How do you do a lit review?

The question of “how do you do a lit review?” is being discussed by folks at my favorite Sociology blog, scatterplot. As a librarian, it is very interesting to “eavesdrop” on faculty having this discussion, and see what advice they have:

1. ISI Citation Databases/Social Science Citation Index
-If you aren’t already familiar with this then you need to be! Extremely useful for finding key articles because of the ability to sort by number of citations. This isn’t a sure-fire way to find the most important articles so don’t just use number of citations but it pretty much always leads you to some key articles and from there you can quickly get to others.

2. Google Scholar
-Also can be good for articles but I use it primarily for books. Particularly nice for books because of the google books project that let’s you flip through some of the book to get a sense of whether or not it might be useful before you run to the library or purchase it.

3. Comp reading lists from our department and other top departments
-A good place to find an introduction to a general field. It will give you a sense of some of the most important articles and the general topics for the field and you can dig deeper from there. Some times reading lists will be fairly comprehensive, though they rarely have the latest “cutting-edge” research.

4. Syllabi from key people in the field or really respected institutions
-Works similarly to the comp reading list though it may be better in some instances. Of course, if you’re looking for syllabi based on the key people in the field this requires you to know who these key people are in the first place. If it’s a fresh syllabus then it will often have newer research. Depending on the time put into the syllabus and the level of detail it may also give you a much better sense of how the field is loosely organized.

5. Annual Reviews
-Not surprisingly, these tend to have diminishing returns as they age. If there’s one that’s recent and for your specific interest then these are often money. If the article is less recent but not especially “old” it should still give you a nice framework upon which to build. If it is older then it can still be useful though. Some times the key features of a debate last a long time, often debates are cyclical, and, if nothing else, they can give you a bit of a history lesson to help you understand where the current literature is coming from.

Some of the comments contain great tidbits too … like “Reviewing the literature and writing the literature review are not the same thing.”

This makes me think that we (librarians) might consider pitching our drop-in workshops not as “How to use library databases”, but as “How to do a literature review”. And maybe we should get some interested faculty to co-teach a session with us.

3 Responses to “How do you do a lit review?”

  1. 1 Chris April 7, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Thanks for commenting Tina and Lauren.

    This actually makes me think we should be focusing all our outreach on tasks scholars need to do:

    “How to pick a paper topic” (undergrads)
    “How to do a lit review”
    “How to organize your references”


  2. 2 tina April 7, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    I learn something new every time I accompany my undergrads to a library research seminar–not that I’ve been in a long time. And I’d definitely send take a grad class to a “how to do a lit review” seminar (and learn a bunch, I am sure).


  3. 3 Lauren April 7, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    “How to do a literature review” definitely sounds more interesting than “How to use library databases!”


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