Part 1: Introduction to research

5. Writing your literature review

Chapter outline

  1. Reading results (16 minute read time)
  2. Synthesizing information (16 minute read time)
  3. Writing a literature review (18 minute read time)

Content warning: examples in this chapter contain references to domestic violence and details on types of abuse, drug use, poverty, mental health, sexual harassment and details on harassing behaviors, children’s mental health, LGBTQ+ oppression and suicide, obesity, anti-poverty stigma, and psychotic disorders.

5.1 Reading the results section

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Describe how statistical significance and confidence intervals demonstrate which results are most important
  • Differentiate between qualitative and quantitative results in an empirical journal article

If you recall from Section 3.1, empirical journal articles are those that report the results of quantitative or qualitative data analyzed by the author. They follow a set structure–introduction, methods, results, discussion/conclusions. This section is about reading the most challenging section: results.

Read beyond the abstract

At this point, I have read hundreds of literature reviews written by students. One of the challenges I have noted is that students will report the results as summarized in the abstract, rather than the detailed findings laid out in the results section of the article. This poses a problem when you are writing a literature review because you need to provide specific and clear facts that support your reading of the literature. The abstract may say something like: “we found that poverty is associated with mental health status.” For your literature review, you want the details, not the summary. In the results section of the article, you may find a sentence that states: “children living in households experiencing poverty are three times more likely to have a mental health diagnosis.” This more detailed information provides a stronger basis on which to build a literature review.

Using the summarized results in an abstract is an understandable mistake to make. The results section often contains figures and tables that may be challenging to understand. Often, without having completed more advanced coursework on statistical or qualitative analysis, some of the terminology, symbols, or diagrams may be difficult to comprehend. This section is all about how to read and interpret the results of an empirical (quantitative or qualitative) journal article. Our discussion here will be basic, and in parts three and four of the textbook, you will learn more about how to interpret results from statistical tests and qualitative data analysis.

Remember, this section only addresses empirical articles. Non-empirical articles (e.g., theoretical articles, literature reviews) don’t have results. They cite the analysis of raw data completed by other authors, not the person writing the journal article who is merely summarizing others’ work.

Quantitative results

Quantitative articles often contain tables, and scanning them is a good way to begin reading an article. A usually provides a quick, condensed summary of the report’s key findings. Tables are a concise way to report large amounts of data. Some tables present descriptive information about a researcher’s sample (often the first in a results section). These tables will likely contain frequencies (N) and percentages (%). For example, if gender happened to be an important variable for the researcher’s analysis, a descriptive table would show how many and what percent of all study participants are of a particular gender. Frequencies or “how many” will probably be listed as N, while the percent symbol (%) might be used to indicate percentages.

In a table presenting a causal relationship, two sets of variables are represented. The , or cause, and the , the effect. We’ll go into more detail on variables in Chapter 6. Independent variable attributes are typically presented in the table’s columns, while dependent variable attributes are presented in rows. This allows the reader to scan a table’s rows to see how values on the dependent variable change as the independent variable values change. Tables displaying results of quantitative analysis will also likely include some information about the strength and statistical significance of the relationships presented in the table. These details tell the reader how likely it is that the relationships presented will have occurred simply by chance.

Let’s look at a specific example: Table 5.1. It presents the causal relationship between gender and experiencing harassing behaviors at work. In this example, gender is the independent variable (the cause) and the harassing behaviors listed are the dependent variables (the effects).[1] Therefore, we place gender in the table’s columns and harassing behaviors in the table’s rows.

Reading across the table’s top row, we see that 2.9% of women in the sample reported experiencing subtle or obvious threats to their safety at work, while 4.7% of men in the sample reported the same. We can read across each of the rows of the table in this way. Reading across the bottom row, we see that 9.4% of women in the sample reported experiencing staring or invasion of their personal space at work while just 2.3% of men in the sample reported having the same experience. We’ll discuss p values later in this section.

