By Drew Thomas |


For many Ph.D. students, part of their first-year progress review includes submitting a literature review. While it seems nice that you get to spend nearly a year reading interesting books and articles about your research topic, it can easily become an overwhelming task. Rather than focusing on how to write a literature review, in this post I hope to show you some of the best practices for managing your reading and preparing for your first draft.


Finding Literature

The first step is finding items to read. This is very easy at first, as you’ll be aware of major works in the field and start with those. However, you will undoubtedly hit a block when you start to move from more general to more specific research. For those first books, check out your supervisor’s personal library. He or she undoubtedly has many books of interest to your topic. Borrowing their books shows them you’re actively seeking research and it can’t be recalled from the library!

Google Scholar is one of the best search tools on the internet. It limits searches to academic websites and is good at finding similar material. Also, search JSTOR and any other databases your library subscribes to. If you ever visit other libraries on a research trip, always search the databases in their catalogue. Different libraries have different subscriptions. On my last day of a research trip in Berlin, I searched the library’s journal database and found three early 20th century articles directly related to my research. My home institution did not have access to the journal. I was able to download the articles before I returned home.

As much as I love technology, my two favourite methods of finding secondary literature are physically searching the footnotes of other scholars and browsing the stacks. Footnotes are a lifesaver. Why do extra work when scholars before you have already done it? Let them point you in the right direction. By reviewing their source material, you are better able to judge their conclusions. Similarly, walking the stacks is another great method of finding material. I know this is hard to believe, but librarians have actually developed an entire classmark system and method of placing books on the shelves next to other books that are similar! Inconceivable! Whenever I collect a library book, I usually return with a few more because I spent some time browsing the shelf.


Organizing the Literature

Now that you found the literature, you need to keep it organized. Listen very carefully: Use A Reference Manager! This sounds like a no-brainer, but it amazes me how many Ph.D. students don’t actually use one. That’s like wanting to listen to a playlist and changing the CD (remember those?!) after every song. It’s doable, but my God, it’s frustrating to everyone else at the party. Most people that I know don’t use a reference manager simply because they don’t quite understand them or are too intimidated to set it up.

Listen very carefully: Use A Reference Manager!

There are plenty of options to choose from, including Zotero, Mendeley, Endnote, or Qiqqa. If you find it confusing, just google a how-to video. Or send me a tweet and I’ll personally help you, just so I can sleep better at night. In my own practice, I use Zotero.

A reference manager allows you to organize your literature into folders (I have one for each thesis chapter), as well as tagging items, which helps when searching for similar research. You can also attach PDF copies of journal articles to the bibliographic record. So I also use it as my article library. I no longer need to save them in folders. Lastly, it saves so much time with footnotes when writing your thesis and by automatically generating a bibliography when you near completion.


Retaining the Info.

Everyone has their own notetaking method when they read. Use whatever works best for you. But, you should make sure you have a system that allows you to easily find your notes. If you take handwritten notes, quickly scan them in the library and import them into Evernote. Evernote will read your handwriting, making your handwritten notes fully searchable.

Use the “notes” function in your reference manager. In most reference managers, you can attach notes to individual items. Even if I take notes in Microsoft Word, Evernote, or Notability, I paste a copy into a note in my reference manager, so that it is fully searchable. This is so beneficial when you can’t remember where you found a certain fact or idea from; a simple search will identify the article.

Lastly, never, ever read a PDF article twice. Why? Because Zotfile. I usually read journal articles on my iPad. You can easily annotate articles with iAnnotate or Adobe Acrobat. Zotfile is a Zotero plugin that will automatically extract your highlighted passages (with a note indicating the page number!) and place them in a note. Thus, whenever I want to reread the article, I simply need to read the note to review what I found was important. Furthermore, it makes everything searchable.

Your literature review doesn’t have to be a difficult task. The key is organizing and using procedures that reduce your workload. The steps outlined in this post, reduce the amount of time and mental energy you need to use on finding, organizing, and retaining information so that you can expend it in better ways. Come spring when you need to write up the actual review, your task will be much easier, as you can simply focus on the writing. Happy reading!


Drew Thomas is a Ph.D. student at the University of St Andrews. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Philosophy from Saint Louis University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University. His Ph.D. is a study of the rise of the Wittenberg print industry during Martin Luther’s Reformation. He is currently the Communications Coordinator for the Universal Short Title Catalogue and the Digital Developer for the Caroline Minuscule Mapping Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrewBThomas.

Image (CC) Abhi Sharma