The literature review: how to choose, use and cite literature in postgraduate or undergraduate research
All research, by its very nature, is based in some way on what other people have done and have not done. So all postgraduate work and much of undergraduate work involves effective use of whatever documents this. 'Effective' use must be emphasised. So it is important to start with a few words about the internet, which has become the first port of call for so much.
Websites as a basis for a literature review /survey
Anyone can put anything on a website. So not all websites are reliable.
- finding out who are the key players in a field, which can be followed up later, either from journal articles or personal contact
- definitive documents posted by professional bodies and national organisations which show codes of practice, policy documents, regulations, online journals and subject databases, etc.
This is where the use of the web is likely to end. Never take statements on it as valid unless they are from a reputable source, although you can always use other statements as hypotheses to test out in your own research.
The purpose of literature for researchers
The end product for research students is the thesis/dissertation and there are various proposals and reports that need to be written along the way. In them, literature, ie reliable literature such as peer reviewed journal articles and books, should be used to substantiate and carry forward an argument or to make a case of some sort.
Elsewhere on this site is a list of roles that research students need to drop into, in order to complete their research programme efficiently and effectively. For using and citing literature it is the barrister role, and you should check this out before reading further.
The case that literature is to support depends on the nature of the work and what the writing is for. Typical uses for research students include the following, but the list is not all-inclusive.
- To make a case in a research proposal for there being a gap in knowledge that the proposed work will fill.
- To build on the work of others in one's own research.
- To make a case for the methodology and methods to be used (or already used).
- To show how the work and the results link in with the work of others.
- To suggest future work that needs doing (not necessarily by oneself).
A literature review can of course be used to get ideas. They should be couched in terms of making a case for one's topic or methodology, etc.
Identifying and accessing relevant material
As already mentioned, websites can provide a way into relevant material, but as they are not generally peer reviewed, they should find no place in academic writing unless they are from reliable sources.
Journal articles (and possibly other material) will be listed on one or more of the subject databases, ie electronic indexes of publications. A subject librarian should be able to advise on which one or ones are most suitable for your field.
Some of the most productive reading takes place on a casual basis, perhaps while relaxing with books or articles away from the workplace. Important points and ideas can then easily get forgotten or lost. A way of marking a page for processing later without seriously interrupting the flow of the activity or causing damage is by using bookmarks of strips of peel-off 'Post-It' type stickers. It is worth keeping a pack readily to hand for the purpose, along with a pen or pencil. Alternatively an on-hand digital camera can quickly record literature extracts for better processing later - but do remember to record the publication details and page numbers as well.
What literature to include in academic writing
A list of references/bibliography* in academic writing should never be a catalogue of everything you could find that might seem remotely relevant. Before including anything, ask yourself how it is substantiating argument or taking a case forward. Remember, you should be in the barrister role. Then, if you use it, make sure that you document why in your writing.
However where literature in your general area does not not directly take your own work forward, but is seminal and well-known, it would be unwise to omit it. So find a way of bringing it in, possibly in terms of what it does not do, thus making a case for work that you will be doing or have done or that still needs doing at some future time.
Bibliographic management software
Bibliographic management software can help keep track of what you read. You input references into your own unique 'library' or database which you are then able to search according to various criteria. You can then format in a particular style and manipulate in various ways.
A number of bibliographic software tools are available, of which Endnote is probably the best known. Some are more suitable than others for certain fields of study and supervisors** will make recommendations.
However, the adage about 'garbage in; garbage out' is particularly pertinent when using bibliographic management software, as indeed when using any method of recording what one reads. Sadly there is no completely satisfactory way of recording and processing because it is seldom possible to know at the time precisely how an item or quotation might best be used, if indeed it can be used at all. Hence difficult decisions have to be made about how much to record and with what keywords. There is no formalised procedure which can entirely support the burden of this, and there is no substitute for a mind that can provide a partial retrieval system of its own.
How to cite literature in academic writing
When referring to literature within text, each field of study has its own norms: for example as footnotes or endnotes or in the form of (Brown 2012). All students need to follow the norms of their discipline.
There is also the question of how to punctuate or italicise a list of references/bibliography*. This is largely a matter of house-style, and each journal tends to have its own. Supervisors will advise. Whatever style you use, it must be consistent throughout and students often underestimate the time that this takes.
Some students regard a literature review as a one-off task, and a literature review or literature survey chapter as a single thesis or dissertation chapter. This can be the case, but it is a bad rule of thumb.
Certainly the bulk of a literature review does often need to be done at the outset of research in order to set the scene for the research. Then, accordingly such a literature review forms the substance of an early scene-setting chapter.
However as the work progresses, the relevance of new findings needs to be tied in with the literature. So references from the literature need to continue to appear throughout a thesis or dissertation. How much so depends on the situation.
In some types of exploratory research, there is no literature survey chapter at all, only a number of separate chapters on various aspects of the research, each with its own references to the literature.