Table 5.1 Percentage reporting harassing behaviors at work
Behavior experienced at work Women Men p-value
Subtle or obvious threats to your safety 2.9% 4.7% 0.623
Being hit, pushed, or grabbed 2.2% 4.7% 0.480
Comments or behaviors that demean your gender 6.5% 2.3% 0.184
Comments or behaviors that demean your age 13.8% 9.3% 0.407
Staring or invasion of your personal space 9.4% 2.3% 0.039
Note: Sample size was 138 for women and 43 for men.

While you can certainly scan tables for key results, they are often difficult to understand without reading the text of the article. The article and table were meant to complement each other, and the text should provide information on how the authors interpret their findings. The table is not redundant with the text of the results section. Additionally, the first table in most results sections is a summary of the study’s sample, which provides more background information on the study than information about hypotheses and findings. It is also a good idea to look back at the methods section of the article as the data analysis plan the authors outline should walk you through the steps they took to analyze their data which will inform how they report them in the results section.

Statistical significance

These statistics represent what the researchers found in their sample, and they are using their sample to draw conclusions about the true population of all employees in the real world. The purpose of statistical analysis is usually to from a the small number of people in a study’s sample to a larger population of people.

Generalizing is key to understanding . According to Cassidy and colleagues, (2019)[2] 89% of research methods textbooks in psychology define statistical significance incorrectly. This includes an early draft of this textbook which defined statistical significance as “the likelihood that the relationships we observe could be caused by something other than chance.” If you have previously had a research methods class, this might sound familiar to you. It certainly did to me!

But statistical significance is less about “random chance” than more about the . Basically, at the beginning of a study a researcher develops a hypothesis about what they expect to find, usually that there is a statistical relationship between two or more . The null hypothesis is the opposite. The null hypothesis is that there is no relationship between the variables in a research study. Researchers then can hopefully reject the null hypothesis because they find a relationship between the variables.

For example, in Table 5.1 researchers were examining whether gender impacts harassment. Of course, researchers assumed that women were more likely to experience harassment than men. The null hypothesis, then, would be that gender has no impact on harassment. Once we conduct the study, our results will hopefully lead us to reject the null hypothesis because we find that gender impacts harassment. We would then generalize from our study’s sample to the larger population of people in the workplace.

Statistical significance is calculated using a which is obtained by comparing the statistical results with a hypothetical set of results if the researchers re-ran their study a large number of times. Keeping with our example, imagine we re-ran our study with different men and women from different workplaces hundreds and hundred of times and we assume that the null hypothesis is true that gender has no impact on harassment. If results like ours come up pretty often when the null hypothesis is true, our results probably don’t mean much. “The smaller the p-value, the greater the statistical incompatibility with the null hypothesis” (Wasserstein & Lazar, 2016, p. 131)[3] Generally, researchers in the social science have used 0.05 as the value at which a result is significant (p is less than 0.05) or not significant (p is greater than 0.05). The p-value 0.05 refers to if 5% of those hypothetical results from re-running our study show the same or more extreme relationships when the null hypothesis is true. Researchers, however, may choose a stricter standard such as 0.01 in which only 1% of those hypothetical results are more extreme or a more lenient standard like 0.1 in which 10% of those hypothetical results are more extreme than what was found in the study.

Let’s look back at Table 5.1. Which one of the relationships between gender and harassing behaviors is statistically significant? It’s the last one in the table, “staring or invasion of personal space,” whose p-value is 0.039 (under the p<0.05 standard to establish statistical significance). Again, this indicates that if we re-ran our study over and over again and gender did not impact staring/invasion of space (i.e., the null hypothesis was true), only 3.9% of the time would we find similar or more extreme differences between men and women than what we observed in our study. Thus, we conclude that for staring or invasion of space only, there is a statistically significant relationship.

For contrast, let’s look at “being pushed, hit, or grabbed” and run through the same analysis to see if it is statistically significant. If we re-ran our study over and over again and the null hypothesis was true, 48% of the time (p=.48) we would find similar or more extreme differences between men and women. That means these results are not statistically significant.

This discussion should also highlight a point we discussed previously: that it is important to read the full results section, rather than simply relying on the summary in the abstract. If the abstract stated that most tests revealed no statistically significant relationships between gender and harassment, you would have missed the detail on which behaviors were and were not associated with gender. Read the full results section! And don’t be afraid to ask for help from a professor in understanding what you are reading, as results sections are often not written to be easily understood.

