How To Find A-Grade Literature For Review

Sourcing, evaluating and organising (the smart way)

By: David Phair (PhD) and Peter Quella (PhD) | January 2022

As we’ve discussed previously on our blog and YouTube channel, the first step of the literature review process is to source high-quality, relevant resources for your review, and to catalogue these pieces of literature in a systematic way so that you can digest and synthesise all the content efficiently.

In this article, we’ll look discuss 6 important things to keep in mind for the initial stage of your literature review so that you can source high-quality, relevant resources, quickly and efficiently. Let’s get started!

1. Have a clear literature search strategy

As with any task in the research process, you need to have a clear plan of action before you get started, or you’ll end up wasting a lot of time and energy. So, before you begin your literature review, it’s useful to develop a simple search strategy. Broadly speaking, a good literature search strategy should include the following steps:

Step one – Clearly identify your golden thread

Your golden thread consists of your research aims, research objectives and research questions. These three components should be tightly aligned to form the focus of your research. If you’re unclear what your research aims and research questions are, you’re not going to have a clear direction when trying to source literature. As a result, you’re going to waste a lot of time reviewing irrelevant resources.

So, make sure that you have clarity regarding your golden thread before you start searching for literature. Of course, your research aims, objectives and questions may evolve or shift as a result of the literature review process (in fact, this is quite common), but you still need to have a clear focus to get things started.

Step two – Develop a keyword/keyphrase list

Once you’ve clearly articulated your golden thread in terms of the research aims, objectives and questions, the next step is to develop a list of keywords or keyphrases, based on these three elements (the golden thread). You’ll also want to include synonyms and alternative spellings (for example, American vs British English) in your list.

For example, if your research aims and research questions involve investigating organisational trust, your keyword list might include:

  • Organisational trust
  • Organizational trust (US spelling)
  • Consumer trust
  • Brand trust
  • Online trust

When it comes to brainstorming keywords, the more the better. Don’t hold back at this stage. You’ll quickly find out which ones are useful, and which aren’t when you start searching. So, it’s best to just go as broad as possible here to ensure you cast a wide net.

It's essential to have a clear plan of action before you start the literature review process, or you’ll end up wasting a lot of time and energy.

Step three – Identify the relevant databases

Now that you’ve got a comprehensive set of keywords, the next step is to identify which literature databases will be most useful and relevant for your particular study. There are hundreds, if not thousands of databases out there, and they are often subject or discipline-specific. For example, within the medicine space, Medline is a popular one.

To identify relevant databases, it’s best to speak to your research advisor/supervisor, Grad Coach or a librarian at your university library. Oftentimes, a quick chat with a skilled librarian can yield tremendous insight. Don’t be shy to ask – chances are, they’ll be thrilled that you asked!

At this stage, you might be asking, “why not just use Google Scholar?”. Of course, an academic search engine like Google Scholar will be useful in terms of getting started and finding a broad range of resources, but it won’t always present every possible resource or the best quality resources. It also has limited filtering options compared to some of the specialist databases, so you shouldn’t rely purely on Google Scholar.

Step four – Use Boolean operators to refine your search

Once you’ve identified your keywords and databases, it’s time to start searching for literature – hooray! However, you’ll quickly find that there is a seemingly endless number of journal articles to sift through, and you have limited time to work through the literature. So, you’ll need to get smart about how you use these databases – enter Boolean operators.

Boolean operators are special characters that allow you to refine your search. Common operators include:

  • AND – only show results that contain both X and Y
  • OR – show results that contain X or Y
  • NOT – show results that include X, but not Y

These operators are incredibly useful, especially when there are topics that are very similar to yours but are not relevant. For example, if you’re researching something about the growth of apples, you’ll want to exclude all literature related to Apple, the company. Boolean operators allow you to cut out the irrelevant content and improve the signal to noise ratio in your search.

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2. Use different types of literature correctly

Once you start searching for literature, you’ll quickly notice that there are different “types” of resources that come up. It’s important to understand the different types of literature available to you and how to use each of them appropriately.

Generally speaking, you’ll find three categories of literature:

  1. Primary literature
  2. Secondary literature
  3. Tertiary literature

Primary literature

Primary literature refers to journal articles, typically peer reviewed, which document a study that was undertaken, where data were collected and analysed, and findings were discussed. For example, a journal article that involves the collection and analysis of survey data to identify differences in personality between two groups of people.

Primary literature should, ideally, form the foundation of your literature review – the bread and butter, so to speak. You’ll likely refer to many of the arguments made and findings identified in these types of articles to build your own arguments throughout your literature review. You’ll also rely on these types of articles for theoretical models and frameworks, which may form the foundation of your own proposed framework, depending on the nature of your research.

