Telling a Research Story: Writing a Literature Review

Book Review
Telling a Research Story: Writing a Literature Review
John. M. Swales & Christine. B. Feak. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. Pp. xiv + 98.

Reviewed by Raquel M.T. Lothringer and Diana M. Waigandt
Universidad Nacional de Entre Ri­os
Paraniá, Argentina

This hundred-page book (including illustrations and references), a reworking and expansion of a part of Feak and Swales s English in today s research world (2000) and the second volume in a series: The Michigan series in English for academic & professional purposes, aims to offer assistance to tutors and researchers during the later stages of the writing up of a literature review.

The text is organized with an introduction and seven chapters. The introduction clarifies the purpose of the book, its underlying organization, and its intended audience. After the introduction, each chapter presents key topics associated with the genre.

I. The first, Orientations, begins with an epigraph which illuminates the section by enhancing the crucial functions fulfilled by the literature review in academic and research writing. The chapter then illustrates what makes referencing prior literature a defining feature of nearly all academic and research writing (p. 2), characterizes different types of reviews, and points out the difference between being a scholar and a researcher. The section also deals with a presentation of the most frequent weaknesses detected by professors in literature reviews. To help overcome them, the authors offer some examples and practical advice on imposing order on the literature as well as on choosing areas for inclusion in the review.

II. The second, Getting Started on the Literature Review, focuses on two challenging issues the author feels the writer should consider in order to reduce the reader s cognitive load: securing information flow and using metadiscourse adequately. The section also includes a thorough and well-referenced presentation of citation patterns, which elaborates on the topic earlier presented in Genre Analysis (Swales, 1990, p. 148-51).

III.The third, Drafting, Redrafting and Redrafting Again, offers a case study, that of a doctoral candidate s vicissitudes with her literature review. Underlying this essentially practical section lies the authors view on the enormous value of drafting and redrafting in the writing process. Instructors and tutors may find interesting ideas on how to coach candidates while those reading the book for self-development will get information about different types of dissertations and may develop a critical attitude towards strong and weak points in literature reviews by completing the tasks provided throughout the book.

IV.The fourth, Taking a Stance toward the Literature, sets out to clarify the importance of the reviewer s perspective on the literature being reviewed. Moreover, this chapter highlights how the reviewer s stance may assume an organizing function in some literature reviews and considers how it is inherent to the genre. Reference to stance markers and an activity demanding reading of previous sections and engagement in discourse analysis are also included in this section.

V. The next, Constructing an Original Discussion of Previous Work: Using Your Own Words, is a particularly thoughtful section where the authors encourage reflection on a burning issue in academic circles today–plagiarism–and help readers understand problems posed by paraphrasing and summarising academic texts. In keeping with the practical rather than ethical approach to the topic, strategies to overcome difficulties and avoid patchwriting are also provided.

VI. In the following one, Criteria for Evaluating Literature Reviews, the authors highlight the importance of having a fairly comprehensive understanding of the previous work in their field before undertaking research (p. 93). It also includes a scoring rubric designed by Boote and Beile (2005) for the field of education which Feak and Swales consider may be adapted for other disciplines as they believe it may be relevant for self-evaluation and may lead to students greater methodological sophistication in their own research. (p. 93).

VII. The last section, Some Final Thoughts to Consider, is aimed at pulling all the threads together and consists of a questionnaire to evaluate one s own literature review.

Examining each chapter, readers will see one of the outstanding strengths of this book to be the authors ability to stand at the crossroads where theory, practice, and invaluable professional experience interact dialectically. In this respect, the importance of the tasks presented at the end of each chapter (along with the online feedback provided for them on the publisher s website) must be also emphasized. Apart from contributing to the activation of prior knowledge, reflection on key issues, and to raising awareness about one s own practice, they bring to the fore the authors constructivist stance, their concern about students needs and their extensive knowledge about the field of academic writing.

Reading each part of this remarkable book will indeed help tutors, instructors, and independent researchers appreciate the retrospective view involved in writing literature reviews as well as the backward glance over roads travelled the authors provide to offer a renewed proposal towards them, for, as the title indicates, the authors have focused on the literature review as a genre, providing both insights into its rationale and a reservoir of activities that can be adapted both for classroom use and self development.

Boote, D., & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher, 34(6), 3-15.
Swales, J.M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Swales, J.M., & Feak, C.B. (2000). English in today s research world: A writing guide. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.