Whatever the discipline, reviewing literature involves lots of analysing, evaluating and comparing sources of information, not just cherry-picking from them. And when you need to compare many different sources, it helps to use a spreadsheet, as suggested back in week one. Using a simple spread-sheet or table can help you keep track of your search activity, and avoid falling down a labyrinthine rabbit hole. Your own library might provide spread-sheet templates, or you can use the UOW’s library template. Feel free to adapt these to include criteria that seem most useful to your topic and points of comparison between publications. When you make notes in this kind of way it’s easy to quickly see patterns of similarity and difference across a range of publications, and draw conclusions. You might note, for example, that across 25 different studies on your topic, most have used the same research method, or some have produced very different findings, or none address the particular question you want to pursue. This kind of observation will help you frame your own research project, so it’s important to read, evaluate and compare the literature you’ve selected with this in mind.
To be or not to be comprehensive?
As noted earlier, reading review articles is a great way to find out what other researchers are doing and what remains to be done in your field. The key to a good literature review is generally quality rather than quantity, but you may need to actually write a stand-alone, systematic review of literature, as a publication of your own. That will depend on the nature and discipline of your research project, but if you do need to write a large and comprehensive review, there will be a standardized method for doing so in your discipline. These vary, so this kind of literature review needs to be done in consultation with research supervisors, not least because it involves formal double checking of search results.
On the blog this week I posted an example of how I’ve used a spread-sheet to keep track of and to compare various sources of information.
- Do you think a table or spread-sheet would help in your literature review process?
- Does your literature review need to be very large and systematic?
- Do you know of any particular protocols for conducting a systematic literature review?
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