Reviewing literature – a method

I’ve been reading Alison Jane Pickard’s «Research Methods in Information», a research methods handbook designed to guide all types of researchers in their research quests.

Although I’ve yet to make it even half way, I’ve finished the chapter on how to review literature in a structured and research oriented way, and I thought I’d try to sum it up, mostly for my own sake, however perhaps useful for others as well (hence blog post..). I bought my book at Tanum (Norway), but it’s also available via Amazon. This summary is based solely on the book’s second chapter, pages 25-38.

«Literature review» is given the following definition (p. 26):

    «A literature review is a written document that presents a logically argued case founded on a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge about a topic of study. […]» (Machi and McEvoy, 2009)

The literature review should consist of an introduction that informs your readers on what you have reviewed and why, after which you may say something about your methodology – how you engaged in the review process. The following discussion is the main part of the literature review, and this is where you formulate your own arguments. The conclusion then sums up your discussion. After your literature review, you can move on to the next stage in the research process: framing your research question, aims and objectives or hypothesis based on what you have discovered from within the published literature.

The literature review process consists of four separate steps:

1. Information seeking and retrieval:
You need to search for and scan different sources efficiently in order to establish a body of knowledge on the topic in question. The search should start quite widely and your findings should continuously guide your further searches. It’s possible that as you become more knowledgeable, the focus of the research may shift. Pickard stresses the importance of logging the searches you make, and their results, so that you don’t lose any of the information you find – undoubtedly sound advice.

2. Evaluation:
You need to judge the sources you find based on a number of criteria: the authority of the writer(s)/creator(s), the scope of the text and the text’s purpose, information that should be explicitly available to you. Be especially careful and critical when using information you find on the Internet.

3. Critical analysis:
In the critical analysis, you read with a purpose! The purpose is to inform your own arguments, and establish the background and justification for your own work. Pickard argues that any academic argument should have a claim (or conclusion), a reason (interpretation of data), evidence (data) to support the claim(s) and any qualifications of the claim(s).

A claim is the essence of an argument, the conclusion the writer intends to demonstrate by using the other components (reason, evidence and qualifications). Your review needs to establish how well a claim is supported. Be aware that a claim might be little more that the writer’s personal position. Most claims are qualified in some way, often by the use of words like «usually», «many», «most», «often» and «few». This shows that the writer has reflected on the limitations of his statements, and should normally be considered as enhancing the writer’s credibility. The reasons a writer gives for making a claim is the first building blocks of any argument. The claim cannot stand without reason(s), and there has to be a very clear link between the claim and the reason(s) for making the claim. Be aware of value-based reasons! To support the given reason(s), the writer must provide accurate and credible evidence in the form of empirical research data or qualitative statements. You need to examine the evidence critically to assess their credibility.

Pickard suggests marking the text as you read to identify the different elements, and then transferring the elements to a form, giving a schematic presentation of your findings. A claim can for example be identified in the text by underlining it, a reason by square brackets, evidence by placing an asterisk at either side of the evidence statement, and qualifiers by encircling them.

4. Research synthesis:
When the literature has undergone the critical analysis, you’re ready to synthesize the various concepts and evidence you have found into a structured piece of discursive prose that provides context and background on your topic area. Innovative research frameworks usually draw on literature from more than the core discipline of study.

Be aware that you are writing a literature review to establish the context of your research, to demonstrate your knowledge and to identify any gaps that may exist in the published literature. Essentially, this means that you are justifying the need for your research.

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