Description versus critical review


In constructing a literature review of any proposed research topic, especially for new arrivals to research, there is often a tension between giving a straight description of the relevant academic articles rather than providing a critical analysis. This is understandable. The main purpose of the literature review is to provide subsequent readers with an introduction to the subject area of the research, and this is done by constructing a narrative – a story – of the evolution of the subject area to the stage that we understand at present. This description describes the “landscape” of the research subject area – the significant and salient points and the less well-known or contested points. The literature review, however, needs to be more than just a simple description of each significant article, more than a sort of “He said… then she said…” list of opinions.

The literature review, to be really useful, needs to critically evaluate the importance of each article, as well as providing a description of what was said, what methods were used, what degree of reliability the data has, etc. The reader has not only to understand the history of the development of the research topic, but to appreciate the relative merits of previous work. This is relatively easy at the start of the project, but by the end, juggling several hundred citations, it becomes a challenge.

A number of students and colleagues have drawn to my attention an app called RefME which is a really interesting piece of software which enables the compilation of a reference list very quickly. Once a (free) account has been created on the app, entries of citations for books, journal articles, and lots of other artefacts can be added instantly by scanning the bar-code of the publication using a phone with the app. The reference list can be built-up and accessed from any device with a web connection. Reference lists can be divided into lists for particular projects (articles, conferences?) and each list can be exported to various formats, including a simple word document. Each citation can also be annotated, so using a simple set of phrases and tags, a critical reference list can be compiled in minutes. The app also allows citations to be input manually, which is required for older publications and those without a bar code. There are several “easy” referencing systems available at present, but the simplicity, elegance, and flexibility of this app really impresses me.

Whichever method is used to compile the reference list, there are two golden rules to adhere to. Firstly, start early to compile the reference list and keep on top of it. As an article or book is read, and if you know it is going to be referred to in the text of the dissertation, it should be immediately added to the reference list. Secondly, keep a list which is an annotated bibliography, not simply the list of all the references, but copy the file and add short notes on each reference. Do not trust the memory to remember details such as page numbers (for direct quotations) and DOI numbers (for direct web access), or even for the key points of analysis and critique. As the numbers of citations begin to mount, the details begin to blur and disappear. This will act as a memory jog, and also as a useful item to share with a supervisor to discuss the merits and demerits of individual articles. As time progresses, because they are focussed on one specific research topic, the PhD student will discover relevant articles which the supervisor(s) may not have seen, and anyway, there is life after the PhD so you might want some of this material again, years down the line. Don’t trust the memory!


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