As you launch into a new research project, it is critical to think about how you will SEARCH and STORE an empirical literature search. Much of this organization starts with identifying a well-defined topic of study, and then identifying literature and scholarship around the previous work in this area. This process should support how you define your research topic scope/focus (e.g. inclusions/exclusions), established research methods (e.g.data collection/analysis), existing results/findings, and potential research suggestions for further investigations.
Step 1. Identify and Select a Research Topic to Study
For my #LTEC6040 early career scholars, the focus of study is geared towards digital learning/teaching. To prepare for a literature search, I suggest a few preliminary steps to SELECT and IDENTIFY a specific TOPIC for their research projects:
- Interest: Find something you want to know more about so you remain interested and engaged in the project investigation. This might be related to your research agenda, either for your thesis/dissertation or general interests of study.
- Ideas: Browse current periodicals (e.g. The Atlantic, Education: NPR, New York Times, Time), and online news resources for trends in the field you are looking at for digital teaching/learning (e.g. Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle, Ed Surge, etc.).
- Scope: Is your topic manageable? Avoid choosing a research topic that is too broad (too much information) or too narrow (too specialized/new/limited in appeal to find enough information). Consider limiting the time span, identifying a specific digital learning setting, or limiting this to a particular sample population/course/instructional method/lens.
- Time: Choose a research topic you can work on for a set period of time. For example, this semester (3-4 months) is the length of time to set up a small-scale study, complete the ethics review, recruit a sample population, and start on a draft of a journal article. Always plan enough time to go through the empirical literature as you prepare the investigation and draft the paper.
- Approach: There are different approaches possible for each research topic. Scholarly papers can analyze or explain a concept, narrate events, design, or developments in the field, or even argue for or against theory or idea. Additionally, you might choose to focus on a philosophical, historical, sociological, psychological, scientific, etc. approach.
- Perspective: Research topics can be examined through a variety of scholarly perspectives. Each research perspective or lens requires different sources of information so it is important to establish what aspect of the topic interests you most from the start.
- Clarity: Be clear about the topic you are researching. Your research topic might need some adjustment as you gather information; however, you should always have a well-defined focus for your topic of search to ensure you stay on track and avoid wasting time with your literature search.
Step 2. Find Scholarly and Peer-Reviewed Evidence
Once this RESEARCH TOPIC is identified, next step is the literature review. This is critical part of research helps you to identify scholarly publications with evidence and investigation processes for your topic. Hart (1998) believes the literature review is an evaluative process is to determine how this empirical publications to answer the following QUESTIONS for your scholarly search:
- What are the key sources?
- What are the major issues and debates around the topic?
- What are the key theories, concepts, and ideas?
- What are the epistemological and ontological grounds fro the discipline?
- What are the political standpoints?
- What are the origins of this topic?
- What are the definitions involved with this topic?
- How is knowledge on the topic structured and organized?
- How have approaches to these questions increase our understanding and knowledge?
Step 3. Limit and Refine the Empirical Search
To help you keep your focus and direction for the literature search, it is critical to have a definitive argument/focus for your study. To best evaluate the scholarly works, Belcher (2009) offers suggestions to refine your literature review by reading materials that contribute to the central argument of your manuscript and limiting the following items for your search:
- Set a time limit: i.e. read nothing written over 10 years ago, five, or two (depending on your topic of research)
- Language: limit to articles in English (or designated languages/preferences)
- Questionable publishing outlets e.g. trade journals, non-peer reviewed, some conference proceedings not always suitable
- Different geographical areas (by author country of origin)
- Different time periods (related to your genre — this might apply to humanities more)
- Different kinds of experiments (by your methods of study/research)
- Different kinds of participants (by research sample type, size, etc)
- Different variables (e.g. gender, age, etc.)
