A Start-to-Finish Literature Review Workflow

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.

Preparing for comprehensive (qualifying) exams: My process so far

I have been chipping away at the comprehensive literature review my program requires that I write to prepare for my qualifying examination for more than six months now. My progress has been achingly slow. I am finally in a (slow-moving) groove, though, so I thought I’d share a little bit about my process.

I began by following Raul Pacheco-Vega’s advice. I read each piece, doing his Abstract-Introduction-Conclusion extraction process (a process similar to the advice offered in my doctoral seminar, but his is a bit more streamlined). [A note on tools: I do all of my reading digitally as I have limited printing availability, work in multiple offices, and sometimes need to read with a toddler napping on me. I use Zotero, store all my Zotero attachments in Google Drive, sync files to read on my tablet with ZotFile, make those files available offline using Google Drive on my tablet, then read and annotate them in Xodo.]

After this, at first I started writing a rhetorical precis for each piece but I found it didn’t help me that much. I wasn’t ready to write full synthetic notes, because I didn’t have enough of a grip on the literature landscape to determine what would qualify a study as something I would want to come back to and read later for more detail or expand into a complete memo. So I skipped ahead to the conceptual synthesis spreadsheet dump stage, leaving several of Raul Pacheco-Vega’s columns to return to later – I only used the concept, citation, and main idea columns to begin with. I added a column for which type of library setting the paper was addressing, because I thought that might be important later. I used the concept column not to tell me which concept in my lit review the paper was for, as I’ve created separate tabs in the spreadsheet for each of the five areas I’m exploring, but instead as sort of a tags column.

Conceptual Synthesis Spreadsheet

After filling out these columns for all the readings, I went back and re-read the main ideas column. Then I did some concept grouping (not really mapping yet) and a free-write of brief notes about all of the ideas I was synthesizing based on my reading.

Concept Map

Freewrite

Then, based on my concept groupings and freewrite, I created a preliminary outline.

Outline

I typed up this outline, filled in the introduction section based on earlier literature reviews I’d already written, and now I’m ready to come back and go through each study I have in my conceptual synthesis spreadsheet and write a full synthetic note with the ability to tell how helpful it would be to do a close reading and full memo of any given piece.

Lessons Learned from a Week and a Half of “Writing” #12weekarticle #AcWri

I worked through the first two weeks of Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks in about a week and a half. Here I am at the beginning of her Week 3, and she suggests writing up what you learned and sharing it, so that’s what I’m doing here.

A few reminders about my situation before I begin: I am the mother of an 11-month-old son, a full-time graduate student doing 4 credit hours of coursework and 5 credit hours of dissertation work, a research assistant with a 20 hour a week position, chronically ill with endocrine and autoimmune diseases, and a dilettante who feels all the joy is sucked out of life if I don’t get to spend at least a little time on personal interests.

And yes, all of that is relevant to my writing process.

Challenges

Managing time and attention is my biggest challenge. I have fifteen hours of paid childcare a week, plus whatever gifted childcare I receive from family members including my son’s grandparents and solo time his dad spends with him. It’s not a lot of time, and I don’t even use it that productively. I’m easily distracted and if I can’t focus I can’t write.

Also? It’s hard to work when I’m responsible for supervising a toddler. But there’s definitely more than 15 hours worth of work to do to meet my 56 hour obligation (36 hours coursework/dissertation + 20 assistantship), so I’ve got to figure out how I can get some work done when I’m with him, or start giving up sleep.

If I haven’t sorted out everything I need before a work session I putter and am at a loss. This is a skill I want to get better at: taking a little time at the beginning of a work session to plan, and at the end to wrap up.

If I don’t get writing done early in the day, I don’t get it done at all.

Solutions

One solution that has really been working for me is using the Pomodoro method to churn out four Pomodoros (25 minute blocks of work) in a row. I have four primary areas of work responsibility, each with writing involved: parental leave makeup work, dissertation hours (where I’m using the #12weekarticle techniques), coursework, and my assistantship. I rotate through these areas, doing one Pomodoro in each, and even if that’s all I get done in a day, I have at least knocked out two hours of solid work.

Working in spaces where I can’t hear the baby is huge. I go to a coffee shop or the library or even my back porch and I’m infinitely more productive than I am when I’m within hearing range of him – even two floors away, I can hear my sister nannying him, and it’s a distraction. Especially when he gets upset. So spending more time in those other spaces is totally worth the little bit of time it takes to get set up in them. (This back porch thing has been amazing – sunlight, a cool breeze, and concentration – thanks, autumn!)

Dedicating the time I need to setting up the plan for a work session has been going well, but I’m still working on the wrap-up part of things.

I need to ask for help from my husband at the beginning of a day – have breakfast with him and the baby, then whisk myself away for a couple hours – rather than waiting for him to check in with “Didn’t you need to get some writing done today?” because if it doesn’t happen before noon, I’m already too tired to get started.

Next Steps

  1. Spend half an hour at the end of each childcare-protected work session planning both what work I can get done when I’m with the baby and what work I will do in my next protected work session.

  2. Spend half an hour at the beginning of each childcare-protected work session planning what I will do for the rest of the work session.

  3. Continue to work in spaces away from the baby.

  4. Get my work session in first thing after exercise and breakfast.

My Upcoming Paper Topic #12weekarticle #AcWri

Hello, The Entire Internet, my writing partner. How’s your writing going?

