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Succeeding in postgraduate study
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4.2 Secondary literature

Secondary literature is useful in helping you to engage with a new research area. It is generally easier to read than a primary research paper, but harder to evaluate in terms of authenticity and potential bias. A review paper can be thought of as an extended critical essay. The Introduction sets out the issue and the way in which it will be tackled through the rest of the review, while the main body of the review is taken up with a lengthy analysis of various points of view. In principle, the author attempts to do one of two things:

  • Show how different perspectives, theories, hypotheses or pieces of work relate to a topic.
  • Defend or propose a particular theory or hypothesis as being the best among many. To do this, the author has to emphasise the differences or controversies that cannot be accommodated within current theories. This is typically done by proposing a ‘best-fit’ theory or hypothesis of some sort.

The long middle section of a review paper is usually very closely argued and may appear to a non-specialist in the subject area as being entirely reasonable. The art of the scholar or critic (namely you) is to find out what the author is saying and whether what they are saying is valid and unbiased.

Most reviews present information in an objective way, however occasionally there may be errors of omission, e.g. crucial evidence that does not fit the argument being presented is intentionally omitted, or relevant articles that resolve the controversy under discussion in a different way are omitted. There may also be errors of interpretation, where the author highlights a particular aspect of a paper which was originally either ignored or played down, or there could be logical flaws in the argument that the review author is advocating, which conflict with the arguments presented by some of the original authors. Therefore, when reading review papers, you need to be careful how you interpret and use them – it is not unexpected to discover that two different people have started off with the same database of literature and ended up with very different arguments, both of which may be perfectly valid.

Like research papers, review papers end with a Conclusion in which the main points are repeated to allow the author to justify the claim they have made in their Introduction. In essence, review articles provide other researchers in the same (and different) subject areas with a quick overview of some of the key papers, findings, arguments and conclusions that have been extracted from a range of sources. Recently published review papers can therefore offer a good introduction to primary research papers that you may want to read yourself.