Searching the literature is an important step when working towards your literature review. But I know that it can be tempting to keep searching and searching and searching… indefinitely.
Maybe you keep searching because you’re afraid not to be thorough enough? Or as a way to procrastinate getting any further in your work?
But the truth is, at some point, you’ve got to stop searching. And here is why.
1. The more you accumulate, the longer it’s going to take you to read everything
It can feel reassuring to have all of those references stocked up for further reading, but if you keep accumulating the papers without ever doing anything with them, then that’s all for naught…
And the more you accumulate, the more daunting reading them all will become.
So consider stopping your search for a while, and just sitting down to read. Just as with writing, sometimes there is no other way than sitting your butt in a chair and not getting up until the task is done.
Once your pile of articles is read, once you’ve taken thorough notes, and maybe even begun building up a note taking matrix, then you’ve got my leave to go back to searching some more! (But only if you feel like you really need to!)
2. You can go back to the literature search phase later
Your literature review process doesn’t have to be linear. You don’t have to do all the searching then all the reading then all the writing. Life is more complicated than that.
And, actually, doing some reading, note taking, and even a bit of writing, might benefit any further literature search that you will do down the road.
By taking the time to familiarise yourself with the content you’ve already found will help you coming up with better search terms. While reading, try and note keywords that other researchers have used to describe your topic that you hadn’t thought of when first putting together your list of search words.
And organising ideas together through a note taking matrix, mindmapping, post-it notes or any other method you choose, could give you ideas for areas to look into more thoroughly when you come back to the search screen of your favourite database.
3. You can put systems into place to make sure you won’t miss anything important
Even if you don’t go back and do another literature search before finishing off your literature review, you can still make sure that you’re keeping up-to-date with new papers published on your topic.
Create alerts in the databases you’ve used and/or in Google Scholar.
Usually, you just have to do a search normally then click “create alert” or “save your search as an alert”. You will then receive emails whenever a new document corresponding to your search is added to the database.
Check up on the most important journals in your field
The most effective way to do that is to add the websites of those journals to your RSS reader or to subscribe to their email alerts, if they offer some.
You can also just keep links towards those websites in your browser and make an appointment with yourself to visit them at least once a month.
Or, well, you can just go to the library to have a look at the latest issue!
Whichever way you choose to do this, do ensure that you’re doing it regularly, and not letting alerts and old issues accumulating until there are so many that the task begins to feel overwhelming…
The banner above was created using a picture by Kevin Dooley.