SOCI2000: 2.0 Reviewing the Literature

Lecture Slides

Slides for Week 2 Lecture


Literature review

Structure of a literature review

Motivate question (important/puzzling)


Different answers/explanations (themes)

Transition to methods of your study

Article search tool

Peer reviewed



Related literature

Refining search terms

Note taking methods

Sparing and evaluative notes

Three tick rule

Read and insert

Opening Exercise

Pretend you wanted to design an academic study to answer the following question?

  • “What makes a successful research methods project group?”

1. Design a study

First, how would you design a study to answer this question?

What would be your:

  • Alternative explanations?
  • Method of testing between them:
    • with a qualitative study?
    • with a quantitative study?

2. Literature search plan

Second, how would you find academic literature on this topic? How would you write a literature review

  • What tools would you use?
  • What tips would you give another student doing this?

3. Find one article

Third, using these skills, find one highly relevant academic article on this topic.

  • What article did you find?
  • What did you find easy/hard about searching for this article?

1. Introduction

If you search online, you will find almost as many different guides to literature reviews as there are academics in the world. And they all say very very different things. This can be endlessly confusing for students.

2. What a literature review IS NOT

Some key mistakes students make with literature reviews are:

  • they just summarise articles
  • they summarise articles, putting one article per paragraph
  • they review non-academic (not peer reviewed) literature
  • they review irrelevant literature
  • they get overwhelmed with reading and note taking
  • they organise the literature review chronologically
  • they can’t find literature on their highly specific topic
  • they don’t focus on explanations.

3. What a literature view IS

For an empirical, academic research study - one that involves reporting the results of original data collection and analysis, and is attempting to contribute to generalised knowledge (theory/explanations) - then the literature review has four key parts (credit to John Donaldson for this formulation):

  • Motivation: An introduction to the research question and why it is compelling or puzzling.
  • Background/Context: Background or context information needed to understand this problem.
  • Alternative explanations, organised as themes: Different answers to your question, as found in the literature, are introduced, one answer at a time (generally a paragraph), with an overview of what the literature says about this explanation. This is the majority (perhaps 3/4th) of your literature review.
  • Linking to your method: A conclusion of the literature review, which links to your method. Generally explaining how there is a gap/puzzle in the literature, and how you proposed to collect new data to test between these different explanations.

4. Steps in a literature review: Neuman

The textbook for this course has a recommended process for doing a literature review.

I think it isn’t a very good one, but it certainly is the classic method.

The steps it recommends are:

  • STEP 1: Refine the Topic
    • Go from research question to narrowed topic
  • STEP 2: Design Your Search
    • Decide on the review’s extensiveness
    • Decide which article search tools to use
    • Decide how to record bibliographic information and take notes
  • STEP 3: Locate the Research Reports
    • Articles in scholarly journals
    • Books
    • Other outlets
  • STEP 4: Read & Take Notes on the Reports Found
    • Create source and content files
    • What to record in notes
  • STEP 5: Organize Notes, Synthesize & Write the Review
  • STEP 6: Create the Reference List

5. Steps in a literature review: Belcher

An alternative approach is proposed by Wendy Belcher in her book Writing your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks.

I think it is a much better method.

  1. Ask people (profs, friends) for recommendations, including looking through reference lists of articles you like or which got you interested in this topic.

  2. Search using classic electronic resources, and in the process…

  3. Draft a reading list. Make this very simple and rough.

  4. Winnow your reading list. Use the title, and possibly the abstract to decide which ones you are going to read (actually you aren’t going to read them, you are going to skim them).

  5. Prioritize the reading list from most to least important. Ideally it should be no more than 12 items. Have a MAXIMUM 24 article length items on the list.

  6. Skim the materials, ideal under uncomfortable circumstances: standing up, in the library. Just read the relevant bits. Just use the index to find the relevant parts.

  7. Note take: Three different strategies for note taking:

    1. Take notes sparingly: Write like it is already the literature review: “The author argues…”, “The weakness of this article…”. Do a book review, not a summary. Evaluate, don’t describe.
    2. Use the three-ticks rule: One tick for interesting, two ticks for useful, and three ticks for ‘must include’. When you finish, go back and type up JUST the three tick sections as notes. It is almost always all you need.
    3. Read and insert: Simply write the relevant material into your article with the reference as soon as you find it. << I RECOMMEND THIS <<

  8. Model your literature review on someone else’s: Find a literature review from a highly cited article or publication. Try to mimic (or at least take notice of):

    • it’s organisation
    • the number of citations
    • the percent of the article that is literature review
    • is it chronological, alphabetical, thematic, or based around a debate?

