Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Hacking the Literature Review: Opportunities and Innovations to Improve the Research Process

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Hacking the Literature Review: Opportunities and Innovations to Improve the Research Process

Article excerpt

Research outputs across the academic disciplines are almost exclusively published electronically. Organizing and managing these digital resources for purposes of review, and with the technical savvy to do so, are now essential skills for graduate study and life in academia. Paradoxically, digital and web-based technologies provide greater ease and efficiency with which to gather mass amounts of information, while at the same time presenting new challenges for reading, analyzing, organizing, and storing resources. Students, scholars, and the librarians who support them must adopt and refine practices to convert from paper-full to paperless literature review. This article proposes a methodical, reproducible, three-stage process that harnesses the power digital tools bring to the research cycle, regardless of the user's preferred platform or operating system. Focusing just on the literature review phase, we develop a conceptual framework, illustrated with concrete tips and advice for storing and organizing, reading and annotating, and analyzing and writing. We demonstrate how a researcher's self-selected suite of tools may be used to complement and even overcome the limitations of comprehensive academic literature and composition platforms such as Docear and F1000Workspace, especially regarding qualitative data analysis software for analyzing and coding research literature. Using these techniques, librarians can become teachers and research partners supporting the skill development of faculty and students.

A decade ago, Boote and Beile lamented the quality of dissertation literature reviews in educational research, suggesting that their criteria are part of the "hidden curriculum" and "tacit knowledge passed on from mentors to candidates." (1) As educational researchers, research methodologists, and librarians, we understand Boote and Beile's arguments, as we have tried to engage our students and ourselves in strategies for a more "systematic literature review." (2) Consistent with the growing interest in digital tools to support research, (3) library scholarship has investigated the role of digital tools in scholarly publication workflows, (4) including "personal digital libraries," (5) "personal information management," (6) tools for discovery, (7) and collaborative practices for information management. (8) Digital tools are changing the nature of the research process, including the literature review, and have the potential to improve the quality of the outcomes by creating an entirely paperless process.

"Paper-full" literature reviews, characterized by numerous print copies of publications, sheets of hand- and typewritten notes, and lists of bibliographies, can pose several problems for scholars. Many publications are distributed in digital formats and the scholar's final product is submitted in digital form. Moving between the print and digital environments, and managing and annotating journal articles, books, and other sources in a methodical way, can prove cumbersome. For born-digital materials, creating a paper version eliminates many advantages of the electronic versions. Transporting hard copies between office, home, and travel is difficult, and it is not easy to share these materials with collaborators. Librarians and the educators they serve see that many of today's students are already paperless in how they interact with the published literature. While mid- to late-career scholars may find the idea of going paperless daunting, this may be less true of those early in their careers. Librarians have an opportunity to leverage the technical affordances of born-digital composition, data management, and publishing to support the creation and use of wholly digital literature review processes by scholars in all phases of their careers.

Most of the scholarship in this area has described various aspects of the literature review process, such as organizing and downloading PDFs; (9) describing various citation management systems (CMSs) like Zotero, (10) Mendeley, (11) EndNote, (12) and RefWorks; (13) reporting on surveys of CMS users; (14) comparing CMS features, (15) including those for collaboration and social networking; (16) and reporting the accuracy of "cite as you write" features. …

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