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Literature Review Survival Library Guide: 4. Group articles by themes

created by Alex D'Angelo

Group articles by themes

Obviously, it helps to have a structure in mind already, but the articles you find will often help to suggest a structure or cause you to redesign your existing one.

Herewith a hard-learned tip:

There are tides and seasons in academic publishing – a topic is often hot for a few months, then dies, then is revived to be attacked from a different angle, then dies, then is revived again to be discussed from a third angle… remember, Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis?

This has two implications for studying the results on a database search:

  • Just because there is nothing much in the recent articles does not mean that it was not hot a few months or years ago, so scroll back in time down the list, or jump right to the earliest reference and scroll up through time to look for a hot spot.
  • The tides of article titles often tell a story that can help you shape your literature review.

For example, in a list of journal articles on Information Technology and Employment you might find that:

  • The earliest articles are all about how hard it is to find skilled IT workers.
  • Later you get articles about UK and US firms desperately recruiting school-leavers and training them in IT skills on the job.
  • A year later you get articles about how countries like India and South Africa are doing the same thing.
  • And not long after that you get articles about India and South Africa having a huge, skilled IT workforce, working far more cheaply than the US and UK workforce, and lots of UK and US projects being outsourced to them.
  • Then you get complaints about unemployment in the IT sector in the UK and USA.
  • Then you get stories about how employers in the UK and USA have become very choosy about whom they employ, insisting on really good academic training, loads of experience and very-specialised skills.
  • Then you get the latest stories which are all about how new IT entrants, without that experience, start packing their bags to gain experience elsewhere…

See? Story!

Many database lists of academic articles tell this sort of story when they are looked at in date order. Either they reflect swings in world events or they are reflecting swings in academic debate and opinion. Seeing such a story in the literature is a great help in structuring any literature review.

In particular, look out for the major triggers of such changes:

When did the first swing to a new track happen, and what event or article provoked it? When you find an article that has provoked a major swing, or started a whole new debate, then you are looking at the “Seminal” (Seed) article were mentioned earlier. This sort of article is often the best sort of article to identify in a literature review – many of the other articles will just build on, comment on, or attack its basic arguments.

Next topic: Step 5: Use a citation database