Statistical significance and p-values have been critiqued recently for a number of reasons, including that they are misused and misinterpreted (Wasserstein & Lazar, 2016)[4], that researchers deliberately manipulate their analyses to have significant results (Head et al., 2015)[5], and factor into the difficulty scientists have today in reproducing many of the results of previous social science studies (Peng, 2015).[6] For this reason, we share these principles, adapted from those put forth by the American Statistical Association,[7] for understanding and using p-values in social science:

  1. P-values provide evidence against a null hypothesis.
  2. P-values do not indicate whether the results were produced by random chance alone or if the researcher’s hypothesis is true, though both are common misconceptions.
  3. Statistical significance can be detected in minuscule differences that have very little effect on the real world.
  4. Nuance is needed to interpret scientific findings, as a conclusion does not become true or false when the p-value passes from p=0.051 to p=0.049.
  5. Real-world decision-making must use more than reported p-values, which are subject to cherry-picking and selective reporting.
  6. Greater confidence can be placed in studies that pre-register their hypotheses and share their data and methods openly with the public.
  7. “By itself, a p-value does not provide a good measure of evidence regarding a model or hypothesis. For example, a p-value near 0.05 taken by itself offers only weak evidence against the null hypothesis. Likewise, a relatively large p-value does not imply evidence in favor of the null hypothesis; many other hypotheses may be equally or more consistent with the observed data” (Wasserstein & Lazar, 2016, p. 132).

Confidence intervals

Because of the limitations of p-values, scientists can use other methods to determine whether their models of the world are true. One common approach is to use a , or a range of values in which the true value is likely to be found. Confidence intervals are helpful because, as principal #5 above points out, p-values do not measure the size of an effect (Greenland et al., 2016).[8] Remember, something that has very little impact on the world can be statistically significant, and the values in a confidence interval would be helpful. In our example from Table 5.1, imagine our analysis produced a confidence interval that women are 1.2-3.4x more likely to experience “staring or invasion of personal space” than men. As with p-values, calculation for a confidence interval compares what was found in one study with a hypothetical set of results if we repeated the study over and over again. If we calculated 95% confidence intervals for all of the hypothetical set of hundreds and hundreds of studies, that would be our confidence interval. 

Confidence intervals are pretty intuitive. As of this writing, my wife and are expecting our second child. The doctor told us our due date was December 11th. But the doctor also told us that December 11th was only their best estimate. They were actually 95% sure our baby might be born any time in the 30-day period between November 27th and December 25th. Confidence intervals are often listed with a percentage, like 90% or 95%, and a range of values, such as between November 27th and December 25th. You can read that as: “we are 95% sure your baby will be born between November 27th and December 25th because we’ve studied hundreds of thousands of fetuses and mothers, and we’re 95% sure your baby will be within these two dates.”

Notice that I’m hedging my bets here by using words like “best estimate.” When testing hypotheses, social scientists generally phrase their findings in a tentative way, talking about what results “indicate” or “support,” rather than making bold statements about what their results “prove.” Social scientists have humility because they understand the limitations of their knowledge. In a literature review, using a single study or fact to “prove” an argument right or wrong is often a signal to the person reading your literature review (usually your professor) that you may not have appreciated the limitations of that study or its place in the broader literature on the topic. Arguments should include multiple facts and ideas that span across studies.

You can learn more about creating tables, reading tables, and tests of statistical significance in a class focused exclusively on statistical analysis. For now, I hope this brief introduction to reading tables will improve your confidence in reading and understanding the results sections in quantitative empirical articles.

Qualitative results

Quantitative articles will contain a lot of numbers and the results of statistical tests demonstrating associations between those numbers. Qualitative articles, on the other hand, will consist mostly of quotations from participants. For most qualitative articles, the authors want to put their results in the words of their participants, as they are the experts. Articles that lack quotations make it difficult to assess whether the researcher interpreted the data in a trustworthy, unbiased manner. These types of articles may also indicate how often particular themes or ideas came up in the data, potentially reflective of how important they were to participants.

