Okay, if you’re a graduate student, what did you think when you read that sentence? You might have thought:
1. I don’t do that!
2. I do that, but it’s not actually a problem, because…
3. I do that, and I didn’t know it was a problem, but how rude is she?
When you set up any writing by describing the problems in others’ work, you are at a minimum inviting defensiveness from the reader/reviewer, and potentially opening yourself up to being corrected by the reviewer.
There are very few instances where you should make statements such as “the problem with prior research on this topic is…” or “Johnson and Simpson’s work on alcohol use was flawed in that…” If you make these types of statements, you actually increase the likelihood that Johnson or Simpson might be a reviewer on your paper – if you are directly criticizing their work, the editor might want their opinion on your work.
The majority of the time when I read student papers, theses, or submitted manuscripts that make statements about flaws/problems in past research, the writer is not actually describing a flaw. Instead, the writer is describing something that other researchers have not examined. It is not necessarily a problem that past researchers examined family conflict but did not include measures of family cohesiveness. They may have had different research questions than you do, and that’s okay. Perhaps your research is stronger, or more interesting, or more broad-reaching than their research, but that doesn’t make theirs flawed.
I was once a reviewer on a manuscript where, throughout the introduction, the authors wrote about the “flaws,” “problems,” and “lacunae” of a paper by Lefkowitz et al. I am not at all saying that the Lefkowitz et al. paper was perfect. However, the author was describing simply a topic of interest to her, that we did not address in our paper. Perhaps her paper expanded on or extended our work, but ours was not flawed because we did not ask the very specific research question she had. Her paper was rejected from that journal, not because she criticized me and I was mad, but because she was making incorrect statements and not providing a strong argument for the importance of her work. She submitted it to another journal, without changing any of the “flaw/problem/lacunae” language from the prior draft, despite feedback from the reviewers and editor to do so. And guess what – the second journal also asked me to be a reviewer, and it was rejected from the second journal.
What should you write rather than describing flaws and problems? Describe what past work has found, and discuss the research questions that you will address that past research has not addressed. Explain how your research is innovative, how it addresses an unanswered theoretical question, or how it will identify points for intervention. Or, if the innovation of your work is a different research method for studying a similar topic, discuss how your methods are important for examining this research topic. Again, you can make all of these statements without directly stating that past work is flawed.
Should you ever describe past work as flawed? Sure, if past work really is flawed. Let’s say you find a paper that argues that body image and testosterone levels are correlated, and doesn’t account for biological sex. Then please do say that a prior study on this topic is flawed because the authors did not account for biological sex, and you will examine whether body image and testosterone levels are associated after accounting for biological sex differences in testosterone. But please don’t say that someone else’s work is flawed because in their examination of body image, they did not include a sample of boys incarcerated for sexual offenses. You may have many great reasons for asking your research question in this sample, but it doesn’t mean that all prior studies on the topic should have.
“The post Write about what you are doing, not what others have not first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on December 16, 2013.”