Published on Development Impact

The VoxDevLit series and how you can contribute to living literature reviews

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In December 2020, VoxDev launched its series of wiki-inspired literature reviews (named VoxDevLits) that aim to summarize the evidence base on a narrowly defined topic in development economics. Each review is overseen by one or two senior editors, who write the initial version together with a set of co-editors, all of whom are scholars working on this topic. The audience is meant to be both researchers and policymakers interested in the topic.

To date there have been six released: Training Entrepreneurs (which I co-edited with Chris Woodruff); Mobile Money; Microfinance; International Trade; Agricultural Technology in Africa ; and Informality.

I chatted with the managing editor of VoxDev, Oliver Hanney, about the goals of the series, how they choose topics, and what you can do to help in keeping these as living reviews.

Let’s start with some background. What is the goal of this series? How should readers distinguish it from other literature reviews like those in the Journal of Economic Literature, the Annual Review of Economics, or the World Bank Research Observer?

Our goal is that anyone seeking an accessible summary of the latest research for specific topics within development economics need look no further than our library of VoxDevLits.

As you mentioned, these Lits are ‘wiki-style’, which means that they are kept up-to-date as new work is released. This ‘living’ review format is something we are particularly passionate about – this article in Nature nicely summarizes the benefits of this approach to synthesizing academic research. This is also a key difference with traditional literature reviews.

In terms of how the text/style compare, some of our Lits have actually used articles in the Journal of Economic Literature and Annual Review of Economics as their starting point. We see VoxDevLits as more concise versions of these types of reviews, which maintain a focus on policy-relevant findings and are aimed at an audience of policymakers as well as researchers. The copyediting team at VoxDev have lots of experience making technical writing accessible to a wider audience, which is another key difference between the Lits and academic journals.

How does VoxDev choose the topics and editors? Some of the topics are a lot broader than others (e.g. international trade versus mobile money or training entrepreneurs) – so how do you also decide whether to have a deep-dive on one category of policies, versus an overview of many different issues on a broader topic?  If someone has an idea for a topic, can they propose it and suggest editors (including themselves)?

The choice of topics and editors is made by the VoxDev Editorial Board.

We are always looking to hear from policymakers and practitioners if they have identified particular areas where a VoxDevLit would be helpful. We hope to cover as many topics as possible, at which point the task will become releasing new Issues for all of our Lits.

The reviews released so far differ in the extent to which the review covers trends and diagnostics, explaining underlying causes, versus in examining the effectiveness of policies that aim to change development outcomes. I imagine that your researcher- and policy-audiences may have different preferences in how much they want to know the underlying economics of the problem, versus what can be done about it. Do you have thoughts on the ideal balance here, or does it depend on editor preferences and topic?

Ultimately the exact balance is left to the discretion of the Senior Editors. While some reviews cover trends and diagnostics more than others, we aim for all of our Lits to have a large focus on policies and policy-relevant research.

Another way we cater to our different audiences is by disseminating the Lits through different mediums. For example, for our latest new releases we have organized launch events designed to cater to a more policy-oriented audience (recordings of presentations from these events are available alongside our Lits). Our Senior Editors are generally happy to participate in internal sessions for large organizations involved in development – these involve longer discussions of the areas of overlap between policymakers work and research covered in our Lits. In the future, we also plan on making shorter policy briefs available alongside our Lits (which would also be living documents).

While there are some differences in the coverage and approach of the Lits, they all have a focus on policy relevant development economics and part of our role at VoxDev is ensuring that we disseminate these findings effectively, through different formats and catering to different audiences.

So far, the Training Entrepreneurs has released a second version (in August 2021), while the other VoxDevLits are still on the first edition. I know you have been asking Chris and I for a third version sometime this year. What is the plan for updating these reviews over time and keeping them living, and how can readers contribute to this?

The fact that these reviews are living documents is what we believe makes them so useful. We initially expected to do updates as often as every quarter, but it turns out the literature does not move that fast! The current goal is to have an update every year, though some have gone more than a year between versions. With the momentum of our successful new releases behind us we are excited to be releasing updates to all three of our original Lits (yours included) over the next 3 months.

The aim that each Lit is updated at least once per year can be flexible depending on how the literature evolves for different topics – if Senior Editors judge that there has not been enough new research to warrant a new edition then we are happy to wait.

The main way readers can contribute is by emailing us at if they have any questions about the Lits, or come across new research that might be relevant to the next edition. We can then pass this on to the relevant editors. Interaction at our launch events is also greatly beneficial, and after presenting their findings, Senior Editors take questions from the audience.

What other VoxDevLits are in the pipeline for this year, and with what frequency are you aiming to release new ones?

After our recent release of the Informality VoxDevLit, over the next few months we will release updates to our three original VoxDevLit releases. The first of these, Issue 2 of Mobile Money, will launch on Thursday, February 9th – you can sign up to the launch event for this VoxDevLit here.

After this, we are excited to be releasing a new Lit on Bureaucracy and Development and one on Climate Adaptation. Towards the end of the year, we hope to release separate Lits on focusing on the different forms of infrastructure, while also updating Lits released in 2022.


David McKenzie

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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