(6) Literature Reviewing Aids/Tips

April 16, 2014 Update: Please view this workflow PDF, check recent blog posts, and visit the Tools pages in this blog’s menu to see updates to my approach as I make them.

January 1, 2014 UpdatePlease view this workflow PDF and check more recent blog posts to see my evolved thinking regarding some of the below. Best regards!

January 14, 2014 Update: Substantial amount of the page’s information added.

Page Description:

Below is a list of  books, websites, and tips on how to conduct and write up your literature review. This what helped/helps the co-authors successfully get the literature review DONE–a truly significant accomplishment.

Visitors, please do share as well!: If you have relevant tips/aids to share, please augment this list via posting into the comment box below (at the bottom of this page). Thank you for sharing your hard-won wisdom and knowledge. You are a blessing!


Books, Websites, and/or Tips That Contributed Greatly to at Least One Blog Co-Author’s Ability to Start and Stay Organized

Documents, Links, and Websites

  1. Literature Review Synthesis Matrix: Example and Usage Explained from NC State’s Writing Tutorial Services
  2. [Video] Writing the Literature Review (WU Writing Center)
  3. [Video] Get Lit: The Literature Review (tamuwritingcenter)
  4. Literature Review HQ (headquarters)


NOTE: Please click on the book icon to reach this book on Amazon.

  1. At the moment, the Jesson et al. text is the ONE resource I have found that actually demystifies literature reviewing. This means that for some of us, It’s a must-have. It is the “entry point” for students, in my opinion. Jesson and colleagues DEMYSTIFY the entire process via defining precisely what a literature review is and does, categorizing the various TYPES and FUNCTIONS of literature reviews, and explaining the relative merits, costs, and benefits of the types to choose from. Contains how-to’s and what-not-to’s. Addresses just about EVERYTHING except: discussion of the ins-and-outs of evaluating empirical articles in the various methodology-specific ways that matter (e.g. there are different criteria for evaluating a case study versus an experimental study. See the my notes below on the Girden text, which contains such information but may have other deficiencies)
  2. I personally believe that every graduate student should read very early on Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates by Wallace and Wray. If you click on the book image below, the link will take you to the Sage web site for the book, where you can read the reviews, read the first chapter, look at and download forms for free, etc. It’s not so much about the forms: You might prefer to use a literature review matrix instead of or in addition to the forms. And, the first chapter is not where the “magic” is. My mention of this is really about how the rest of the book contains an incredible education about what graduate level reading and writing are, what they do for you, how they are connected, and how to do them well. Many, clear and quite educational examples are provided. I obtained this book after having been in graduate school for a while, and after reading it I couldn’t believe that I’d been in graduate school without the knowledge base that Critical Reading and Writing provides.CriticalReadingAndWritingforPostgraduats_Cover
  3. The Galvan resource is valuable for: (1) its workbook format that makes it “iterate-through-able” and (2) its explanation of a simple-to-replicate, step-by-step method for conducting keyword searches of databases and journals. Discusses the details of refining keyword searches when necessary and the details of real-time DOCUMENTATION of your searches that actually prepares you to discuss (write up) your search method in your paper. This is a “let’s-get-her-done” type of text.
  4. In my opinion, the Fink text is great to read once the Jesson et al. text has been read FIRST. For instance, the Fink text contains great qualitative data abstraction forms, which are mentioned in the Jesson et al. text. The Fink text has the feeling of being a “Okay-let’s-do-some-more-with-just-some-of-this” type of follow-up to the Jessen et al. text. But you need the Jessen et al. text if you need lit reviewing DEMYSTIFIED: The Fink text does not DEMYSTIFY like the Jessen at al. text does. Nothing yet I’ve encountered does.
  5. Girden’s text is poorly rated and hardly rated on Amazon. However, in it, Girden does something incredibly valuable: She provides (the differing) criteria for evaluating the various types of empirical studies you will encounter in your search. I have not found this information anywhere else (perhaps I’m just missing something!), and this information matters: Critically evaluating a case study is DIFFERENT from evaluating a meta-analysis. If there are any other resources that explain and list out the various DIFFERENTIAL criteria for evaluating  empirical studies according to the specific methodology the empirical study employed, inquiring minds want to know! Please post it via the comments or send me an email! It would be GREATLY appreciated.
  6. Lastly, I couldn’t decide where on this list to place the Chris Hart resource. It could have been first: It is a seminal work, VERY meaty (dense), and helps the reader to understand just what it takes to elevate a literature review from mediocrity (i.e something that is hardly more than an annotated bibliography or summary) to a master’s level and then also a doctorate level high, high-quality literature review. While it does contain a substantial amount of practical knowledge (how to do the literature search to a PhD level of quality, how to analyze and synthesize and argument to a PhD level of quality, etc.), a major result of reading through this text is TACIT understanding of what makes a graduate-level and professional literature review graduate-level and professional.

Tips (Pitfalls to Avoid, Actions to Take, Strategies to Use)

Try to avoid what is referred to as drowning in the literature. It’s really strange: Even when abreast of the potential of drowning in the literature, one can almost walk into it knowingly and just still allow oneself to near drown. The literature can operate like a forest of forgetfulness: You walk in it, and then you lose all sense of awareness, identity, purpose, perspective . . . and just spend unbounded time just enjoying the forest (and the trees). It can be bad! The lit is so interesting, seductive, fascinating, informative! (Oy!)

