#FLlitreview: the literature review (1)

#FLlitrevew, aka Research writing: how to do a literature review, led by Emily Purser, Lecturer in Academic Language and Learning, University of Wollongong (@UOWFutureLearn). Four weeks from 26 Feb (part 2).

Not actually my first MOOC of 2018. I’m also in the throes of a content-heavy set of reruns on intercultural studies, with an entirely absent team of educators. Notes are being made, but really, I might as well read a textbook.

This one is also a rerun – review podcasts are already available and the teacher’s blog (nice touch!) already written, but it’s much more stimulating. The whole thing has a dynamic and feels exciting to work through – perhaps for this reason it’s attracting a lot more participant activity.

A gratifying feature is that the vids present an alternative take on the content rather than expanding/repeating it with a talking head. Back in 2011 when I first started watching vids and listening to podcasts I was much exercised by how it seemed to be just me who preferred reading – the information to value ratio for the the former just seemed too low.

You can scan-read something in a couple of minutes which it would take 10 minutes to present as a video. What about learning styles (or strategies; a myth?), I hear you cry? For me it’s rather a version of Ranganathan’s a book for every reader: a format for every type of info.

Often ‘just’ one medium is not enough. A video experience works better with slides, tweets or other commentary alongside in a kind of mashup, particularly when the vids are such hard work that you need slides and a transcript to zero in on key points. Transcripts offer scannability.

More: Evidence-based, informative and on YouTube?  | Using video: from passive viewing to active learning (inc flipping the classroom) | Videos as knowledge products | the more familiar you are with something, the less instruction you need

Week 1: what is a literature review and why write one?

It’s possible to write a simple literature review in a month, but a complex one might take a year or more, so this course aims to raise awareness, and focus on the necessary preparation, rather than the completion of a literature review…we’ll be thinking about the lit review as a genre – an important concept in developing understanding of language in context. We’ll be looking at it as a particular way of using language that ‘just works’ in an academic context – not just as a writing task, but also as a way of being academic.

There’s an accompanying teacher’s blog, How to do a lit review (first post), and an FB group. Blogging is encouraged.

What’s your topic of interest? What scholarly publications are there on the topic? What search terms should you use?

A good literature review:

  • details only what is necessary for a given purpose – it does not include everything you’ve read on the topic
  • focuses on ideas and relationships between ideas, not just on the authors
  • compares previous research studies, various sources of information, and different concepts or theoretical perspectives
  • does not indicate what the writer of the literature review thinks about the various studies and sources of information they are presenting
  • (doesn’t have to be chronological, but should be current)

The purpose of a literature review is to:

  • provide context for a research hypothesis or question
  • ensure the research is original (ie not already published)
  • identify where and how new research fits into the existing body of literature in a particular field of study
  • highlight the strengths and weaknesses in previous research on a topic
  • make recommendations for further research

Types of literature review:

  • systematic: collecting literature/gathering info and putting it into a framework
  • descriptive: helps develop understandng
  • critical
  • argumentative: stating the problem
  • depends where you want to go…

Ways to document reading:

Looking at the surveys of current research is a very good way to begin a new research project, so if you’re not already familiar with review articles, now is a good time to find out about them.

Further reading:

Some people imagine a literature review as a logical presentation of factual information. Others see it as a long, complex, and interesting conversation with published peers – a relaxed engaging dialogue that moves in various directions, rich with learning. Others think of it more as a debate or TV talk show, where different ideas are explained and defended, and questions are answered. Others imagine it more like an orchestra or choir, where many different voices are directed by a strong conductor, who brings everyone together into a coherent symphony. There are probably many other ways of visualising the literature review too.

Week 2: where to begin?

Some reviews need to be comprehensive, but most need to be very narrowly focused – careful selection of sources demonstrates critical thinking as much as what is said about those sources.

We’ll start the process by just making a basic bibliography. And then we’ll talk a bit about referencing styles and which referencing style you need to be using. And then we’ll get into annotating your bibliography. That’s not just summarising what other people have written, but critically evaluating it. And then we’ll go into a more systematic approach to critically compare different sources on the same topic.

Building a bibliography

A statement of your research problem and question will help you judge which sources will be most and least relevant. You need to read broadly on your topic, but you also need to set very clear boundaries of relevance, so you mainly read what will actually help you discuss the specific problem your research needs to address.