Authors often organize qualitative results by themes and subthemes. For example, see this snippet from the results section Bonanno and Veselak (2019)[9] discussion parents’ attitudes towards child mental health information sources.

Data analysis revealed four themes related to participants’ abilities to access mental health help and information for their children, and parents’ levels of trust in these sources. These themes are: others’ firsthand experiences family and friends with professional experience, protecting privacy, and uncertainty about schools as information sources. Trust emerged as an overarching and unifying concept for all of these themes.

Others’ firsthand experiences. Several participants reported seeking information from other parents who had experienced mental health struggles similar to their own children. They often referenced friends or family members who had been or would be good sources of information due to their own personal experiences. The following quote from Adrienne demonstrates the importance of firsthand experience:

[I would only feel comfortable sharing concerns or asking for advice] if I knew that they had been in the same situation. (Adrienne)

Similarly, Michelle said:And I talked to a friend of mine who has kids who have IEPs in the district to see, kind of, how did she go about it. (Michelle)

Friends/family with professional experience. Several respondents referred to friends or family members who had professional experience with or knowledge of child mental health and suggested that these individuals would be good sources of information. For example, Hannah said:

Well, what happened with me was I have an uncle who’s a psychiatrist. Sometimes if he’s up in (a city to the north), he’s retired, I can call him sometimes and get information. (Hannah)

Michelle, who was in nursing school, echoed this sentiment:At this point, [if my child’s behavioral difficulties continued], I would probably call one of my [nursing] professors. That’s what I’ve done in the past when I’ve needed help with certain things…I have a professor who I would probably consider a friend who I would probably talk to first. She has a big adolescent practice. (Michelle) (p. 402-403)

The terms in bold above refer to the key themes (i.e., qualitative results) that were present in the data. Researchers will state the process by which they interpret each theme, providing a definition and usually some quotations from research participants. Researchers will also draw connections between themes, note consensus or conflict over themes, and situate the themes within the study context.

Qualitative results are specific to the time, place, and culture in which they arise, so you will have to use your best judgment to determine whether these results are relevant to your study. For example, students in my class at Radford University in Southwest Virginia may be studying rural populations. Would a study on group homes in a large urban city transfer well to group homes in a rural area?

Maybe. But even if you were using data from a qualitative study in another rural area, are all rural areas the same? How is the client population and sociocultural context in the article similar or different to the one in your study? Qualitative studies have tremendous depth, but that level of detail makes their results less applicable across situations.

Key Takeaways

  • The results section of empirical articles are often the most difficult to understand.
  • To understand a quantitative results section, look for results that were statistically significant and examine the confidence interval, if provided.
  • To understand a qualitative results section, look for definitions of themes or codes and use the quotations provided to understand the participants’ perspective.

Exercises

  • Select a quantitative empirical article related to your topic.
    • Write down the results the authors identify as statistically significant in the results section.
    • How do the authors interpret their results in the discussion section?
    • Do the authors provide enough information in the introduction for you to understand their results?
  • Select a qualitative empirical article relevant to your topic.
    • Write down the key themes the authors identify and how they were defined by the participants.
    • How do the authors interpret their results in the discussion section?
    • Do the authors provide enough information in the introduction for you to understand their results?

5.2 Organizing information

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Describe how to use summary tables to organize information from empirical articles
  • Describe how to use topical outlines to organize information from the literature reviews of articles you read
  • Create a concept map that visualizes the key concepts and relationships relevant to your working question
  • Use what you learn in the literature search to revise your working question

This chapter will introduce you to two tools scholars use to organize and synthesize (i.e., weave together) information from multiple sources. First, we will discuss how to build a summary table containing information from empirical articles that are highly relevant–from literature review, to methods and results–to your entire research proposal.

Second, we’ll discuss what to do with the other articles you’ve downloaded. For these articles, you should create a topical outline that organizes all relevant facts from the abstract, literature review, and conclusion along with the original, primary source from which the fact came. Our goal here is to help you utilize your reading time effectively.

