How to do a literature review

from PhDComics

Before we go into this topic, lets just take a moment and recognize how spoiled we are. Nobody under 40 (and that includes me for a little while longer) had to ever look though paper based library catalogues to find an article, never had to take multiple paper copies to a conference to exchange with colleagues and never had to stand in the paper room at a conference trying to find the new works of the people they were interested in reading only to find that every copy is already gone. (In fact, most of us don’t even know what a paper room at a conference is.)

The Internet democratized science and while some barriers to accessing papers still exist, titles, author lists, abstracts, at minimum, are readily available at your fingertips. For the rest, we should thank our library staffs who not only work tirelessly to help us by tearing down those barriers, their jobs over the past couple decades transformed completely. They adopted and we reap the benefits.

Back in the day, you couldn’t do this, but today you have incredible tools at your disposal to do a literature review. So how do you proceed?

Usually you have a starting point. You have a paper, a book that inspired you. If you don’t have that starting point, find one. Dig up the wikipedia article on the subject you are interested in, (if there isn’t one, make one) and see if they cite a scholarly piece? Or just do a Google Scholar search (that is – and remember this website as it will come up again.)

(1) Find a starting point. (Sometimes, you have multiple starting points, that is fine as well.)

(2) Read your starting point(s). Make note of every (and I mean EVERY) relevant piece they cite.

(3) Take a look at the list of pieces you complied from the citations. When looking at a paper (and see also the How to Read post), first, you should always read the title. Sometimes the title will already tell you if this is something you should be interested in (you should figure this out from just the citation and without looking up the paper, the abstract). Always take note of the author, check the outlet it is published in. (Assess the quality of the outlet, this may require a google search or two.) If you still feel interested, read the abstract. At this point you should be able to decide with almost certainty if the paper (or book, I may overuse paper or article here, but it applies to anything that could be cited) is worth reading on or not. (Note that sometimes things are, in fact, worth reading but you don’t necessarily need to end up citing all of it. Maybe it will be a better fit for a future study. You won’t end up citing everything you read.)

This strategy of looking who people cite takes you back in time from your starting point. But, today, there is another path. This one takes you in the other direction temporally. (Not all the way to the future, but counting from the publication date of a key paper, yes.)

(4) With Google Scholar you can look at who cites a certain article. You probably still want to start with the ones you selected in Point 1. Type (or copy and paste) the title (precisely) into Google Scholar. Usually the first hit will be the paper you searched for (and if not, it is usually not much lower). Here, among other things, you will see the number of citations that paper received, to date. Click the number, and voilà, you have the list of papers that cite this study. Especially if you are looking at an important book or article, there could be many items on this list. Google orders them by the number of times they have been cited (which is a reasonable proxy of importance, especially for studies that have been out for a few years). Sometimes the task of looking through all these seems daunting. You don’t have the reference of any context as before (like in what context a paper was cited). At the same time you will find that many of these articles will not be relevant for you. (Sometimes it is surprising how many contexts a study could be cited in.) Remember the reading strategy. Read the titles on this list first (and most of the time your search will end here). If you feel you have to filter more, stick to the pieces with the highest number of citations and augment this list with pieces published in the past year or two . (Yes, you can filter by year.) These pieces may be important but did not have time to accumulate too many citations yet).

(5) And do it over and over and over and over. Once you identify and read an important article, save it, read it, (it is also a good idea to take notes on it), identify new cites, check who cites this article.

Once you are at the point where you are going in circles, you are seeing the same pieces come up over and over with almost no new information coming your way anymore, you are done.

One important thing to keep in mind is when doing a literature review, you need the literature that most closely connects with your work, your points, your arguments. If you go too broad, the work will certainly be unmanageable. Sure, pay homage to the most important publications in the general field, but you do not need to cite (or read) everything that vaguely relates to what you do. Knowing what is too distant and what is close enough to consider is kind of an art form, but with practice you will pick this up quick. What helps in this exercise the most is if you know what you are doing when you start.

Also, I am not going to lie, this is a work intensive, time-consuming and brain wrecking activity. When you start on it, the work will seem absolutely unmanageable. Work systematically and, I promise, you will get to the end. At the same time it is also a very fulfilling process. During these steps you are becoming a total expert in a field. Maybe it won’t feel like it at the time because you cannot process so much information at once, but after the initial steps the information, with time and thinking, it will skink in. Focus on the key points that most capture your attention. Write about them during the process as part of your reading notes, annotated bibliographies. Revisit your notes after you took some rest. Go take a day off after a multi-day, intensive, literature review. Go out in nature, clear your head to kick-start your thinking again.

I have gone through this process a few times. The most notable was when I changed MS thesis topics for my Survey Research and Methodology Masters Degree (the second one and already after I received my PhD in Political Science). I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Use a twin studies approach on survey response style. I found an article I liked on measuring extreme response style in an everyday survey. But I was much more uncertain about the measurement of acquiescence and I needed a solid literature review on how these two phenomena are conceptualized and/or measured.

This literature dates back the 1920s, though it is less broad than some other topics in the social sciences. Cycling through the above process took me 4-5 days. I went to my favorite coffee shop (at the time) and just worked 10-14 hour days. In the end I collected, read, took notes on 60 articles. I probably considered (read the titles of, or maybe started looking at the abstract of) over 1000 and fully read the abstract of hundreds. Depending on the topic, your experience with academic reading, your reading speed, your personal discipline, your interest in the activity, your mileage may vary greatly.

Interestingly, I think, this was the closest I ever came to experiencing Flow. I am a horrible programmer, (I do quite a bit of it, but I passionately hate it) so it is quite unlikely that I will ever get there with programming. But this process was just flying. I read about flow only at a later time, but it immediately made sense specifically because of this literature review experience. So there are certainly synergies with Flow productivity. Consider training your brain in that as well and you may be surprised how efficient you can be during this process.

Best of luck.