Improving the Quality of Research: Writing a Good Literature Review

Published: 2020-06-29

Our new IFS strategy for 2021-2030 has the theme of Investing in Future Scientists. This year of 2020 is one of transition, where we are continuing with elements of the “old” strategy as we begin incorporating parts of the “new”. To learn from this process, we are reflecting on it in several ways, for example, through these monthly blog posts. I will be highlighting our experiences from the IFS Secretariat and I also invite others in the IFS family to share any reflections they may have.

Nighisty Ghezae, DirectorNighisty Ghezae, IFS Director

For the current call, we received 2110 submissions from applicants. After a prescreening at the secretariat, 544 applications were sent to around 1200 reviewers. We are now nearing the conclusion of the review process. With the change of eligibility in our new strategy to those who are enrolled in a PhD or are post-PhD, we expected that the quality of applications would be higher than in past calls. However, it was lower than expected. When research is ethically and effectively planned, conducted and reported, the results can be used to offer solutions to the sustainable development challenges that Low- and Lower-Middle-Income Countries (LLMIC) face. Research of poor quality – due to weaknesses in literature review, study design, methodology, data collection, analysis, discussion and presentation – may lead to invalid conclusions and a misuse of resources.

Cognisant of such issues, and as part of its mission to enhance the scientific capacity of early career researchers in LLMICs, IFS has for many years used several tools (e.g., guidelines, training courses and mentoring) to help researchers to improve the quality of their research. Despite progress, and with optimism for even more, our analysis of the 2020 call applications suggests that there are systematic problems with the quality and reliability of research and more attention needs to be given to support for early career researchers.

Let’s look at the literature review, the basis for high-quality research that is relevant, original, generalisable and impactful. In addition, a good literature review provides context, informs methodology, avoids duplication, ensures that professional standards are met and maximizes innovation. Any one of us can remember the first time we tried to write a literature review. In addition to the science, there is also the art of creating and writing a solid literature review.

For the recent call, the Scientific Advisory Committees (SAC) confirmed the Secretariat’s impressions about scientific quality. Applicants failed to present a thorough, accurate and up-to-date literature review by identifying an important problem and placing the proposed research in context. This is consistently identified as one of the top reasons for rejection. Some literature reviews in the assessed applications consisted of pseudo-random lists of papers related to the problem domain, followed by a statement of what will be done in the proposed project. No direction. No critical analysis of the literature. No identification of knowledge gaps. No linking of the purpose of the research to these gaps.

SAC members advised us that more training is needed by all sorts of actors, including within university programmes. For many years, IFS has tried to do its part and in the new strategy will look for ways to strengthen these elements of our programme. Videos that demonstrate how to do a good literature review should be included in the IFS guidelines. Information on free access to literature, journals, books and other information should also be shared. More opportunities need to be created to help grantees realise that literature reviews take time, are iterative and should continue throughout the research process. Keeping organized is critical and researchers should be advised and guided by IFS to maximize the use of other professionals such as librarians and colleagues, search tools and existing related literature.

We also know that sharing information with applicants is no guarantee that the resources will be used and internalized. This is a capacity-enhancing process that continues as early career researchers mature as scientists. IFS and other similar organisations should work together to strengthen their contributions to career-long learning.

With thanks 

Nighisty Ghezae



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