beginning the literature review – taking notes

The purpose of the literature review shapes the way that noting is done.

And the purpose is to situate your study in the field – that is, to establish a space for the work you are going to do – and to find concepts and approaches that are helpful, that you can build on. It is also important to understand key debates and differences in the field so that you can position yourself in relation to them. The literature review thus typically discusses a field of knowledge production and key concepts and lines of argument within it.

The literature review is not finished in the first year of doctoral study, and the ways in which texts are used to develop a research proposal in year one may not be the same as their use in the final thesis text when the findings and argument are known. But whether it’s early or later literature work, there is always noting to do.

There is one major maxim about noting – it’s not rewriting the book or the article. That’s a waste of time and it misses the point.

So what’s the point then?

Let’s imagine you have a text that you have just read. It’s important to understand first of all what the writer is claiming and arguing. You should be able to explain to someone else in a very short space of time what the text is about. Putting the text away, and then saying/writing a few sentences means that you have to summarise and synthesise what you’ve read, as well as translate it into your own words. This process of making sense of the text, of interpreting it, is important not only for your immediate understanding, but also for the ways in which you can use this understanding to make your own arguments later.

So the first step in noting is to write the argument and the claim of the paper in no more than three to four sentences. This requires a bit of disciplined thinking. But the sentences don’t have to be perfect, they just need to work for you.

And, because the articles you read for your literature review are going to be related to your study in some way, it is also helpful to note how.

So, some questions to consider are:
(1) Is the text located in the same field, or another one? This is important because you may want to argue that part of your contribution is to bring understandings from another field into your own, or that you are doing interdisciplinary research.

(2) What aspect of your topic does the text address? This is important to know because if you are going to argue that your research fills a space you want to have a clear idea of what is already there and how your work might be different. Its significance lies in the particular contribution.

(3) What definition is offered of the topic? It is often the case that there are differing understandings of what appears to be the same thing, so being able to define what you take to be the meaning of the topic – and why – and who else uses this definition, if anyone – is important.

(4) If the text is in the same or a different field, what concepts and language are brought to bear on the topic that might be helpful to you? It is not possible for any research to do everything, and so we all build on others’ work. We refer to this borrowing through citations: these are the textual signposts to the things that we take as building blocks for our own research.

(5) What kind of text is this? Is it theory building? A think piece? A meta-study or systematic review? An empirical piece of work? How does this kind of research connect with your study? It may be that this is a piece of research which uses the same kind of approach that you are thinking about.
If empirical, then you will want to take note of the epistemological tradition, the methodology, site, methods and sample because it may be that this is where the difference in what you are doing can be located. It may be that you want to work in a different empirical tradition altogether, using an approach unlike this one, in which case you need to know how your work will differ. But it may be that this is work that you want to build on.
If it is a meta-study or a systematic review, is the conclusion helpful in creating the space for your study? Or will any of the categorizations of the field or the research traditions be helpful to you either to argue for the space for your work or perhaps to develop your research design?
If it is theory building, what does this approach allow the writer to see and say? What is included and excluded? How might this be helpful to you, and/or how might it help create the warrant for your study?

(6) What categorisations are offered? What are the key concepts and framings that are used? Are any of these useful in your work? Will you need to present some kind of critique of any of them in your literature review? Can these categorisations be expressed as key words?

(7) What connections does this text make? Are there new literatures in the reference list that you need to look at? Does the text offer new insights for your research?

It is important when answering these – and other questions that you may want to ask of a text – that you do not write reams. It is possible – desirable even – to write three or four sentences about the overall argument or claim, and then write a small number of phrases in answer to any of questions (1)–(7). These can simply be bullet points.

Both the sentences and bullets can be entered into any of the digital referencing systems – they are then searchable and retrievable even after years. I am still searching for and finding notes I entered in Endnote some fifteen years ago.

Crucially, once you have these kinds of systematic notes you can then group the articles in different ways. Texts can for example be clumped together around definitions, different aspects of the topic – we might call these themes in the literature – methods, theoretical approaches or epistemological traditions.

In the next blog I want to talk some more about the process of grouping – or making patterns of – your noted texts.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, literature review, note-taking, reading and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to beginning the literature review – taking notes

  1. Jane McGregor says:

    These posts are so clear and helpful. I recommend the blog to all students.

  2. Jane McGregor says:

    Also, I would completely commend the note taking and pattern grouping above- something like Endnote can be extremely helpful when writing around your subject e.g. in journals, to construct and develop your arguments.

  3. lea says:

    Thanks a lot! This is very helpful :)

  4. Donna Franklin says:

    thank you Pat,

    Please do not stop writing these posts, they are such a god send…. you fill all those little questions that everyone assumes you know but you really dont know, and are too afraid to ask.

    Q: regarding being systematic when reading: Is there any chance you might give some advice on what tools are useful for helping the grouping and pattern finding. Ive used a programme called inspirations which is given to dyslexic students as it has a spacial display which you can flip to give an linear outline, but i fear it wont stand up to the rigors of 200 + papers for a phd lit review… Ive heard that excel may be useful, or Nvivo the qualitative package ( proxy documents), do you have any gems of gold which might just hit the problem on the head?

    many thanks

  5. Pingback: #FSLT12 Week 3 with Etienne and Bev Wenger-Trayner « Jenny Connected

  6. norskinoodle says:

    Thanks so much, this is incredibly helpful!

  7. Pingback: Warp and Woof (10.5.2012) « Cataclysmic

  8. Peter M. says:

    Hi Pat.
    This was quite an unteresting read. However, often I think that you could squeeze more out of a paper, or even more, a book, than the gist in a few sentences. This is my real challenge: to record, in a structured way that allows me to arrange to notes, all the points that I find in a text. Another, but related, challenge is to record also relevant references that the text contains. All to gather information to set up a literature review for a phd.
    Could you provide a few samples of notes you’ve made yourself when reading papers? I know it’s quite personal, but it would be really useful to see how a “pro” does it.

    • pat thomson says:

      Ill have a think about this. I wrote something more extended about reading an academic book which does look at more in depth reading. Part of the issue is how much starting a literature review is squeezing and how much is scoping first and then going back to squeeze more out of specific pieces…

      • petermalling says:

        Only saw your reply now. Would it be possible somewhere to read what you wrote about reading a book?

      • pat thomson says:

        Yes there are three posts on this blog called how to read an academic book. The first one has a subtitle about a mango!! If you go to book on the wordle at the side of the blog, and click on book, it’ll get you to these posts.

  9. petermalling says:

    Reblogged this on petermalling's Blog and commented:
    About note taking for lit.review. From the interesting Patter blog

  10. Pingback: From a grateful student – following the note taking advice of the blogosphere | AblogbyErica

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