The role of a literature review in grant proposals

Christmas is coming up, so what’s a professor got to do? Hide from the family and work on grant proposals, naturally. Right now I’m upset about the misunderstanding of the role that literature reviews play in grant proposals (by way of reviewer comments).

Reviewing literature is just a general activity, but one that can serve many purposes. Depending on the purpose, different review techniques are more or less suited to help achieve that purpose. I’ll focus on the two main purposes, related work and theory building.

Related work

Here, you want to show how your work is different from other people’s work. This is common in both research papers (“related work” section) and grant proposals (“state of the art” section). You use a compare-and-contrast style to show how your work is different and novel, justifying publication or funding.

You should be structured in your approach, but general human intelligence and domain knowledge are sufficient for the task. You are making a qualitative argument why your work should be accepted.

Theory building

Here, you are trying to generate novel insight from the literature. The goal is to build the (often initial version) of a theory that you intend to evaluate. The idea is that from all those research papers you are reading, significant new insight can be had, if you only correlated the information right.

You can’t wing this. You need a structured approach. In computer science, for example, we often use Kitchenham’s (2004) approach to systematic literature reviews. My group usually uses thematic coding (Braun & Clarke, 2012) in the analysis of the identified literature to create a first version of the theory under development.

Grant proposals

When it comes to grant proposals, you write the related work / state of the art section as part of the grant proposal, before submission.

A theory-building systematic literature review is what you propose to do, but don’t actually carry out before grant proposal submission. It is a core piece of the proposed research. It bugs me if reviewers ask that we please finish work package 1, the initial theory building using a systematic literature review, before we even submit the grant proposal.


All I want for Christmas is that reviewers start doing justice by systematic literature reviews…


Kitchenham, B. (2004). Procedures for performing systematic reviews. Keele, UK, Keele University33(2004), 1-26.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2012). Thematic analysis. In H. Cooper, P. M. Camic, D. L. Long, A. T. Panter, D. Rindskopf, & K. J. Sher (Eds.), APA handbook of research methods in psychology, Vol. 2. Research designs: Quantitative, qualitative, neuropsychological, and biological (pp. 57–71). American Psychological Association.



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