Write a literature review, practice innovation

Convincing students of the value of writing a literature review as part of a research proposal can be a hard sell. They must research a huge body of academic scholarship on their topic and adjust their own research question so that it meaningfully builds on what has already been done.  Especially for the many students not planning a career in academia, I think it can feel like an exercise they do just to satisfy the course requirements rather than because they think they’ll get much out of it.  We talk about it helping them develop their critical thinking skills, but I suspect that isn’t particularly motivating, since all their other classes and assignments are supposed to be doing the same thing.

However, the process of writing a literature review is also good practice in innovation.  Knowing what has already been done in your field makes it much more likely that you’ll be able to recognize and develop ideas that are unique and interesting, and learning this process is a valuable skill.  For example, I sometimes talk to students who want to create whole new organizations to address social problems they care about.  I usually encourage them to first research the existing organizations in that field and learn from what they’ve done before striking out on their own.  Nonprofits need to know what their partners and competitors are doing and be able to describe how their work is different to be able to find funding.  I imagine it is the same in other fields.  Businesses that offer new, useful products not offered elsewhere have an edge over other businesses.  Journalists who have found a new angle on an old problem are more likely to get published and read than those that write things similar to what has been written before.  Lawyers do a “document review” process to help them understand how similar cases have been litigated before putting together their own cases.

Drawing these parallels between the process of writing a literature review and shaping a research project around it and it’s equivalent in other fields could also lead to some interesting discussions about scholarship and innovation.  For example:

  • Is a new research project/product/organization always better than old one?
  • What are the similarities and differences between innovation in academia and in other fields?
  • Is innovation always rewarded?  What are its risks?
  • Can anyone innovate?
Certainly innovation isn’t all about hard work.  There’s a certain amount of luck and historical timing involved too.  But I suspect that broadening the discussion of writing a literature review to include similar tasks in other fields may make the process more concrete and valuable for students.

One thought on “Write a literature review, practice innovation

  1. A friend sent me these thoughts via e-mail:

    “Hey Tracy: I read your WordPress post on Facebook, thanks. As for other fields, it may be of interest that anyone who applies for a patent must go through the same type of process, much of which cannot be done on the web, since pertinent “prior art” and prior patents are not always described there.”

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