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Richard Phelps

June 17th, 2024

Dismissive literature reviews reduce understanding – so why do academics keep making them?

6 comments | 40 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Richard Phelps

June 17th, 2024

Dismissive literature reviews reduce understanding – so why do academics keep making them?

6 comments | 40 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

How many times have you read an article that confidently states there are few other studies in this area? And how confident are you that this is the case? Richard Phelps argues outside of the sciences there is rarely a lack of pre-existing literature, but claiming so is a rhetorical move to give priority to one’s own research.


Doesn’t all scholarship add to our storehouse of knowledge, you ask? Well, yes, in an absolute sense. Isaac Newton’s generous acknowledgement of his predecessors seeing farther by standing on the shoulders of giants comes to mind.

In a relative sense, however, a new piece of scholarship may subtract from our collective understanding with a most un-Newtonian device: the dismissive literature review. With a dismissive review, a scholar assures an audience that little or no previous research exists on a topic or, if it does, it is so poorly done it is not worth citing.

With a dismissive review, a scholar assures an audience that little or no previous research exists on a topic or, if it does, it is so poorly done it is not worth citing.

Moreover, over time dismissive reviews recursively continue subtracting. For subsequent researchers, a dismissive review discourages any further search of the research literature as, allegedly, there would be nothing to find. When a scholar declares they are the first in the history of the world to have studied a topic, they make a “firstness claim” – one type of dismissive review.

Dismissive reviews can be accurate, for example with genuinely new technologies; but most are probably not. Regardless, they are common. See for yourself with a few simple internet searches. In the search field, enter such phrases as: “this is the first study”, “paucity of research”, “few studies”, “little prior research”, and so on.

Their proliferation is a natural response to prevailing incentives. For the ambitious scholar, a dismissive review conveys several advantages over engaging the wider research literature. A scholar:

  1. saves much time and avoids the tedium of reading the research literature;
  2. adds to the citation totals of his or her in-group while not adding to rivals’;
  3. gives readers no help in finding rival evidence (by not even citing it);
  4. establishes bona fides as an “expert” on the topic (as experts are expected to know the research literature);
  5. attracts more attention by allegedly being “first,” “original,” “a pioneer;”
  6. increases the likelihood of press coverage for the same reason; and
  7. increases prospects for research grant funding to “fill knowledge gaps.”

By contrast, a scholar better serves the public interest by conducting honest, thorough, and very time-consuming literature reviews. But such moral rectitude won’t get one tenure.

The benefits of dismissive reviews accrue to individuals and small groups; the costs accrue to society as a whole. Dismissive reviewers not only divert our attention away from those more familiar with the research literature (genuine experts) they claim expertise they lack. With each dismissive review, we become less informed, and any resulting public policies are formed with less, and more skewed, information.

The benefits of dismissive reviews accrue to individuals and small groups; the costs accrue to society as a whole.

To be sure, the dismissed research literature remains available, somewhere. But if we do not know it exists, we are unlikely to know where to find it. These days, a mass of new information floods our purview every second, cluttering the view.

A few years ago, I began collecting dismissive reviews from some of the best-known scholars in my field of education policy. I had at first thought the behaviour was exceptional and limited to certain misunderstood topics. But my collection has now surpassed a thousand entries and reveals some patterns.

Some scholars flit quickly from topic to topic serially dismissing multiple, separate research literatures over time, their speed of movement uninhibited by time-consuming literature searches.

Some scholars persistently limit their citations not only to their own academic discipline, but to a certain group of cooperating colleagues. Collectively, they form a “citation cartel.”

dismissive reviewers number among the very few with access to policymakers, at least at the national level. Consequently, whether intentional or not, their dismissals serve a gatekeeping function

Once invested in their dismissive claims, these dismissive reviewers tend not to look back. In the process of collecting over a thousand dismissive reviews, I have yet to see a correction to or retraction of a dismissal that has already been formally published.

These dismissive reviewers number among the very few with access to policymakers, at least at the national level. Consequently, whether intentional or not, their dismissals serve a gatekeeping function, blocking the majority of available policy-relevant research from reaching those policymakers.

All of which led me to consider that these top scholars may have attained their status in part because of their dismissive reviews, not despite them. Or, as one might say in Silicon Valley, dismissive reviews may be a feature of successful careers, not a bug.

 


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Image Credit: Stephen Plaster on Shutterstock.


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About the author

Richard Phelps

Richard P. Phelps wrote The Malfunction of US Education Policy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023) and edited Correcting Fallacies About Educational and Psychological Testing (American Psychological Association, 2008)

Posted In: Academic communication | Academic writing | Featured

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