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Get ready for the literature Review Nightmare!

The process of conducting the literature review for any research, particularly interdisciplinary research, is very messy and complex. Not only we have to spend a long time finding the right and relevant literature to incorporate in our research, and a long time to read, but also we need to carefully read and critically evaluate each piece. It is also a never-ending process, which means we will constantly be doing this along the way until we finish the whole research project in order to keep up with the latest literature. In this post I will attempt to collect some tips and strategies of preparing for this process.

Generally, There are three stages when conducting literature review:

  1. preparing
  2. Searching and finding
  3. Evaluating, using and documenting

This post will focus only on the preparation stage.


The literature review is an analysis of the previous and current works related to your topic. It is a summary of these works accompanied with critical evaluation on which your research question is based. (university of reading)


  1. to set the scene for the reader before situating our work in that scene. (Rugg and petter)
  2. to demonstrate a sufficient grasp of knowledge and development of a conceptual framework in your field.(Finn)
  3. to know the concepts and the structures used by experienced academics in your field. (Rugg and petter)
  4. to critically evaluate your work and others’ which are underpinning the research question.(Finn)
  5. to define the weakness in the previous work that you are proposing to address. (Phillips and Pugh)


Search engines , library catalogues, subject specific databases, bibliographical databases, (classification systems), open access literature.


  • google scholar
  • agris

For HCI:

  • ACM DL
  • EBSCOhost
  • Wiley Online Library
  • Taylor & Francis
  • Elsevier
  • Springer

How to prepare for conducting the literature review?

The following tips are taken from Finn’s book “Getting a PhD“, Rugg and petter’s book “The unwritten rules of PhD“,   Phillips and Pugh’s book “How to get a PhD“, and an online course “Academic Information Seeking“.

  • Objectives

It is crucial to start the literature review process by defining clear objectives and scope of the review. The objectives are the justifications (why’s) and the scope is the criteria of what to include or exclude; e.g. in terms of language, publication type, regions and content.

  • Conceptual map

The links between the different areas to review can be illustrated by using relationship diagrams such as spider diagrams, cluster diagrams, mind maps and flow diagrams. The following example of a diagram is taken from Finn’s book “Getting a PhD“.


  • Search terms

Your search terms generally come out of your research question. Documenting your search using ‘Log book’ can facilitate the search process. A log book is working tool to document searches and reflect upon (evaluate) terms and strategies (it helps to answer how and why you selected a given literature). It is a good strategy to use 2 documents;  work document for information search and actual log book. (templates are here). Also using a general learning /research log can be useful.

  • Search methods

Random search = it gives more insights and terms. e.g: blogs, twitter, encyclopedias, handbooks, world cat, YouTube ….

Cited reference search = it starts with a key reference which then leads to other cited reference.

Building blocks = Using the log book and mixing and matching search terms. it is good for subtopics (facets)

  • Literature types:

popular science literature = general and introductions and areas/ methodological lit

secondary scientific literature = interpret & evaluate knowledge from prim lit (such as articles, encyclopedia)

primary scientific literature = scientific articles, peer-review papers (preprint article or post-print), phd theses,

  • References organizing

Additionally, it is important to decide on the types of literature (e.g. books, journals, conference proceedings and reports).

using reference management tools (such as endnote, rework, Zotero, Mendeley, reference Manager, ProCite) should be considered in the preparation stage in order to collect and organize references.

  • Structuring the literature review

In order to present the review in a coherent and logical organization, it is important to do so around the prominent or central themes.

  • Defining the core literature (100-150 works)

Before getting lost in a huge amount of literature, it is crucial to define selected pieces as your core literature on which you will base all your other searches. Using annotated bibliography can facilitate establishing this repertoire, particularly if using practical tools such as card catalogues and electronic databases.(e.g  Papyrus:, ProCite:,  EndNote:

Developing reading habits (The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research)

academic/critical reading

  • Steady consumption. The idea is not so much to read voraciously as to read regularly. Use a tortoise strategy, rather than a hare.
  • Always carry reading with you – use the ten minutes on the train platform, or while you’re waiting for your supervisor, or between seminars, or while dinner is cooking.
  • Leave papers in the loo.
  • Keep an annotated bibliography – and keep it up to date.
  • Find a regular reading time, about an hour a day. For many, this is first thing in the morning. Don’t go straight to your office; go to the library first for your hour.
  • Read books as well as papers.
  • Most great readers are a little obsessive and like to get a sense of ‘completeness’ when they’re reading on a new subject. Many ‘map’ the key writers.
  • Make sure all your photocopies of papers have full citations on them, down to the ISSN or ISBN and page numbers.
  • Most great readers maintain more than one reading strand – so morning time may be technical reading, but bedtime is philosophy reading.
  • Read a chapter every night before you sleep, no matter how tired you are.
  • At conferences, carry the proceedings to the sessions with you and annotate the paper with your notes during the talk.
  • Even when you find a paper uninteresting, cast your eye over the remainder, so that you have a portrait of the contents.
  • Use your network to filter your reading, hence increasing the interest level of what you pick up.
  • Join (or form) a reading group, or find a reading buddy.
  • From Feynman (as recalled by Michael Jackson): when reading something difficult, if you get stuck reading something, start again from the beginning (this allows you to rehearse the early sections, correct misunderstandings that accumulate and benefit from elapsed time).
  • Elapsed time can help: skim-read the material, then set it aside briefly before coming back to read it thoroughly.


I am Tag. A global citizen, lifelong learner and a free thinker. As a PhD student in HCI , my main interests fall in the intersection of cross cultural design and social change. Thus, my blog is focused on -but not limited to- this area. I have been writing in blogs, social media and newspapers for a while but that was in Arabic (my native language). However, being in the UK now and doing my PhD in English, made me consider starting to write and blog in English.

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