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Information and literature review. Some tricks and tips Tom Vandenbosch. Purpose of a literature review. To find out what other scholars are writing about your topic To learn methods and approaches that are appropriate for your study To learn appropriate theory to underpin your work

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Information and literature review l.jpg

Information and literature review

Some tricks and tips

Tom Vandenbosch

Purpose of a literature review l.jpg

Purpose of a literature review

  • To find out what other scholars are writing about your topic

  • To learn methods and approaches that are appropriate for your study

  • To learn appropriate theory to underpin your work

  • To highlight gaps and under-researched areas, to identify current debates and controversies

  • To help focus your research and sharpen and refine your research questions

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Purpose of a literature review

  • To avoid reinventing the wheel, to demonstrate to your audience that your contribution is new – different from everyone else’s

    • Nobody will believe you unless you can demonstrate through the literature review that you know what everyone else has done

  • In an MSc: to demonstrate that you can do an effective literature review

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Types of information sources

  • Secondary sources

    • Bibliographies, indexes and abstracts that you can use to help you to find the

  • Primary sources

    • Full text of articles, books, government reports, etc. that you need to read for your research project

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Aim of your literature search

  • To retrieve information of direct relevance to your research

  • To avoid being sidetracked or overloaded with material of only peripheral interest

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Planning your literature search

  • You should consider at an early stage some search parameters, e.g.

    • How far back will you look for material? The last five/ten years?

    • Do you plan to read material about a particular geographical region only?

    • What type of material do you want to trace? Books, journals, theses, government reports, Internet resources?

    • Do you want material only in Kikuyu, in English or in other languages?

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Overall structure of academic literature

Research Topic

Specialist sub-area




Your research question

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Literature search model

  • Example: you may be researching the academic performance of mature students in higher education

Higher education

Mature students

Academic performance

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Literature search model

Higher education

Mature students


Specialist area








Academic performance

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Sources for Literature Reviews

  • Internet

    • Use keyword searches in Google Scholar:

  • Digital Libraries

    • Need to use keyword searches to identify relevant articles

  • Libraries

    • Look through the list of journals and browse the books on the shelves to find relevant ones

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Strengths and weaknesses of different sources

  • Books vs. journal articles vs. conference proceedings vs. the Internet

  • Which tend to be the best for

    • Currency?

    • Authority?

    • Understandability?

  • Academic papers are quality controlled – many are rejected as being incorrect or uninteresting

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Literature search techniques

  • Keyword search

    • To find topically relevant information from digital libraries, databases, or the Internet

    • Good in most cases

  • Chaining

    • Tracking references and citations to find articles relevant to a topic

    • Good where the topic is very small

  • Browsing

    • To sift through collections of potentially relevant text

    • Good where there are many relevant books/articles, but only a few can be selected

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Selecting keywords

  • Organize your topic into subject groups or sets

  • Analyze the keywords in each subject group or set to try to find as many relevant search terms as possible

  • Use a thesaurus which lists synonyms and related words, to help you think of broader and narrower terms (and alternative spellings).

  • Some computer databases have an on-line subject thesaurus which you can use to find additional terms during your search

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Selecting keywords: an example

  • Set 1: mature students OR adult education OR adult learning OR continuing education OR non-traditional students OR lifelong learning AND

  • Set 2: academic performance OR academic achievement OR academic ability OR learner outcomes AND

  • Set 3: higher education OR colleges OR universities OR post-secondary education

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Citations and references

  • As you write up your research, you will use a citation to indicate in your text the source of a piece of information

  • References give details of books, articles and any other types of material that you have cited in your text

  • A bibliography is a list of works that you have read or consulted during the course of your research but have not necessarily cited

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  • Referencing is a standardized method of acknowledging sources of information and ideas that you have used in your assignment in a way that uniquely identifies their source

  • Direct quotations, facts and figures, as well as ideas and theories, from both published and unpublished works must be referenced

  • There are many acceptable forms of referencing (e.g. Harvard referencing style)

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Creating a bibliography

  • Word processor

    • Writer

    • MS Word

  • Bibliographic software package

    • EndNote

    • Pro-Cite

    • Reference Manager

  • By hand

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Evaluating sources

  • Is the source you are using respected in your field?

  • Has the author’s name been cited by others, or have you seen it listed in other bibliographic sources?

  • Are vital points referenced for you to check?

  • Are the references up to date with current development in your field?

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Literature review

  • Ideally, the bulk of your reading should come early in the investigation

  • In practice a number of activities are generally in progress at the same time and reading may spill over into the data-collecting stage of your study

  • You need to take care that reading does not take up more time than can be allowed, but it is rarely possible to obtain copies of all books and articles at exactly the time you need them, so there is inevitably some overlap

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Literature review

  • Reading about your topic may give you ideas about approaches and methods which had not occurred to you

  • It may also give you ideas about how you might classify and present your own data

  • It may help you to devise a theoretical or analytical framework

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Literature review

  • As you read, get into the habit of examining

    • How authors classify their findings

    • How they explore relationships between facts

    • How facts and relationships are explained

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Literature review

  • Methods used by other researchers may be unsuitable for your purposes

  • But they may give you ideas about how you might categorize your own data, and ways in which you may be able to draw on the work of other researchers to support or refute your own arguments and conclusions

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Critical review of literature

  • Only relevant works are mentioned

  • Review is more than a list of ‘what I have read’

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Critical review of literature

  • Uses of references

    • Justify and support your arguments

    • Allow you to make comparisons with other research

    • Express matters better than you could have done

    • Demonstrate your familiarity with your field of research

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Critical review of literature

  • Abuses of references

    • Impress your readers with the scope of your reading

    • Litter your writing with names and quotations

    • Replace the need for you to express your own thoughts

    • Misrepresent other authors

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Monitor your progress

  • The following should occur as you progress

    • Increase in knowledge of the subject

    • Increase in general knowledge of the specialist topic

    • Increase in your specialist vocabulary

    • Increase in confidence that you can complete the task

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Structuring/organizing your literature review

  • One approach is to treat the literature review as a funnel.

    • Begin with an overview of the broad, conceptual research ("the big picture")

    • Gradually narrow the discussion to a more detailed description of the few studies that are directly related to your research

    • The role your study plays in extending the research of others should "pop out of the bottom of the funnel" at the conclusion of the literature review.

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Structuring/organizing your literature review

  • Try to follow a concept-by-concept approach in presenting the literature review, not a study-by-study approach.

  • This means putting the emphasis on the results of the study, not the author.

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