Ever notice what happens when you mention “literature review” to a group of doctoral students? More often than not, brows furrow, foreheads get sweaty, eyes glaze over…you get the picture ;). I was no different, but I was bound and determined to conquer the beast!. So I did what is probably second nature to a PhD student: Researched the process and distilled it down to four key processes. I call them the “Four C’s” of literature review: Collect, Collate, Comprehend, Compose.
Think of this as fruit picking day in your favourite orchard. All you are doing at this point is collecting the information you need. Your favourite cup of [insert beverage of choice] is at hand, your fingers are posed over the keyboard, and away you go. My favourite place to start is usually Google Scholar. Not library databases you ask? Thing is, if Google Scholar can index your university library’s databases through VPN or EZ Proxy access, then it will automatically indicate that resource’s availability at your campus library. You also get other nifty pieces of information like how times it has been cited (a great way to identify seminal work), and provide links to related literature. In essence, Google Scholar serves as a great launch pad as you begin your investigation.
I typically only read the the abstract and keywords at this stage to identify material that I want to explore in detail further. Occasionally, I might do a quick scan of the article itself, if the abstract didn’t suffice, but I keep it to a minimum. To revert to the fruit picking metaphor, the goal is simply to collect all viable fruit, sorting through them comes later. The other aspect of this process is where do you put the stuff you collect? This is where bibliographic software can come in real handy, else, you could just turn into a basket case (pardon the pun ;)). Applications like Bookends and Sente (Mac), EndNote (Mac/Win), and online services like Mendeley and Zotero, among others, make it super easy to search and import citations on the fly, so you can focus on collecting.
This is my sorting stage. I scan article content to further refine my search and identify articles of real value. Although I am not actively reading at this point, it usually gives me a sense of themes and topics that are relevant. I use a matrix at this stage to track citation information such as publication year, author(s), journal and/or book title, and to post initial thoughts and observations. I also save PDF versions of the articles I have identified for in-depth reading, at this stage. Check out this great post from Literature Review HQ on effectively organizing your downloads. To be fair, Collection and Collation can merge into one giant step sometimes, but I have discovered that it really comes down to what you are researching, how familiar you are with it, and how complex the topic is. Your mileage may vary.
What I about to propose may seem counter-intuitive, but bear with me. There are two parts to this stage of the process: Active Reading and Cogitating. Let’s start with Active Reading.
Peg Boyle Single describes it as “having an active conversation with the author,” in her book Demystifying Dissertation Writing. As you read, you assess how the material informs your own, how it relates to your academic and/or personal interests, what are the main talking points, and so on. But here’s the clincher: You write the answers to these question in a note somewhere! I put it into my matrix along with the citation, but it could just as easily be a Word (or similar) document. In essence, you are collecting notes, not articles and books as Ms. Single puts it. @JediPhD makes a similar recommendation in a recent guest post at Literature Review HQ. I also note quotes I want to use, along with the corresponding page numbers, in the matrix at this stage, and highlight the same in my personal copy of the book or article.
Once my collection of notes is in place, I am ready to Cogitate. I usually take a breather from the computer and my notes at this point to actively reflect on, analyze, and synthesize the material I just reviewed. I find it easier to compare and contrast the material this way. One technique recommended in The Literature Review: Six Steps to Success is to create mind maps by author, theme, etc. I haven’t tried this yet, but have it on good authority that it does enable you to engage with the material at a deeper level. Use whatever modality works for you, but remember to make note of the themes and topics as they emerge.
In other words, put fingers to keyboard and get that paper/article/dissertation done! Scrivener (Mac/Win-Beta) is my writing tool of choice. It allows me to focus on just writing without worrying about style, formatting, citations and the like, so I can focus on language, flow, and structure. It also integrates nicely with Bookends (and other popular bibliographic software) so I can insert short-cut citations that are then converted into the appropriate style (APA, MLA, etc.) when I compile the document at the end.
My point is, the focus here should be on writing and producing a high quality literature review document, no matter what tool you use to get it done. I also have my matrix open at this stage so I can quickly and easily integrate my notes/commentary/quotes from the Collate and Comprehend stages. Background music is optional 😉 My attempt here has been to distill out the key processes in the literature review life cycle, and to provide context to some of my “tools of the trade” as it were. If you have a model or process to share, I’d love to hear from you.