Introspection following a literature review

I’ve just submitted the first paper for my graduate studies – a literature review. Having not yet taken the (mandatory) research methods module offered as part of my program and having spent 2 of the ~4 weeks I had to work on the paper travelling and at conferences – I am left with the feeling that I’ve not done as well as I’d like. Though I’m happier with the paper than I was 24hrs before the submission deadline I’m trying to analyse my process and work out the kinks.

My basic process for this paper was:

  1. Choose a rough topic (we had a choice of two from the module leader).
  2. Find ~15-20 papers on this topic – collect them with some paper managing software and (automatically) tag them with related metadata.
  3. Start reading papers.
    1. Take notes whilst reading the paper.
    2. As soon as possible after reading the paper write a quick summary/review.
    3. Note interesting referenced papers and add them to the collection.
  4. Stop at 11 papers, reject one as not good enough to include in the review.
  5. Figure out a layout for the review based on the themes of the reviewed papers.
  6. Transpose the summary/review pieces into the paper layout.
  7. Iterate over the paper fleshing out the summary/reviews and determining some form of conclusion.
  8. Conclude – in this case pretty poorly.
  9. More iterations for flow, grammar, style, etc. until the deadline arrives.

I think my biggest mistakes were:

  • Curating most of the papers to review before starting to read – I think I could curate a set of papers with a higher correlation, that therefore lead to a stronger conclusion, by starting with a smaller set of papers and utilising more of the references in those papers.
  • Not giving myself enough time to actually pull the reviews together – this wasn’t a conscious decision, mind you.

Having not written a real paper before (discounting any undergraduate efforts) and missing the techniques from the research methods class I’m curious to hear how other folks handle such work?

P.S: my first real use of LyX, what a great program!


  1. WOW, what’s the program, what does it do? What was your paper on? How intersting 🙂

    To resdpond in a marginally more academic fashion. I suppose I’d start in a slightly different place. So, rather than simply collecting papers, I would start by trying to find two or three that truly tackled the topic and gave me an insight into basic definitions and arguments. Then I’d aim to work out from there, ensuring that I had papers on each definitional area and/or argument, so that I have collected enough, but with some on everything. Hopefully this would produce a good conclusion, as it would always include conflicting ideas.

    When we say “papers” we’re including good old books, right?

    1. The program, LyX, is a WYSIWYM (What you see is what you mean) editor built on top of a markup language called LaTeX – essentially it means you can write a paper and chop and paste without having to worry about the formatting. That’s all handled automatically by stylesheets (and most major journals tech journals provide appropriate styles).
      A great example is when I decided section 4 of my paper belonged as a subsection of 2 – the cut and paste was easy and the program handled all of the re-labeling and cross-referencing. Magical.

      Of course I didn’t make it clear that it’s just a tool I used to write the paper, not what I wrote the paper about. 🙂

      Thanks indeed for the sage advice Kate, I hoped you would respond! It feels similar to the sort of approach I’m planning to take next time and it’s nice to have that validated.

      Oh, and yes – I do include good old fashioned books. Though sadly I could not get my hands on any relevant ones for this particular paper. A combination of the assignment requirement being a review of recent(-ish) material (2004 onwards) and my being a distance learner.
      I’m thinking of spending a day or so in the local universities library for the next paper.

      Thanks again Kate!

  2. I do love zotero for managing papers. And datasheets. And relevant websites. Anything really!

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