Doing a literature review: an 8-step process

Overview of my presentation in the Middlesex University PhD coursework - with embedded videos of the 8 steps

Copyright 2024 Anne-Wil Harzing. All rights reserved. First version, 2 January 2024

Step 1: Information management strategies

Your challenge is very different from what mine was during my PhD. I completed my PhD before the internet was available. So my challenge was to get access to information and find the time and money to do so. Oftentimes, this involved traveling to various libraries across the country.

Your challenge is to manage the wealth of information you have easy access to, but not to waste too much time on completely irrelevant information. This step provides you with some tips on how to approach this.

Step 2: Situating the literature review

In this step, you learn why a literature review is important in no less than six of the nine stages of the research process. Before watching it, try and list the stages where you think it might be important.

Step 3: Sources of literature

In this step, we review the various sources you can use for literature reviews: books, journal articles, government and industry resources, working papers, and conference papers. I show you the relative merits of each of these.

Step 4: Keeping current

Here I share my top tips on how to keep up to date with new publications. You can find more information about this here: How to keep up-to-date with the literature, but avoid information overload?.

Note that my tips focus on the "old-fashioned" tried-and-tested approaches. This process has now been facilitated by many dedicated tools, often using artificial intelligence. I can't say I like working with these as they do not facilitate the deep engagement that I think is needed for academic research, but they might well work for you.

Step 5: How much is enough?

The next step is deciding when to stop. How do you know you have "enough"? When can you stop? Well obviously, you never completely stop reviewing the literature, as it is important in so many stages of the review process (see step 2).

But in deciding when you can start writing up, I do suggest the use of a relevance tree in this video. I also show how you can use tables to effectively summarise literature. Further tips on how many references to use in writing up can be found here: How many references is enough?

Step 6: Different types of papers

In this step, I review three types of papers to look out for to maximise the effectiveness of your literature review: review papers, star papers, model papers.

Step 7a: 7 criteria to evaluate coverage

How do you evaluate whether all the literature you have collected is actually useful for your thesis or article?

In this step I go through seven criteria you can use to evaluate coverage of the collected literature: relevance, currency, reliability, audience, accuracy, scope, and objectivity.

Step 7b: 12 guidelines to evaluate references

If you are going to use the literature to reference arguments in your thesis, this step covers twelve guidelines you can use to evaluate other academics' referencing practices as well as to make sure you do this right. They are also described in detail in this blogpost: Are referencing errors undermining our scholarship and credibility?

My twelve guidelines are based on research in my own PhD, written up as a paper that turned out to be very hard to publish. If you are interested, you can read the full story here: How to publish an unusual paper? Referencing errors, scholarship & credibility.

Step 8: The literature review in your thesis

This last step reveals what criteria are used to evaluate the literature review in your own thesis: synthesis, critical appraisal, and application to the research question. I also explain what your literature should not look like and why a good literature review helps you to get papers published.

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