Literature Survey Articles

Of late I’ve come across a number of articles which I describe as “literature survey articles”. The distinguishing feature of these articles is that the author draws upon the wisdom of respected predecessors (“stand on the shoulders of giants”, to put it figuratively). The article is filled with quotes from people who are either famous or respected in the topic that the article pertains to. The contribution of the author of the piece is limited to putting together the quotes from various sources and binding them together with a coherent narrative.

I don’t like such articles. While it is important from time to time that certain old ideas that currently make sense be revitalized, I find articles such as these difficult to read and hard to truly appreciate. Speaking about the former part, when you quote verbatim from several sources in the same article, the article ends up having a number of voices. The reader is not allowed to settle into “listening one voice”, and this can make the article rather incoherent (this is especially true of articles with lots of short quotes).

My more important beef with such articles is that the fact that someone famous or respected said something doesn’t make it right. Everybody makes mistakes, and it is unlikely to find famous speakers or scholars who did not say anything wrong in their lives. So unless it is accompanied by rational reasoning, saying “this famous person said that, so that must be true” has no point. Also, using quotes as arguments doesn’t accommodate for the fact that the opinions of famous or scholarly people often change, and the fact that the quote may have been something they contradicted later on in their lives (not that there is a problem with it. When the facts change, as John Maynard Keynes once said, one ought to change their opinions). Then there is the issue of cherry picking – if some scholar has said a bunch of contradictory things about a particular issue, you can get away with picking only those statements that are in consonance with your opinion.

There is one type of literature survey article that I don’t mind, though – when you declare upfront (either in the title of the article or towards the beginning) that the article is about channeling a particular person or persons’ view of a particular issue. When this is made explicit, the reader knows that you are only channeling someone else’s argument, and you are not presenting their arguments as “proof” for your own argument. It is like famous people’s twitter bios, which say “RTs are not endorsements”.

Lest I be mistaken, I must also mention here that I have nothing against quoting (you might notice that I’ve paraphrased Keynes earlier in this article). You may quote liberally, as long as you don’t exclusively rely on those quotes for your arguments. Just make sure you don’t significantly disturb the flow of the piece, that is all.

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