Organizing empirical articles using a summary table

Your research proposal is an empirical project. You will collect raw data and analyze it to answer your question. Over the next few weeks, identify about 10 articles that are empirically similar to the study you want to conduct. If you plan on conducting surveys of practitioners, it’s a good idea for you to read in detail other articles that have used similar methods (sampling, measures, data analysis) and asked similar questions to your proposal. A summary table can help you organize these Top 10 articles: empirical articles that are highly relevant to your proposal and working question.

Using the annotations in Section 4.2 as a guide, create a spreadsheet or Word table with your annotation categories as columns and each source as new row. For example, I was searching for articles on using a specific educational technique in the literature. I wanted to know whether other researchers found positive results, how big their samples were, and whether they were conducted at a single school or across multiple schools. I looked through each empirical article on the topic and filled in a summary table. At the end, I could do an easy visual analysis and state that most studies revealed no significant results and that there were few multi-site studies. These arguments were then included in my literature review. These tables are similar to those you will find in a systematic review article.

A basic summary table is provided in Figure 5.1. A more detailed example is available from Elaine Gregersen’s blog, and you can download an Excel template from Raul Pacheco-Vega’s blog. Remember, although “the means of summarizing can vary, the key at this point is to make sure you understand what you’ve found and how it relates to your topic and research question” (Bennard et al., 2014, para. 10).[10] As you revisit and revise your working question over the next few weeks, think about those sources that are so relevant you need to understand every detail about them.

A good summary table will also ensure that when you cite these articles in your literature review, you are able to provide the necessary detail and context for readers to properly understand the results. For example, one of the common errors I see in student literature reviews is using a small, exploratory study to represent the truth about a larger population. You will also notice important differences in how variables are measured or how people are sampled, for instance, and these details are often the source of a good critical review of the literature.

 

A 3 by 3 table with purpose, methods, and results as columns and sources 1, 2, and 3 as rows
Figure 5.1 Summary table

Exercises

  • Using your folder of article PDFs from you’ve downloaded in previous exercises, identify which articles are likely to be most relevant to your proposed study. This may change as you revise your working question and study design over the next few weeks. Create a list of 10 articles that are highly relevant to the extent that you will need to remember key details from each section of the article.
  • Create a spreadsheet for your summary table and save it in your project folder on your hard drive. Using one of the templates linked in this chapter, fill in the columns of your spreadsheet. Enter the information from one of the articles you’ve read so far. As you finalize your research question over the next few weeks, fill in your summary table with the 5 most relevant empirical articles on your topic.

 

Organizing facts using a topical outline

If we’re only reading 10 articles in detail, what do we do with the others? Raul Pacheco-Vega recommends using the AIC approach: read the abstract, introduction, and conclusion (and the discussion section, in empirical articles). For non-empirical articles, it’s a little less clear but the first few pages and last few pages of an article usually contain the author’s reading of the relevant literature and their principal conclusions. You may also want to skim the first and last sentence of each paragraph and only reading paragraphs in which you are likely to find information relevant to your working question. Skimming like this gives you the general point of the article, though you should read in detail the most valuable resource of all–another author’s literature review.

It’s impossible to read all of the literature about your topic. You will read about 10 articles in detail, a few times more than that you will skim the abstract, introduction, and conclusion, but you will ultimately never read everything. Make the most out of the articles you do read by extracting as many facts as possible from each. You are starting your research project without a lot of knowledge of the topic you want to study, and by using the literature reviews provided in academic journal articles, you can gain a lot of knowledge about a topic in a short period of time. This way, by reading only a small number of articles, you are also reading their citations and synthesis of dozens of other articles as well.

As you read an article in detail, I suggest copying any facts you find relevant in a separate word processing document. Another idea is to copy anything you’ve annotated as background information in Section 4.2 into an outline. Copying and pasting from PDF to Word can be difficult because PDFs are image files, not documents. To make that easier, use the HTML version of the article, convert the PDF to Word in Adobe Acrobat or another PDF reader, or use the “paste special” command to paste the content into Word without formatting. If it’s an old PDF, you may have to simply type out the information you need. It can be a messy job, but having all of your facts in one place is very helpful when drafting your literature review.

