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A literature review is not only the tool I use to know the current knowledge in my field but also to guide my research. It should be part of your research process.
First, a question to ask: why are you/we doing literature reviews?
The answer(s) should help clarify the objective of this exercise, your research questions and set clear boundaries within which the literature review will be conducted.
I see 3 main different objectives when doing a literature review:
- Provide an overview of a specific field. Published reviews are a good starting point for a fast and accurate view of a specific topic/field.
- Spot gaps in existing research related to a research topic
- Or synthesize and analyze current knowledge on a particular topic
2. Developing Research Questions:
Next, the point is to write clear and specific research questions that will guide the literature review. What are we trying to answer with a specific research project? Which problem are we trying to solve?
Your research questions should align with the primary objectives and should set a framework to explore the key areas of your field.
Here I like to define the period of the literature to explore: Am I going for the latest publications, let’s say 5 to 10 years, or older works for the historical context? There are other elements to consider such as geographies, languages of publications that may apply to specific topics.
Once the scope is set, it’s time to find relevant literature. A few steps that I follow:
1. Choosing the Right Databases:
Start by selecting the appropriate databases and search engines for your field. Common choices include academic databases like the Web of Science, and discipline-specific databases like PubMed. Check with your library which database you have access to.
2. Using Keywords and Phrases:
We usually use keywords in search engines. I like to develop a list of keywords, and phrases related to my research questions and my topics. These should be the terms that authors are more likely to use when writing about my topic of interest. Also, the more I read the more I would refine and expand my keywords list to get more specific results.
3. Mastering Boolean Operators:
Most search engines provide the ability to use Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) to create more complex search queries. Again, this is very useful when I want to be more specific in my search. After running a few search queries, I analyze the results and try to filter out the “noise”, papers that are completely outside my field. Also, reading the title and the abstract usually suffice to find out whether the paper is relevant or not.
4. Exploring Citations and References:
This is a good reflex to have. Examine the citations and references of the relevant articles you found. Great chance that these references/citations might also be relevant. These potential sources may not appear in the initial keyword search. These linkages also represent how the research on that specific topic has evolved.
By the way, there are also mapping & citation techniques, which might reveal other relevant papers and group them based on their similarity. In the near future, I will cover these techniques to represent these linkages.
5. Keeping Detailed Records:
Based on my interactions with researchers over the past decade, I still see many of them managing the references of relevant papers manually. This is insane, knowing that there are plenty of reference management tools to use.
I personally use EndNote to keep detailed records of relevant publications. I have one “group” of references (or folder) for each research project. This helps me manage and locate relevant references quickly.
I also tag them with related keywords and a star rating system to indicate their relevance.
Analyzing Existing Research
As the collection of research papers grows, it’s time to go through the analysis phase. Here are some quick tips to analyze existing research:
1. Assessing Source Quality:
I like to focus on peer-reviewed literature that I can trust. That’s also one of the reasons I use Web of Science. There, I can analyze my search results by field, journals/books/conferences but also active researchers/research institutions in my field.
Once I find relevant papers, I summarize the main findings, arguments, and methods used in the literature. Using EndNote also helps me store my summary notes in a single location
3. Identifying Trends and Gaps:
Now, patterns, trends, or gaps in the existing research will start to emerge. You might find recurring themes or issues that researchers seem to be addressing. This is also where I may find areas where research is lacking, and some questions that remain unanswered.
Tip: The limitations/discussion sections of existing papers are usually gold mines to identify research gaps.
4. Comparing and Contrasting:
Compare and contrast the findings and arguments presented in different sources. By doing that, key debates/discussions in your field will also emerge. You may find areas of agreement but also disagreement among scholars. This is where there might be something interesting to be done.
5. Staying Organized:
Another reason for me to use EndNote is the following: whenever I find a new relevant paper, I will save it immediately in the corresponding folder. Remember that literature reviews are always done at a certain point in time. As I read new papers, I simply don’t want them to get lost in my laptop (downloads folder, bookmarks, shared drives or emails..)
6. Critical Examination:
Perhaps this step gets better with experience. Not every paper should be taken at face value. As mentioned earlier, assessing methodologies, limitations and potential biases may open door to new research.
Flexibility is key here. Research keeps evolving. New papers get published every day. Back to the search strategy, once I have decent search results, I like to save my searches to get alerted if any new relevant paper gets published.
So, there might be a need to adjust the research questions based on your/others findings.
Something to keep in mind is that a good literature review is not only a personal research study. It also provides valuable content to researchers in a specific field.
That’s all for now. I hope this guide will help you