Last week, we saw how to try and narrow down your topic when you feel like there is way too much literature for you to be able to deal with.
But sometimes, especially if you’re working on a big research project like a PhD, there’s not much to do in ways of narrowing down — you will have to deal with a lot of literature because you need to get familiar with everything that’s been written on your topic.
We saw that a first way to deal with huge amounts of literature is to divide and conquer: tackle one sub-topic at a time. But if you still feel like there’s too much, it’s too hard, and you’re drowning, then I would like to propose a step-by-step method to try and deal with little bits of literature at a time.
Let’s dive in.
Working in waves
If you can, apply this technique separately to different sub-topics within your main topic as explained in last week’s article. This will make things even less daunting and more manageable.
Within each of those sub-topics, we’re going to work through the literature “in waves”, a little bit at a time.
What do I mean by “working in waves”?
Well, to avoid feeling like you’re drowning in the literature, I propose that you take it in the smallest bits possible, and treat it (find it, read it, summarize it) as you go.
Instead of sizing-up the mountain (and be demoralized at the long way you still have to go), I want you to look at your feet and focus on each single step. One at a time. At a time. At a time.
More practically, the idea is that if you start by doing a giant, thorough literature search, even if it’s on a very narrow sub-topic, you’re going to end up with a giant pile of things to read, and then you’ll start feeling submerged.
So let’s try and reduce the amount of reading you have to face at any one point.
How to do it, step-by-step
Here is what I propose for you to do.
1. Go to your favourite bibliographic database and do one super narrow search. (Here is some help to show you how to do this efficiently.)
Limit it until you get less than 100 relevant results.
Don’t forget to write down exactly what kind of search you did so you can repeat it later.
If you have already done a search and accumulated lots of unread PDFs on your computer, skip this step.
2. Read carefully the title / abstract of all of the results you found. I want you to pick only 1 document out of those 100 results. It needs to be the most interesting document possible and, most importantly, it needs to be really really relevant to your topic.
If you’re working out of a pool of PDFs you’ve already found, then pick 1 document that you haven’t read yet.
You could also ask your adviser for the number one article they think is the most important for you to read.
Don’t worry about all the literature left out there, it will still be there in a few days (or weeks, or months) when you go back to the database.
3. If need be, hunt down the full-text of the document you’ve chosen.
4. Read the full-text of your document. Take thorough notes. (Here is some help to try and read critically.)
If the answer is yes, go ahead and read it.
If the answer is maybe, or not really, or a flat no, then store the article somewhere safe and we’ll have another look at it later.
Until then, I want you to only read papers that are directly relevant to your topic!
And if you’re half-way through reading something and you decide after all that it’s not interesting, then discard it with the rest of the non-interesting ones.
Just pick something else to read.
Don’t make yourself read anything that’s not directly relevant to your research! Reading is way too time-consuming!
Okay, so that’s almost it for phase 1. Are you still with me?
There is one last thing I would like you to do:
5. Using the medium of your choice (reference management software, worksheet, Word document, old-fashioned notebook, whatever…), I want you to start a list or a table in which you will record:
- The title / author / topic (or other relevant information – but keep it short) of the documents you’ve collected so far.
- Have I found the full-text of this document? yes / no
- Have I read this document? yes / no
- Rating: was this article… essential / great / good / meh / terrible?
- Have I looked through its bibliography? yes / no
- Have I found who has cited this document? yes / no
For the sake of clarity throughout the rest of this article, I’ll suppose that you’re doing it in a worksheet, but the medium really doesn’t matter.
We will use this worksheet throughout phase 2.
Actually, we’re going to do phase 2 for each of the documents listed in your worksheet.
Right now, your worksheet only has 1 document recorded. But this will change soon.
Here is how it goes…
1. Out of your worksheet, pick the one article that you think was the most interesting / relevant to your topic (and that you haven’t passed through phase 2 yet).
If this is your first go at phase 2, then you only have 1 document on your worksheet… so pick that one!
Pull out its full-text to have another look.
2. Go through its bibliography.
Which of the references listed seem interesting and relevant to your topic?
Be picky! Track down their abstracts and only choose the ones that seem really really interesting to you (and relevant to your topic)! Remember my important note above!
And remember that if you’re super anxious, you can always keep the references you didn’t select somewhere else in a file or folder, and you will get a chance to have another look at them later on.
Just don’t fret out on them right now. You don’t have time to read everything.
If you need more guidance, let’s say that I want you to choose a maximum of 3 super interesting references, and that’s it. But less is better! The less you chose, the less you’ll have to read. And as always, ymmv.
Once you’ve made your choice of interesting references…
2. a. Add them to your worksheet.
2. b. Find the full-text for each of the references you’ve singled out.
2. c. Read those references. Take thorough notes.
2. d. Give each of those references a rating on how good / interesting / relevant they were (it will be useful later).
3. Let’s go back to the document you had chosen at the start of phase 2.
Go to Google Scholar and check if it has been cited by other papers.
3. a. If any of those documents seem really interesting to you (once again, be picky! If you need a maximum number, let’s say 3, no more), add them to your worksheet.
3. b. Find their full-text.
3. c. Read them. Take thorough notes while doing so.
3. d. Give them a rating.