The best antidote I know to this is (1) gain perspective on what getting lost in the literature looks like to OTHERS versus how it feels or doesn’t feel to you and (2) understand the alternative and its value:

  1. It is acknowledged that in today’s era of information glut, it is not possible to read all of the literature in an area. This has been said many times. See Luker, for instance, and Hayton.
  2. Staying lost in the literature reveals that you might not know how to differentiate “gems” from “dross.” I forget where I first read that. I believe it might have been in the Carlis document or from Hayton, here.
  3. While getting lost in the literature is perhaps forgivable (I’m sure most can relate to the allure the novice researcher and even others sense in the literature), staying lost in the literature might manifest to others as a research skill, affect-related deficit: See the chart in this post.
  4. The metaphor of the Forest of Forgetfulness to depict getting lost in the literature is perhaps a little scary but perhaps also a little cute. But the situation may read more like the Swamp of Sadness in your peers’ or mentors’ minds. Remember Atreyu and Artax? (WARNING: Some might find the scene below incredibly, incredibly sad. The horse was fine in real life, but please don’t watch if you have an intense connection to animals.)

Okay, so drowning in the literature is not THAT dire and permanent a situation. You can come back from it. (Phew!) But how do know when to stop? Here are some moves:

  1. Work in concert with your advisor: Share your reading list and article finds all along, before you read. Your advisor can help you spot holes in your reading.
  2. Understand the concept of knowledge saturation and be on the look out for it: http://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/studyadvice/StudyResources/Essays/sta-undertakinglitreview.aspx
  3. Luker has a strategy (and helpful philosophy, too) and shares technical information on literature searching as to set avoid drowning in the literature. Rent her book if interested.
  4. I’m on the fence about this one: Qiqqa is a reference manager that suggests articles to read based on the composition of your collection of literature in Qiqqa. This will either help or make things infinitely worse, based on whether you have a “searching addiction tendency” or a “reading addiction tendency”: It will stop you from endlessly searching the literature yourself and allow you to feel calm knowing you can glance at Qiqqa’s suggestions any time. Or . . . you will read all of Qiqqa’s suggestions and drown faster than ever! Eek! I guess the thing would be to know thyself and structure thy environment accordingly!
  5. Do a Google search of the phenomenon. I recall having read helpful blog posts about it.

A word of encouragement to all, especially for the (momentarily) weary:

There are people right now praying for your success in your endeavors to design, conduct, and write-up the results of a workable, sound study! Understand that you can get there, no matter what your feelings are doing at any given moment.

So stay the course. Close your eyes and just visualize the victory — stapling that final, finished version of this section/paper, and then running your hands over the top page of it in satisfied celebration.

Proceed, understanding that your research is important: It enhances a conversation that is important.

So please don’t forget to remind yourself: If you give your best day by day by day, then by definition there is NOTHING more that you can be doing. You’ve done you’re BEST and that is ALL that you can ever offer. Good deal!

The really helpful reflection: Giving your best allows you to trust in TWO things: growth and time: Giving your best causes you to grow, and the more you grow, the better your best will be and the more it will effect your success. So at this moment, you can psychically rest and know that this particular piece of the work will be done just then: When. It’s. Done. To reiterate: The key is to be able to know in your heart: “I have been genuine in my intention and effort to work both smartly and effectively at this, so regardless of how long it takes, the truth is . . . it can’t be done until it’s done. Giving my best each day means time is on my side..”

BEST wishes!

Your Dedicated Team of Blog Co-Authors


2 thoughts on “(6) Literature Reviewing Aids/Tips

  1. I know that there is more content coming for this page so I thought I’d put a feeler out to the writers about something I’ve wondered regarding lit reviews.

    I would love to be able to create a map showing all the sources that cite others and be able to describe the nature of how the author utilizes past research. For example, John may cite a quote from Cathy as evidence for his theory and summarize the results of an empirical study from Shane. When I am looking at Cathy’s work I might be able to see that John and 5 others cite her work as evidence and that one author is critical. There could be so many connections that one could make and this would especially help with choosing among the hundred of relevant articles which few to include in the lit review (either choosing the most frequently cited or by giving credit to an new author)

    I love the way citavi allows for relationship building between sources. Of course I’m a visual person so I’m always looking for a mapping alternative. Maybe it would be worth it to construct this sort of setup manually using a generic concept mapping programming but I could see it getting unwieldy after 100 sources…

    • I found something about this, and I just wanted to be sure you knew that there IS a software solution that does just what you describe and gives you control over it so that it doesn’t become unwieldy. That software is called Qiqqa and it’s free (Windows PC only, though). Here’s a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6A8C0b03PAQ. If you go to time stamp 2:34 or so, you can see these features.

      NOTE: Qiqqa allows you to make such a map of citations just for the sources in YOUR collection. But, at websites/databases such as the Web of Science, you can run such a citation analysis on all the sources in their database (huge!). I believe you can look backward (show links to articles that have cited the article) and look forward (show links to the articles the article itself cites).

      Please let me know if you have any questions.

      Take care!


      P.S. You might give Qiqqa a look: It has many such features that really help you handle the literature.

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