This is the stage of the literature review where you start to digest the virtual pile of readings you collected as you scoped out the literature. This is the most difficult stage, but also the most personal. Everyone will have different ways of reading and digesting the material, and different ways of taking notes as they do so.
Your first job as you map the literature is to filter out what isn’t relevant. This can usually be achieved with a quick scan of the abstract. Discard anything that is obviously unrelated. Keep anything that is even perhaps only tentatively relevant.
In reality, at this stage, you might only read through a small number of complete articles and book chapters. Instead, you’ll find that you’re skimming, trying to ascertain if something is relevant. It’s fine to skim at this stage – when you have really narrowed down the relevant literature, that’s when you read things in much more detail.
You need to find a way to filter through the articles or books that are relevant. For example, scan the abstracts, introduction, keywords, titles and references.
Filter the sources you come across into three separate categories:
1. Must read
2. May read
3. Probably won’t read
As you skim, and later as you read in more depth, you’ll need to summarise the most important and relevant points. There is an art to this, as often you don’t realise why something is relevant until long after you have read it.
For that reason, I find it useful to take standardised notes. I’ve put together a note-taking template that you can use, which you can download by clicking here
. You’ll see that there is space for your notes, but also a section asking you to explain how you think what you are reading is relevant.
As you read more and begin to take more and more notes, you’ll start to unpack themes that are emerging across the literature. Your job at this stage is to find out the key debates in the field.
1. Who is making the most significant contribution?
2. What are they saying?
3. How are they saying it?
4. What aren’t they saying?
As you do so, you’ll begin to see what the key debates are in your field. There might be a number of ’schools’, for example. When you become aware of them, start to focus your literature review around them.
Your list of themes will evolve over time as you read more, but once you have a fairly stable set of themes, it is time to add more literature into each, perhaps broadening the scope of your search within and around each one.
Over time, you’ll be able to categorise literature more easily, even across disciplines, and start to be able to see what the broad discussions, debates and ideas are. In other words, you’ll start providing the academic context. When you read, you must do so critically (a skill we’ll touch on later in the course), which means asking what the weaknesses are and where particular articles or book could be improved.
In order to tease out your own specific research topic, you need to think of the questions that haven’t been asked.
As you work through these three stages you will, over time, start to understand where the problems are, what the shortfalls are, and what questions are yet to be asked.
In other words, you’ll be coming closer to finding the ‘gap’.
But this takes time, and you’ll have to be patient with yourself.