Solving problems as a metaphor for scientific writing

One analogy I hear in academics describing the process of writing a literature review is identifying the gaps in prior literature(s). I was reading Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision recently, and Kamler & Thomson used this same analogy in describing the process of writing a literature review for a dissertation (although it is generally the same for shorter articles or books). Similar terminology Kamler & Thomson describe are blank spots and blind spots (see page 45). In that same chapter since Kamler & Thomson suggest the use of appropriate metaphors in describing the work of writing a literature review, I figured a critique of this one to be apropos.

I do not think the analogy is completely off base — but I do not like it as it does not jive with my personal experience of how I go about writing an article or thinking about research more generally. The first reason I do not like this terminology is that it has negative connotations for prior research. I think of building knowledge as a more cumulative endeavour as opposed to filling in between the lines of prior research.

For an analogy, say a researcher is attempting to improve the fuel efficiency of small combustible engines. It is likely they take mostly prior engineering knowledge about combustible engines and provide some modifications to slightly improve the design. Filling a gap implies to me an explicit design flaw in prior engines, when in reality it is more likely the researcher brings new knowledge to improve the design, and only in the context of the new research is the old design potentially described as inefficient. A social science example may be evaluating the costs and benefits to a particular policy in place by a public institution. The policy may be evidence based, and so an evaluation of the policy provides new information to that agency of whether it works as intended, or more general scientific knowledge about applying that policy in a real world setting. Neither seem to me filling in a gap, more so contributing and/or refining a set of knowledge already established.

I like the metaphor of the accumulation of knowledge, like a pyramid one brick at a time, better in terms of describing what I do when I write a literature review as opposed to identifying gaps. A convenient format for a literature review is to take a historical walk through the literature, and let the chronological order of previous findings be the guide for how you write the lit. review. But that metaphor is not sufficient to me either, as it implies a very linear structure, whereas prior research strikes me as more sphere-like — there is a base to which you add but the direction of the current research is not limited by the trajectory of the prior work. (A more accurate physical analogy may be an irregular growth of cells — they may meander in any particular direction but they always need to be connected to the prior work.) The scientific writer imposes a linear structure when describing prior work, but in reality the prior literatures are not that focused on whatever particular problem the current article is trying to address.

That is why I like the simple metaphor of identifying and solving a problem as a descriptor of what I do when I write a literature review – or even more broadly about describing the decisions I make in my research agenda. There are several reasons I prefer this analogy to either the accumulation of knowledge or identifying gaps. Identifying gaps implies you can read the prior literature and the gaps will be obvious — this is not the case. The prior literature is written in a particular context – the authors cannot anticipate future conditions or how that work will potentially be applied in the future. The gap does not exist in the current or prior literatures, you as a writer/researcher make the gap. I prefer problem solving as opposed to the accumulation of knowledge because it implies the focused nature of the endeavour. You do not simply write a paper to add a linear line of prior knowledge, you use that prior knowledge to solve a particular problem you have in your current context. It is your job as a researcher to basically say how the prior knowledge helps to solve that problem, and then advance the current knowledge to solve your particular problem. (This focus on giving the writer agency seems to be in line with most of Kamler & Thomson’s advice as well.)

This is how Popper described how knowledge actually accumulates — people have problems and they try to learn how to solve them. There is no prior divine truth to which future knowledge is added. We simply have problems, and some research may show a better solution to that problem than prior knowledge (be it whether the prior knowledge is well established or simply folklore). The analogy is not perfect, as many researchers would say they do not solve problems but are simply describe reality, but is a frame of reference I find useful to describe how I approach writing, describe my research, and in particular how I approach consuming the prior literature. It shows how I take the prior work and apply it to my interest, I am not a passive reader when trying to synthesize prior work.

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  1. Nice post. I tell my students to never start their introduction with what we know about the field, but with what we don’t know. I find this important to stimulate the curiosity of the audience. Of the different analogies you present, finding the gap is the one that best foots the bill, but solving a problem also has the potential to stimulate curiosity and raise interest.

    • Thank you for the comment Guillaume. It is a bit pedantic I know. Solving problems certainly does not always work as a description, e.g. simply doing a replication I believe are important and not done enough, but is not really solving a problem.

      I suppose it should be stated that I can be a bit of a contrarian on various aspects of my work compared to my colleagues, so take any advice I give about writing (or doing research) with a hefty dose of skepticism.


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