Synthesizing research and keeping it all straight.
July 21, 2010 10:19 AM   Subscribe

How do you organize research so that you can synthesize it later while writing your literature review?

I'm doing my first major literature review (for my well-overdue Masters thesis), and I've gone through about 30 research articles. My field is music education, so a lot of the research is psych and sociology based.

I have a spreadsheet with the pertinent information about each article (subjects, measures, procedures, results), but I'm having trouble getting it all lined up for my literature review. I know the ideas I want to get across, but I'm having trouble of keeping track of which articles I want to use for which purposes within the review. I've done stuff like this on a small scale (10 articles or so), but never with the amount I'm going to end up using now.

How do you keep track of this? Is there a commonly used labeling system that I'm missing? Is there a better system to keep track of all of the information that I need?
posted by SNWidget to Education (16 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What I did for my BA thesis (where I had maybe 40-50 referenced books, articles, etc) was keep a word document for everything I knew I'd want to reference later.

Each book was color coded, and when I'd come across something I would want to use I'd put "firstword...lastword (153) about topic" in red or whatever into my document. Basically I'd write the passage I wanted to use, the page number it could be found on, and the point I wanted to make with it. This thing grew into pages and pages over the course of several months.

When it came to write the paper, I did it side by side with my document of rainbow references. That way I could keep up a steady writing pace. Rather than having to stop, look something up again, and cite it while typing, I could just copy and paste my colored reference line straight into my text. Later, I went through it and matched up the color coded line to the right book, cited everything properly, and edited the entire paragraph for clarity after the fact. I found this much easier, less time consuming, and it kept my train of thought from getting derailed.

Does that make sense at all? I tried to explain it to others at the time but no one really got it. This system worked best for me because I liked to have all the information I was collecting in one place.
posted by phunniemee at 10:36 AM on July 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Two suggestions from study hacks I plan to try in the future:
Or the more quote based:
posted by 92_elements at 10:36 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Are you using a reference management system for your papers? I use Bibdesk, which enables me to group things by folder based on tags, and has space to write notes and include the abstract. In this particular software you can have one paper in lots of different folders due to your tagging system.

Zotero is a very popular software (it's a firefox plugin too), that has many of these properties (and plugins for word etc, so you can click a button and cite a paper).

I regret not using this type of system earlier, as it has really helped me organize my knowledge.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 10:43 AM on July 21, 2010

Best answer: Plan backwards. What process will you use for the synthesis of information? This tells you how you should organize your references.

When I synthesize articles, I think about the themes that I want to develop from the literature, then decide how each article fits into those themes. Realistically, I will probably have no more than a couple of sentences in the entire paper that refer to single article. After you read and summarize each article, think about what one or two sentence statement you will take from it, and how that statement fits in with the other information that you gleaned from articles that explored similar ideas. When I do an outline for a literature review, it starts like:

---article 1 summary
---article 2 summary

Which becomes (sorry for the crime related information, I know more about this than I do about music education):

Development of adult criminality
--XYZ found that most juvenile delinquents discontinued their delinquent activities, but a small group of persistent offenders continued offending throughout the life course. (this is all I want to say about an entire article)
--ABC elaborates on XYZ, and discusses that juvenile offenders who began to engage in delinquent acts at a young age have higher numbers of official sanctioning events (in school disciplinary records and police arrests) than those who engage in delinquency later in life. These official sanctioning events have the effect of both 'knifing off' opportunities to engage in pro-social activities and reinforcing the juvenile's self image as being a delinquent.
--and so on, through all of the sources that I have which are related to this theme. Then I write an actual paragraph that incorporates both of these statements.

To make this system work, take the articles that you have and decide which theme you are trying to convey with each. Several articles should fall under the same general theme. With that theme in mind, summarize the articles in a couple of sentences. Sort articles by theme, then see how your short summaries of the articles fit together, then use this to put together a coherent statement about the state of research in that particular area.

I use zotero to organize references, but I find it more helpful to write things by hand or use notecards when it comes to summarizing and synthesizing because I can then arrange tangible objects in ways that make sense to me.
posted by _cave at 11:11 AM on July 21, 2010

I keep all of my references in Endnote, though I have also heard good things about Zotero. I use keyword tagging on all of the references, so that I can easily search for relevant sources based on topic, method, etc. I try to add keywords as soon as I add a new reference to my database, while the source is still fresh in my mind.

