Alhamdulillah, after getting the Best Research Paper in the inaugural Communications Department Showcase of my university, several students have asked me to share how I do my literature review. In this article, I cover (almost) my entire process from A-Z.
Before we begin, it is important to note that my research and writing process is one that I have ended up with after many experimentations. Although the process might thus be more suitable for me than it is for you, I believe that there are several tips in this article that can and should be utilised by everyone. So let’s all begin with Bismillah.
Step 1: Intentions and Attitude
Everyone should treat assignments as opportunities to learn more. Assignments are to help us revise and learn outside of the course materials. If you copy-paste, you learn nothing. Zero. Zilch. You have just wasted days of your life. If you google translate Malay articles into English and copy-paste the translations into your articles, your papers will not make any sense.
Thus I would like to emphasise that before beginning any research, make it a point to find it in yourself to genuinely want to know more about that topic. This is pretty easy if you are given the opportunity to choose what you want to research on. But if the topic is one given to you by your lecturers, find a way to fall in love.
How? Find connections to how that research can relate to your life, or the lives of the ones you love. Once you have that, it is much easier to take on the right intention and attitude to follow through.
Step 2: Start Collecting Research Materials
1. Bookstores and Libraries
Journals and papers are good for uncovering the latest research on a specific topic, but I usually do some background reading first from proper books to get a deeper understanding of the subject at hand. Additionally, I always feel that physical books have a kind of credibility that downloading papers online do not. So begin with books, and then go online.
2. Search in Google using search operators
Google is the most powerful search engine in the world, and it is not just because you can simply key in a term and click ‘enter’. Google has a function called ‘search operators’ which can help you refine your searches to get exactly what you need, and thus save you some time! I could spend some time writing them all down, but HackCollege has done up a perfect info-graphic which is too good not to share. Click here to read it.
3. Search in Google Scholar
Google Scholar is more specific than Google in that it searches exclusively on academic and scholarly work. The same HackCollege info-graphic shares how you can effectively search for papers in Google Scholar.
4. Search using your university library’s research gateway
If there are papers you have found in Google or Google Scholar that are blocked behind a subscription paywall, chances are by logging in your library’s research gateway, you will be able to download the paper for free. Check with your librarian if you are not sure how to use it.
5. Search on other sites
If all the above is not enough and you would still like to have more material, head over to Scribd andAcademia.edu. No, Wikipedia is not an option.
Step 3: Upload Your Research Materials to Mendeley
Ever since I got to know about Mendeley, my life has gotten much, much more easier. If you would like to take only ONE tip from this article, it’s this.
What is Mendeley? Mendeley is a free reference manager and academic social network that can help you organise your research, collaborate with others online, and discover the latest research.
The steps are easy. Just download Mendeley, install it, and create a new folder for that specific research you are doing. Upload all the material you have collected into that folder. Create different folders for different research. Also, you can actually search through all your materials using Mendeley, which makes seeking specific information faster!
Step 4: Make Notes While Reading Through Your Materials
While you are reading, be sure to first check the details of the paper (Title, Author, Journal, Year etc) to make sure that this is correct. This is a very important step that you cannot miss (you will understand why later).
Secondly, start highlighting and taking down notes for every relevant information you come across in each paper. Depending on what you are comfortable with, do identical notes in either of these:
a) In Mendeley + online in Trello
b) In Mendeley + on paper
Trello is meant to be a collaboration tool for organising projects, but I have recently started using it to document my research material.
What I do is that I create a new board for every research (e.g. in picture 2013: Mess Media), and create a different list for all the research materials I am using (References, The Information Diet, The Shallows, etc). Then under each list, I create cards with all the notes I have taken down. I will then colour-label the cards according to the general theme that card belong to.
What I like about Trello is that I can move the cards around to further develop and play around with the materials.
If you are more of a paper person, do the same thing on Trello, but on paper. Write down the title of the research material, list down all the notes from that material, and then do the same for all the other materials. Then, use your highlighter to colour-code the different themes that occur in your notes.
Once you are done reading and making notes, you should have a folder full of research materials that have been highlighted in Mendeley, and depending on the choice you made, in Trello or on paper.
Step 5: Take a Break
Let everything you have read digest in your mind. Read the Qur’an, speak to your mom, ride on your yacht, take a walk, have a life once again. Your brain needs some time to process and synthesise all the materials you have just read.
Step 6: Process Your Materials
Once your mind has cleared and there is clarity in your thought, return to your notes and start digesting them. Look through them once again, and find the themes, trends or patterns that you might have missed earlier. Start to formulate the outline of your research paper – the ‘what goes where’. Move your notes around, highlight more things, immerse yourself into the research!
Step 7: Write Down All the Things You Have Learnt
By this time, you should already be very familiar with your research materials, and you should already know what you want to write about. Remember I mentioned earlier that you should make sure that the details (Title, Author, Journal, Year etc) of the papers in your Mendeley should be checked? This is why:
- Open up Mendeley, go to “Tools”, and “Install MS Word Plugin”.
- Open up Microsoft Word and start writing your content. If you need to cite a research material, click on the Mendeley logo in the toolbar, “Mendeley”, and… “Insert Citation”! Choose the relevant citation and click insert and voilà, it’s there!
As an added bonus, you can also “Insert Bibliography” at the end of your literature review with just once click!
Sigh. I love Mendeley.
Step 8: Editing
Last but not least, be sure to vet your paper for basic spelling and grammar errors prior to submission. Use the built-in checker in Microsoft word, and read your paper out aloud.
And just like you began with Bismillah, end your article with Bismillah before you submit it to your lecturer!