You should copy and paste any fact or argument you consider important. Some good examples include definitions of concepts, statistics about the size of the social problem, and empirical evidence about the key variables in the research question, among countless others. It’s a good idea to consult with your professor and the course syllabus to understand what he or she is looking for when reading your literature review. Facts for your literature review are principally found in the introduction, results, and discussion section of an empirical article or at any point in a non-empirical article. Copy and paste into your notes anything you may want to use in your literature review.

Importantly, you must make sure you note the original source of that information. Nothing is worse than searching your articles for hours only to realize you forgot to note where your facts came from. If you found a statistic that the author used in the introduction, it almost certainly came from another source that the author cited in a footnote or internal citation. You will want to check the original source to make sure the author represented the information correctly. Moreover, you may want to read the original study to learn more about your topic and discover other sources relevant to your inquiry.

Assuming you have pulled all of the facts out of multiple articles, it’s time to start thinking about how these pieces of information relate to each other. Start grouping each fact into categories and subcategories as shown in Table 5.2. For example, a statistic stating that single adults who are homeless are more likely to be male may fit into a category of gender and homelessness. For each topic or subtopic you identify during your critical analysis of each paper, determine what those papers have in common. Likewise, determine which differ. If there are contradictory findings, you may be able to identify methodological or theoretical differences that could account for these contradictions. For example, one study may sample only high-income earners or those living in a rural area. Determine what general conclusions you can report about the topic or subtopic, based on all of the information you’ve found.

Create a separate document containing a topical outline that combines your facts from each source and organizes them by topic or category. As you include more facts and more sources in your topical outline, you will begin to see how each fact fits into a category and how categories are related to one another. Keep in mind that your category names may change over time, as may their definitions. This is a natural reflection of the learning you are doing.

 

Table 5.2 Topical outline
Facts copied from an article Topical outline: Facts organized by category
  • Accumulating evidence indicates that adolescents who have same-sex sexual attractions, who have had sexual or romantic relationships with persons of the same sex, or who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are more likely than heterosexual adolescents to experience depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and to make suicide attempts (Remafedi et al. 1998; Russell and Joyner 2001; Safren and Heimberg 1999).
  • Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) system showed that 40% of youth who reported a minority sexual orientation indicated feeling sad or hopeless in the past 2 weeks, compared to 26% of heterosexual youth (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2007). Those data also showed that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely as heterosexual youth to have considered attempting suicide in the past year (31% vs. 14%). This body of research demonstrates that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have high levels of emotional distress.
  • A much smaller body of research suggests that adolescents who identify as transgendered or transsexual also experience increased emotional distress (Di Ceglie et al. 2002; Grossman and D’Augelli 2006, 2007).
  • In a study based on a convenience sample of 55 transgendered youth aged to 15–21 years, the authors found that more than one fourth reported a prior suicide attempt (Grossman and D’Augelli 2007).
  • LGBTQ+ adolescents and suicide
    • Accumulating evidence indicates that adolescents who have same-sex sexual attractions, who have had sexual or romantic relationships with persons of the same sex, or who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are more likely than heterosexual adolescents to experience depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and to make suicide attempts (Remafedi et al. 1998; Russell and Joyner 2001; Safren and Heimberg 1999).
  • LGBTQ+ adolescents and emotional distress
    • Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) system showed that 40% of youth who reported a minority sexual orientation indicated feeling sad or hopeless in the past 2 weeks, compared to 26% of heterosexual youth (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2007). Those data also showed that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely as heterosexual youth to have considered attempting suicide in the past year (31% vs. 14%). This body of research demonstrates that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have high levels of emotional distress.
  • Transgender adolescents and emotional distress
    • A much smaller body of research suggests that adolescents who identify as transgendered or transsexual also experience increased emotional distress (Di Ceglie et al. 2002; Grossman and D’Augelli 2006, 2007).
    • In a study based on a convenience sample of 55 transgendered youth aged to 15–21 years, the authors found that more than one fourth reported a prior suicide attempt (Grossman and D’Augelli 2007).

