Inadequate literature review makes an author's research redundant: A case study
Case: An author submitted his paper to a journal. After initial screening, the manuscript was sent for peer review. However, when the author received peer review comments, one of the reviewers pointed out that there was already a published study on the same topic with very similar results. The author had somehow missed this study during the literature search. The existence of this paper made the author’s work almost redundant.
The author felt that the time he had spent on conducting this research was completely wasted. He was devastated and approached us for guidance. He did not want his research to go waste and was determined to publish it at any cost. In his desperation, he asked us if it was possible to manipulate the results a bit and submit the paper to another journal.
Action: We pointed out that manipulating results in research was highly unethical. This would lead to a case of research fraud and the paper would be retracted and the author’s reputation would be tainted. We explained that it was good that the reviewer had detected this: had it not been detected, the paper would run the risk of being retracted after publication.
We suggested two possible ways to make use of the research:
1. Change the focus of the study and address the topic from a slightly different perspective.
2. Check if there is any other less significant finding that has the potential of being developed into a full-fledged paper.
Our experts went over the manuscript and identified a secondary finding that had not been highlighted in the paper. The author said that this angle could be developed by modifying the research question and performing some additional experiments. Of course, a major part of the paper would have to be rewritten.
The author accomplished this within a few months and the new paper was submitted to a conference. Very soon, the author wrote to us saying that the paper had been accepted and he would present it at the conference.
Summary: Authors find it very depressing when, after doing an extensive online search, they start working on a topic only to discover later that their research proposal has been investigated before. While there is no way to be absolutely certain that a topic has not been researched before, the following steps can ensure that the literature review is exhaustive:
1. Authors should get in touch with an expert in the field and ask him or her whether the topic has been investigated before. Some professional publication support services can also help in this case, for example, Editage’s Literature Search Service.
2. Authors should use a citation index to ensure that their literature search exhaustive. Citation indexes help in tracking how a particular paper has been cited, which means that the author can follow the trail and find out all related papers.
If even after following these procedures, the author finds out later that his/her study is very similar to an existing work, he/she should keep a few things in mind:
1. Never try to manipulate research findings. This is extremely unethical and can have very serious consequences.
2. Do not give up on your research. Go through it again carefully and try to find out if there is a gap or a secondary finding that has the potential to be developed.
3. If nothing works out, shelve the project for some time and come back to it later with a fresh perspective. You might view it differently then and may be able to work out a way to develop it.