If you’ve started reviewing literature for your dissertation or thesis, you’ll know that there’s a lot of content that you need to digest, some of which is useful, some not, some quality, some not. As if the sheer volume of the reading and comprehension is not challenging enough, you also need to keep track of who said what, when, where, and in what context. After all, the literature review chapter of your dissertation is all about aggregating, synthesising and summarising the state of knowledge in relation to your chosen topic and research objectives and questions.
In short, completing the literature review is a lot of work, and failure to keep track of the literature you consume can result in you wasting a substantial amount of time on double or triple work at best – and misquoting, incorrectly referencing or misinterpreting key literature at worst. You need to get (and stay) organised.
You need a system.
The only way to stay on top of the hordes of reading that you will inevitably do throughout your dissertation is to implement a systematic form of record keeping. You simply cannot remember who said what, when etc. when reading anything from 100 to 300 pieces of literature – especially not a month or two after the initial reading. So, what system is best?
Different strokes for different folks.
In terms of literature management systems, everyone has their own way of staying organised. For some, this means eye-watering amounts of sticky notes and filing tabs, for others visual mapping in brainstorm-type diagrams work better, while for many a simple Microsoft Word document or Evernote entry works wonders. Ultimately, you’ve got to figure out what works best for you. What I’ll prescribe here is a simple approach to record keeping using a Microsoft Excel template.
Before you read on, download the XLSX template below (Right-click, “Save As”).
How to use the Excel template effectively.
A quick overview. The first tab (labelled “Literature”) is where you’ll record specific details of all the reading you’ll do. The second tab (labelled “Literature Summary”) will auto-populate with descriptive statistics of the input as you enter data.
The last two tabs are simply scratchpads for you to dump any additional resources you find along the way. In particular, I’ve made a tab for theoretical frameworks (you can simply dump screengrabs here and caption them) and a tab for measures and scales (the same principle applies). Measures and scales are specific to quantitative methodologies, but you could just as easily use this tab to jot down existing questionnaires if you’re taking a qualitative approach. Ultimately, you are free to customise however you like!
The process is straightforward. For every piece of literature that you read, you log it as a line item. I’d encourage you to record everything you read. Something might seem irrelevant at first read, but you’ll be surprised how the focus of your research can change over time, leading you to inevitably ask the dreaded question, “where did I see that article again?”. Therefore, log every piece of reading, regardless of perceived relevance at the time of reading. You’ll thank yourself later.
While you’re doing this, I’d encourage you to simultaneously capture the literature piece in your reference manager. I usually recommend Zotero, but any of the popular reference management tools will do the trick. The key thing is to capture the references while you’re reading (and not when you’re writing, as this breaks your flow).
What goes where.
For every piece of literature you read, you’ll need to capture the following details:
- Author – Enter the author(s) surname(s). The format you use here is up to you – just be consistent.
- Year – Straightforward. Enter the year of publication only – no month is required.
- Title – Enter the title exactly as it is shown on the book cover, journal article front page, presentation deck, etc. If you can copy and paste, do so. It’s easy to make mistakes on the long titles.
- Category 1, 2 and 3 – Here, you’ll create categories and subcategories, which you can use at a later stage to help you find relevant literature. It is up to you what categories you want to use and how much detail you want to add here. At the very least, your choice of categories should be logical, comprehensive and mutually exclusive.
- Document type – Click the drop-down arrow next to the cell and select an appropriate document type, for example, journal article, blog post, etc. If nothing matches your document type, you can use the “Other” field.
- Publication setting – the two main options here are academic and practitioner. Academic refers to the classic academic sources such as textbooks and journal articles, while practitioner refers to publications such as industry reports, company reports, industry magazines, etc. There is also a mixed option here.
- Knowledge type – You can choose from two main options here – empirical and theoretical:
- Theoretical refers to situations where an author is proposing a hypothetical theory or concept, but not testing it.
- Empirical refers to situations where an author is testing the said theory by using some form of real-world observation.
- Naturally, some literature will feature both of these (i.e. a model is hypothesised and then tested empirically).
- Key arguments – Here you need to note the key takeaways of the respective piece of literature in relation to your research question(s) and objective(s). This is the most important column, so spend some time to provide rich, detailed notes here. Keep in mind that you will be able to search and filter this column at a later stage, so use keywords that make sense.
- Context – Here you should briefly note the context of the specific literature piece. For example, what industry, country, competitive context, etc. did it take place in? When it comes time to justify why your research is worth undertaking, you will likely need to draw on this column’s contents to demonstrate that research has not been undertaken within your specific context (i.e. is it unique?).
- Methodology – Use this drop-down to note the primary methodology (qualitative, quantitative or mixed) used within the specific literature piece. As with the previous item (context), you will likely draw on this when you justify the choice of methodology for your research (i.e. which methodology is commonly used in the field?).
- Key quotes – If there are any specific author quotations that you feel might be useful in your dissertation, add them here. Remember to include the page number if you’re using the Harvard referencing system.
- My notes – Lastly, if there is anything else you feel might be useful, drop it here. You can also create additional columns if you need.
Finding what you need.
Over time, you will build up a substantial list of literature. When you need to find something, whether its a specific piece of literature, a collection of literature within a category, or a summary of a specific author’s publication, you can use the following Excel features:
- Find (Ctrl + F) – good for searching for specific keywords
- Filter – good for filtering groups (for example, categories 1- 3, methodology or publication setting)
- Sort – good for arranging numerical data (for example, publication year)
Once you’ve completed your reading, remember to have a look at the second tab (“Literature Summary”) for an overview of key statistics. As mentioned previously, some of these statistics can help you justify your choice of topic or methodology. Additionally, a review here may reveal that your literature is aged, or that you need to improve your balance of academic and practitioner literature.
In this post, I’ve presented a straightforward approach to managing the literature throughout your literature review process. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please do leave a comment below.