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Researchers Helping Researchers: How to Write a Powerful Review Paper

Dec. 14, 2018

By Becca Broaddus

Review and theory development (RTD) papers, articles that evaluate existing research to synthesize new theories, are difficult to do well. In fact, of the 71 review papers Professor of Information Systems Dorothy Leidner reviewed as the editor of the review theory section of Journal of the Association for Information Systems (JAIS), only three have been accepted. That’s a less than 5 percent acceptance rate.

“It’s a great genre of paper, but they’re very, very hard to do,” Leidner said. “They can become a textbook, and we’re not in the business of writing textbooks for researchers. Trying to help people write review papers that are insightful and based on other people’s findings is a very different thing. It’s a greater level of abstraction and demands a lot more creative insight.”

Leidner is also the director of the Center for Information Systems Research, director of the IS PhD program, and a visiting professor at the University of Lund, Sweden (where she recently received an honorary doctorate). In addition to her role as senior editor at JAIS, she is the editor-in-chief of MIS Quarterly Executive and the senior editor of Information Systems Research.

What started as a keynote speech about how to write more insightful review papers at the International Conference of Information Systems in Seoul, South Korea last December, became an editorial in JAIS. After being prompted by the editor of JAIS, Leidner turned her scribbled notes from the keynote into a paper.

“It stemmed from trying to help people who were interested in developing theory through reviews,” Leidner said. “I’ve handled over 70 papers there, and of course, I’ve written a bunch of review papers myself too, so I drew from all of those experiences to try to define a space where people could look to know what they need to do to write a powerful review paper.”

But how do you teach researchers to be more insightful? Leidner’s editorial, “Review and Theory Symbiosis: An Introspective Retrospective,” proposes criteria to help evaluate the quality of papers and provide suggestions on how to craft a “good” paper. According to the paper, there are four types of review papers based on how review and theory intersect: organizing reviews, assessing reviews, specific-theorizing reviews and broad-theorizing reviews.

“Ultimately, what it’s about is how we package knowledge to make it usable for other people,” she said. “It’s knowledge generation, and then packaging it so someone else can take it and find it useful. In any discipline, it’s a very difficult type of work people do, even if it doesn’t sound as exciting.”

Although she has written a few editorial-style papers through the years, Leidner’s research is primarily focused on the outcome of the use of information and information systems, and how that affects people. Within that, she has pursued various research streams, including knowledge management, social media, virtual team research, environmental sustainability and ethical consumption and more.

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