Using diagrams as research aids



I hate doing literature reviews. I always feel I have not read enough. I worry that what I write will be ‘wrong’ because I have missed some vital piece of literature. These feelings never seem to entirely go away, even though I have been publishing papers for over a decade. I can certainly relate to new PhD candidates paralysed by the sheer amount of reading they have to do. I am always looking for ways to help them – and myself.

In a previous post I documented a way to use a spider diagram to scope a literature review . This technique works well when you have a relatively defined topic, but what if you are just, you know – sniffing about? Trying to get the lay of the land before you start a new project?

This is the kind of literature searching behaviour you tend to do right at the start of your PhD, or when you start to bring in a new area of literature to an existing project. Now, if you are anything like me, this kind of searching is a bit random.

Generally I type a few dozen search strings into a database like Google Scholar and hope that something interesting will float to the surface. Citation searches help me see if there is a useful conversation around that topic. When I have exhausted one search string, I try random variations on it, just to see if I have missed anything.

It’s a laborious and, to be frank, not very systematic method.

Recently I have started using another diagram method from a book recommended by Dr Jonathon Downie called ‘Salsa dancing into the social sciences’ by Kristin Luker. In it Luker shows a simple method to generate ideas for new search terms she calls the ‘bedraggled daisy’ diagram.

The bedraggled daisy is a Venn diagram on steroids. To refresh your memory, a Venn diagram is a way of representing sets. Here is a Venn diagram of why I hate literature reviews:

My dislike of literature reviews is the intersection: where anxiety meets no time to read and too many books. Luker’s bedraggled daisy diagrams has so many circles that they become squished and look more like petals.

Let’s use this method to do a literature review about … why people get stuck trying to write literature reviews because that will be pleasingly meta. We start with a list of at least eight possible search terms that touch on various aspects of the problem:

  • writing skills
  • procrastination
  • information overload
  • Anxiety
  • limited time
  • discipline conventions
  • digital literacy (or lack of it)
  • performance cultures

You can search each one of these separately (and you should) but they get more interesting when you put them in dialog with each other. The bedraggled daisy is basically a set of overlapping ovals, like so:

In the middle of the daisy is your project – where all the topics meet up and mingle. Hopefully no one has produced that piece of work, so this is a useful visual representation of the gap you are trying to fill with your research.

Where the ‘petals’ overlap the diagram provides you search strings you can use in any database. You may well have thought up these search strings without the diagram, but the diagram is an excellent record and memory aide. Some petal overlaps are obvious. “Writing skills” + “procrastination” immediately produces interesting results in google scholar:


But “digital literacy” + “performance cultures” is a slightly more left field combination, but let’s give it a spin:


While the first couple of hits here are not that useful, the paper “Changes over time in digital literacy” looks promising. Clicking on ‘cited by’ gives me access to the conversations about that paper:


The last paper in this image “You Can Teach Old Dogs New Tricks: The Factors That Affect Changes over Time in Digital Literacy” by Yoram Eshet-Alkalai and Eran Chajut turns out to be a fascinating study comparing the performance of old and young people with digital technology. I would never have found that paper without the bedraggled daisy diagram.

The daisy can be used in multiple ways, allowing you to get creative with search strings. Let’s look at more than two petals of the diagram at a time. “Information overload”, “Anxiety” and “limited time” produces a list of very tasty morsels indeed:

The first hit here: “The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies” by David Bawden and Lyn Robinson introduces me to some interesting concepts, including ‘micro-chunking’, ‘shallow novelty’. I can burrow down into the citations of all these papers and find a rich seam of knowledge to mine… which points to one problem with this method: you quickly find many more papers than you have time to read.

At this point you might be wondering – why does a diagram work better than a list?

I think diagrams get your creative juices flowing by putting ideas together in unexpected, non-linear ways. Most students don’t realise the power of diagrams for thinking through PhD problems – and for collaboration. At our ANU thesis bootcamps we ask students to work in pairs with the bedraggled daisy to create potential new projects. Each researcher creates a list of key words or terms that relate to their own research interests, then they draw the diagram on a large piece of paper, like so:

The researchers take it in turns to write one of the items off their list in each petal. It works better when they don’t try to make clever combinations in advance. It’s delightfully random combinations that the diagram affords which will provide the best ideas.

We then ask the researchers to talk with each other about all the overlaps and pick one potential project to develop further. Here’s an example of an anthropologist talking to a linguist to generate a really interesting potential joint project:

The further apart the researchers are in terms of discipline, the more interesting the diagramming exercise gets. Here’s an example of a person studying the history of witchcraft drawing a diagram with someone who is studying gender politics in universities. I’d love to see one of these projects get up!

I hope this digression on diagrams has been thought provoking and given you some ideas for using them in your work.