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Blog post

Organizing Your Literature Review

February 22, 2018
By GradProSkills

a bunch of open books

An important consideration when doing a literature review is how you are going to organize the information that you obtain. Without a proper organizational system, you may find yourself getting overwhelmed. This is the second installment to our blog series discussing writing a literature review. This post will go over different ways you can organize the sources and information that you’ve obtained.


Managing your search results

While your conducting your Internet searches, insure that you have a notebook or a note-taking document open on your computer so that you can keep track of the databases that you access. For instance, if you’re using Google Scholar as your primary search tool to locate journal articles, then make note of that. This is a way you keep track of the databases you’ve explored so when searching for subsequent information, you’ll already know what areas you’ve exhausted as well as if you need to include more variance. Some journal databases include an email alert system, which is a good way to keep up with current information on your topic.

Furthermore, you’re going to be testing out a lot of keywords to locate the information that you need to support your research. If you don’t want to get stuck forgetting the search terms you used to locate valuable information or tossing around unfavourable ones, then make sure you write them down. Use a chart to record:

  1. The search term you used.
  2. The date you used that search term.
  3. How many results you received – the reason for this being, when you put in this search term in the same databases several months down the road, you’ll easily be able to tell if any new information has been added.

This still applies when using books and newspaper articles. Make sure to write down where you located the source (i.e. the Concordia Library) and what keywords grabbed your attention.


Keeping track of what you read

You’ll need to develop an organizational system to keep track of what you’ve been reading. This may be something as simple as creating a separate file to record notes, such as a one-page summary or an annotated bibliography. Or being more detailed and using spreadsheets to record pertinent information.

When writing a summary or an annotated bibliography you want to focus on the key points and the usefulness of the text. Consider what the main argument is and the key discussion points. Include an assessment on whether or not the text is something that will be useful for your research. Also try to relate the article to something else you’ve read, if that’s possible. To make your life simpler, keep all your summaries in a designated folder on your computer or in a designated binder/notebook if you decide you’d rather do everything by hand. For some pointers on how to do effective reading, take a look at a previous blog post of ours: Reading Strategies: Skimming vs Close Reading.

Jason Begy, a GradProSkills facilitator, strongly suggests that you organize your literature into themes or categories. This will make it easier for you to draw connections and to find the links between the texts that you examine for your research. Your categories could be by year, region, or topic i.e. biological engineering.

If you really want to be meticulous, then a suggestion would be to implement an organizational chart using a Review Matrix to display your literature in an Excel document. This creates a reference sheet that you can repeatedly return to and adjust; remarking on what you’ve read and its usefulness, and even taking note of pages for quotes or important keywords. It’s still recommended that you take notes summarizing each reading you’ve done, so this would be an additional system of organization.


Referencing Software

Lastly, if you start using referencing software you can make keeping track of all your bibliographic information a lot easier in terms of inserting citations or crafting your works cited pages. We’ve previously discussed three referencing software programs in a previous blog post: Choosing the Best Reference Management Tool.


You can learn more about organizing your literature review by attending the GradProSkills GPLL37 - Writng a Literature Review workshop.

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