Literature Review: Simplifying the Research Process
by Nathaniel T. Jeanson, Ph.D. *
The ICR life sciences research team is currently conducting a review of the scientific literature to answer the five major origins biology research questions we have identified.1-5 This literature review is designed to help refine the questions and provide more direction for pursuing our research in these areas.
Each of the questions we have identified is substantial; none can be answered or addressed in a single set of experiments. For example, finding and generating the molecular data that would comprehensively refute the evolutionary tree of life (research question one) is not possible given current technology. A comprehensive answer would require obtaining the DNA sequence of most, if not all, extant species on earth—clearly, an impractical task for our small research team. Hence, the primary purpose of the process of literature review is to break down the large questions we have identified into smaller, more manageable queries.
The first part of the process is identifying what has already been done experimentally to address the questions. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) is the major repository of abstracts from the peer-reviewed literature in the life sciences. Step one in reviewing the published literature is a query of the NCBI PubMed database for the most recent relevant articles to our questions—for example, articles describing research on the evolutionary tree of life. Once recent primary research papers and review articles are found, extending the search is simply a matter of looking up all the citations in each of these articles, and then doing the same to those papers. This time-consuming process should eventually give us a good perspective on the history and latest findings in the field of interest.
Doing a literature search is complicated by additional technical hurdles. First, for a field like the tree of life, so much has been researched already that the body of literature relevant to this question is enormous. Second, not all research that is published is valid. Experiments usually push technology to its limits, and it is difficult for many researchers to resist over-concluding their results. Hence, it is the task of the scientist reviewing the literature to sort out speculation from fact. Third, the paradigm in which the data are interpreted may be wrong. This is especially of concern in fields like the tree of life, in which universal common ancestry is assumed rather than tested. Recognizing this bias up front may eventually entail that we re-evaluate all the published data under a different paradigm that does not assume universal common ancestry. Together, these obstacles require that the process of literature review be critical and rigorous.
Once we have separated fact from speculation and have established a sure foundation of knowledge in a particular field of interest, step two of simplifying our questions is asking specific questions of this established foundation. For example, we might ask whether the reliable data that have been published depict discontinuity (as Genesis 1 might predict). It is possible that no research group has looked at their data from this perspective. If no publications answer this question, the observation immediately opens a potential research investigation. The next step would be generating a hypothesis to answer this question and designing experiments to test it.
In sum, following these steps in the literature review process should naturally lead us to very specific origins research questions—the answers to which should bring us closer to solving the larger questions we have identified.
- Jeanson, N. 2010. New Frontiers in Animal Classification. Acts & Facts. 39 (5): 6.
- Jeanson, N. 2010. Common Ancestry and the Bible—Discerning Where to Draw the Line. Acts & Facts. 39 (6): 6.
- Jeanson, N. 2010. The Limit to Biological Change. Acts & Facts. 39 (7): 6.
- Jeanson, N. 2010. The Impetus for Biological Change. Acts & Facts. 39 (8): 6.
- Jeanson, N. 2010. Using Nature to Encounter God’s Attributes. Acts & Facts. 39 (9): 6.
* Dr. Jeanson is Research Associate at the Institute for Creation Research and received his Ph.D. in Cell and Developmental Biology from Harvard University.
Cite this article: Jeanson, N. 2010. Literature Review: Simplifying the Research Process. Acts & Facts. 39 (11): 6.