What is a "State of the art" /Litterature review

At this point in your studies, you have probably read a fair number of research articles in either Danish or English. You may have noticed that several of them start with a few pages that outline the field of research, making many citations. Various perspectives may be listed and described one by one, or interesting research questions related to the article’s topic may be mentioned. This part of the article often narrows its focus and ends up zooming in on the topic of the article excluding other topics or questions. It can be heavy reading for some, but it is important for defining the “State of the art” of the question that the article deals with.

If you are familiar with sections like these, you are not far from understanding what a “State of the art” section is. You might also recognize this as a “Literature review”. In DRM, a Design Research Methodology, the authors Blessing & Chakrabarti (2009) define it as follows:

Literature Review or State-of-the-Art

The literature review provides a review of the relevant contributions from the existing body of the literature. The literature review should identify the theoretical foundation for the research, identify the level of novelty and relevance of the research described in the thesis, and help to clarify and refine the focus, research questions and hypotheses to be addressed. The literature review should also provide the justification for the research focus. […] Note that depending on the stages covered by the thesis, a second literature review chapter or section may be required in another part of the thesis. Usually, however, the literature review is the second chapter of the thesis (p. 217).

So in your State of the art" you should ...

  1. identify the theoretical foundation for your discussion.
  2. define the relevance of the question you are going to analyze.
  3. clarify and define your focus, problems and/or hypotheses.
  4. justify the relevance or importance of the problem you have chosen to focus on.

You have to show your readers that you are aware of the (recent) relevant research within your field, and ideally your research overview should highlight that there is a missing piece in the exact area where your problem formulation is proposing to investigate. In some papers this overview is placed in the introduction, which then leads on to the problem formulation. Others make the overview a separate chapter of the paper and call it “State of art” or “Literature review”. Some also add a chapter with key terms definitions. Here a great part of references also can appear, but this concept-clarifying section cannot constitute the "State of the art" alone.

A "State of the art" can be a very blurry size, and what is expected from it differs from one field of study to the next. Supervisors may also have different opinions. Often the difference is related to your field of study, research question, and what is common on your education. Expectations for section length also vary greatly, anything from half a page to ten can be realistic. A rule of thumb is that the longer the section is expected to be the more you are expected to describe systematically how you did your literature search, which databases you have searched in, search terms, demarcation criteria, documentation in annex, etc.

However, it is imperative that a “State of the art” in no way should be equated with a systematic review. Your approach to your search may well be systematic (and should be, to some extent), but doing a genuine systematic review is a comprehensive task in itself, which can take months to complete, and it usually ends up as a standalone article. Maybe you have come across articles called something like "Review". If an article is a review, it consists solely of a literature study based on a systematic search. It's probably a systematic review, but there are other sub-genres as well.

If you would like to read more about State of the art / Literature Review, you can find the following chapters via the Library Catalogue:

  • Blessing, L. T. M., & Chakrabarti, A. (2009). Writing Up: Publishing Results. In DRM, a Design Research Methodology (s. 215-230). London: Springer. https://doi-org.proxy1-bib.sdu.dk/10.1007/978-1-84882-587-1
  • Furseth, I. & Everett, E. L. (2013).  A guide for searching the literature. In Doing your Masters’ dissertation, (kap. 5). London: SAGE.
  • Furseth, I. & Everett, E. L. (2013).  Reviewing research literature. In Doing your Masters’ dissertation, (kap. 6). London: SAGE.
  • Oliver, P. (2013). The literature review. In Writing your Thesis, (kap. 9) London: SAGE.