Section 2.3: Analyzing the Literature | Research

Fundamentals of Social Research by Adam J. McKee

To be an expert on a social scientific topic, you also have to become an expert in evaluating research reports.  You cannot adequately assess the evidentiary value of a research report unless you can readily identify the strengths and weaknesses of it.  As with any other skill, you will get better at evaluating research with practice. Always read with a critical eye for detail.

By this point in the writing process, you should have identified a set of articles for your review.  You should analyze these articles prior to beginning to write.  What follows are some suggestions on how to analyze the literature you have chosen to include in your review.

Suggestion 1: Scan your articles to get an overview before reading them thoroughly.  Remember that most authors will use a “funnel” organization where they begin with the most general overview of the topic and end with specific problems or hypotheses.  For this reason, it is often helpful to read the first few paragraphs and then read the last few paragraphs before the methods section.  It is also a good idea to read the discussion section when you are scanning an article.  This is where an author will usually reiterate his or her major findings. This initial scanning process will give you the “big picture” before you begin to consider the detailed treatment of the full article.

Suggestion 2: Based on your scanning of the articles, begin to organize the articles by category.  Put your articles into stacks that correspond roughly to the points on your topic outline.  It will save you some confusion if you read all the articles on the same topic at the same time.

Suggestion 3: Take clear, accurate, and organized notes that are focused on your chosen topic.

Note taking is a highly personal process.  The best way is to find a method that is right for you.  As a rule, note taking should be meticulous. You should take great pains to be highly accurate.  When direct quotes are involved, it is important to verify that you record the quote exactly as it appears in the original, even if there are errors in the original.  It is also important to be consistent: Make sure that you take notes in the same format for every source.  This will prevent confusion later when you are attempting to synthesize the information you have recorded from myriad sources.

Traditionally note cards were the preferred method of taking notes for literature reviews.  They are still very useful and have some advantages over a computer. First, note cards must be handwritten, so you are prone to record only the essential facts and not the author’s exact words.  This can help you to prevent plagiarism by improperly using the author’s exact words. Second, note cards make later organization and reorganization easier.

Different colored note cards can also be a valuable organizational tool if you color code your notes by topic as you record them.  Remember to keep your focus. Do not take needless notes on topics within your article that are not really related to what you are interested in.  This is a reason to specify your specific problem area before you begin the review process.

Whether you are taking notes with a computer or note cards, you should use a consistent format.  It will save you a lot of time in the end if all of your notes are in the same format. At a minimum, your note cards should contain the following information:

      • The author’s last name and initials
      • The title of the article
      • The publication year
      • The name of the journal, the publication, the volume and number, and the page numbers
      • The main points of the article
      • The methodology used by the authors
      • The article’s findings
      • Highly relevant details for your own review
      • Your evaluation of the quality of the article

Suggestion 4: Look for conceptual and operational definitions of key terms in your articles.  Remember the importance of definitions to science in previous chapters.  It is also important to remember that different researchers will define the same term in different ways.  The use of substantially different definitions by different authors can explain differences in research findings across articles.

Suggestion 5: Look for methodological strengths and weaknesses in your articles.  Remember that the knowledge base for any topic is composed of many different studies by many different scientists.  It is highly unlikely that you will find any single study that has definitive results in your area if interest. Always ask yourself how strong the evidence provided by a particular study is.  In addition, note patterns of weaknesses across all of your articles. If all of the studies in your area seem to have small sample sizes composed of college psychology students, then note that on a separate note card for integration into your own review.  Specific methodological weaknesses will be discussed in later chapters of this book.

Suggestion 6: Distinguish between assertion and findings based on empirical evidence in your articles.  Make sure you never report an author’s assertions as to his findings.  Findings will usually be very specific and related to the author’s specific hypotheses.  A finding comes from the author’s empirical evidence and analysis; an assertion is merely the author’s opinion.  Note that many authors overstate their findings—they indicate that their data provide evidence for more than it really does.

Suggestion 7: Identify trends in the literature.  Not all empirical studies will reach the same conclusions.  Some articles may support a hypothesis while others seem to provide evidence against the same hypothesis.  In deciding the fate of the hypothesis, it is your job as a reviewer to weigh the evidence and decide what all the evidence—taken as a whole—seems to suggest.

Suggestion 8: Identify gaps in the literature.  For any given topic, there will be questions that have not been adequately answered.  This is every graduate student’s dream—to find a significant gap in the literature that his or her dissertation can fill.  Identifying gaps does a service to the scientific community by pointing the way for future research.

Suggestion 9: Identify relationships among studies.  Many times, a landmark study will spawn many new studies that explore the same topic or use the same innovative methodology.  Since part of your job as a reviewer is to provide your reader with an overview of all the literature on your topic, these relationships are important to consider.

Suggestion 10: Keep the cyclic nature of research writing in mind.  Remember that writing literature reviews is a cyclic process.  Each step may cause you to go back and refine a previous step. As you read your articles and make notes, always keep your reference list in mind.  Make sure that your list is current and has adequate coverage. Each article may provide you with important references that you did not initially identify.

Modification History

File Created:  08/09/2018

Last Modified:  08/09/2018

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APA Citation

McKee, A. J. (2019).  Fundamentals of Social Research.  Forma Pauperis Press.

This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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