Publishable Literature Reviews - From a Class Paper to a Publishable Review - Conference Proposals and Article Types

Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools that Support Scholars’ Success - Mary Renck Jalongo, Olivia N. Saracho 2016

Publishable Literature Reviews
From a Class Paper to a Publishable Review
Conference Proposals and Article Types

When academic authors consider a strategy to guide them through the morass of ideas they have collected during a literature review, theory frequently falls far down the list. Yet the identification of a theoretical base may be the single, most helpful way to arrive at a unifying construct. Imagine that the world of knowledge is a huge country estate surrounded with scenic views on every side. Theory limits your perspective (something that you openly admit) by providing a particular vantage point. Just as it would be impossible to look out of every window in a mansion simultaneously, it is equally counter-productive to think of your theoretical base as all of the theories you have encountered during your coursework. Your theoretical base is the window you choose to gaze from in the house of big ideas. While you acknowledge that there are many possible views, this is the one you have selected to frame your perspective.

When dissertation committee members or peer reviewers of a manuscript refer to theoretical base, what they usually mean is that they expect the writer to identify a theory that is:

· Appropriate and relevant

· Logically interpreted

· Well understood (e.g., both in terms of strengths and limitations)

· Applied to the question

Theories that fulfill these criteria can serve as a “base of operations” for the investigation. A frequent response to the advice, “Find a theoretical base” is to think about the “grand” theories, those theories with at capital T that are found in virtually every textbook. Although grand theories would appear in the literature review for your dissertation (assuming that they are relevant), it is often the “small” theories that prove most useful in actually conducting the study.

Suppose, for example, that you have noticed that doctoral students express different levels of satisfaction with their dissertation committees and you see a study in there somewhere. For the inexperienced researcher, it would be common to flounder around, never getting past the topic stage. But suppose that instead you go on a quest to find a theoretical base. If you think that the dissertation advisor plays the pivotal role, you might check into a theory of mentor/protégé relationships. Perhaps, in conversations with students, you’ve noted that there appears to be a mismatch between some students and the doctoral programs in which they are enrolled (or abandon), so you go to the literature to seek out a theory on how graduate students choose a program. You may have noticed that the variables which lead to students’ satisfaction with doctoral programs are not all that different from other types of job satisfaction, so you begin your theoretical hunt there. The list could go on and on but the point is that, finding a useful theory is like getting your building permit before building a house. The construction can begin because theory is foundational.

The truth is that most research begins as a hunch. The trick is to get past the hunch stage, where your idea still sounds like a book report (e.g., “My study will be about…”). A major conceptual shift occurs when you transform a vague domain of interest into a workable plan. Once again, here’s where theory can help.

One of my former advisees had a hunch about Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) meetings. An IEP is a meeting at which the learning objectives for a child with disabilities are discussed and planned. Usually, the “regular” classroom teacher, special educators, administrators, and professionals from other fields (e.g., speech/language pathologists) participate. Her hunch was that the types of interprofessional interactions during these meetings affected the outcomes in important ways. It was not until she located sociological theories about the characteristics of effective collaboration and group dynamics that her study began to take shape. Likewise, if you wanted to study the phenomenon called a dissertation defense meeting, a topic search would yield very little. If, however, you think more in terms of how groups of professionals in committees render decisions about applicants’ or candidates’ performances, a host of methods will emerge. It may be a “big T” theory, such as group dynamics, or, it could be a “small t” theory, such as a conceptual model of a particular decision-making process from a qualitative study. For instance, what process is used to decide which universities will receive a major grant? How do Fortune 500 companies select CEOs? When book publishers review proposals, how do they decide who gets a contract? How do committees choose superintendents for school districts? Each of these important decisions requires collective professional judgment and published research on any of them would be based on a theory. One of those theories could serve as a guide in studying the particular type of decision-making that interests you.

Searching for theoretical links across disciplines and topics can stimulate your thinking, reveal the interrelatedness of knowledge, offer numerous examples of how to proceed, and make your study more innovative. Best of all, virtually every piece of research concludes with a “cheat sheet” of recommendations for further research. These ideas from more experienced researchers can lead you to consider other theoretical bases and methodological directions for the particular dissertation you have in mind. A theoretical base, far from being a waste of time, is a time saver. Settling down with a useful theory puts you in the window seat of that metaphorical mansion, serenely gazing out one window, seeing things from a particular vantage point. After you combine that theoretical perspective with the literature review, you can begin to fashion a conceptual framework. “The language of theory, in fact, often stands like parentheses at either end of academic research reports: a theoretical framework is proposed at the beginning and a theoretical discussion synthesizes findings and their significance at the end” (Ely, Vinz, Downing, & Anzul, 1997, p. 225).

Activity 5.5: Using Reviews to Build a Conceptual Framework

As Ravitch and Riggan (2012) suggest, the best quality reviews yield a conceptual framework that serves a “guide and a ballast”.



Online Tool

Watch the Central Queensland University (Australia) tutorial on the work of reviewing with video clips at

Two former editors of the American Education Research Association publication, Reviews of Educational Research, used the metaphor of a stone wall to explain what makes a literature review publishable. They say that the scholarly literature

is like a wall that is built one stone at a time, each stone filling a hole previously unfilled, each one mortared and connected to those that came before and after it, each one providing a support for the subsequent ones, and each one being supported by those that came before…The review article attempts to describe the wall itself and to discover its mortar, its architecture, and design; the wall’s place in the architecture of the larger structure; its relation to the other elements in the structure; its significance, purpose, and meaning in the larger structure. (Murray & Raths, 1994, p. 197)

Publishable reviews also have a narrative quality (Merriam, 2009): they tell a “good story” “about a mature body of literature” (Murray & Raths, 1994, p. 199, p. 417).

Activity 5.6: Criteria for a Publishable Review of the Literature

Identify a student paper or other unpublished literature review that you have written. Locate a published review in a peer-reviewed outlet such as a professional journal or a research yearbook or handbook. The publication Reviews of Educational Research, published by the American Educational Research Association, offers many excellent examples.

Compare/contrast your paper with this manuscript in terms of:

· Evidence of a theoretical base

· Use of organizing principles that reflect synthesis (i.e., themes, patterns, strands)

· Thoroughness (e.g., searching the related literature in other fields)

· Discussion of criteria for inclusion/exclusion of studies and authoritativeness of sources

· Presentation of a logical argument signaled by headings

· Use of transitional words and phrases to indicate shifts in content

· Analysis and critique of research that identifies strengths and weaknesses

· Use of concise, specific examples to illustrate key points

· Description of the “landscape” of the topic, issue, or controversy in a readable, engaging, and narrative style

· Statements about implications that demonstrate how the work represents a stride forward and an original contribution