Literature Reviews, the dreaded horror…

Few words struck as much fear down into the depths of my very soul as the notification that I had to do a Literature Review or an annotated bibliography.  It is still the achilles heel of my writing. But, weakness was made to be overcome, right? Let’s face it, as simplistic as a lit review sounds, it’s basically saying “it’s time to read everything thing that’s ever been written on this topic, and then everything that was that influenced that writing.” It’s not the simplest task. But, I have found there is hope in organization.

There are quite a few resources out there which address writing a lit review in broad terms.  Some good ones are from Purdue University, George Washington University, and the University of Wisconsin – Madison. This post will instead focus on more detailed information and hints I have been taught and found over the course of the last few years. It will focus not so much on writing the actual review, but on finding the articles.

Make no mistake (sorry, had a presidential moment there), it is more than finding a few citations to throw into a paper that has already been written.  If you are doing it correctly, especially in an empirical paper, you are having to survey the literature before you proceed with your actual paper. But, if you form a system, and follow it, it will make your life a lot easier.

For as long as I remember in popular culture, academics were surrounded by black composition notebooks.  These have traditionally been used as research journals.  While these journals are important as ever, they have evolved a with modern technology. You need to have some record of which databases you’ve already checked, how you decided who will write what sections in your latest research meeting, and sometimes even random notes of things to go back and change at some point in the future before you submit the project.  Grad school life is hectic.  If you do not writing things down, they will be forgotten. But, we have moved beyond the day of composition notebooks.  We live in a wired society now.  Notebooks no longer have pages; they have keyboards.  Some of those keyboards have even gotten quite small. Not only are there notebooks, but there are also netbooks, smartphones, and tablet computers.  Make use of the technology.

This presents yet another problem.  What do you do when the file you need is on a different hard drive? Go to the Cloud. I’m not particularly tech savvy (which I am reminded of whenever I read my academic blogroll, most of them are computer science professors). I’ve just started hearing about this cloud phenomena in the last year or two, but I’m sure it existed long before that. Microsoft has SkyDrive. Google has Google Docs. I’m sure there are also others which I’m just do not know about. I use Docs. What can I say? I love Google…  But it allows me to access my documents from anywhere with an internet connection, including my smartphone.

Speaking of technology, there are also some other solutions., Dropbox, and others automatically backup files which are on your hard drive.  You can then log in and access these files from remote computers with internet access.

Okay back to lit reviews. You will be reading many, many articles over the course of your academic career.  You need some way to track it. The most basic method is index cards with the citation information and notes handwritten.  At the other end of the spectrum are multi-hundred dollar solutions like EndNote. In between, you can find RefWorks, Mendeley, CiteULike, and many others.  Some academic bloggers, namely Matt Might recommend CiteULike.  I’ve tried it, but it didn’t click with me. It seems geared towards scientific citations.  My choice, Mendeley, includes formatting for other things like news articles, conference proceedings, legal documents, statutes, and legislation.  I’ve only been using it for a few months, and while the import system could stand some improvement, it is still quite user friendly, properly formats the citations (if the information was entered correctly), and keeps everything (including PDF files) organized.  It will also sync with the website to let you add and access information when you’re away from the office. But, perhaps my favorite feature is how it allows you to add comments to a PDF document as you read it, just as you would if you had printed a hard copy.

Those are some of the things I have used. So, now I pose the question to my readers.  What productivity tricks have you used to keep order of countless citations? What have I missed that works for you? I’m always willing to learn something new.

Up next, I’ll go over some ways to find citations.

2 thoughts on “Literature Reviews, the dreaded horror…

  1. Caroline R

    Thanks for this Daniel! I hate literature reviews and have been trying to figure out a good system for doing them.


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