Doing a literature review: where to start?

Confession time. I hadn’t really heard the term “literature review” until about 2 years ago. I may be being generous.

That’s not to say that I haven’t ever engaged in a literature review. But I didn’t call it that. I called it something along the lines of “seeing what other people say”. To be fair, I wasn’t that far off. A literature review is just that – evaluating the existing research literature on a topic you’re interested in.

Feeling your way

To date, for all the conference papers I’ve prepared and articles I’ve written I have felt my way through the literature. I’ve found one article or book and when the author has referenced something which sounds interesting I go and have a read of that. Repeat process. I mostly go off footnotes or bibliographies, picking the titles I like the look of.

Like a detective novel you can’t put down, one clue leads to another and another and another. The feeling of discovery can make the process quite thrilling.

However, at the same time, I never feel that I’m seeing the bigger picture. I think I’ve found the key texts, but I’m not sure. I think I’ve got a good grounding in the theoretical frameworks and which authors are associated with them, but I can’t help but feel there might be something missing.

Imagine the literature is a cake.  I’m not looking down at the cake, admiring the decorative icing and marveling at the beautiful layers. My face is firmly planted right in the middle and I’m chomping away.

A fresh start?

For a while I’ve been watching videos and reading blogs, having a peek at other people’s lit review techniques. I’ve started using tables and keeping a record of what I’m searching for. This has been helpful, but my review process still feels haphazard.

Serendiptously, my wonderful colleagues Dr Elaine Hall and Dr Ilias Vlachos recently ran a researcher development session which looked at this very issue. Them and me: the research literature and my research question, explored how we can locate our work within published work, critically engage with concepts of rigour, originality and
significance within disciplines (applying these to the literature and to
our own work), and use inductive, deductive and abductive approaches to shape our research questions.  It was excellent – informative, engaging and thought provoking.  It’s tempting to regurgitate everything I learned (it was a lot) into this blog post. Instead I’m going to focus on the concept of the systematic review. It looks like it might be the answer to my literature review troubles.

Elaine and Ilias explained that systematic review is used primarily in medicine, but is not limited to that discipline. In fact two of my colleagues who attended the session shared how they were utilising this approach for their work on clinical legal education. The objective is to end up with an exhaustive summary of all of the literature which is of relevance to your research question. It is about shifting the emphasis from “art” to “science”, in terms of the way you approach a review.

Using a systematic approach, you formulate your research question. Illias explained that even this is tackled in a methodical manner. Your research question should contain an outcome, an intervention, a subject and a comparator. Using Ilias’ example, it might look like this:

The impact of web technologies on firm performance in the food industry

outcome           intervention                 subject                              comparator

I immediately started to create my own research question using this method. Suddenly, my search terms become clearer. Rather than searching for “clinic and business and law”  (my go to quick search phrase of late, when I’m not really settled and am impatient), I started to look at my question with greater specificity. What was my intervention? What was my comparator? It wasn’t good enough just to want to “look at” the development of business law clinics. Now I had terms to help me include/exclude literature. My research question would be clearer, more concise. It made sense to me that my literature review would have the same attributes.

There were other advantages associated with a systematic review which caught my attention. The ability to be able to make statements such as “there are 202 articles coming from the United States” or “two-thirds of the literature in this field…”. I tend to avoid statements like these, because I’m not entirely sure they’re true. The perils of having your face in the cake.

Moving forward

When I started to explore autoethnography as a methodology,  I typed “autoethnography” into YouTube. A video of Carolyn Ellis and Art Bochner appeared in front of me. They proceeded to give a 50 minute presentation and Q&A session, and by the end I was hooked. At that time (to my shame) I didn’t really know who they were, much less that they were the pioneers of autoethnography as we understand it today. I’ve been devouring their work since that time.

Of course, the systematic approach would have led me to them too. But I suspect that it might also have given me a sense of the scope of their work, and where it sits in the field. At the moment, I jump from one piece to another. I have no real sense of where each piece fits in terms of timeline. I don’t want to lose the sense of exploration, and feeling my way through the literature has got me this far, but now its time to be a little more scientific about searching, recording and giving context to my research. I’ll report back on how it’s going a few months’ time.

How do you engage in a literature review? Has the systematic approach worked for you? Or are you, like, me a fond of the haphazard approach?

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