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Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Organising and structuring your material

We have covered how to search efficiently and how to read and take notes like a pro, however it is important to organise all your material as you go to avoid a mountainous pile of notes and papers that makes writing the review harder. Now this can be done in several ways, and your organisation will vary depending on your project and how you’d like to write your review, but here are a few suggestions.

A basic excel spreadsheet can work great as a reading log to document key points from papers you have read and allow you to find papers easily. This can be especially useful if you are completing a meta-analysis as all your data and sources can be in one place, but this does not work as well for documents of detailed notes.

The next step is to ensure you are organising your literature whilst collating so that you can find papers again and start to make connections between sources. Making patterns and categories for your notes is personal decision, but putting your notes and references in folders with headings or even subheadings can really help you determine what the important concepts are you’d like to cover. These folders can be created in your reference management software or on word depending on where you are storing your information, and here are some ideas for categories:

  • Location (this could be of the scholar, the research, the author’s opinion in a debate)
  • Alphabetically (especially useful for your bibliography)
  • Time (publishing date, the time period being discussed in the article- this approach helps determine how ideas and views have changed over time)
  • Category (the most common method, using concepts, topics and ideas as the basis for organising)
  • Hierarchy (exerting critical judgment on each of your categories: is one school of thought or way of doing things described in the literature superior to the others? Is one idea more practical and useful than another idea – or more theoretically interesting and elegant? Why?)

Richard Wurzman argues these are the only ways to organise information, but feel free to prove him wrong. You can organise based on the opinions different sources have in a certain debated topic, group based on the question being answered or on the author or journal where the paper is published. Sources will likely overlap your categories, that’s ok, just add them to both. This will help you make links and critically discuss later.

If you are producing a systematic review, you may have already designed your categories for organisation based on the PICO method and your established criteria. Whichever way you decide to organise your sources and notes, it is important to organise throughout so that you can easily find material you have worked so hard to create and will make the writing process much easier.

Read these blog posts from Get a Life, PhD, Patter and The Thesis Whisperer on strategies for organising your literature.

Consider which is the most appropriate for your project, or if a combination of these techniques might work better for you. Make a strategy plan of how to organise your material using this template.

All of your sources are now organised and categorised, which will make the writing and referencing process much easier. But where to start? Often you can get stuck because there are a whole bunch of things you could bring up in an infinite variety of orders. Your knowledge is here in your head more or less simultaneously. How do you get it out in a legible line on the page? What choice do you have besides just going in historical order? What if that’s not interesting enough for your genre, discipline, or most importantly, for yourself?

Activity 1

A good way to get an idea of how to structure your literature review is to read research degree theses in your discpline. Go on to Open Research Exeter or the British Library EThOS and download recent theses in your discipline. Read their literature reviews, and consider what structures they use. Are there common approaches? Do they adhere to any of the five common approaches identified in the infographic? Do they use a combination? Or do they adopt their own structure? Finally returning to A Simple Plot for a Literature Review – what story do they tell? You can use this template to make notes.

Activity 2

Your literature review is a story. It contains protagonists, obstacles, conflict, realisations and goals just like a fictional story, and a plot is just as important. Think about your topic and the information you need to give your reader so that they understand the gap in the field that your research will fill. How will you lead the reader to that conclusion? What issues and debates, theories and ideas will you discuss to get to that point?

Plan out your litetature review “plot”. What topics and ideas from your organised material do you need to include to tell your story? Use post it notes with key ideas, topics and knowledge gaps on to re-arrange and find a structure that works for you. Keep the reader engaged with an interesting “plot”, keep the story flowing, you don’t have to include all the information chronologically. Your organised sources will help you to realise your plot points and the different structures listed in the infographic and used in your example theses can help you visualise different ways to tell your story.

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