“Background” is several hundred times more appealing as the title of a section of a paper than either “Literature Review” or “Literature.”

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

13 thoughts on “imho”

  1. “Data and Methods,” “Results” and “Discussion” are all fine, but I much prefer substantive section headers at the front end. You’re making an argument, after all, not ritualistically invoking the ancestral spirits of “The Literature.” (I await Gabriel’s arrival in this thread for the argument that ritualistic invocation is all that really happens in the lit section of sociology papers. Maybe all papers should open with the words “Introibo ad altare dei.”)


  2. “Discussion” and “Conclusion” is fine to my ear; perhaps this is just a pure aesthetic judgment. I sometimes think it’s weird when papers have both a section titled “Discussion” and then one titled “Conclusion.”


  3. kieran,

    instead of further incremental direct comment on my hatred for sociology lit review sections, i’m preparing an epic spleen venting in the form of satire on a certain spin-off blog.


    i can top that, i recently read a paper that had three conclusions, the standard two plus “limitations.”


  4. Introibo ad altare dei

    Allow me to translate for our Irish ponce: I will go to the altar of God. Perhaps he got his for Ulysses (chapter 1) or Psalm 42. Who’s the real catholic now Kieran? Bring it! Up Mayo!

    The most recent thing I”ve published takes 13 pages to get to the data. The paper is 22 pages long. And I promise, it’s not my fault (or my co-author’s). What is one to do in light of reviewers (and/or editors – who were not at fault in my case)?


  5. I so agree with you Jeremy! Although I reserve “Background” for background to the material if it is new to the audience. Then I call the sections reviewing various literatures the substance they cover. The argument I made to my students the other day about this was the following: by giving a substantive title to that section, they are actually making sure the section is more coherent than it may end up being if they just think of if as a literature review. That is, if you have committed to some title that reflects the substance that’s appropriate for that section then you shouldn’t be wandering off to discuss all sorts of other issues. This wandering is much easier to do if you can just tell yourself “oh, but this is still a review of the literature”. So my point was that it actually makes for clearer papers to call those sections by substance, because people stay on point better. Of course, there could be several sections of this sort up front if there are several literatures worth reviewing, but it’s still important to keep things on track.

    Shakha also raises an important issue regarding the requests of reviewers and how far one goes in giving in. I’m dealing with this right now. A reviewer raised some issues – “conveniently” in the second round of reviews even though these aspects of the paper were there just the same in the first round – that I am very hesitant to address, because I simply don’t want my name on a paper that does what I’m being asked. So what to do? After the paper is published, we don’t get to add a note saying “note that the ridiculous aspect on p.296. was not my idea, but forced on me by one of the reviewers”. No, the ridiculous section will just be there under my own name. That bothers me.

    I ended up tweaking some things, but not entirely the way I’d been asked. I wrote to the editor to say that if that was a dealbreaker, I’d ask that I be allowed to reconsider. But I’m seriously not sure I want my paper published that way. I’m conflicted, since it seems crazy to pull a paper from a very prestigious journal if it could be published there, but what to do if that’s just not the paper I want to have with my name on it?


  6. I agree with you, Jeremy, and at the same time am not fully comfortable with “Background”. It sounds best to my ear, but considering that the purpose of having a heading is to signal what will be included and to provide for skipping into areas of interest, I wonder if it says enough. “Lit Review” sounds amateurish to me as well (as does “The Model”, and yet I can’t think of a good replacement. There’s an argument that anyone reading this level of paper is going to understand the sections, but there are good arguments against not making that assumption. Perhaps “Prior Research” or “Foundations”? Even as I type that, though, it smacks of nitpicking and semantics.

    Related, I once had a student who wrote the thesis statement and then followed with “This is my thesis statement.” Despite other problems in the argument, at least that part was clear.


  7. The problem with “literature review” sections is less their title than their place and function. As for function, isn’t their primary purpose to prove to all possible reviewers that you’ve read their work and thus have earned yourself a place at the table? I’m fine with setting entry requirements in this fashion, but I don’t see why purely regurgitative exercises in cause-no-offense should hog valuable journal space. I would be happy to see more sections called “the model” in sociology, for that would suggest that our journals would devote relatively greater space to the exposition of original ideas. ASA should ban literature reviews and require “theory” sections at the front end.


  8. Hmm. I do not believe I have EVER titled a section “literature review” or “background,” although I have encouraged sections called “historical background” or some such in papers where you need to give some context for the case before going on to your main point. I think these sections need to have substantive titles. I have often titled sections “discussion” and/or “conclusion.”

    @11 the main purpose of such sections should be to locate your work in the broader context of other people’s work and to build an argument about your main theoretical or research point. A secondary purpose is, I’m afraid, to tell reviewers that you have, too, read things they think you ought to have read, and I also have had to stick in lit reviews in an R&R to satisfy a reviewer that just had to come out again because they were obviously irrelevant to the main point.

    Re 8 & 9, I do remember how nice it was after I had tenure and had enough stature to call an editor and say: you know, I have the problem that the reviewer is wrong. How do you want me to deal with this? But even before I had tenure, I had a difficult review situation in which I had to consult with an editor about a review that just seemed hostile — having raised what he thought was a fundamental error which I was able to explain was not, he raised a host of new issues. I got a good response from the editor when I called, btw, and by the time the revision was done, “hostile” reviewer had calmed down and things went ok. So I guess the lesson I’m drawing is that it is ok to consult with editors about such things, especially if you do it in a professional and calm way.


  9. So I guess the lesson I’m drawing is that it is ok to consult with editors about such things, especially if you do it in a professional and calm way.

    Thanks, OW, yes, I tried to address the issue through a separate note to the editor. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. And I completely agree that it is super important to be very calm and polite in such a situation. That’s also important in the response to reviewers.


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