Science Stuff

Literature Reviews

I’m working on the literature review for my Masters of Philosophy (Physics) (henceforth to be known by the more familiar title ‘M Phil’ – sounds French!). I’m writing something that will end up being (much tweaked near the end) a chapter of the thesis, but I also have to present a lit review seminar in a couple of months.

(one of the interesting things is that I’m one of 2-3 physicists, labelled as biophysicists, in the Institute for Glycomics, which is full of biologists and chemists and biochemists. If anyone at all turns up for my talk, it will be a heap of smart non-specialists… and perhaps a couple of serious physicists from the other campus, charged with putting my feet to the fire)

In education, a literature review really needs to have three parts: some on the theoretical framework, some on the methodology and some on the empirical stuff – what we have learned from the research done so far.

The difference in (bio)physics – or at least my particular branch – is that the theoretical framework has pretty much been in place since Maxwell. If we get down to the ionic level we might have to get a little bit quantum on it – but even that’s a century old. So, guess I don’t really need to write too much about the theoretical framework in general: a bit about the specifics of the relevant theory and its implications for our work, but not a lot more.

In Kuhn’s terms, education can be thought of as ‘pre-scientific’. It doesn’t have a single dominant paradigm, it has dozens of competing paradigms. While they can be roughly sorted into qualitative and quantitative methods, the underlying paradigms are much more disparate. It’s necessary to say quite specifically where one’s research is located on this map – or possibly on a couple of different maps.

Physics, of course, is kind of the paradigm case (a slightly different use of the term – never mind, Kuhn apparently uses it 23 different ways) of a discipline that is ‘scientific’ in Kuhn’s sense. That means the methodology can largely be ‘taken as read’, since it’s shared by everyone in the field. It’s so foundational as to be pretty much invisible, and it’s certainly not necessary to waste words saying what everyone knows.

So this lit review I’m working on, while it’s complicated and technical in terms of the physics involved, and the maths used to tell that story, is actually more straightforward in some ways than the ones I routinely help students prepare in education.

2 Comments on “Literature Reviews

  1. I’m actually most interested in the methodology for selecting the literature you’ve decided to use in your review. How did you search? Which selection and exclusion criteria did you use, etc? Will you describe the methodology in the review itself? (I might be writing my thesis on reporting of methods in systematic reviews/meta-analyses)

  2. Yeah, I’ve written that kind of review before – there’s a forthcoming paper, but in that case it was my doctoral student, Xinxin, who wittled the hundreds of search engine and database hits down to the 70 or so papers that were relevant for our purposes – and detailed where and how she’d searched and how she’d whittled.

    In the humanities and social sciences, dozens or hundreds of papers might be relevant. In the hard sciences, because of the way they specialize more and more narrowly, there might be only a dozen or less relevant papers relating directly to this work, of which I’ll need to review all of them, and perhaps only 3-4 that are right on the topic. The approach is a bit different, for that reason.

    As a masters student – beginning of my postgrad research career – I also have to demonstrate understanding of the field, and kind of zoom in on the specific stuff from afar. My supervisor suggested in total it might be a matter of reading (or at least knowing about and scanning) 100 or so papers, of which I’d read in detail and review 30 or so for this document. Of those, as I say, only perhaps a dozen are specific to the project, the rest are about ‘how we got from Maxwell’s Laws in the mid-19th century to here’.

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