Reading and Organising the Literature

How should I approach the reading and organisation of what I have found?

You can very quickly acquire a huge pile of papers, each of which seems to be trying to point you in a different direction. You might feel confused and irritated by all of this and wonder how to make any sense of it. At this point, getting organised is vital. You should obtain bibliographic software such as EndNote (JCU has a site licence) and enter into it all the papers you find. This can be simplified by downloading records in EndNote format from online databases. However, manual entry is useful, because it forces you to take a first look at each paper. You should also decide on a storage system for physical or digital copies of papers that allows you to find them again. Some people file papers according to topic, but it is probably better to file papers alphabetically by author.

Now you are ready for the hard work, in which your bibliographic database will be a constant companion, guide and ally. Expect also to be constantly modifying keywords and phrases in your database. The three-part approach below is modified from the University of Queensland website

Making sense of the literature - first pass

At this stage there may seem to be masses of literature relevant to your research. Or you may worry that there seems to be hardly anything. As you read, think about and discuss articles and isolate the issues you're more interested in. In this way, you focus your topic more and more. The more you can close in on what your research question actually is, the more you will be able to have a basis for selecting the relevant areas of the literature. This is the only way to bring it down to a manageable size.

Very little there?

If initially you can't seem to find much at all on your research area - and you are sure that you've exploited all avenues for searching that the library can present you with - then there are a few possibilities:

  • You could be right at the cutting edge of something new and it's not surprising there's little around.

  • You could be limiting yourself to too narrow an area and not appreciating that relevant material could be just around the corner in a closely related field.

  • Unfortunately there's another possibility and this is that there's nothing in the literature because it is not a worthwhile area of research. In this case, you need to look closely, with your supervisor, at what you plan to do.

First Impressions

When first exploring a field of research new to you, it is useful to skim the literature in an intelligent way. At this stage, read only the abstract, introduction and discussion from each paper (don't worry yet about the "how" of the work). This allows you to identify the ideas, theories, questions and controversies that underlie each piece of work. Design keywords or phrases that identify each question, and enter these in your bibliographic database for each paper. This will allow you later to retrieve all papers that tackle a particular question. Details of exactly how the various questions were tackled, as outlined in methods and results sections, can wait for a later reading of the paper.

Quality of the Literature

This begins your first step in making sense of the literature. You are not necessarily closely evaluating it now; you are mostly learning through it. But, sometimes at this stage students want to know how they can judge the quality of the literature they're reading, as they're not yet experts.

You learn to judge, evaluate, and look critically at the literature by judging, evaluating and looking critically at it. Sound like a circular argument? Well, you learn to do so by practising. There is no quick recipe for doing this but there are some questions you could find useful and, with practice, you will develop many others:

  • Is the theoretical basis transparent?

  • Was the research influential in that others picked up the threads and pursued them? (i.e. has the paper been cited frequently?)

  • Is the problem clearly spelled out?

  • Are the results presented new?

  • How large a sample was used?

  • How convincing is the argument made?

  • How were the results analysed?

  • What perspective are they coming from?

  • Are the generalisations justified by the evidence on which they are made?

  • What is the significance of this research?

  • What are the assumptions behind the research?

  • Is the methodology well justified as the most appropriate to study the problem?

In critically evaluating, you are looking for the strengths of certain studies and the significance and contributions made by researchers. You are also looking for limitations, flaws and weaknesses of particular studies, or of whole lines of enquiry.

Make sure that your evaluation of each paper is recorded in your bibliographic database in a consistent way.

In particular, you might want to keep a list of standard keywords pinned to the wall beside your desk

Making sense of the literature - second pass

You continue the process of making sense of the literature by further reading, re-reading and digesting of what you have read. This will allow you to become more confident and much more focused on your specific research.

You're still reading and re-reading the literature. If you are already doing research towards your thesis, you're thinking about it as you are doing your experiments, conducting your studies, analysing texts or other data. You are able to talk about it easily and discuss it. In other words, it's becoming part of you.

At a deeper level than before,

  • You are now not only looking at findings but are looking at how others have arrived at their findings.

  • You're looking at what assumptions are leading to the way something is investigated.

  • You're looking for genuine differences in theories as opposed to semantic differences.

  • You also are gaining an understanding of why the field developed in the way it did.

  • You have a sense of where it might be going.

First of all you probably thought something like, "I just have to get a handle on this". But now you see that this 'handle', which you discovered for yourself, turns out to be the key to what is important. You are very likely getting to this level of understanding by taking things to pieces and putting them back together.

For example, you may need to set up alongside one another four or five different definitions of the same concept, versions of the same theory, or different theories proposed to account for the same phenomenon. You may need to unpack them thoroughly, even at the very basic level of what is the implied understanding of key words (for example 'concept', 'model', 'principles' etc.), before you can confidently compare them, which you need to do before synthesis is possible.

Or, for example, you may be trying to sort through specific discoveries which have been variously and concurrently described by different researchers in different countries. You need to ask questions such as whether they are the same discoveries being given different names or, if they are not the same, whether they are related. In other words, you may need to embark on very detailed analyses of parts of the literature while maintaining the general picture.

Record your views on each paper in your bibliographic database. By now you should have an idea of what headings you might use in your final review, and you could use these headings as keywords/keyphrases in your database.

Making sense of the literature - final pass

You make sense of the literature finally when you are looking back to place your own research within the field. At the final pass, you really see how your research has grown out of previous work. So now you may be able to identify points or issues that lead directly to your research. You may see points whose significance didn't strike you at first but which now you can highlight. Or you may realise that some aspect of your research has incidentally provided evidence to lend weight to one view of a controversy. Having finished your own research, you are now much better equipped to evaluate previous research in your field.

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