- Without your keywords in the title or abstract – focus your search for these items
- Non-electronic formats – if you can’t access the research from home/library resources
Step 4. Establish a System to Organize the Research Collection
Be sure to keep track of papers collected into a system of review. This might involve storing files, taking notes/annotations, and organizing articles into a citation system. I suggest setting this up early in your research life and I would definitely encourage you to use citation management software to track, store, and annotate articles you find for your literature search. Here are two platforms I use to tame the citations and literature collections [Learn more about citation management via the Research in Action podcast, episode no. 36]:
- Mendeley is a combination of a desktop application and a website which helps you manage, share and discover both content and contacts in research. You can store, save, annotate, and share documents with scholarly collaborators, plus manage and sync your references with a team in a group, or for yourself. You can easily drop in PDFs into the system to tag, cite, highlight, and organize your literature review. This is an excellent tool for team research and writing projects working from a distance.
- Zotero is utilized by a number of scholars as it is “an easy use tool easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources.” Zotero hosts research groups and individuals who want to connect and collaborate with other scholars OR discover the works of others. It contains several disciplines through which a user can keep updated on and search for people to connect with. It is free to sign up and you download it to your computer.
Step 5. Search, Track, and Locate Relevant Papers
Find a way to organize and keep track of what you are searching (terms, keywords, filters, search strings, etc.) and where you might be finding these resources. Depending on your institution or access, you might not have a way to find ALL THE LITERATURE. Here are a few ways to expand your literature expedition and get access to empirical papers beyond your reach:
- Search, Track and Set Alerts: Record the different search strings to recall what you find and perhaps to set up an alert (e.g. in Scopus, Summons, Google Scholar, etc.) that is relevant for this research topic or methodology. Here’s a screenshot of a Google spreadsheet for search for one of my projects:
- Google Scholar search the “Cited by ###” section of the site: this is to identify other relevant paper on topic or learn more about this research thread, i.e. a discovery search for missing literature. This will also bring about the “grey” research that is not indexed or part of a database search.
- Use Backward & forward referencing search method: for collecting and reviewing publications to be inclusive of empirical literature. This might bring about relevant publications to be included in your own review and give insights to your topic OR the research methodology.
- Search for Publications Beyond Reach: Articles that you are not able to access at your institutional library or databases I have access to, I will tweet #iCanHazPDF [in action #icanhazpdf] to ask my professional network on Twitter OR even connect to the author (by email, social network, etc.) to ask for a pre-print copy. Beyond this you can find articles via other academic search engines with access, such as Sci-Hub, Semantic Scholar, and many more research databases.
Step 6. Process and Understand the Literature Gathered
Beyond these methods for storing papers, think about how you will process and organize your literature collection. You might have notes drafted as you review to identify themes, issues, and concepts you want to include for your own paper. Here are few tips/tricks I’ve honed as I search for literature:
- Take Fewer Notes: Tag articles in the software, group articles into specific folders, skim abstracts to code/organize, and identify literature for easy recall and use later. Have a system for your own tags or references to recall/use later when writing. Make meaningful labels that connect to your specific research focus/scope.
- Create an Annotated Bibliography: For smaller literature searches (or team support efforts) start a reference list of your citations in APA 6th Edition format with a brief line or two making about the study, methods, findings + personal thoughts on articles/methods you read for each citation. Create annotations on this reference list, these are notes, on why this paper is relevant and could be helpful for your own research.
- Concept Mapping the Literature: It might help you to create a visual or graphic organizer to map out these ideas and piece items together for your own manuscript. This might be digital or even analog — break out the markers, crayons, post-its and more! Check out the great suggestions Pat Thomson offers on “spaces between the literature” for reviewing research; a.k.a. bushwhacking
- Don’t Wait to Write: From the annotations and notes you have made on the collected papers, start organizing how and where they might fit into your article draft. These preliminary notes might be rough; however, if you pop some of your literature into an outline of a paper this will help you write a draft of an article when you have your data collected and analyzed.
What other advice do you have for getting started on a new research project? What suggestions do you have for searching and organizing a literature review? Let me know — I’m always keen to get a few new ideas for scholarship and practice. Thanks!
Belcher, W. L. (2009). Writing your journal article in 12 weeks: A guide to academic publishing success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
Hart, C. (1998). Doing a literature review: Releasing the social science research imagination. Sage.
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