The genre of research articles: The literature review section

Photo Credit: Lost in Scotland via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Lost in Scotland via Compfight cc

This post continues the series I’ve done over the past year or so on writing research articles (RAs) based on John Swale’s Create-A-Research-Space (CARS) model. See my first post for an overview of RAs published in peer-reviewed journals. This time the focus is on the section of an RA social science researchers call the literature review (LR).  As I’ve written before, RAs in “harder” science journals normally incorporate their review of related literature in the introduction section. But “softer” science journals require more elaborate justification of their research focus so an additional section is the norm.

There’s relatively little empirical work on the rhetorical structure of LRs. I believe it’s because the CARS model has been applied primarily to RAs in the “harder” sciences. A 2012 study (see bottom of this post for details) is a notable exception because it involved a comparative study of RAs with similar topical interests in information science within “harder” and “softer” disciplines. Like introductory sections, LRs are rhetorically sophisticated. The majority of novice research writers I’ve worked with over the years have struggled with creating an elaborate justification for their own research embedded within description and evaluation of prior research. So here’s some help.

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Literature Review Sections

In general, the LR section of an RA includes the same three rhetorical moves as its introductory section: (Move 1) establishing a territory, (Move 2) establishing a niche, and (Move 3) occupying the niche. The table breaks down each of those rhetorical moves into more detailed descriptions. It was created to describe introductory sections of RAs so we will compare it against the LR section for the sample RA analyzed in my earlier posts. (I’ll explain why I altered Move 3, Step 3 for LRs below.)

Move 1 Establishing a territory Step 1 Claiming centrality or
In research or
In the world
Step 2 Making generalizations or
Step 3 Presenting background information
Move 2 Establishing a niche Step 1A Counter-claiming or
Step 1B Indicating a gap or
In research or
In the world
Step 1C Question-raising or
Step 1D Continuing a tradition
Step 2 Presenting positive justification
Move 3 Occupying the niche Step 1A Outlining purposes (why?) or
Step 1B Announcing present research (what?)
Step 2A Announcing principal findings or
Step 2B Predicting results
Step 3 Indicating RA structure Declaring a thesis or hypothesis
Step 4 Evaluating findings

Compared to the introduction for the same RA, there is far more space devoted to Move 1 (establishing the territory) — especially Step 3 (presenting background information). If you want to compare the two sections, you can view the complete RA on Scribd.

Summarizing previous research in the “softer” sciences requires a significant amount of RA real estate. In my doctoral seminar on scholarly communication, we looked at three RAs reporting empirical studies from management and marketing (Journal of Applied Psychology) and accounting (The Accounting Review) journals a couple of weeks ago. We chose them because they were representative samples from those journals. While the proportion of the entire RAs devoted to the introductions was 5%-10%, the proportion occupied by the LRs was between 10% and 35%.

Analysis of Rhetorical Moves in a Sample Literature Review

Here is an analysis of the rhetorical moves in the sample RA’s LR with examples.

Despite the relative space taken up with establishing the territory by providing background (Move 1, Step 3), the LR of the sample RA includes all three moves. (Few RAs would include all steps.) The LR begins with the heading, “Understanding (In)Justice in the Workplace,” by establishing the territory as organizational justice as studied by management researchers. After claiming centrality (Move 1, Step 1) and presenting background (Move 1, Step 3) in a few paragraphs, that portion of the LR ends by indicating a gap in the justice literature (Move 2, Step 1B).

The LR then returns for a couple of paragraphs to establishing the territory by presenting background (Move 1, Step 3) but focuses on research in justice by communication researchers. That portion of the LR ends by stating the researchers continue a tradition within communication studies (Move 2, Step 1D).

Once again, the LR returns to establishing the territory with the heading, “Rapport Management Behavior,” by presenting background (Move 1, Step 3) for a few paragraphs and a table, this time focusing on rapport management research. That final portion of the LR ends by outlining the purpose of the present study (Move 3, Step 1A) and declaring a thesis (Move 3, Step 3).

I added “declaring a thesis” as Step 3 of Move 3 in the table of rhetorical moves above.  In social or behavioral science RAs reporting empirical studies, it is the norm to use the discussion of prior research as a means for developing hypotheses. So this step should definitely appear within Move 3. And I’ve seen few RAs announce their structure within their LR section so I replaced it based on my observations. The 2012 study supports this revision for LRs in the social sciences.

Analysis of Style in a Sample Literature Review

Because the rhetorical purpose of LR sections is similar to introduction sections in RAs, the way textual elements are used is also similar. Here are some examples from the sample RA.

Textual Element Usage in LRs Examples from Sample RA
Tense  present is high & past is low 1. Research has explored employee perceptions of justice . . .
2. Scholars now recognize four categories . . .
3. Distributive justice is concerned with . . .
4. Organizational behavior research has emphasized the role of norms . . .
5. That research found that employees with lower quality LMX relationships with their managers had increased . . .
Passive use is mid 1. Informational and interpersonal justice were originally conceived as . . .
2. . . . such norms as respect and propriety have been documented within . . .
3. This finding is supported by the power and influence literature . . .
4. The effectiveness of a manager’s influence tactics is greatly influenced by the power bases . . .
5. . . . the usefulness of rapport management theory, which has been connected to the development of LMX . . .
Citation use is high 1. Research has explored employee perceptions of justice because they can have serious organizational repercussions, including job satisfaction, organizational commitment, evaluation of authority, organizational citizenship behavior, withdrawal, and performance (Colquitt, Conlon,Wesson,Porter,& Ng, 2001).
Hedging use is mid 1. . . . much research in organizational justice has attempted to delineate the nature of the norms . . .
2. Much of the research in organizational justice treats communication as information transfer . . .
3. . . . communication scholars have had relatively little impact in this area . . .
4. . . . the power and influence literature that suggests that important employee outcomes . . .

Where tense usage is concerned, the sample RA does use past tense but often it’s the present perfect form (like has explored). The use of simple past tense is used when referring to specific findings from past studies. But one of the first things young scholars have to learn is that the use of present tense conveys a sense of timelessness when discussing prior research. When RA authors choose to describe anyone’s research in past tense, it’s a signal that the research is no longer relevant.  That could establish a tone that is considered rude by readers who serve as reviewers and might think the research is relevant. It might even be their own work!

The use of passives serves to promote cohesion within LRs.  Whatever appears in the subject slot of a sentence is the focus and creates a link with whatever came in the previous sentence. Check out my video tutorial on cohesion if you want to understand how valuable passive voice can be.

The use of citations is obviously high in LRs. Nuff said.

The use of hedges is an important aspect of creating effective tone in LRs. The difference between the following is critical:

  • The research in organizational justice treats communication as information transfer . . .
  • Much of the research in organizational justice treats communication as information transfer . . .

Peer reviewers are likely to respond to the first version (without any hedge) with a comment that the LR author cannot make such a generalization about all organizational justice research.

I’ve omitted the category of “commentary” because I can’t find anything in Swales’ work that provides a definition with enough detail to allow me to apply it in a meaningful way. If anyone can help, I’d love to hear from you . . .

Research Sources

Hunston (1993). Evaluation and ideology in scientific writing. In M. Ghadessy (Ed.), Register and analysis: Theory and practice (pp. 57–73). London: Printers Publishers.

Kwan, Chan & Lam (2012). Evaluating prior scholarship in literature reviews of research articles: A comparative study of practices in two research paradigms. English for Specific Purposes, 31, pp. 188–201.

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