articulating different theoretical aspects ad-nauseum in Crim/CJ journals does not improve the quality of manuscripts. If you do a hot spots policing experiment, you do not need to review all the different minutia of general deterrence theory. Simply saying this experiment is likely to only accomplish general deterrence, not specific deterrence, seems sufficient to me personally.

When you propose a book you need to say ‘here are some relevant examples’ – I think the same idea would be sufficient for a lit review. OK here is my study, here are a few additional studies I think the reader may be interested in that are related. This accomplishes what contemporary lit reviews do in a much more efficient manner – citing more articles makes it much more difficult to pull out the really relevant related work. So admit this does not improve the quality of the current manuscript in a specific way, but helps the reader identify other sources of interest. (I as a reader typically go through the citation list and note a few articles I am interested in, this helps me accomplish that task much quicker.)

I’ve already sprinkled a few additional pieces of advice in this blog post (marginal effect estimates, pre-analysis plans, sharing data code), although you may say they don’t belong in the lit review. Whatever, those are things that actually improve either the content of the manuscript or the actual integrity of the research, not some spray paint on your flowers.

Relevant Other Work

Leave a comment


  1. Jeff Boggs

     /  January 6, 2021

    Instead of marking loose papers, I am reading this blog. Bad me.

    I (try to) teach undergraduate students to write annotated bibliography entries, convert these into a literature review and then use that to inform their research proposal. In that instance, it helps orient students to already existing findings, the procedures (ostensibly) used to produce those findings and remaining gaps in the literature. I think in this context, for proposal writing, literature reviews make sense. In my course, it also makes sense because the following year they have a field trip for collecting data, and they have the option of building on what they proposed in my class. More generally, though, you’ve made me reconsider my position on peer-reviewed empirical journal articles.

    With that said, I’ve noticed disciplinary differences in how much citation is required. Sociology and Economics articles, for instance, _seem_ to have fewer citations than in my discipline (Geography). I always assumed this was because in those disciplines (especially economics) there was a tightly delimited canon, which meant that the reader was already assumed to know this canon.

    Criminal justice strikes me as being possibly more inter-/multi-/trans-disciplinary than especially economics, but possibly also sociology. I say this with only a shallow understanding of criminal justice. If my observation is correct, it might it be that disciplines that have looser boundaries are more likely to have looser canons, and thus require that the author better nail down their assumptions and intellectual trajectory. I suppose one could test this empirically after deciding how to identify how porous a discipline’s boundaries are, and then just taking the mean number of citations for the average article from flagship journals in each discipline.

    Anecdotally, I suspect older papers tend to have fewer citations, independent of discipline, but again, don’t know if this is true. I suspect someone has already done this work, so I will go back to marking. Thank you for the interuption!

  1. Publishing in Peer Review? | Andrew Wheeler

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: