Conducting a literature review

The goal of the theoretical framework, or literature review for your paper is to present and synthesize research that other researchers have conducted and provide an explanation of how your study connects to other research on this topic. Typically, the literature review section of your academic paper will include the following:

 Background literature about the broad research topic.

 Recent and seminal research on your research topic organized into themes or organized chronologically.

 Comparisons and contrasts of different studies.

 Main gaps in the research that need to be addressed.

 Strengths and limitations of other studies.

This section grounds your study in existing research and scientific knowledge and it is the basis for your research questions. You will use existing research to describe the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of your research. So, before you write this section you need to decide what research you will review, and which articles will be included in your review.

What is the scope of your review?

Before you search for articles, you need to decide on the scope of your review. In other words, what will you cover within this review. What specific areas of the research are you looking at and will you only look within your discipline area? Will you limit the review to a certain time period, like the last 5 or 10 years, and only include seminal pieces that fall outside of that period? Decide which methodological approaches you will look at, and select only articles that use that methodological approach.

How will you search for articles?

The first step in performing the search for articles is to generate a list of keywords and phrases related to your topic. These should be specific enough to retrieve a reasonable number of responses, without being so specific that they unintentionally exclude relevant papers. You can generate these keywords and phrases by browsing a journal in your area that you are familiar with. Look through some abstracts and titles for words and phrases related to your topic, and then use the search function on the journal website to narrow your search further. Another launching point would be to email some colleagues who are part of your professional network, or at your institution, and ask them to name 1–2 key articles on your topic. Read some of these articles and use them to generate keywords and phrases. You can also look at the references for these articles for other journals or articles that seem relevant.

The next step in performing your literature search is to identify which database or databases you wish to search. Some of the popular databases include Google Scholar, PubMed, and Scopus. Most databases include advanced features for filtering your search. For example, you can select the time period you want, whether you want to find full-text articles, or a specific author or journal of interest. In Google Scholar, when you find an article of interest you can click on ‘cited by’ to find related publications that cite the article.

How will you select the most important articles?

As you go through your search, you will need to select the articles you want to include in your final list for your review. Read the title and abstract of each article to narrow down the final list of articles you will read. Then evaluate and synthesize each study's findings and conclusions. Take notes of the methodologies used, study procedures, and sampling techniques. As you go through the articles note the following:

 Key constructs and variables in that research area.

 Conflicting theories or methodologies.

 Trends and themes across the literature.

 Seminal research articles on the topic and articles that are cited across many other articles.

 Key theories and frameworks for your research area.

 The assumptions or propositions of these theories and how they are relevant to your research.

One approach to organizing this information is to create a structured abstract for the ten most important articles you have found. Structured abstracts are like traditional abstracts, but generally contain more details and they are designed to follow the structure of the article. Although some journals do request a structured abstract, many do not. Therefore, structured abstracts include more information than many of the shorter abstracts you will find in published articles. Collect structured abstracts for the articles that have one and create one for the articles that don’t have one. You can also include a notes section at the end of the structured abstract to include your thoughts. There are many examples of structured abstracts. One suggested format is the following:

Background
Aim
Method
Results
Conclusions
Recommendation

 

What are some approaches to identifying themes?

When you have your final group of selected articles that you will include in your review, you will need to identify themes and trends. Coding articles is a good way to do this. The process for coding articles is similar to the process researchers use to code qualitative data. As you read through the articles, and create structured abstracts with notes, record any emerging themes or trends. Assign a highlighter color to each theme and go back through the article and highlight excerpts that are evidence of that theme in the appropriate color. You can then use a chart with themes as headings, cut up the excerpts and place them under the appropriate theme.

Once you have all your excerpts grouped under a theme you can merge themes, decide on new themes, rename themes and move the excerpts around. You can engage in a discussion with a colleague and see whether they notice anything different. Have a discussion with your colleague and see whether you both agree on which ideas go together, which ideas contradict each other. Although this is a ‘low tech’ way to identify themes and threads, it allows you to visually examine how the themes emerge, and the weight of evidence you have from the research to support that theme. And when you have completed this process the themes can become subheadings in your literature review section. This process could also be completed on an electronic whiteboard using electronic versions of the articles.

Conclusion

Now you are ready to start writing your literature review. Identify the organizational structure you will use in this section. Note the structure used in the articles you have been reading to look for ideas. Start with an introduction, which should be one or two paragraphs in length. Organize the body of this section with subheadings which can come from the themes and trends that you identified. Your review might also be organized chronologically. Include any commonalities or differences in methodologies across the research. Note any major conflicts or gaps in the research. In the conclusion of this section summarize the major points and areas where further research is needed.

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