Gathering information:

  • develop your list of search terms as you read, picking up key words from publications, realising which are most relevant
  • as well as topic terms you should include ones that help you find research using the theoretical approach and methods you’re interested in (quantitative or qualitative, tests or surveys, empirical or postmodernism…)
  • keep a careful record of what you’re finding online; begin and continue your searching for information by noting down all the search terms you’re using, where you’re looking, and what you find (or don’t find)

Documenting sources:

  • the bibliography: a professionally referenced list of readings, a useful guide for reading that defines a specific area; the record of your reading, showing the development of your knowledge of the topic and what other researchers are doing
  • your final written discussion of literature may not include all the items you’ve selected and read, but your bibliography keeps it all together in one place
  • all entries have to be accurate and adequate, so you and anyone else can always quickly trace the source of anything
  • reference lists and styles: hmm bib software lets you reformat, as long as all of the elements are in place…this stuff is even boring to me…
  • basic bibliography post | Zotero example

Adding annotations

Writing notes is a great way to start your writing of a literature review. It’s easier to develop a critical discussion when your bibliography includes many well written annotations, as you have already articulated what you think about the sources and can then quickly compare them.

  • record your immediate thoughts as well as the publication details of your selected literature
  • move from summarising to evaluating the material, making notes on what you think about the work and how it relates to your own research plans


  • paraphrase the abstract into your own words – this process creates memory; you won’t have time to write careful annotations for everything you read, but it’s definitely worth doing so for publications that seem most important for your review
  • a simple and effective technique for paraphrasing is to read a paper, or even just the abstract, then look away from the text and write down:
    • what is the study about?
    • what problem does it address?
    • how did they conduct the research?
    • what were the main findings?
    • why is it important?
  • this is the structure of a research article, and creates a working memory of the texts read, building your ability to write a review
  • start with publication details for what looks like an interesting paper
    • copy the published abstract under the reference
    • stop looking at the abstract and write a paraphrase, noting the facts, without any personal opinion
  • paraphrasing software?? and don’t forget Walter Benjamin and the art of copying out
  • annotating post

Evaluating other’s work: your review in the end is going to be much more than a summary of what others have done and said – it should be primarily about what you think of the research you are reading about. The more you note your responses to readings, the more material you have to work with as you develop your argument.

It’s critically important to recognise what would be agreed by anyone as an accurate summary of what another has written, and what is a personal interpretation; we need to constantly practise and develop ability to distinguish between description and evaluation of reading material, because writing about others’ work is complex and delicate

Annotating post 2 illustrates the difference between description of what someone else has said or done and evaluative response to it, showing the progression from basic bibliographic entry to annotation.

Writing this kind of annotation really helps you prepare for writing the critical discussion of literature, as it forces you to consider and note down both the information and your own thoughts about it, and how someone else’s work relates to your own research project.

Note: using screen annotation software you can add quick comments on PDFs and websites: a.nnotate, and hypothes.is, or diigo

Aim to make notes about other researchers’ work in these three ways:

  • synopsis of the facts (what authors have done, found and said)
  • comments on aspects of their research design or findings that you find interesting, new, important, problematic, limited etc
  • comment about how the publication relates to your research project (what seems most useful for your own quest to answer a particular question or articulate a particular problem)

Three distinct functions of the annotation:

  • a summary of the publication
  • adding appraisal: more personal response and evaluation (what I think about it)
  • explanation of relevance: why the source is or isn’t useful to the review I want to write (what I think I might be able to do with this information)

Finally, talking to consolidate (Padlet). Going through the process of turning what you read into a talk is the best way to make you think about what you are reading and articulate your thoughts quickly.

Comparing sources 

Compared to undergraduate essays and reports, research writing is generally expected to consider and critically compare more sources. The research writer is also expected to define for themselves what constitutes a valid body of literature to read and discuss, to frame a serious investigation that will produce new knowledge. The task here is not simply to find information and use it to develop an argument or show some understanding of a topic. The aim is to consider the work of other researchers as a body of knowledge, which provides context for further research.

When you need to compare many different sources, it helps to use a spreadsheet (blog post) to keep track of your search activity. When you make notes in this way it’s easy to quickly see patterns of similarity and difference across a range of publications, and draw conclusions. You might note, for example, that across 25 different studies on your topic most have used the same research method, or some have produced very different findings, or none address the particular question you want to pursue. This kind of observation will help you frame your own research project.

The key to a good literature review is generally quality rather than quantity, but you may need to actually write a stand-alone, systematic review of literature, as a publication of your own.