How to start your literature review


Thinking of starting a doctorate? Already deep into PhDing and worried about the literature work?

Well, when it comes to working with literatures, the old saying that there’s more than one way to skin a cat might be ugly, but it contains an important truth.  There is no one best way to do a literature review.

But don’t despair. The lit review is not entirely unknown territory. There are three well-trodden literature pathways you can consider – a trio of ways to think about how to begin and get stuck into the initial reading, summarising, thematising, categorising, mapping. If you don’t want to invent your own process, then take a look at these.

  • begin with a short list – a set of recommendations about the key texts that you need to read. You need to get a short list from a supervisor, or someone you can trust, maybe someone who is working on the same kind of topic but is a year or so ahead of you. Once you have your list, your job is basically to find the key themes relevant to your work and locate the leads to other relevant texts.

Eventually you will get to the outer reaches of the field and draw the borders you need, but by then you will have a sold grasp of the texts that are most germane to your study.

  • begin with something that already offers an interpretation of the field, its history, key texts, themes and debates. You’ll get a head start from an encyclopaedia, an international handbook, an introductory text, a published literature review, or an idiot’s guide. You might even find a published thesis or research report which is relevant to your study. It’s helpful to understand that an existing review is not necessarily going to include the most relevant literature for your study, but you will likely find some leads to where you need to go to find them. You also need to hold any ready made view of the field up to some scrutiny as you go, as it is one (or a handful of) persons interpretation of the field – not yours. You need to know the field you’re working in, not someone else’s. Or if there’s more than one field, then you may also need to think about overlaps.

One modification of this approach is to get a Masters level reading list (again from someone you can trust) and make your way through it, perhaps with the help of various novel study guides. I did this myself in my own PhD when I worked out I had to know something about geography – I bought a set of Open University text books and self-managed my way through three Masters modules.

  • begin with a big search using google docs or google scholar or an academic search engine. If you are doing a systematic review or a rapid evidence review you would start this way and you’d use academic search engines. If you’re nit and still want to start big, you might also use publishers’ journal websites to get going. The start-big approach benefits from you having pretty good speed-reading, as well as some clear selection criteria. These criteria might be about methods, as in the systematic review. Or you might decide on some specific questions based on your research topic – If I want to do this research, then I need to know about x, y, z, just for starters.

Key to the writ-large approach is the understanding that you are establishing the outer edges of the field, as well as the core texts, at the same time. So there is quite a lot of ongoing sorting to do as you go along, you’re thematising and classifying right from the get-go. Yes, get those postits and markers at the ready.

It’s also a great idea to team up with other people working on a similar topic. You can share references and texts. You can also form a reading group to tackle some of the more difficult texts together.