Pet Peeve: "the literature"

One precious tic of academic writing I implore you to avoid is " the literature".

"Novel contribution to the literature..."

"Unknown in the literature..."

"Fill a gap in the literature..."

You know what I mean.

The impression you create is that this is some silly self-referential game with only internal measures of importance.

Whether this is how you see science or not.....avoid creating this impression.

Talk about knowledge or understanding instead.

23 responses so far

  • iGrrrl says:

    Oh, Great Pumpkin, yes!

  • Not to mention that the comparison cuts both ways -- not only can it be seen as demeaning to scientific knowledge to suggest that is just an affair of self-referential "literature", it's insulting to actual literature to call the body of (generally) poorly written scientific papers "literature".

  • Grumble says:

    Is the absence of your blogroll a gap in the literature?

  • drugmonkey says:

    The blogroll is being repopulated.

  • mytchondria says:

    I have read all the literatures!! I can speak on its behalf.
    Every. Little. Thing. I know it all.
    I also can channel Jesus. He thinks you should do the blog roll faster and be way the fuckke nicer to me Ted.

  • Busy says:

    I agree. I think the only time one can use the phrase "in the literature" is when the result is such that people will say "come on, surely this was done before".

    In that case one has to explicitly state "an exhaustive search of the literature shows that this interesting fact had been somehow missed, in spite of numerous papers in the general vicinity."

    I have exactly two papers like that in my long career and in each the reviewers came back with the comment "surprisingly as the authors state this fact hadn't appeared before, in spite of being a natural question to ask with various useful implications".

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    Dude, lay offe the govt ditchweed. No one gives a flying fucke about meaningless rhetorical devices like that, and it's only the shitty ditchweed headache that's got you all pissy.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    I assume this is study section/grant related. Personally, I hate when they tell me they are using "cutting edge" molecular biology and then have an aim devoted to promoter bashing while standardizing with b-gal. An exhaustive review of the literature suggests that this is not "cutting edge."

  • drugmonkey says:

    Actually, I find it most irritating in manuscripts submitted for publication.

  • Beaker says:

    My peeve is "to the best of our knowledge, this the the..." This phrase just sets you up for appearing glib if somebody's earlier work shows that you are lazy and didn't bother to look up what came before. I say, let history decide if you were first or not.

  • Beaker says:

    " the best of our knowledge, this is the..."

  • drugmonkey says:

    Oh totally agreed. This annoys me worse than the "in the literature". Partially for the reasons you mention and partially for the subtext that the findings are somehow of greater notice or importance for merely being first. A better paper can come along and be, well, better. Or your paper might be the third or twentieth to cover a given topic but it finally gets it right.

    Think this will disappear now that we are all wringing our hands over replication ?

    /i crack myself up.

  • E rook says:

    I'm trying to get a paper published that replicates a prior finding using different methods. Plus rules out 3 alternate explanations that hadn't yet been examined. The fact that "it's expected given the [yes] literature discussed," and, "an entire figure devoted to negative data and controls," warrant rejection. Apparently. (No I did not use the prodigal phrase in the ms and in retrospect never have. I think it was there in first drafts of various things and then I always ask "is this necessary?" and the answer is 'No -- explain the GD literature or delete the effin sentence.')

  • E rook says:

    I should say that I was HOPING my alternate explanations would be a "novel finding" but alas, maybe there's a reason it's not published but someone should publish the negative findings so others don't waste money doing the same (honestly) obvious experiment to do.

  • AsianQB says:

    The more times a paper says "The data *clearly* shows....", the more vague the data actually is.

  • drugmonkey says:

    but alas, maybe there's a reason it's not published but someone should publish the negative findings so others don't waste money doing the same (honestly) obvious experiment to do.

    It is absolutely a problem in science that a strong disincentive to publishing negative data condemns other scientists to repeat the same "honestly obvious experiments". Over and over again. We have no idea how large of a problem this is. for the same reason.

    When someone actually goes to the trouble to write up a "failed experiment" or negative finding up as a credible paper, I really think it is stupid to reject it because it was not more exciting.

  • sk says:

    another of these abused phrases is "powerful tool" most often used as "we have built/our work provides a powerful tool to do X"... i mean who builds powerless tools? (maybe its me but i can't shake off the sophomoric humor hue that surrounds "powerful tool")

  • qaz says:

    I would argue that the problem is not the phrase "the literature" but rather the phrase "novel in", "unknown in", and "fill a gap in". I usually find that authors who use these phrases don't actually know "the literature". And usually are unaware that they are in fact building on a large knowledge base. There needs to be some way to tell people that they need to cite "the literature", so that they can place their small discovery in the context of "the knowledge".

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am not surprised in the least that you are "literature" douches, qaz and PP.

  • qaz says:


    It's called scholarship. And its about knowing how your little result fits within this great scientific edifice we are building.

    In all seriousness, though, one of my pet peeves is the assumption of the "great breakthrough" that pervades much of our current science, particularly the GlamourMags. The beauty of the scientific journal concept (as compared to the monograph that preceded it) is that we can add one brick to the puzzle, and even if we don't have all the controls available (maybe because they aren't technically feasible), we can use data from other labs (in the literature) to hone in on the answer.

    Maybe my data says X and Y are related and yours says Y and Z are, then I can make a good case that, X and Z are. If I know the literature.

  • rxnm says:

    "knowledge" and "understanding" are philosophy wank words.

    all we do is produce the literature.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Exactly qaz.

  • drugmonkey says:

    What are you, PoMoScientist, rxnm?

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