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An Interview with Lawrence A. Machi: The Literature Review in Psychology: Six Steps to Success.

NAJP: Most of the time, students and even professors do not have the time to analyze every single article. How long does it take to complete the "6 steps to success?"

LM: The statement that professors and students do not have enough time to analyze every single article regarding the topic is not at issue. The researcher does not examine every possible article or text, but must select the salient ones. To conduct a successful literature review, the researcher must present an argument based on evidence that logically supports its conclusion. This evidence must present those facts (the appropriate literature) that make the evidentiary case. This information must present all sides of the case - for and against. The criteria for success is not gauged by time or volume, but by accuracy and completeness. The strength of the argument determines the strength of its conclusion, and the success of the literature review process.

The literature review is not a book report, nor an annotated bibliography, but a research project in and of itself. It provides the evidentiary case that argues for the thesis of the research, be it the current state of understanding about the topic, or the argument for a new research contribution. While most beginning researchers would rather not hear this, the average literature review can take hundreds of hours. The amount of time that it will take a researcher to complete a literature review really depends upon research acumen, a prior understanding of the subject matter, the nature of the research question, and the researcher's capability to conduct and produce a review.

NAJP: You discussed the issue of finding fallacies when researching articles. How often do you find them and where?

LM: Our purpose for including the fallacy discussion in our text (Machi & McEvoy, 2016) was to inform the reader about the potential errors a beginning researcher could commit when developing a literature review. However, using the 11 major fallacies enumerated in our text would be a way to critique the viability of any research article.

The purpose of a peer review, whether it be a degree committee reviewing a research project, or an academic peer review team reviewing a piece of research, is to weigh in on the veracity, accuracy, and soundness of that piece of work.

We share our research, not for the purpose of having it pass or fail, but so that research can be authenticated. All research must be shared and commonly agreed-upon, so its findings can be legitimately added to a body of scientific knowledge. However, if one travels beyond the realm of the peered review domain when searching for facts, one would not have to look far before confronting the fallacy pitfalls in written form. Hopefully, when one confronts those fallacies, one can identify and dismiss their arguments and conclusions for the falsehoods they claim.

NAJP: In step 3, how many articles do you collect, or how many would you suggest that a grad student collect?

LM: This is an age-old question that is usually paired with how many pages does the lit review need to be. The literature review is an inquiry about what we know about the subject in question. As earlier stated, its corpus presents a rational argument substantiated by strong evidence that warrants the thesis conclusion. The argument depends on the factual information gained from the review of articles, books, interviews, etc.

Factual information provides the foundation for building a strong evidentiary pattern or patterns that logically point to the thesis conclusion. The logical presentation of the case creates the conclusion and not the other way around. When the thesis case is made, and the case is accepted by experts in the field, then the researcher has collected the right number of articles. The number of written pages is determined by the composition penned that accurately presents that case.

NAJP: I read that in order to search for a preliminary topic, one must break it down by key terms. What if one has an extremely extensive topic matter that cannot be searched for by simply typing in three key terms? This seems to be quite difficult when conducting a literature search.

LM: Good question. To answer it I would like to first reframe it. Brenda and I see a literature search, as you have described, to be the second step of a two-step process. So, doing a Boolean search of key terms to access the pertinent literature is not attempted until much later in the process. The preliminary steps of defining and narrowing the topic occur first, to minimize the predicament you posed. The idea that there is a predetermined number of key terms is incorrect, since that number is determined by key concepts or ideas expressed in the topic statement.

It is of the utmost importance that the topic statement be clearly stated, concisely defined, and limited to the specific subject to be studied. Novice researchers tend to devote little time to framing the topic, and devote months to reframing it until it is focused, limited, and paired to the salient conversation within the appropriate academic discipline(s).

Topic development begins with identifying a subject for study. This statement is usually the product of a personal interest. The initial rendition of the topic statement tends to be broad and unwieldy. Also, it most probably is expressed in the common everyday vernacular, which often needs to be defined and clarified using the technical language of the appropriate discipline.

To mold the initial statement into a well-defined research topic, the researcher: first, clearly defines the key ideas that make up the topic statement; next, limits the topic to a single subject of study, and finally, selects a single unit of analysis, be it an individual, a group, or community perspective as the study population. Now that the initial statement has been revised, the researcher can pair it to the salient academic discipline. Consulting the subject area thesauri and dictionaries to define the key ideas of the subject statement will provide specific definition to the key concepts of the subject statement, as well as, connecting and defining those key ideas to a subject area discipline. Subject area encyclopedias and handbooks can now be consulted to access and explore the general discussions about the subject of study as it's treated in the discipline. Finally, a consultation with the research library will assist the researcher in validating the development of the preliminary topic statement to this point.

If the researcher follows a method such as this, then the possibility of conducting an ill-conceived literature search should be substantially reduced. The width and breath of the information are not the issue, the specificity and structure of the topic statement are. The initial topic statement must be molded, refined, and reflected upon, before one attempts to use this statement to begin a literature search.

Very few beginning researchers utilize the library reference sections of their discipline to good advantage, particularly when formulating the topic statement. As you should see by this explanation, a Boolean search is only conducted after much preliminary work has been done on the topic statement to ensure that it's focused, has specificity, it's terminology is connected and defined to the appropriate discipline, and vetted with the research librarian.

