The decline and fall of the literature review

I’m currently doing an annual review of environmental impacts on whales and dolphins for the International Whaling Commission, which involves assessing, reading and potentially summarizing almost everything that’s published on cetacean conservation. Every year this exercise gives me an ulcer because: (a) climate change and pollution threats are accelerating; (b) reiterated recommendations from scientists from many, many previous years have yet again gone unheeded; and (c) some endangered species get closer and closer to extinction, yet most of the funding goes to research questions whose answers we really already know rather than to practical conservation. It’s all rather depressing …


It’s also frustrating to see the number of “new” discoveries that are already known, and published, but the authors obviously couldn’t be bothered to do a decent literature review. Presumably when the papers were submitted the reviewers didn’t know the literature either, or they would have realized the deficit. Multiple times I’ve seen papers that have purported to be the “first” to describe or report something, and I could almost immediately put my hand on a book, paper or report that said the exact same thing. One paper was actually lying on the desk next to me. Several of my colleagues’ previous work routinely gets ignored, particularly those working in developing countries, or on “hot” topics such as underwater noise or marine debris. I’ve seen five papers in the current batch I’m reviewing that repeat ideas and data/findings that I’ve published (one does cite me at least, although a big chunk of the paper was almost verbatim something I had written). What makes it worse is that some of these papers are in fields that aren’t very big (seriously, how many papers are there on pollutants in humpback dolphins in Hong Kong…?).


So why is it that so few people these days can conduct a decent literature review for a paper? Is it because there are so many articles and so many of these are pay-walled that people can’t keep up with the literature? Is it because researchers are so focused on publishing yet another paper that they don’t have time to do a literature review? Although the very least they could do, when they log onto Google Scholar, is look beyond the first paper that pops up! Is it also because there are so many articles, and so few reviewers, that experts in the field aren’t reviewing submitted papers, and thus not seeing the deficiencies in the literature? Is it because authors or editors are trying to tweak their, or their journal’s, impact by ignoring certain papers?



Part of the problem is that in order to get into a journal there is pressure to say that a study is new. Despite the fact that replication and re-testing previous research is a vital part of science, it is very difficult to get a replicating study published. With the current pressure to publish in order to get one of the fewer and fewer academic positions, and tenure (with some programs insisting on 10 or more papers a year to secure the elusive prize of tenure), papers are being dashed off at a furious rate, and aggrandizing a study to sound like it is ground breaking might increase the likelihood of publication. Also, university publicity machines churn out self-aggrandizing press releases trying “sell” the research of their faculty, to the extent that claims are exaggerated to get attention (for a research paper on this click here)- press releases that journalists too frequently copy verbatim these days, without checking the facts behind the press release.

Academics, and the impact of their research, are assessed on how frequently their papers are cited. But increasingly citation rates won’t be because a particular scientist came up with a ground-breaking idea or study first, but rather because their paper was the first that popped up on Google or was the one that was cited on the topic’s Wikipedia page.

Soon citation rates won’t be measuring scientific innovation, foresight or ingenuity of the author(s), they will be just be measuring which paper is the first hit by a search engine…