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How to make a literature survey/review: the task ahead

What is involved in making a review/survey of the literature?

As explained in 'Why conduct a literature review/survey', a sound review is crucial in research. This page considers the process of reviewing the literature as a task while the page on use explains how to use the findings in research proposals, progress reports and theses/dissertations.

When should a literature review/survey be undertaken?

Some students regard surveying or reviewing the literature as a one-off task with the output being just a single chapter in the eventual thesis or dissertation. This can be the case, but it is a bad rule of thumb.

Certainly the bulk of a literature review does often need to be done at the outset of research in order to set the scene for the research. Then, accordingly, such a literature review does form the substance of an early scene-setting chapter.

However as the work progresses, the relevance of new findings also needs to be tied in with the literature. So references from the literature need to continue to appear throughout a thesis or dissertation. How much so depends on the situation.

In some types of exploratory research, there is no literature survey chapter at all, only a number of separate chapters on various aspects of the research, each with its own references to literature.

Publications to include in a literature review/survey

Websites

Websites tend to be a first port of call in a literature review/survey, but be careful. Anyone can put anything on a website. So not all websites are reliable.

Main uses of websites for students' research proposals, progress reports and theses/dissertations are likely to be for:

Morel information

Journal articles and books

Journal articles and academic books are research students stock in trade as they will have been peer reviewed. They (and possibly other useful material) will be listed on one or more of the subject databases, i.e. electronic indexes of publications. A subject librarian should be able to advise on which one or ones are most suitable for your field.

Other material to include

There is not really any limit to the types of literature that can be usefully accessed. What matters is that nothing should be quoted as definitive unless it is from a reputable source.

What to look out for while reading

In order to make the task as efficient as possible, it is important to read with purpose.

Elsewhere on this site is a list of the main roles that research students need to drop into, in order to complete their research programme efficiently and effectively. For using and citing literature it is the barrister role, and you should check this out before reading further.

As you consult the literature, you should bear in mind that the parts that will be useful to you, will help in building a case of some sort.

Tips for easing the task of reviewing literature

Some of the most productive reading takes place on a casual basis, perhaps while relaxing with books or articles away from the workplace. Afterwards, important points and ideas can easily get forgotten or lost. A way of marking a page for processing later without seriously interrupting the flow of the activity or causing damage is by using bookmarks of strips of peel-off 'Post-It' type stickers. It is worth keeping a pack readily to hand for the purpose, along with a pen or pencil. Alternatively an on-hand digital camera can quickly record literature extracts for better processing later - but do remember to record the publication details and page numbers as well.

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on literature

Why the work of others is important

Identifying and accessing relevant material

Reading purposefully and effectively

Bibliographic management software

Systems and styles for citing sources

Using literature in your own work

Implications for a 'Literature Survey/Review'

Bibliographic management software

Bibliographic management software can help keep track of what you read. You input references into your own unique 'library' or database which you are then able to search according to various criteria. You can then format in a particular style and manipulate in various ways.

A number of bibliographic software tools are available, of which Endnote is probably the best known. Some are more suitable than others for certain fields of study and supervisors* will make recommendations.

However, the adage about 'garbage in; garbage out' is particularly pertinent when using bibliographic management software, as indeed when using any method of recording what one reads. Sadly there is no completely satisfactory way of recording and processing because it is seldom possible to know at the time precisely how an extract or quotation might best be used, if indeed it can be used at all. Hence difficult decisions have to be made about how much to record and with what keywords. There is no formalised procedure which can entirely support the burden of this, and there is no substitute for a mind that can provide a partial retrieval system of its own.

© Pat Cryer


* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.