NAJP: What is the best way to skim and scan through the psychology literature without missing critical, crucial information?

LM: We use scanning and skimming, when searching and surveying the literature. We use scanning when querying the library and online catalogs to identify the works for possible inclusion in the study. We use skimming to rapidly peruse the possible works, identify the important ideas, and the specific contribution a possible text might provide for our research. Each of these processes helps identify textual information for inclusion in our survey of the literature.

The literature search is a weaning process that identifies the specific texts to be read and analyzed. The survey of literature process organizes the factual information, analyzes it for its strength and validity, and incorporates it into a body of evidence, based on its strength and significance. Analytical reading is the central task of a literature survey. Skimming and scanning gets us to the right materials, analytical and synthetic reading builds the case.

NAJP: Which data base or bases (EBSCO, GALE, JSTOR, ProQuest, SAGE. ERIC) do you prefer to use?

LM: Since I study in the field of organizational leadership, I tend to use Sage. However, your question brings up a strong point. Each of the online academic databases listed provides a specific vantage point and strength. Depending on your research question and the academic discipline it falls under, one or more databases may be more appropriate than the others. As we suggested in our book, when you are beginning your literature search, consult with your research librarian for guidance.

NAJP: How old are the vast majority of articles that you use? In other words, how far back should a grad student go in terms of the literature?

LM: These questions essentially ask the same thing. They are also questions perennially asked. I was once told that a beginning researcher should not read any article that is over five years old. I found this to be an odd rule. What if I were trying to research the history of emotional intelligence, or perhaps I wanted to understand the origins of servant leadership? Should I be limited to an arbitrary timeframe? There is no time expiration on knowledge. To suggest that seems to completely misunderstand the purpose of the literature review in the first place - that being, building a case that reports the present understanding (scientific/academic knowledge) about the subject in question.

The nature of the preliminary question/topic determines the appropriateness of the information gathered, regardless of article or text age. Brenda and I are currently writing a book on critical thinking. I am presently reading some of John Dewey's books on education. It is in these old texts we find the modern origins of the concept of critical thinking. The researcher goes where the data are. Time of publication has little to do with it. The criteria for article or text inclusion is determined by whether the information contained is accurate, authentic, and relevant.

NAJP: What makes your literature review model different from other literature processes?

LM: Many authors on the subject deal with much that we have written. We believe our literature review model is unique because of its developmental structure, and its nexus to the critical thinking process. We deliberately constructed the text to provide a sequence of tasks and activities aligned with the model to guide beginning researchers doing a literature review. The text's simplicity and practicality of presentation is purposeful, our aim was to create a primer. We wrote this text for the novice researcher, and attempted to write it in such a way that it could be easily understood.

NAJP: You did a great job of describing how to organize information into core maps and outlines. However, have you thought about organizing information in the form of a PICO? This is something that professors encourage in graduate programs.

LM: Thank you for kind words about our treatment for core maps and outlines. We tried to write the text in a plain straightforward language. We hope our description for organizing information typified our effort.

If I understand your question about the use of PICO (population, intervention, control, and outcomes) as a mapping device (I am assuming the acronym stands for the organizer used for doing clinical research), then the following comments apply.

I think the PICO process is used to frame research questions for clinical research. If a research interest stems from an every- day problem in clinical practice, then PICO could provide an advanced mind map to organize literature information. This particularly holds true if PICO is understood and accepted in the academic discipline of choice. PICO should not replace the basic author/subject mapping system, but be added to it.

There are many examples of these advanced organizers being used in specific research situations. For example, the use of the SALSA framework in conducting a systematic review of the literature. This advanced system is extensively used when doing meta-research in the health field. There are several different advanced frameworks for conducting literature reviews based on research and discipline criteria. PICO and SALSA are commonly used when experienced researchers conduct an advanced type of literature review. We advise advanced applications of a literature review not be attempted by a beginning researcher. This is because of the nature of their complexity and the scope of their work.

NAJP: How important is an abstract in a literature review?

LM: I believe the abstract is a matter of convention. To the degree that the literature review provides a cogent argument that leads to the thesis statement, is to the degree the abstract has poignancy. The abstract provides a thumbnail sketch of the review, so others can quickly determine what the review contains.

NAJP: What have we neglected to ask?

LM: It has been my experience that graduate students in the United States are not well acquainted with the use of the informal argument as the basis of a strong literature review. The rules and processes of argumentation both in construction and production do not seem to be taught or learned. The heart of our text deals with how one constructs the literature review arguments.

An equally important issue is the purpose and place of the literature review in conducting research. It provides the rationale for the significance and relevance of the study. If the literature review doesn't make a strong argument for these issues, then the research stands on weak legs.


Machi, L. A., & McEvoy, B. T. (2016). The literature review: Six steps to success (3rd. ed.). New York: Sage.

(Interviewed on behalf of NAJP by)

Dominique Ratto, Emily Davis & Michael F. Shaughnessy

Eastern New Mexico University

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Michael F. Shaughnessy, Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, NM, 88130. Email address:
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Author:Ratto, Dominique; Davis, Emily; Shaughnessy, Michael F.
Publication:North American Journal of Psychology
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2018
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