Getting Your Head Around the Literature Review

There can be nothing more frustrating than, while writing your literature review, you cannot remember who said what when. Citing the sources of your information about your topic and acknowledging those who have helped you build your ideas is a primary pillar of credibility in presenting academic work.

It is easy to avoid that frustration and the time it wastes if, from the outset, you develop a system for documenting what you have read as you read the literature you have read and are accessing.

The following system assumes you are clear about and have formalized your research question, at least vaguely, and have developed the list of keywords for accessing the relevant literature based on your research question and the context in which you asked your research question.

Each time you access a work that is relevant, and by relevant, I mean the paper would contribute to your and the reader’s understanding of the topic, take a minute or two to

  • Copy the details that would be included in the references list, for example, the author or authors, date of publication, title of the work, the container in which the work can be found, and the DOI number, if available, and make sure you include the URL. Some sites make that really easy.
    • At this point, it does not matter in what order the information is documented, so do not waste your time perfecting the font and order of the information. You just want to ensure that when you construct your References list in the style you have been asked to use that all the necessary information is in one place and at your fingertips.
  • Copy the Abstract, if available. An abstract includes information about the focus of the work, the methods employed, and the findings.
    • If no abstract is evident, note the focus of the work, the methods employed, and the findings of the authors. Key words will do, and perhaps even one or two pertinent quotes.

The critical step…

The critical step for making who said what when available is to include a comment on where the information might be used in your document, be it a section or theme or even theme within a section. Where in the literature review might that author’s views be accommodated or serve to support your approach to the topic?

Bear in mind that themes for some works might include a section of the literature review and a methodology chapter or section: The methodological design must also be defended. Moreover, in the methodology chapter (or section) of your document, you also need to discuss why you did not choose alternative methods for answering your research question.  

Applying this strategy, you will end up with what some might call a basic and useful annotated bibliography in a Word file. In the course of doing that, you will also have begun developing the framework for writing up the literature review. In other words, the beauty of this strategy is the following:

  • In identifying themes, you will begin developing and revisiting the initial framework or template for conveying your conceptual understanding of your topic and research focus. It enables the necessary distillation process.
  • You can use Find in Word to search for themes to identify who said what when: The citation information is literally at your fingertips as you begin using the framework to write your literature review.
  • The content of your Reference list is in place. You will not waste time hunting down an obscure source that supports your argument.

Consider if my research question is about the extent to which adverse vaccine reactions and blood type are correlated.

Notice that I am proposing that there is a correlation, so my alternative hypothesis is that there is a correlation between blood type and adverse vaccine effects. The null hypothesis would be that blood type makes no difference with respect to adverse vaccine effects.

My literature review would need to focused on defending the assumption that there is a correlation because a keyword search reveals some research about vulnerability to being infected with various pathogens, including COVID-19, by blood type, but little about vulnerability to adverse vaccine effects and blood type, with one exception: a 1965 paper that suggests a link with respect to the smallpox vaccine. None of the authors seem to have published in that field since, and the one that continued to publish shifted focus to thinking about how we think and statistical models for making sense of medical data.

I therefore need to access literature that allows me to argue that attempting to answer the research question is worthwhile and that theoretically, at least, it is possible that blood type and adverse vaccine reactions are correlated, especially vaccines that include fetal matter.  

So, for example, I would need to discuss blood types and their characteristics. I would need to point out, for example, that people with O-Neg blood are universal donors but have adverse effects to transfusions with any other blood type. I would need to show that some vaccines include fetal matter and discuss those vaccines and what fetal matter they include and any research results pertaining to that. I would then have to argue, based on genetic theory and the creation of Molly, the first cloned sheep, that matter from an individual cell of every organic entity contains the blueprint for the entire entity, and that would include the entities’ blood types. So, if it is true that matter from the individual cell of every organic entity contains the blueprint for the entire entity, including fetal tissue in vaccines may explain why some people, and particularly those with and O-Neg blood type have adverse reactions to vaccines that include fetal matter.

Notice how, in the process of accessing the literature, my research question is refined to vaccines containing fetal matter and my conceptual framework expanded to a discussion of the mechanics of cloning creatures and the theory that supports that. As I read and come to understand the field in which I will be conducting my research, the framework is refined so that I can convince the reader that the research is worthwhile and may yield fruit. I can show, at least in theory, why some people may have adverse reactions after being vaccinated and others not and develop the grounds for establishing whether (or not) blood type is a significant factor or makes a difference to adverse reactions to vaccines, or at last those containing fetal matter. The next step would be to do the research to establish if the data supports my hypothesis. Even if the research does not support the hypothesis, it is a valid finding because I will know with relative certainty that blood types makes to difference whether people suffer adverse reactions to vaccines and consider looking at alternative explanations for adverse vaccine reactions.

So, when reading around your topic for the purposes of the literature review, from the outset, consider

  • Documenting the references entry information for each work you have read.
  • Copying the Abstract or summarizing the work
  • Identifying the works’ relevance for your research question
  • Categorizing the themes evident in each entry
  • Using the themes to develop the framework by which you will convey (write about) your conceptual understanding of your field and topic.

Once your literature file and framework are in place, you can more confidently begin with the writing.

(© Michelle L. Crowley 14/01/2022)

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