What do you really do in a literature review?
David Lopez, Ph.D. student and National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington, gave the inaugural talk of the QUAL Winter Seminars 2016 series.
Lopez is working on a dissertation proposal focused on compulsory school systems as arenas of political conflict in advanced and developing democracies. Trained in quantitative methods, he found himself asking research questions that were not completely answerable by statistics. Lopez took a historical and comparative methods class taught by QUAL Steering Committee member Professor Steven Pfaff and got his first exposure to qualitative methods.
In his seminar talk (slides available here), he shared with the audience of social science graduate students, his process of conducting a literature review for his dissertation proposal. Lopez demonstrated some of his preferred software tools: a citation manager (Zotero), a note-taking program (Evernote), writing tools (Scrivener – featuring templates such as a research proposal outline; and LaTeX – great for scientific notation and formulas), a basic statistics and tables tool (Excel), and a qualitative data analysis (QDA) package (ATLAS.ti for Mac).
Tips Lopez shared about literature reviews and his use of ATLAS.ti include:
- Use a citation manager – Zotero or another similar tool.
- Create a working bibliography – using your citation manager. It’s helpful early on as a good reading list featuring key sources in your field that you can’t/shouldn’t avoid including given your specific research question.
- Maintain consistent organization – across digital platforms (Zotero, ATLAS.ti) and analog (i.e. books or other physical resources).
- Convert analog sources to digital – whenever possible, it is worthwhile to scan key chapters of books and annotate and code them in ATLAS.ti. This ensures analog and digital resources inform each other. It is also helpful traveling light.
- Keep all readings in one project file – grouping them by themes, topics, etc.
- Develop a coding system – ATLAS.ti can help make the process easy and iterative – making revising the codes, code groups (families), and their definitions easy. The exercise is especially valuable in the sense of organizing your thoughts, processing and thinking about the literature. “This helps you create the conceptual and analytical map of your literature,” Lopez said.