Once you’ve done that for this document, go back to your worksheet and have a look at all the documents you haven’t passed through phase 2 yet.
(This includes the ones you just added through points 2 and 3 of phase 2.)
Cut and paste the ones with a “meh” or “terrible” rating somewhere else. You won’t pass them through phase 2 themselves.
Out of the ones you’ve rated highly, pick one document. Once again, double-check that this document, as interesting as it may, is actually relevant to your topic!
Once you’re sure it’s a great one that’s worth it, go through phase 2 again for this new document.
Once you run out of highly rated documents, you’re done with phase 2! Congratulations!
Disclaimer: yes, you could get stuck in phase 2 forever… which is why you need to be super super picky with the papers you’re adding to your list.
The more you do it, the more distant from your topic you may get. So always keep in mind that anything you read needs to be extremely relevant to your final goal.
If, halfway through reading something you find that actually they’re not great, drop them then and there! And pass to the next document…
Phase 1 bis
Phase 1 bis is going to be a repeat of phase 1.
I’m going to walk you through it once again to make sure everything is super clear.
1. Go back to your favourite bibliographic database (or your accumulated pile of PDFs) and do the same search as you had done in phase 1.
Look through the results…
I’m ready to bet that, while going through phase 2, you’ve actually read some of the results that come up from your search.
2. Go through the first 100 results and choose one super interesting and relevant paper.
(Or pick one from your stash of PDFs.)
3. If need be, hunt down the full-text of the document you’ve chosen.
4. Read the full-text of your document. Take thorough notes.
5. Add it to your worksheet.
6. Give it a rating.
7. Now, (if you gave the document a good rating! Otherwise, pick another article and go through phase 1 bis again…) take this new paper as a starting point and go through phase 2 all over again.
You will want to repeat this process… a few times…
What can I say: if there’s a lot of literature to go through, then you’ll have to go through a lot of literature…
But after each iteration, you should see that you organically read through articles that were in your pool of results anyway. As well as some extra interesting papers that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.
And, I’m repeating myself here, but keep in mind to always be very picky when choosing which articles to read, and which articles to pass through phase 2: the pickier you are, the faster this will go.
Your time is precious! Don’t waste it on vaguely interesting stuff when you could be focusing on highly relevant literature.
After a while, you won’t be able to keep to the first 100 results of your narrow literature search and you will start to feel like you’re seeing the same articles coming up over and over again.
It means that it’s time for you to stop!
Here are a few extra suggestions for finishing it up.
Once you’re done going over phase 1 (or rather 1 bis) and 2 over and over, there are only a few things left over for you to do.
1. Look through your worksheet for the authors of articles you’ve rated highly.
Which are the authors that have come up most often or who have written the most interesting papers?
(If you tend to want to check them all, make yourself choose only 3.)
For each of them, do a search on your favourite database / stalk them on the Internet to try and find out what else they have published recently.
Go through phase 1 (bis) and 2 for any highly interesting and relevant article you find this way.
2. After doing this last step, it’s time to try and write a first draft of literature review for the topic (or sub-topic) you’ve just covered.
Read the notes you’ve taken for all of your highly rated articles (note: if you’ve taken good notes, you shouldn’t have to read the papers again!).
Look for patterns within the literature to come up with a structure for your review.
Then, put your bum in a chair and don’t get up until you’ve written your first draft!
Don’t worry, there will always be time later on for modifications. But it’s easier to change something that exists on paper rather than something that only exist in your head, isn’t it?
3. Remember how I told you earlier that you would get a chance later on to have another look at all of the references you stored away because they weren’t completely on topic or didn’t seem so thrilling?
Now is your chance. (If you want it. You might have gotten over it by now!)
Yes, we’re doing this after having written a first draft already.
Go through your list of discarded references, read their titles / abstract (but no more!) and ask yourself if any of those would have been really interesting to add to your review.
My bet is that there will be none.
But if there are a few references that you would like to insert after all, then go ahead, read them, take thorough notes, and modify your draft to include them.
Once you’re done with the sub-topic you were working on, you might want to move on to another sub-topic.
And once you’ve gone through all of your sub-topic, then you’ll want to read each drafted lit review for each of your sub-topic and edit them into one giant literature review.
So, here we go.
I hope some of you have found this method useful. For the record, I’ve been using it in some form or another for some time now because I just cannot deal with a huge amount of PDFs accumulating in a folder… The thought of all the work to be done just fuels my procrastination…
So do you see what I’ve been trying to get you to do with this process?
We started with just 1 paper, and then added a few more at a time, that were directly related to that paper.
To make sure that things didn’t snowballed out of hand, we’ve been super picky about what was added to our pool of things to read and analyse.
And that way, we’ve tried to always only have a few papers in our “to read” and “to treat” list…
Finally, we’ve been reading, summarizing and looking through backward and forward citations as we went! So there is no huge task left at the end of the day. All has been done, bit by bit, along the way.
So, if you’re a bit like me and would rather look at your feet than at the top of the mountain that is still so far away, I hope you can try out this method and hike through the literature at your own pace!
Let me know if it worked for you!
Have you ever felt submerged under a huge heap of literature? How did you deal with it? Tell us all about it in the comments!