Strategies for Literature Review

Any decent research process should begin with a literature review, in which the researcher analyses the state of the art – i.e. what has previously been produced on a topic of interest. That process is an interesting stage in which one can identify gaps in previous research and where lies the opportunity for innovation. However, a literature review also involves an extensive amount of reading, annotation and – in the age of technology – pdf management. As I have started studying for my comprehensive exams as a doctoral student, I have compiled three initial reading lists with approximately 70 sources each – all which I have read. The need to manage information poses a challenge not just intellectual but also managerial, and thus I have decided to share the main steps that I follow to organize all those dooming readings. None of the names of apps and softwares are connected to their websites – this is not an add – Google it.

  1. Download and Store PDFs

Yes, you will most likely download all those papers in your personal computer and spread them out in various folders that are likely to be named “Proposal 1”, “Proposal 1.1”, “THIS is the final Proposal”, “Proposal comments” and so on. Needless to say after 4 years plus that will become unmanageable. You need a proper manager and the list of FREE options is endless. Most common are Mendeley, Zotero and Read Cube.I use Read Cube (This is not an add, I am just sharing). But I am fairly aware that all three allow you to highlight pieces of the text, add comments and export references. I organize my texts in folders and highlight important passages (Image 1).

The one main advice is: DO NOT CHANGE. PICK ONE AND STICK WITH IT. There will always be a bar/library conversation in which nerd graduate students compare “the best” app for this and that and you may feel the grass is greener on the other side. Just make a decision and be done with it, changing apps is very time consuming.

Image 1: A screen shot of the ReadCube interface: lists on the left and all pdfs within one list. The software does a pretty good job at identifying title, authors and info the moment you import a pdf into it.

Read Cube lists and pdfs.png


2. Annotating texts: how to extract useful information

This is where things get tricky, you have done all those highlights and notes but you do not want to have to open each pdf individually whenever you want to write a paragraph: “who said that thing about sustainability?…”. So you annotate your texts, which usually involves writing in a few words the main point of the text and methods used for instance. I have made the mistake of writing those on word doc and boy was that a bad idea. I had to scroll through pages of paragraphs either way. So my solution ended up being Excel (Or any type of spreadsheet would have the same purpose).

I force myself to fill one row for every single text I read with the main points that I have set as relevant. This was a good idea because it forces me to write very little, in my own words (step one to avoid plagiarism) and think of how that text applies within my research. You can customize your table any way you want but a screenshot of mine shows the columns I have created (Image 2).

Image 2: Spreadsheet with categories for annotated bibliography. Notice the first column “Subject” is already my attempt of grouping readings based on their relationships, which can be helpful when writing.


3. Reference your bibliography when writing

Now that is a truly time consuming task and forgetting to reference a text can be quite troublesome in a review process. Again, a lot of softwares exist for that purpose and I am all about that open source life, but I thought paying for a proper reference software was a good investment. Endnote has a very decent price for students (U$ 120 for life) and it is backed by Ruthledge. What is the advantage of those you ask me?

  • Those pdfs on Readcube? I select the ones I want and export them to Endnote straight from my Readcube lists.
  • Endote is automatically connected to Word.
  • When I am typing a text on Word and I say: “Sustainability is important (REF, 2000)”; there is a plugin on Word that allows me to search for authors or text titles and once I select the one I wanted it inserts both the reference (REF, 2000) and the proper full reference at the end of the text in the desired format (MLA, APA, Chicago Style…). So you never have to worry about forgetting a name in your bibliography list.

Image 3: A search for “Harvey” shows all citations available in Endnote. When clicking “insert” the reference gets added to the text in the proper format. Notice this is on Word document.

Captura de Tela 2017-02-10 às 13.40.27.png

And that is pretty much it! Have any new suggestions? I hope this helps! Get to work!


One comment

  1. Suggestions:
    There are also some Chrome plugins that could help like: “Cite This For Me: Web Citer” and “Mendeley Importer” – for those who use mendeley, of course.

    Still for those who use Mendeley, it also has a plugin for word and libreoffice where you can include your citations directly on the text editor. Basically works like this: you click to insert the citation and search by author or title; then, when you finish your text (of course you can do it before, but no need for that), you click on the “insert bibliography” so it will do the hole list for you – and you can choose the bibliography formats as well.


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