Today’s assignment from Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks is to get really clear on my paper topic before writing an abstract about it. Again, I’m supposed to call somebody on the phone or meet with them in person and talk about it. Again, I’m not logistically in a situation where that is an option right now (sleeping baby on the bed next to me!), so I’m blogging instead.

Am I afraid of someone scooping me if I blog about my paper topic? A little. But then, I’ve already shared my poster about it on the open web. Anyway, I’m more interested in open scholarship and sharing my process than I am worried about getting scooped. So here we are. I’m going to give you a preview of the article I’m writing.

I’m writing about special education training for preservice school librarians. School librarians, like other educators, are responsible for serving students with disabilities. School libraries are environments that are different from the classroom, and thus, I would argue, serve special education students in unique ways. I suspected that very few school librarians received training in how to do this in their school library education programs, and that even fewer were required to undergo such training. To find out, I performed a content analysis of the websites of all of the American Association of School Librarians-approved school librarian education programs, looking at their program requirements and course offerings. I looked at both course titles and descriptions, when available. I found that most programs don’t provide coursework that is specific to the school library; they outsource it to education programs. Some do require it for anyone who isn’t a teacher, but they assume that if you already have a teaching certificate, you’ve already received sufficient education in this area. A few school library education programs in New York, where there has been a specific initiative targeted at improving this type of education, both require this type of training and offer coursework specific to educators working in school libraries rather than classrooms. I would suggest that more programs should offer and even require this type of training, and that these programs in New York have the potential to serve as models for future coursework to be developed.

So let me open it up to you, Internet. Did I summarize the work clearly? What questions do you have? Engage with me here and in the comments I’ll try to do this again, but more succinctly. And then after that, I’m going to try to get this down to one sentence.

Creating Physical Writing Space as a Grad Student/Parent

I’m cramming all of Week One of Wendy Belcher’s book into one day. I might even start on Week Two. We’ll see.

Anyway. She’s got a part about identifying the physical sites where you’re doing your writing and what you need to do to improve them.

Here are the potential sites I listed:

  • Nursery/playroom
  • Kitchen
  • Public library
  • Basement
  • Coffee shop

I have fifteen hours of childcare a week and fifty-six hours of school-related commitments (including my assistantship), so obviously a lot of work has to happen outside of traditional office spaces. I work on the queen bed or in the glider we have in my son’s nursery/playroom. I work at the kitchen table. I meet a friend for communal writing time at the public library. I work at the dining table we have in our basement. And when I need a treat as motivation, I work at a local coffee shop.

With five “offices,” investing too much time, money, or effort in improving any one of them doesn’t really make a lot of sense. So I keep it all in a go bag or mobile office. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s something I’ve had to get okay with in a new way.

Here’s what has to be in my bag for me to be able to work:

  • laptop
  • charger
  • tablet
  • stylus
  • notebooks
  • pens
  • highlighters
  • readings

And then, in the nursery/playroom, at least, I have to have a lapdesk with me.

I’m a piler, not a filer, so I often have all my work stuff spread out around me and if I believe I will return to it, I just leave it out. (I’m usually wrong. I almost never return to it promptly enough to merit leaving it out.) So another shift to my process thanks to parenthood is that I’ve got to pack it all up every time, or I may find myself in bed next to a sleeping toddler with all my work stuff in a different room.

My Feelings About My Experience of Writing #12weekarticle #AcWri

In my doctoral program, before you can take your comprehensive qualifying exams, you have to submit two journal articles for publication. I’ve submitted exactly zero, in spite of two independent studies in which my plan was to create work. In one of them, I ended up doing a poster presentation instead; I’m still working on the other, as it ended up falling in the semester with my parental leave.

I have a thing about revision. I never revised my Master’s paper. I get paralyzed by it. But I’ve got to revise before I’m ready to submit, so when I wrote my learning contract for my dissertation hours this fall, I included revising one of those independent study papers for submission as one of the deliverables. So here we are.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about academic writing lately, especially academic writing habits and process, and consistently everyone recommends Wendy Belcher’s (2009) book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. I purchased this years ago, when I was first trying to revise my Master’s paper, and I’m pulling it out again.

So here we are. You, Internet, are going to be my writing partner sometimes. I won’t share drafts with you, but I’m going to blog about my process.

Belcher says, “One of the reasons that academics do not talk about writing is that it involves talking about feelings… So, let’s get started with a very broad question. What feelings come up when you think about writing?” (p. 2). Belcher recommends discussing this with a classmate or colleague, or composing an email to a friend or family member. I’m composing this blog post instead.

Here we go.

I’m the type of writer who dreams and plans for weeks, then churns out a draft in a matter of hours. I used to think my writing process was bogus, that I needed to be drafting non-stop. Last semester I realized that this isn’t quite true. As Raul Pacheco-Vega talks about, I need to be moving my writing forward, but that doesn’t mean drafting. Sometimes it means freewriting, memoing, or reading. So this is the kind of writer I am: I read, I think, I plan, I freewrite, I memo, and all of that takes a long time. And when I feel saturated, then I write like the wind. I turn out a paper that I usually think is hot garbage, but which professors often say are just a few revisions away from ready to submit for publication.

And this is where I get paralyzed, and I’m not sure why. I think it’s overwhelm. Overwhelm at the thought of having to figure out the literature. Of the possibility that my data is old and needs to be done again. At the notion of cutting down all the writing I’ve done into something manageable. I am paralyzed by overwhelm and anxiety, and there are just so many other things that need my attention that I give myself a break, and that’s why I’m sitting on five unpublished manuscripts.

I love writing.

I fear revising.

Those are my feelings on the matter.