I can’t find anything written on my topic… really?



Sometimes people tell me that they can’t find any literature that is relevant to their research. They are doing something that nobody else has researched and written about and so there isn’t anything to read. What, they ask, can they do for their literature chapter.

A lack of literature is very rarely a real problem. The real problem is that the researcher with the nothing-written-on-my-topic question has drawn the boundary around their topic too tightly. They haven’t thought about the kinds of literatures that might be relevant, even if they are not written on exactly the same question.

Let me give an example. Say a researcher is doing a project on the use of whiteboards in science lectures. OK, I don’t know why, but let’s go with this for argument’s sake. Its just a hypothetical. The researcher has searched and searched through the literatures and they can only find one paper written on the use of whiteboards in science. Hooray, they say, I’ve found a gap. My research is needed. But there is nothing written on it. That’s a problem. What will go in my literature chapter?

Well, no. That’s not the case. Of course there’s something in print. Even if it’s not directly on the exact same topic, it’s related. Let’s think of some of the other literatures that might be connected and relevant to our pretend inquiry. There’s probably research about the use of whiteboards in subject areas other than science. There is some research into the lecture as a form of teaching and learning (I know this to be the case!). And there is certainly material about general teaching and learning in science. So all of these different literatures have a connection with our imaginary topic.

But wait, there’s more. There is an enormous literature about the use of digital technologies in higher education, some of which quite specifically addresses the pedagogical strategies that they do and don’t afford – this is relevant to the way in which whiteboards are used in science lectures. And there’s material about students’ experiences of lectures and their own personal use of digital technologies. And of course all of this related research is framed within a broader scholarly conversation about learning and teaching – and our mythical researcher concerned about whiteboards in science lectures is certainly going to have to establish their work within a general pedagogical conceptual framework – so there’s more reading.

So it’s not that there is no literature for the pretend researcher on their topic, it’s rather that they have to think more broadly about what they might need and use. They have to map the possible areas that are linked to their question and then sort out, by skimming and noting, what’s most relevant and related. They must then bring these selected literatures together in a way that supports the research they are going to do.

The answer to the no literature question is always, always, always – what else is pertinent. The resulting strategy is to widen the boundaries of the search to include related and framing scholarship. Take off the blinkers and look further… There is another answer of course. It’s one that always lurks behind the nothing-written-on-my-topic question. And this answer is a scary one, but its always one worth asking. Nothing in your area? Maybe there is nothing specifically written on the topic because it just isn’t that interesting. The topic is too narrow and specialised, and studying it isn’t that important. There’s a good reason no-one has looked at the use of whiteboards in science lectures in any great depth… Asking why no-one has been here before is a scary proposition. But it’s one that’s very important to dare to consider if you do happen to find yourself asking the nothing-written-on-my-topic question.