I highly recommend you investigate some reference management software, as I think that would make searching and grouping easier than a spreadsheet. Wikipedia has a list.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 11:17 AM on July 21, 2010

Response by poster: Up until now, my only management software has been a desktop folder of PDFs, some stray photocopies, post it notes, and that spreadsheet.

I think it might be time to look into either Endnote or Zotero.

I'm getting this unfortunate feeling that I may have to sift back through all of my sources for keywords, but then again, if I have all the information right in my Excel sheet, then it shouldn't be so bad.

It's interesting, because I'm rather tech-geeky in other aspects of life. I just didn't know what was out there for this, so I feel like I sort of just jumped into it without checking out my options.
posted by SNWidget at 11:22 AM on July 21, 2010

if you are comfortable getting to the nuts and bolts of creating a permanent system/tool that grows with you and can (with enough patience and effort) do ANYTHING and are at least above-average computer/programming savvy you can try Org-Mode for Emacs*. (Example of a collaborative research project using OrgMode)

(For publishing later, EMACs/Org-mode integrate extremely well with LaTex... which may either get you very excited or mean nothing to you.)

If you want something more lick-able, and have a mac, I hear that Scriveneris very good... in fact, that should be my first recommendation, but I've never used it and I am on an Emacs proselytizing kick at the moment...
posted by DetonatedManiac at 11:24 AM on July 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I start my lit reviews by creating a comprehensive annotated bibliography. My annotated bibliographies look like this:

general reference information (author, title, date, etc)
summary of book
list of author's main argument
list of points relevant to my project
points of contention with author

I found that by writing out how I thought the articles related to my work helped later on. Even though my project's direction changed many times over the course of writing the paper I was ahead of the game when it came to knowing how to use the articles I read. FWIW, I read almost exclusively all sociology articles.
posted by carnivoregiraffe at 11:25 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I use Endnote and like it. Its simple to use. You will quickly be able to search for your 30 articles on something like google scholar and export the references to Endnote.
posted by Sarosmith at 11:29 AM on July 21, 2010

My previous post I didn't see your followup comment, but based on this:

It's interesting, because I'm rather tech-geeky in other aspects of life. I just didn't know what was out there for this, so I feel like I sort of just jumped into it without checking out my options.

I'm going to double down on my Org-Mode recommendation... read the documentation... it is F***ing amazing. you can do anything. It changed my life. Look at the videos.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 11:30 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

My previous comment on how to organize a lit review table.
posted by k8t at 11:37 AM on July 21, 2010

Response by poster: k8t, thanks for the link. I missed that earlier question in my searching, and it looks like it has a lot of information as well.
posted by SNWidget at 12:34 PM on July 21, 2010

Where are you attending school? It's likely that your campus or library has licensed either EndNote or RefWorks on your behalf, so don't pay for anything before you check out that option. Look for those two names, or "citation management" on your library's website. If you're not sure, say (or memail me) where you're going, and I can find out for you. Also, it's highly likely that if they license either, they also have a class teaching you how to use it best. My library offers RefWorks classes several times a semester, for example.
posted by donnagirl at 6:42 PM on July 21, 2010

Try Mendeley. It stores the whole paper rather than just references and abstracts, and allows you to put notes and tags on papers or sections thereof.

No matter what you end up using (RefWorks, EndNote, etc.), do not read another paper until you have your system in place. Having a tracking system in place before amassing a mountain of references will save you months.
posted by benzenedream at 6:57 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: benzenedream: I'm realizing that now. I feel like the last few weeks have been a bit of a waste, seeing as I'm going to have to re-evaluate everything. Guess that's what working weekends are for.
posted by SNWidget at 9:14 PM on July 21, 2010

Response by poster: I'll mark best answers once I'm sure, but I'm giving Zotero a shot. After basically freezing and shutting down for a few days to wallow in my own uselessness, I'm putting what I have back into Zotero and finding it extremely helpful.

Let's see if I can't pull my head out of my ass.
posted by SNWidget at 9:22 AM on July 27, 2010

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