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.

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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.

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



Research relies on this thing called methodology- a long word that particularly had no meaning to me until I took my first quantitative methods class (i.e. Statistics – another ugly word). No need for panic, methodology is simply related to the techniques and tools that one should use in order to address a specific research question. Those methods are generally divided into quantitative and qualitative, which are unfortunately often used independently and based on the idea that “those who do not like numbers, do qualitative and those who do not like people do quantitative”. I do not agree that any research should be attained by exclusion; on the contrary, a mixed method approach can be enriching for comprehensive analysis (Image 1). However, for the sake of organization this post is dedicated to ethnography as a qualitative method and its applicability.


Image 1: The chart shows how different typologies can be mixed according to the method used to collect data and method to analyse it. A few examples are also showed in parenthesis. Assembled by: Lara Furtado, 2015.

Qualitative research seeks to understand social and cultural phenomena through the observation and engagement of people. The methods used are often geared toward a low number of participants, therefore, one will rarely achieve a sample that is statistically significant, but the strength lies in the depth and richness of the information obtained.  Qualitative data has historically been devalued in certain fields such as economic development, policy or hard sciences, since numbers are a primary source of governmental and public interest. However, the existence of BIG DATA has facilitated the access to information for the general public and researchers, and thus quantitative limits are being exhausted at a faster pace. Research involving user interaction becomes increasingly popular including in computer science fields (Human Computer Interaction).

One relevant qualitative method is ethnography (informally called participant observation), which includes long term immersion and is typically place/community based. It consists of ongoing relations between the researcher and the participants, making ethnography a fluent and continuous form of observation and engagement. Interviews are aligned to the analysis of people’s behavior in place in order to put them into context. To summarize, the basic principles of ethnography are the following:

  1. It is based on rich data with a lot of detail;
  2. It Is used to understand processes, in a specific context, through which events and actions take place;
  3. The results are used to identify and anticipate phenomena.

Another important aspect, when collecting qualitative data is to document it accordingly by mastering the techniques of documentation and registry through field notes, transcribed interviews, drawings/diagrams, images and so on…The texts should be as systematic and detailed as possible. Finally, doing qualitative research is an inter-subjective process, which means that the role of the researcher as an influence cannot be ignored. One cannot be completely unbiased when collecting information but you can train to be a more passive and inviting listener.