My organisational method for my literature review

I think that one of the hardest things about writing a literature review is forgetting where I had read something and wasting what is probably hours skimming through papers to find what I am looking for.

As someone who hates wasting time and has a compulsive need to organise things, I came up with an organisational methodology in order for me to write my literature review much more smoothly.

It isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste, but I thought I would share how I have been working so that it might help others.

1. Programmes

First of all I use two computer programmes to organise my readings:

  1. Microsoft Excel (however I find this very glitchy on the Mac & Numbers works just as well)
  2. xMind which is a mind mapping piece of software

I mainly focus my organisation around xMind, but I use Excel that acts as a core database of the readings.

2. Using Excel

In Excel I have a line of headings which I have frozen so that as I scroll they float. These headings are:

  • Title
  • Authors – these are written in a bibliography style so John Smith becomes Smith, J.
  • Type – whether it is a paper, book, news article etc.
  • Year of publication
  • Injury/Illness – this is specific to my PhD as many papers discuss online health communities, but focus on different ailments.
  • Aims – what are the authors hoping to achieve
  • Methods – questionnaires, interviews, content analysis, frameworks etc.
  • Summary – a summary of the literature’s outcomes. I often paste direct quotes into there as well
  • Comments – does anything in this literature strike me as significant or a concern?

How people use spreadsheets for this kind of thing is absolutely personal to them.

3. Using xMind

This is where it becomes more interesting. It is wise to write about the themes in which the literature pertains rather than discussing each piece of literature one after the other. If there are frameworks that have been used to organise literature before, then why not use those as theme headings? While for smaller reviews this may be a reasonable way of writing, when dealing with dozens of similar papers, it becomes very dull reading.

As you’re reading through papers, particularly of a similar genre, for instance in my case around privacy, you start to see similar themes being discussed. However not all papers focus on all the themes. If I am going to write about ‘individual privacy preferences’ then I want to be able to immediately find all the literature that discusses this in some way.

In xMind I have my Title which for this part of my literature review will be ‘data sharing and disclosure’, I will then list down all the papers I am going to or have read on this particular area. I will also paste the same paper summary as on xMind as a ‘child’ to each of the titles.

Double clicking in a blank area on the mind map will bring up a ‘floating title’ here I can make another miniature map of the different themes I am noticing, or themes another framework describes. Some themes may be subcategorised, for instance, ‘preferences’ can be split into ‘individual’ or ‘societal’. Again this is really subject specific.

Using the arrow tool, I connect each summary to the different themes it discusses. There is a ‘relationship’ text box feature that also allows you to describe the link. I often post direct quotes in here or a brief summary of how that theme is discussed.

As you read through your literature and work through this method, you will begin to see your literature review unfold before your eyes. When you’re ready to write you can look at the theme you wish to discuss and follow the lines back to the papers that you need to talk about.


4. Limitations

xMind is by no means a perfect piece of software. As your literature grows it does become difficult to view your map as a whole. If you have a large screen to cast your laptop screen to then that would be a huge bonus. But it can get difficult to manage. I would recommend creating different sheets for different elements of the review.

The reason that I suggest adding summaries as a ‘child’ to the literature title is that you can minimise ‘children’ which can quickly reduce the size of your map. As you can see, lines get a bit overlapped and messy so if you’ve discussed one paper already, you can minimise that summary, the line goes away and it can be a little more manageable. Also, you can click on a line so it is highlighted to then easily follow it down to the correct summary.

While it is a little time-consuming to build this – although if it is done incrementally as a paper is read it isn’t so bad – it has saved me so much time when it comes to writing because I know exactly what papers I need to look at and if I want to dive back into a paper it is so much easier than making wild guesses.

I hope that this helps. 🙂


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