A complete topical outline is a long list of facts arranged by category. As you step back from the outline, you should assess which topic areas for which you have enough research support to allow you to draw strong conclusions. You should also assess which areas you need to do more research in before you can write a robust literature review. The topical outline should serve as a transitional document between the notes you write on each source and the literature review you submit to your professor. It is important to note that they contain plagiarized information that is copied and pasted directly from the primary sources. In this case, it is not problematic because these are just notes and are not meant to be turned in as your own ideas. For your final literature review, you must paraphrase these sources to avoid plagiarism. More importantly, you should keep your voice and ideas front-and-center in what you write as this is your analysis of the literature. Make strong claims and support them thoroughly using facts you found in the literature. We will pick up the task of writing your literature review in section 5.3.

Exercises

  • In your folder full of article PDFs, look for the most relevant review articles. If you don’t have any, try to look for some. If there are none in your topic area, you can also use other non-empirical articles or empirical articles with long literature reviews (in the introduction and discussion sections).
  • Create a word processing document for your topical outline and save it in your project folder on your hard drive. Using a review article, start copying facts you identified as Background Information or Results into your topical outline. Try to organize each fact by topic or theme. Make sure to copy the internal citation for the original source of each fact. For articles that do not use internal citations, create one using the information in the footnotes and references. As you finalize your research question over the next few weeks, skim the literature reviews of the articles you download for key facts and copy them into your topical outline.

Putting the pieces together: Building a concept map

Developing a concept map or mind map around your topic can be helpful in figuring out how the facts fit together. We talked about concept mapping briefly in Chapter 2, when we were first thinking about your topic and sketching out what you already know about it. Concept mapping during the literature review stage of a research project builds on this foundation of knowledge and aims to improve the “description of the breadth and depth of literature in a domain of inquiry. It also facilitates identification of the number and nature of studies underpinning mapped relationships among concepts, thus laying the groundwork for systematic research reviews and meta-analyses” (Lesley, Floyd, & Oermann, 2002, p. 229).[11] Its purpose, like other question refinement methods, is to help you organize, prioritize, and integrate material into a workable research area – one that is interesting, answerable, feasible, objective, scholarly, original, and clear.

Think about the topics you created in your topic outline. How do they relate to one another? Within each topic, how do facts relate to one another? As you write down what you have, think about what you already know. What other related concepts do you not yet have information about? What relationships do you need to investigate further? Building a conceptual map should help you understand what you already know, what you need to learn next, and how you can organize a literature review.

This technique is illustrated in this Youtube Video. You may want to indicate which concepts and relationships you’ve already found in your review and which ones you think might be true but haven’t found evidence of yet. Once you get a sense of how your concepts are related and which relationships are important to you, it’s time to revise your working question.

Exercises

  • Create a concept map using a pencil and paper. Identify the key ideas inside the literature, how they relate to one another, and the facts you know about them. Reflect on those areas you need to learn more about prior to writing your literature review. As you finalize your research question over the next few weeks, update your concept map and think about how you might organize it into a written literature review. Refer to the topics and headings you use in your topical outline and think about what literature you have that helps you understand each concept and relationship between them in your concept map.

Revising your working question

You should be revisiting your working question throughout the literature review process. As you continue to learn more about your topic, your question will become more specific and clearly worded. This is normal and there is no way to shorten this process. Keep revising your question in order to ensure it will contribute something new to the literature on your topic, is relevant to your target population, and is feasible for you to conduct as a student project.

For example, perhaps your initial idea or interest is how to prevent obesity. After an initial search of the relevant literature, you realize the topic of obesity is too broad to adequately cover in the time you have to do your project. You decide to narrow your focus to causes of childhood obesity. After reading some articles on childhood obesity, you further narrow your search to the influence of family risk factors on overweight children. A potential research question might then be, “What maternal factors are associated with toddler obesity in the United States?” You would then need to return to the literature to find more specific studies related to the variables in this question (e.g. maternal factors, toddler, obesity, toddler obesity).