  9. Write/Revise your literature review: Remember your argument should organise the literature, not the other way around. Also remember that it is almost always best to organise the literature by the debate (i.e. different sides of the argument), not chronologically, or on the basis of vague themes. Some questions you might ask yourself:

    • What is the relationship between the articles?
    • How do the articles display allegiances, debts, or novelty?
    • What remains unknown?
    • Which variables are important? Which haven’t been explained?
    • How are key concepts defined?
    • What are the blind spots in the literature?
    • Is there a narrative?

Strengths of Belcher method

Notice the strengths of Belcher’s method:

  • Social
  • Involves much less reading
  • Much less note taking
  • Modeling your writing on experts

6. Article search tools

To find academic articles, the main method we use in the current decade is the article search tool.

This is basically a search engine.

Google Scholar

The most widely used, and easiest search engine to use is Google Scholar. This is not the same as <>. The address for Google Scholar is <>. This search engine only searches academic articles, book chapters, books, and similar academic publications.

Scholar is easy to use. However, it often is not integrated with MQ library resources, so you can’t actually access the full articles.


One option for those people outside of universities, or for students once they graduate, who want to access scientific knowledge, is a copyright infringing project called Sci-Hub. You can read more about this at it’s Wikipedia entry.

Students should be aware that MQ does not encourage copyright infringement. Students also place themselves in danger of potentially at serious legal penalties if they use websites such as Sci-Hub.

That said, for many people who are outside universities, in the developing world, and even in developed countries, the ~$30 fee for each journal article from many publishers makes scientific knowledge beyond their reach.

There is also an ethical argument made by many academics, pointing out that most of the work behind academic articles are actually funding by universities, generally out of public funds or student fees, and publishers of articles add very limited value to those articles (layout and hosting).

University resources

The university has a resource which works similar to Google Scholar, but which is integrated across the many databases they have subscriptions to. It is called ‘multisearch’, and can be accessed here:

MQ Library Multisearch

The university library, also have a very useful sociology guide, which include links and advice for students for working on literature reviews, assignments, and essays.

MQ Library Sociology Guide

Checking journal and article quality

Often you want to know whether the article you are reading is important or not. You also often want to know if you can trust the journal you are reading. Unfortunately there is a very widespread proliferation of fake academic journals, or very low quality journals, that don’t engage in peer review.

A couple of tips:

  • You can generally tell if an article is a very important article by looking at the number of citations in Google Scholar. Low citations doesn’t make an article bad. However, a large number of citations is generally a good indicator that an article is important in the field.
  • If you have an questions about a journal’s quality, one thing you can do is search for it in this database: Scimago Journal and Country Rank. The database is pretty comprehensive. If it is listed here, even if it is not a very highly cited journal, you can be pretty sure it is a quality journal. Q1 and Q2 journals are particularly good quality journals with good quality research.

Forward Citation Tracing

When searching for articles, a useful tool is to click on the number of citations on Google Scholar. This will take you to all the articles that have cited this article since it has been published. This helps you find articles that have done research in a similar area.

Backward Citation Tracing

You can also look at the reference list of any important articles you find. These help you go back in history to find foundational texts, or early debates.

7. Tips for refining search terms

One of the hardest thing to do when searching for literature is to find the best search terms to use.

A few tips I use are:

  • Read titles and abstracts for alternative words for your search terms. Often you will start looking for a word or phrase like “relationship break up”, and then find that other words are used more commonly in the academic literature, such as “separation” “divorce” or “relationship termination” (I am making this up).
  • Thinking at a higher level of abstraction. The most common problem students have when doing literature review is not being able to find literature related to their topic. My first comment about this is: don’t let yourself believe this is true. There is always related literature. If you can’t find the literature, then you aren’t using the correct search terms, and you are probably thinking about the problem in a too concrete way, without enough abstraction. For example, if you are doing research on ‘anti-coal protests’, you probably won’t find many articles, but you might find articles on “environmental movements” or “social movements” or “social movement strategies” or “environmental movement tactics”.
  • Thinking about analogous or similar processes. Often it can be helpful to think about literature that is related to our topic, but not directly. You might do a project on ‘stay at home dads’. At a higher level of abstraction, this is about gender roles and gender norms. However, it could also be thought of as analogous to ‘women in the construction industry’. And even to ‘soldiers who refuse to fight’ (non-conforming behaviour/anti-normative behaviour/people who refuse to fulfil a socially assigned role).
Last updated on 03 March, 2020 by Dr Nicholas Harrigan (