Lastly, primary literature can be a useful source of measurement scales for quantitative studies. For example, many journal articles will include a copy of the survey measures they used at the end of the article, which will typically be reliable and valid. You can either use these “as is” or as a foundation for your own survey measures.

So, long story short, you’ll need a good stockpile of these types of resources. They are, admittedly, more “dense” and challenging to digest than the other types of literature, but taking the time to work through them will pay off greatly.

Secondary literature

Secondary literature refers to journal articles that summarise and integrate the findings from primary literature. For example, you’ll likely find “review of the literature” type journal articles which provide an overview of the current state of the research (at the time of publication, of course).

Secondary literature is very useful for orienting yourself with regards to the current state of knowledge and identifying key researchers, seminal works and so on. In other words, they’re a good tool to make sure you’ve got a broad, comprehensive view of what all is out there. They’re not going to give you the level of detail that primary literature will (and they’ll likely be a bit outdated), but they’ll point you in the right direction.

In practical terms, it’s a good idea to start by reviewing secondary literature-type articles to help you get a bird’s eye view of the landscape and then dive deeper into the primary literature to get a grasp of the specifics and to bring your knowledge up to date with the most current studies.

Tertiary literature

The final category of literature refers to sources that would be considered less academic and scientifically rigorous in nature, but up to date and highly relevant. For example, sources such as current industry and country reports published by management consulting groups, news articles, blog posts and so on.

While these sources are not as credible and trustworthy as journal articles (especially peer-reviewed ones), they can provide very up to date information, whereas academic research tends to roll out quite slowly. Therefore, they can be very useful for contextualising your research topic and/or demonstrating a current trend. Quite often, you’d cite these types of sources in your introduction chapter rather than your literature review chapter, but you may still have use for them in the latter.

In summary, it’s important to understand the three different types of literature – primary, secondary and tertiary, and use them appropriately in your dissertation, thesis or research project.

It’s important to understand the different types of literature available to you and how to use each of them appropriately in your literature review.

3. Carefully evaluate the quality of your sources

As we’ve alluded to, not all literature is created equally. Not only does literature vary in terms of type (i.e., primary vs secondary), it also varies in terms of overall quality.

Simply put, all sources exist on a quality spectrum. On the high end of the spectrum are peer-reviewed articles published in popular, credible journals. Next are journal articles that are not peer-reviewed, or that are published in lower quality or lesser-known journals. In the middle are sources like textbooks and reports by professional organisations (e.g., management consulting firms). On the low end are sources like newspapers, blog posts and social media posts.

As you can probably see, this loosely reflects the categories we mentioned previously (primary, secondary and tertiary literature), so there is once again a trade-off between quality and recency. Therefore, you need to carefully evaluate the quality of each potential source and let this inform how you use it in your literature review. Importantly, this doesn’t mean that you can’t include a newspaper article or blog post as a source – it just means that you shouldn’t rely too heavily on these types of courses as the core of your argument.

When evaluating journal articles, you can consider their citation count (i.e., the number of other articles that reference them) as a quality indicator. But keep in mind that citation count is a product of many factors, including the popularity of the article, the popularity of the research field and most importantly, time. In other words, it’s natural for newer articles to have lower citation counts. This is useful to keep in mind, as you ideally want to focus on more recent literature (published within the last 3-5 years) in your literature review.

In summary, aim to focus on higher-quality literature, especially when you’re building core arguments in your literature review. You don’t, for example, want to make an argument regarding the importance and novelty of your research (i.e., its justification) based on some blogger’s opinion.

All literature and resources exist on a quality spectrum, ranging from high-quality (typically less recent) to low-quality (oftentimes recent).

4. Use a reference manager and literature catalogue

As you review the literature and build your collection of potential sources, you’ll need a way to stay on top of all the details. To this end, it’s essential that you make use of both a reference manager and a literature catalogue. Let’s take a look at each of these.

The reference manager

Reference management software helps you store the reference information for each of your articles and manages the citation and reference list building task as you write up your actual literature review chapter. In other words, a reference manager ensures that your citations and reference list are correctly formatted in the reference style required by your university – e.g., Harvard, APA, MLA, etc.

Using a reference manager saves you the hassle of trying to manually type out your in-text citations and reference list, which you’re bound to mess up in some way. A simple comma out of place, incorrect italicisation or boldfacing can result in you losing marks, and that’s highly likely when you’re dealing with a large number of references. So, it just makes sense to use a piece of software for this task.

