3 tips on preparing a literature review

Here’s how you can hone your search techniques and organize your research, says an informationist at the University of Michigan Library

Carol Shannon
Carol Shannon is an Informationist at the University of Michigan Library and one of the first Mendeley Advisors. (Photo by Ian Evans)

An MA in art history may not be the most common starting point for an informationist who works closely with clinical departments at a university, including gastroenterology, neuroscience and neurology. For Carol Shannon, Informationist at the University of Michigan Library, it taught her the value of finding a fresh perspective. That, she says, is always a valuable thing to bring to the process of learning and teaching. Here, she shares her thoughts on the best ways to navigate the huge amount of content available to students and researchers, and how tools like Mendeley can make a difference.

“When I was an art historian, I focussed on Eastern art, which is quite different to Western art,” she said. “You tend to see a lot of replication of other people’s work. That can look like copying from the Western perspective, but from the perspective of Eastern art, it’s about paying respect and commentating on what’s gone before. If you’re not able to break away from an entrenched way of thinking, you can miss that.”

Carol applies that fresh perspective at the University of Michigan, where she teaches information and search techniques to students in clinical departments. Her aim is to use active learning techniques to help students develop search skills that resemble real-world situations.

“Rather than having someone stand at the front of the class and lecture, active learning is based around small groups of students working together on a problem,” Carol explained. “It’s a much more fun approach and turns students into active participants in the learning process. So as part of a bigger project at the university, designed to revamp our approach to learning, I designed a game that would help students evolve their understanding of search.”

At the start of the process, students take a pre-test, including an assessment of their own knowledge. “You tend to find that students vastly overestimate their knowledge of how to search a database like PubMed – but that’s a useful thing for them to discover,” Carol said. From there, the students take five classes, each with a specific learning objective:

Each class has a particular learning point, so students get used to working in ways that reflect real life. They have a problem to work on – sometimes complex – and they find that they have a lot of information from which they then have to pick out what’s important. At the end, we’re using quizzes again to test retention.

Now, Carol is preparing a research paper on her findings — following her own advice in the process:

At the moment, I’m pulling all the data together and analyzing it. I used Mendeley for that, so I could keep all my citations in line when I was gathering them, as I did a literature review ahead of time. I would gather information and organize it in ways that were useful, in folders and with tags, so I would know what was about flipped learning, what was about different kinds of active learning, and so forth. Mendeley makes those kinds of things very easy.

Carol was one of the first Mendeley Advisors. Here are her tips on search and preparation for a literature review:

1. Make sure you’re asking the right questions.

“When it comes to figuring out what to read, the approach you take will depend on what the project is. We ask students to come in with maybe three to four questions, and if they’re going to get good search results, those questions need to be focused. You need to have a clear idea of what your research statement or problem is; you can’t just have a vague concept – you will lose a lot of time. I’ve had students come in with searches where the initial statements have been a little careless. You send through the search results and they say, ‘Oh, well really the question is this. …’ If you’d known that up front, you would have saved a lot of time.”

2.  It doesn’t matter how you organize, but you must be organized.

“Actually ‘not organizing’ tends to be how most students start off! One of the things I talk about is how difficult life will be if you don’t organize in some way. I had a friend who got through a doctoral program by photocopying articles and highlighting them, and through this mad sorting process, the paper would kind of emerge.

“But bad things can happen to a good paper if you don’t organize your information. Elsevier’s Mendeley gives people a lot of options for that. You can use folders, you can have your library entirely organized by tags, which tells you what you thought was important. It’s very customizable. You need to find your own way, but you need to organize your information and your paper.”

3. Know your search strategy.

“When you’re doing an in-depth review of the literature, you need to think about your search strategy. One thing you can do is think out loud when you’re putting your search together so you’re aware of the logic of it, where you’ve used ‘and’ or ‘or,’ or other operators. Even though a database assumes ‘and,’ I sometimes recommend that people include it because it makes the logic of their search clear.

“You also need to think about how focused a search needs to be. If it’s vague – as I said – you’ll maybe end up with 10 million results, or 10,000 results that aren’t the right thing. If you’re too precise, you might not find anything. Some platforms, like ScienceDirect, will have a taxonomy that helps identify articles with similar concepts but different wordings. In other instances, you might want to use synonyms to broaden your base. Even if you have a really specific idea of what you’re looking for – like the effect of a specific nutrient on a specific cell to treat a specific disease, you will want to do a lot of searches to make sure you’re not missing anything.”

Quick question for you

Which terms do you most associate with Elsevier? (check all that apply)

Data and analytics
Research platforms
Technology
Decision support tools
Publishing
Books and journals
Scientific articles
Healthcare content

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