The Literature Review : How Old Can be the Sources?

Recently I had a fellow PhD supervisor asking to help solve a dilemma. He was examining a thesis and majority of the literature was over 10 years old. He was concerned if this would pose a problem? I had to give my opinion and this is what I had to say.

Firstly, I had to agree to my examiner as in the field of science this was always a problem because the task of building knowledge is usually taken to be iterative as research builds on what has gone before. It is inevitable to incorporate old research in PhD that is the science domain. But you cannot say that the same concern doesn’t appear in the social sciences. Even in the social sciences, it is a big problem. Ironically if the situation is reverse and the scholar has incorporated only new research, it can also be worrying because the foundation elements from prior research can get ignored. So, what do we think is the way out?

My view point said that having “vintage “ literature or “off the press” literature are both concerns to be dealt with and perturb the examiners to the point where they need to ask the scholars to start reworking on it. As a scholar, you must first:

1. Locate the work in the field: Most of the fields of study have been existing for quite a while. This can be said barring few exceptions which also are usually the extensions of some existing fields only. The expectations of the examiner are that the scholar understands the developments in the field and the problem that is being researched upon is situated historically and is not just topical or holds relevance on for now. The problem should be supported by the ongoing debates. So the Literature Review should be a good blend of the old as well as new researchers so that the roots, as well as the contemporary relevance are well established for the examiner to see and understand.

2. Place the contribution you are going to make: Scholarly activities thrive on crowded territories and someone or the other is all the time making a relevant contribution. Reviewing the contribution doesn’t just mean coming terms with history. It also men getting a grip with the present and trends the way they have changed over the time.

I suggested my fellow mate that there is no formula or recipe to help in deciding “ how old” or “how fresh” literature can be incorporated. It is subjective to the filed and the topic as well. Too old and too new are both cases of worry. The best way out is to find the right blend of vintage and contemporary literature.