PhD corner: five ways to bring order to your literature review

Part of the SSA’s study series, this guide covers five tips for managing your...
Created On: 18 June 2021   (Last updated: 18 June 2021)

Part of the SSA’s study series, this guide covers five tips for managing your literature, from reference management software to written notes and concept maps. A sixth option (the print, scribble and hope technique) is not covered here as we can’t remember in which drawer it was filed.

A common piece of advice for first-year PhD students is to ‘read, read, read’. But, without a detailed approach to note-taking and recording references, it can be difficult to keep track of everything. This can be: (a) frustrating for you when you forget references or key papers; (b) frustrating for your supervisor when you are all enthusiastic but can’t recall anything specific about what you’ve read; and (c) can leave you exposed to unintentional plagiarism when the phrases you’ve read start to blur with your own.

Try one or more of these ideas to bring a sense of order to this indispensable part of the PhD process.

1. Find new uses for old technology

Dr. Andrew Stapleton, a YouTuber with nearly 20,000 followers, found a novel use for Microsoft PowerPoint (a piece of software that was first launched 30 years ago) during his studies in Chemistry. He recommends dedicating one slide to each paper – capturing the title, charts and other images, and high-level notes in the main body of the slide, and reserving the notes section for useful extras such as the doi reference or links.

Six months later, if you’re trying to remember where a key finding came from, you can put the PowerPoint in presentation mode, and skip through at rapid pace until you find the paper you were looking for.

2. Use reference management software

There are whole PhDs to be written about which reference management software is ‘best’, and largely that will vary depending on what you want such software to do. It is worth spending some time in your first year to work this out. Please, please, (PLEASE!), whatever you do, do not be tempted to switch to a new reference management software half-way through your final year. This is a bad idea and it will make your supervisor nervous for your welfare.

The website G2 provides recommendations about the best types of software based on reviews from real users, including the ‘top ten’ reference management tools: Mendeley; EasyBib.com; EndNote; ReadCube Papers; Zotero; Cite This For Me (formerly RefME); Sciwheel; RefWorks; Reference Manager; and cite4me.org. This is a great resource if you’re starting from scratch, but more likely than not you have the experience (and ‘trial and error’) of peers and teachers to tap into first.

Once you have decided (perhaps by tossing a coin), be prepared to spend the next 5 years defending that choice with a greater zeal than you will defend your final thesis.

3. Create a concept map

A concept map is a way of visually organising what you find. According to Brigham Young University in the United States:

“When new knowledge is integrated with and connected to existing knowledge, that new knowledge is easier to understand and to remember. A [researcher’s] job is to build scaffolding from existing knowledge on which to hang incoming new knowledge. Using a concept map is one way to build that scaffolding.”

A concept map can be highly formalised (e.g. “using circles or boxes with labelled connecting lines to indicate the relations between linked concepts”), or can simply show how a central topic branches out into subtopics and subthemes.

Those of you who have worked in addiction services might be familiar with node link mapping. This approach is similar to that. Boxes and lines. You get the idea.

4. Keep an annotated bibliography

Paraphrasing papers is a good way to digest information and to prepare to integrate other people’s research into your own writing. An annotated bibliography is a list of citations, with a very short (max 150-word) critical description of each source. The word ‘critical’ here is important – this is not a summary or synopsis, this is your point of view, and an evaluation of their “authority, or clarity and appropriateness of expression”.

For example – you might write that “This book goes over the basics of [whatever it is that interests you right now], but it is very theoretical and does not reference any evidence or research. It is a useful summary, but I will need to supplement any references with academic articles.”

5. Try the ‘Cornell method’ (or another note-taking template)

The Cornell method is a form of note taking that can be used to summarise literature, lectures, presentations and anything else that might need to be summarised. To follow it, you split a paper into several sections so that you have a title, subheadings as questions, general notes, and a summary at the bottom. This is worth trying if your notes have descended into a collection of scribbles on the back of envelopes kept in a carrier bag that you keep…somewhere. Use a multi-coloured pen with different colours for different topics for added fun when re-reading.

Summary

There are some people who can get away with having no system. You know who you are, and we envy you. For the rest of us, it is important to develop systems early on. The amount of information, references, ideas and research that gets crammed into a final thesis is incredible. The last thing you want to be doing (we say with bitter experience) is spending whole days looking for that amazing paper that you read a couple of years ago and being unable to find it. It really was a good paper – but no-one will ever know because you still can’t find it.

by Natalie Davies and Rob Calder


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