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I am wondering if there is a difference between the lit review of a dissertation and that of a journal article. I tend to think that a dissertation will contain more extensive background information, meaning that part of the challenge is showing that you know all if the information and can communicate it in a coherent way to support new research.

Are there differences between the literature review of a dissertation and article? What is the purpose of each (in terms of the rhetorical structure and any graduation requirements)?

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The review section in an article is much shorter and much more stringent for two reasons.

First, the lit review in an article situates your own work within the existing body of literature. It explains the research puzzle from a theoretical angle, shows why your paper is needed and what exactly your contribution to the existing knowledge consist in. It may also introduce the theoretical concepts that you draw on (to the extent that this is not a separate section).

The review section in a dissertation does all this as well, but it also serves the purpose of demonstrating to your supervisors and committee that you are aware of and understand the relevant science. This includes literature that is more tangential to your actual contribution. By contrast, an article is about your contribution, not about your proficiency.

Second, you have much less space in an article to go off on any tangent. Thus you have to restrict yourself to the narrow literature to which you are directly contributing and on which your work builds.

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I won't repeat the points raised in @henning's excellent answer, but I will add one more point. Whereas the lit review section of a journal article must be very short and squarely focused on the topic of the article, a dissertation lit review chapter has the space to explore much further. A doctoral student could do the minimum required, which is to demonstrate knowledge of the bodies of research related to the dissertation topic, but I recommend to take the opportunity to write a lit review chapter that is sufficiently extensive and self-contained to be published as a standalone lit review journal article after completion of the dissertation.

The main difference is that the student should be conscious not just of their own dissertation topic, but of the problems that practitioners have faced and that scholars have tried to tackle in conducting research in that area. The chapter should be rhetorically framed such as to prove that the topic of the dissertation is a question that is important and yet insufficiently researched, hence the rest of the dissertation will meet the need that the lit review chapter has demonstrated.

However, to be publishable as a standalone lit review journal article, the dissertation lit review chapter cannot depend on the rest of the dissertation to complete it. It should identify a wide range of under-researched challenges and even present a broader research agenda with a series of suggested directions for future research (of which the specific dissertation topic is just one), with evidence of the importance of each direction.

This might sound like a lot of work, but, in fact, a publishable dissertation lit review chapter is not that much more work than a non-publishable one, since both require considerable effort anyways. I think it's worth the little bit of extra work in framing the chapter to make sure that it could be published on its own afterwards as an extra article from the dissertation.

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  • I am wondering, if the aspect of 'publishing the lit review chapter' as an review article is valid for all fields. I have some insights in subfields of physics/optics/electrical engineering and got the impression that all review article in solid journals tend to be written by professors or at least senior researchers. Can you comment on that?
    – snalx
    Apr 26, 2017 at 10:48
  • I don't know about publishing in those fields. In my field (business and management), such an article would normally be published coauthored by the doctoral student and their supervisor, so there would probably be a "professor" on board adding their insight.
    – Tripartio
    Apr 26, 2017 at 14:26

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