A Start-to-Finish Literature Review Workflow

Stack of books and notebooks
Remember how I was going to read Chris Guillebeau‘s Side Hustle and see if it had any lessons for treating grad school like a side hustle? It does! One of the things Chris recommends is developing workflows for your side hustle. I’ve been tweaking my literature review workflow for a while, but as I write up the current section and start planning the remaining sections, I’m finally feeling like I have a handle on things. Today I’m ready to share it with you, in hopes it will make your own writing go more smoothly.

Before we begin, please note that this process draws significantly on what I learned in Dr. Barbara Wildemuth‘s course Research Issues & Questions (aka babydocs) and from Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s blog post about preparing for comprehensive qualifying exams.

Let’s get started!


Step 1: Identify a topic.

If you’re writing the literature review for a class, this might be assigned to you. If you are developing a research proposal, then your research question will inform what needs to be in your literature review. You might just be interested in something and want to learn more about it. Regardless of how you arrive at your topic, make it as specific as you possibly can. Here are some examples, based on actual literature reviews I’ve written, of general topics vs. specific topics.

GeneralSpecific
MakerspacesMakerspaces in school libraries
ArchivesThe role of archives in K-12 education
CatalogingDescribing and organizing information for children
LeadershipSchool librarians as leaders
GamingTabletop roleplaying game library programs and teen identity development
Everyday life information needsThe everyday life information needs of young adults
Information retrievalDesigning information retrieval systems for children's use
Scholarly communicationsLibrary professionals as practitioner-scholars

Step 2: Set up a process for capturing literature once you identify it.

For the first literature review I ever did, back in 1999, I photocopied journal articles and used index cards to write down citations. Now, I much prefer some sort of reference manager with a browser plug-in. I’ve tried RefWorks, Zotero, Mendeley, and am now using Paperpile, which I learned about from John Martin. Find one you like and work it. I loved Zotero for a long time, but the most recent versions kept being finicky for me. Plus, Paperpile was designed to work with Google Docs and that’s where I write now, so it was a more natural choice.

Step 3: Set up reading storage and a reading environment.

You may have to poke around for tutorials on the best way to do this with your reference system. You may just prefer to print everything on paper and take notes that way. I use an Android tablet, Xodo Reader, and the “Starred Papers” feature in Paperpile to put papers in a Google Drive folder, download them for offline reading, and read and mark them up. If you’re using Zotero, definitely investigate Zotfile. However you go about it, you’re looking for a system that will let you easily find, read, and annotate your readings.

Step 4: Identify potential literature.

And we’re finally at the place where most advice on literature reviews begins!

Here are the things I do, learned in the aforementioned Research Issues & Questions class:

  • Consult with a trusted colleague (advisor, mentor, disciplinary expert, etc.)
  • Search databases. I start with those directly related to my discipline (library and information science), but because I often am working on youth services or school libraries questions, I tend to incorporate education databases as well. Most research databases have a wealth of features that go beyond the simple full-text search box that is the default. I highly recommend meeting with a librarian and learning more about these features. Subject headings, search modifiers that let you exclude unhelpful things, and especially search alerts will make your life much better. Search alerts keep you up to date on the latest literature related to your search terms. A librarian can also help you identify the best search terms to use to begin with. And you can probably learn all this stuff without meeting a librarian face-to-face: your university and public library probably offer some form of online research services via email or chat.
  • Search Google Scholar. This will turn up all kinds of stuff you may not have seen in the databases (especially if you’re looking at open access journals). But it can also be super overwhelming. Be sure to look on the left side of the search results page and use any filters that seem helpful.
  • Follow citations backward. As you find useful readings, look at their reference lists.
  • Follow citations forward. My favorite way of doing this is to just type a reading’s title in Google Scholar and click the “Cited by” link. But you can also check with a librarian to see if you have access to this feature in ISI Web of Science or Scopus. Those are both very powerful but not especially intuitive, so I would definitely get a librarian’s help with them if I were you.

As you find citations using any of these sources, capture them either manually or automatically. Most reference managers have a browser extension that makes this a one-click process. Obviously, if you’re using paper, that’ll be a more manual process. Reference managers will often capture the PDF/full text for you, too. Definitely get a copy of the readings if they don’t.

Step 5: Identify and eliminate stuff that’s outside the scope of your literature review.

Sometimes a title will look like a good fit, but then when you dig in to the abstract, you’ll realize it’s actually not relevant to your work at all. Quickly skim the abstracts for all the citations you’ve identified. If it doesn’t fit with your current work, set it aside. I usually keep a subfolder in my reference manager called “Don’t Use” and drop these in there. That way they’re not lost if I change my mind or expand my scope.

This process will help you decide if you’ve got the right scope, too. When I was first working on my literature review, I grabbed everything about makerspaces and learning that I could find. At this stage, I realized I’d never finish if I tried to use all of them, and decided to limit my scope to only those studies that look at making in library settings.

Step 6: Read, highlight, and take notes.

Oh hey we’re here! This part can be really fun or really tedious. I recommend using Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s AIC extraction method. Read the abstract, introduction, and conclusion. Look for the context and rationale for the study. Identify the research question. Find what you can about the methods, especially the setting, population of interest, sample size and selection methods, data collection methods, and data analysis methods. Then grab what you can about the findings. Do this quickly. Use highlighters, take notes, whatever works for you. I highlight and add notes directly in PDFs.

Step 7: Write synthetic notes.

Another recommendation of Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s methods. Write notes based just on your existing highlights and notes. This might just be one sentence, or it could be multiple paragraphs. It will depend on what you have time for, the depth you need to go into, and how useful the particular reading is. Make a note of whether you want to read the study more deeply later.

Step 8: Add each study to a master list.

I like Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump.

Step 9: Create a concept map, grouping different readings by big themes.

I use bubbl.us, which I learned about from Dr. Summer Pennell, for this. Here’s what the one for my current lit review looks like (click it for full size):

You can also do this same process using index cards or pen and paper if you prefer.

Step 10: Create an outline.

There’s a ton of advice on the internet about this already, I’m sure. It’s worth noting that bubbl.us will actually create an outline for you if you want. I think you’ll still need to generate your own to get you ready for writing, but it can help you if you want a more linear visual once you’re done with your concept map.

Step 11: Write.

Get it out. Identify gaps. Find the places where your notes on a particular study don’t give you enough information, and go back and skim or read the middle of it. Make more detailed notes on that, perhaps writing a memo and then putting some of that in your paper draft. Leave yourself funny little comments like “MORE HERE” and “Not sure if this fits here.”

Step 12: Revise.

Fix the gaps. Add more details. Do whatever your weird idiosyncratic comments tell you remains to be done.


That’s how I do it. I’m really good at literature reviews. I don’t know how many other scholarly endeavors I’m good at, but I’ve got this one down cold, and now maybe you do, too.

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