The Mechanics of Doing a Literature Review Including Note Keeping

Rose-Anne Hovey

Joyce E. Gerhardt

University of North Dakota


Jose L. Galvan outlines the writing of literature reviews for academic articles into two processes: conducting and writing.In order to address the mechanics of a literature review, the focus of this paper is placed on conducting the literature review that begins with finding literature related to the topic.The process continues with selecting appropriate literature from the search, and reading the material and making notes for later reference. Themes emerge from an analysis of the literature.Those themes are the foundation of the outline and subsequent first draft of the review itself.

The primary goals of the literature reviewer are to be “comprehensive” and “up-to-date” (Galvan, 1999, p.3).While challenging the orthodox approach to writing in the academic field, Elizabeth Rankin cites a dual purpose of the literature review, “it establishes the writer’s credibility” and she further states, “second, setting our own work in the context of others’ is useful rhetorically” (Rankin, 1998, A64). Therefore, the literature review establishes an essential background to the paper, article, or thesis itself.

Identification of Literature

A prerequisite of the literature review is that it be based on scholarly writings and on theoretical constructs.Primary, original sources are more acceptable than secondary sources such as newspaper accounts of a research project (Galvan, 1999).Primary sources include academic articles and research.As mentioned earlier, themes emerge from a careful and complete look at the literature related to the topic.Theoretical underpinnings located in research and found in a literature search provide the authority for statements by the author.The literature review is built around themes not around the reference list (York, 1998).The outline of topic should be filled in with references to literature, not built around the literature.Topics within the overall paper are organized by note taking.Notes are organized to present a sequence or theme and are divided into sub-topics that will support concepts and topics within the broader scope of the review.

A practical approach to literature identification involves a systematic process.A series of steps is offered:

1.Obtain reference recommendations from your advisor.

2.Solicit input from reference experts.

3.Utilize computerized systems through the university (including abstracts, etc.) and the Internet.

4.Log the terms used to retrieve information by utilizing a card system. (Locke, Spirduso, and Silverman, 1999).

Databases are easily accessible through a computer keyboard.For academic literature reviews, searches of computerized library systems connected to universities and public libraries provide access to journal and magazine articles through the Expanded Academic Index that covers the areas of astronomy, religion, history, psychology, humanities, current events, sociology, communications and the general sciences.University libraries provide access to additional systems including reference to social work abstracts, sociological abstracts, and other databases.For example, PsycInfo is a comprehensive database for the field of psychology that “provides indexes to journals, dissertations, book chapter, books, technical reports, and other documents from 1887 to the present” (Library Guide, p.3).It is important to note that access to these databases requires student or employee status and the knowledge to use proxy services to gain access.

The Internet is an endless source of information, academic and otherwise.Utilizing search engines, such as Lycos, word searches will often access thousands of documents or sites for information.It is often difficult to sort through and to narrow down a search.Keyword searches and descriptors of the topic are the most utilized method of searching; however, Galvan (1999) covers other methods in Appendix A and Appendix B.

Selection of the Literature

In conducting the literature search start with a statement of the topic and follow with an outline.These may be revised later in the process but as you read the articles but give some direction at this point.Scan the articles by group, topic or category.When selecting articles look for landmark studies (Galvan, 1999).Prominent and noteworthy authors in the field will become apparent by frequent references to their work.Locate the original articles to review.Articles from established journals have more credibility as they have been subject to prior review.Consult with advisors or others who are knowledgeable in the field who may suggest additional articles.Selection of literature is an ongoing process.In the end only the essential articles are included for reference.

Note Taking

Keeping detailed notes is essential.Taking good notes assists the literature review process making it more efficient and accurate.The use of quotes should be kept to a minimum.A direct quote cannot give the full meaning as it is taken out of context and may disrupt the flow of writing.Paraphrasing will capture the meaning without including all the details.The reader can go back to the article if further information is needed (Galvan, 1999).

There are two basic methods that use note cards to record information during the literature review process.Note cards can be 3 x 5 or larger if preferred.One method records the author on the card.Author or authors are listed at the top of the card in the first line last names are followed by initials.The title of the article is written on the second line.The publication year is recorded on the third line.The fourth line lists the name of the journal with volume, number, and page numbers. The main theme of the article is recorded on the card. Information is included regarding methodology and findings.Additional cards may be needed to record all the pertinent information for extensive articles.Paper clips or rubber bands are used to keep cards from one article together (Galvan, 1999).

A second method using note cards gives each article a number.This method organizes the literature review by topics.On the note card write the name of the topic or subtopic. Then list the number or numbers of the article that relate to these categories.This method requires keeping a list of the articles with all the proper notations.An outline would also be prepared to organize the literature by topics (Patten, 2000).

Computerized note taking is available in software packages that can be located on the Internet through sources such as metacrawler.com and www.pcworld.com.Among note taking software examples are the following: Ecco, Page-Keeper, Eclipse Find, etc.In an Internet discussion group site, the Humanist Discussion Group, Robert L. Jarrett of the University of Houston is quoted as stating in regard to the Ecco system, “The downside is that one must spend several days poring over the Ecco manual, studying the research or other template, and setting up your own customized template for notetaking” (R. L. Jarrett, personal communication, June 28, 1994).This may be worth it for those involved in research on a regular basis or for the curious with time on their hands.

Analysis of the Literature

Read each article and critique the methodology.Note the strengths and weaknesses.How do the findings compare with the other studies?Are there any major trends to report?Do gaps exist in the research?Are the studies related?Did a landmark study prompt the research toward a particular direction?In the analysis process, discard articles that do not relate to the topic. Keep the reference list up to date.Make sure to include the most current research.When selecting the literature, note whether the research was qualitative or quantitative and whether the study was experimental or non-experimental.Note whether the research methods were valid and reliable.Make an assessment of what methods were used in the research.Note patterns among the studies. Analyze statistical significance.All studies are flawed and are not conclusive (Galvan, 1999).

Synthesis of the Literature

At this point look at the big picture. What is the historical context of the

literature?Are there trends in the literature? Are gaps found in the literature?

Before beginning to write, review the purpose of the literature review.The type of review 

and the intended audience determine the tone.Most often for academic writing most often APA style is required..The next step is to assemble the notes and refine the outline.Galvin suggests creating the topic outline at this point.Organize the notes to coincide 

with the outline.Start thinking about conclusions and recommendations.

Then fill in the outline with the details.Include the strengths, weaknesses,

gaps, trends and relationships that exist.The outline may list an article

under more than one subheading. This will show the relationships that have been 

analyzed.With a detailed outline completed the first draft may be written (Patten, 2000).


“The literature review for a research report provides the conceptual framework upon which the research study is founded” (York, 1998,p. 209).This statement refers to research reports; however, it succinctly summarizes the purpose of the literature review whether the purpose is for research, a term paper, a thesis or dissertation, or for a journal article.The literature review is not an annotated bibliography.It includes analysis and synthesis of the articles and other sources found.The literature review develops themes that should organize the literature.The writer becomes immersed in the literature out of which comes the topic of the review and, ultimately, the final product.Locke et al (2000) uses the metaphor of a literature review as a conversation.The writer is listening and responding to the themes that emerge.As a final comment, both Galvan (1999) and Locke et al (2000) state that a literature review can be a contribution to a field of study.



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