The good news is that there are loads of options, many of which are free. For new researchers, we usually recommend Mendeley or Zotero, both of which are free – plus we’ve created straightforward how-to videos for both of them (see here and here). So, don’t waste your time trying to manage your references manually – get yourself a reference manager ASAP.

The literature catalogue

The second tool you’ll need is a literature catalogue. This is simply an Excel document that you can easily compile yourself (or download our free one here), where you list and categorise all your literature. You might doubt whether it’s really necessary to have a separate catalogue when you’ve already logged your reference data in a reference manager, but trust us, you’re going to need it. It’s quite common that throughout the literature review process, you’ll review hundreds of articles, so it’s simply impossible that you’ll remember all the details.

What makes a literature catalogue extremely powerful is that you can store as much information as you want for each piece of literature that you include (whereas a reference manager only includes basic fields). Typically, you would include things like:

  • Author(s)
  • Date
  • Title of the article
  • One-line summary of the research
  • Key findings and takeaways
  • Context (i.e. where did it take place)
  • Useful quotes
  • Methodology (e.g. qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods)
  • Category (you can customise as many categories as makes sense for you)
  • Quality of resource
  • Type of literature (e.g. primary, secondary or tertiary)

These are just some examples – ultimately you need to customise your catalogue to suit your needs. But, as you can see, the more detailed you get, the more useful your catalogue will become when it’s time to synthesise the research and write up your literature. For example, you could quickly filter the catalogue to display all papers that support a certain hypothesis, that argue in a specific direction, or that were written at a certain time.

5. Read widely (and efficiently)

As we’ve discussed in other posts, the purpose of the literature review chapter is to present and synthesise the current state of knowledge in relation to your research aims, objectives and research questions. To do this, you’ll need to read as broadly and comprehensively as possible. You’ll need to demonstrate to your marker that you “know your stuff” and have a strong understanding of the relevant literature.

Ideally, your literature review should include an eclectic mix of research that features multiple perspectives. In other words, you need to avoid getting tunnel vision and running down one narrow stream of literature. Ideally, you want to highlight both the agreements and disagreements in the literature to show that you’ve got a well-balanced view of the situation.

If your topic is particularly novel and there isn’t a lot of literature available, you can focus your efforts on adjacent literature. For example, if you’re researching factors that cultivate organisational trust in Germany, but there’s very little literature on this, you can draw on US and UK-based studies to form your theoretical foundation. Similarly, if you’re investigating an occurrence in an under-researched industry, you can look at other industries for literature.

As you read each journal article, be sure to scan the reference list for further reading (this technique is called “snowballing”). By doing this, you will quickly identify key literature within a topic area and fast-track your literature review process. You can also check which articles have cited any given article using Google Scholar, which will give you a “forward view” in terms of the progress of the literature.

Given that you’ll need to work through a large amount of literature, it’s useful to adopt a “strategic skimmingapproach when you’re initially assessing articles, so that you don’t need to read the entire journal article. In practical terms, this means you can focus on just the title and abstract at first, and if the article seems relevant based on those, you can jump to the findings section and limitations section. These sections will give you a solid indicator as to whether the resource is relevant to your study, which you can then shortlist for full reading.

eclectic mix of research that features multiple perspectives to avoid tunnel vision.

6. Keep your golden thread front of mind

Your golden thread (i.e., your research aims, objectives and research questions) needs to guide every decision you make throughout your dissertation, thesis, or research project. This is especially true in the literature review stage, as the golden thread should act as a litmus test for relevance whenever you’re reviewing potential articles or resources. In other words, if an article doesn’t relate to your golden thread, its probably not worth spending time on.

Keep in mind that your research aims, objectives and research questions may evolve as a result of the literature review process. For example, you may find that after reviewing the literature in more depth, your topic focus is not as novel as you originally thought, or that there’s an adjacent area that is more deserving of investigation. This is perfectly natural, so don’t be surprised if your focus shifts somewhat during the review process. Just remember to update your literature review in this case and be sure to update any previous chapters so that your document has a consistent focus throughout.

Wrapping up

In this article, we covered 6 pointers to help you find and evaluate high-quality resources for your literature review. To recap:

  1. Develop and follow a clear literature search strategy
  2. Understand and use different types of literature for the right purpose
  3. Carefully evaluate the quality of your potential sources
  4. Use a reference manager and a literature catalogue
  5. Read as broadly and comprehensively as possible
  6. Keep your golden thread front of mind throughout the process

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment. Alternatively, if you’d like hands-on help with your literature review, be sure to check out our 1-on-1 private coaching services here.

Psst… there’s more (for free)

This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.

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