Thursday, 15 March 2007

Tackling a Literature Review

A literature review is an organised, critical appraisal of published attempts to answer a question.

Therefore you have to start by knowing and understanding the research question; have it in mind so that you are not reading irrelevant material. Have a plan and structure of how you aim to go about the literature review.

The Foundation
How will it be organised? Chronological; Thermatic (models; results etc); Methodological?

The Phases
Phase One: More searching, less reading, little writing.
Phase Two: More reading, less searching, little writing.
Phase Three: Mainly writing, with some re-reading.

If you do phases one and two right the literature review will almost write itself. Keep the writing in draft shape until it is to be incorporated in the final thesis. You don't want to finalise and chop material too early.

The Search
With an abundace of material available, one vital resource is often forgotten... people! Continue to talk at all stages; not just to your supervisor but to others who can help and recommend papers.

Information Mapping
Such methods do not take very long to draw yet structure thoughts excellently.

Getting Stuck In
Read the abstract, introduction and conclusion of a paper first. Straight away. Then decide what parts of it need reading in depth.

Reading and Note-taking
Read papers with a defined purpose. What are you reading this for? Decide! It will help you focus. Read from a hardcopy whenever possible. You can't concentrate so well looking at a screen.

Reading with a purpose
Devise a set of questions for yourself and answer them as you read the main parts of the paper.

Information Management
Have some sort of filing system. Remember that the best ones are the simplest.

Writing the literature review
This should now be the easy bit. Don't forget to cite yourself, as and when required. The trail may need to be followed by fellow researchers. When in doubt... cite!

The Outline
  • Introduction - The research question and why it's important. Summary of previous attempts to answer it.
  • Body of the review - Headings according to your chosen method of organisation.
  • Conclusions - Where are the gaps? Are they worth filling? Who has made the best attempts to fill them? How do I intend to fill them? What do I intend to do?

Writing techniques
Rough drafting first! Remember, it's private. There's no need to beautify it... yet. What is said is more important here than how it is said. Also, in terms of writing order, it is best to leave the introduction to the end. It will then be brief and you'll be clearer on what lies ahead.

Refine your rough drafts
Wait! Leave it for two or three days at least (between drafting and editing). And make that final check in hardcopy.

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