How to manage a literature review

The most essential prerequisite for a successful piece of academic research is the establishment of what is already known about the topic. While it is important to be able to produce a critical review of a research paper (See “Reviewing Research Papers“), it is just as important to be able to string together all the pieces of information from the individual readings into a coherent critique of what previous research has shown, and where we are up to, collectively, in our understanding of the issues.

In trying to develop pointers and hints to help students go about this important task, I have developed the following summary about what is required:

  • Catalogue: Keep track of every item you come across, and make a note of its status in your literature searching process, particularly whether it has been acquired, read, reviewed, critiqued, and so on.
  • Categorize: Figure out for each item what keywords you would use to index it, in such a way that you can connect papers on similar topics. Include keywords about methods and data, not just about ideas, and develop your own view of the definitions of each term, always seeking to use dictionary definitions when they work, but defining terms more specifically where necessary. But dont re-invent the wheel! If some past researcher has a good definition, use it (and cite the source).
  • Characterize: Figure out what each item is like, and explain in your notes what kind of paper it is, and the basic characteristics of the type of research and type of question. Make connections with the literature about research methodology. Think aobut characteristics such as interests, research questions, methods, data, analysis, coherence, conclusions and claims. Try to ascertain where each paper sits in relation to each of those characteristics.
  • Conceptualize: Develop a framework of the broad concepts that emerge as being the basic buildings blocks of knowledge in your topic, as represented by the literature you have discovered. Develop a list of concepts, including synonyms and homonyms. Understand how words evolve and how labels are attached to ideas, so that you can be very careful and deliberate in your use of language.. You might want to fix certain, specific key words that you will be using in a specific way in your work, while aclknowledging that other authors use these words in different ways. Do this explicitly in your write-up.
  • Recognize themes, resonances and contradictions: Look for overlaps and clashes, erecting new keywords (labels, tags) as you go, and checking each time whether a new keyword should have been used as well for the papers you already looked at. Find out where past researchers are in agreement, and where there is controversy.
  • Identify areas of interest: As you go through these steps, you will inevitable develop a clearer understanding of not only what has already been done, but what remains to be discovered or challenged. You will be able to be clear about what your interests are in your research. This is a result of a literature review, not the starting point.

I hope that these notes help researchers to develop their approach to carrying out and writing up a literature review and to structuring a logical and rational narrative about the research base that they are building on in their work.


About Will

Professor of Construction Management and Economics, University of Reading, UK. Editor-in-Chief, Construction Management and Economics (1992-2016). Programme Director, MSc Construction Management. School Director of Postgraduate Teaching Programmes.
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