Similarly, after an initial literature search for a broad topic such as school performance or grades, examples of a narrow research question might be:

  • “To what extent does parental involvement in children’s education relate to school performance over the course of the early grades?”
  • “Do parental involvement levels differ by family social, demographic, and contextual characteristics?”
  • “What forms of parent involvement are most highly correlated with children’s outcomes? What factors might influence the extent of parental involvement?” (Early Childhood Longitudinal Program, 2011).[12]

In either case, your literature search, working question, and understanding of the topic are constantly changing as your knowledge of the topic deepens. A literature review is an iterative process, one that stops, starts, and loops back on itself multiple times before completion. As research is a practice behavior of social workers, you should apply the same type of critical reflection to your inquiry as you would to your clinical or macro practice.

There are many ways to approach synthesizing literature. We’ve reviewed the following: summary tables, topical outlines, and concept maps. Other examples you may encounter include annotated bibliographies and synthesis matrices. As you are learning how to conduct research, find a method that works for you. Reviewing the literature is a core component of evidence-based practice in social work. See the resources below if you need some additional help:

Literature Reviews: Using a Matrix to Organize Research / Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota

Literature Review: Synthesizing Multiple Sources / Indiana University

Writing a Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix / Florida International University

Sample Literature Reviews Grid / Complied by Lindsay Roberts

Literature review preparation: Creating a summary table. (Includes transcript) / Laura Killam

 

Key Takeaways

  • You won’t read every article all the way through. For most articles, reading the abstract, introduction, and conclusion are enough to determine its relevance.
  • For articles where everything seems relevant, use a summary table to keep track of details. These are particularly helpful with empirical articles.
  • For articles with sections relevant to your topic, copy any relevant information into a topical outline, along with the original source of that information.
  • Use a concept map to help you visualize the key concepts in your topic area and the relationships between them.
  • Revise your working question regularly. As you do, you will likely need to revise your search queries and include new articles.

Exercises

  • Look back at the working question for your topic and consider any necessary revisions. It is important that questions become clearer and more specific over time. It is also common that your working question shift over time, sometimes drastically, as you explore new lines of inquiry in the literature. Return to your working question regularly and make sure it reflects the focus of your inquiry. You will continue to revise your working question until we formalize it into a research question at the end of Part 2 of this textbook.

5.3 Writing your literature review

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Describe the components of a literature review
  • Begin to write your literature review
  • Identify the purpose of a problem statement
  • Apply the components of a formal argument to your topic
  • Use elements of formal writing style, including signposting and transitions
  • Recognize commons errors in literature reviews

Congratulations! By now, you should have discovered, retrieved, evaluated, synthesized, and organized the information you need for your literature review. It’s now time to turn that stack of articles, papers, and notes into a literature review–it’s time to start writing!

Writing about research is different than other types of writing. Research writing is not like a journal entry or opinion paper. The goal here is not to apply your research question to your life or growth as a practitioner. Research writing is about the provision and interpretation of facts. The tone should be objective and unbiased, and personal experiences and opinions are excluded. Particularly for students who are used to writing case notes, research writing can be a challenge. That’s why its important to normalize getting help! If your professor has not built in peer review, consider setting up a peer review group among your peers. You should also reach out to your academic advisor to see if there are writing services on your campus available to graduate students. No one should feel bad for needing help with something they haven’t done before, haven’t done in a while, or were never taught how to do.

If you’ve followed the steps in this chapter, you likely have an outline, summary table, and concept map from which you can begin the writing process. But what do you need to include in your literature review? We’ve mentioned it before, but to summarize, a literature review should:

  1. Introduce the topic and define its key terms.
  2. Establish the importance of the topic.
  3. Provide an overview of the important literature related to the concepts found in the research question.
  4. Identify gaps or controversies in the literature.
  5. Point out consistent findings across studies.
  6. Synthesize that which is known about a topic, rather than just provide a summary of the articles you read.
  7. Discuss possible implications and directions for future research.

Do you have enough facts and sources to accomplish these tasks? It’s a good time to consult your outlines and notes on each article you plan to include in your literature review. You may also want to consult with your professor on what is expected of you. If there is something you are missing, you may want to jump back to Section 2.3 where we discussed how to search for literature. While you can always fill in material, there is the danger that you will start writing without really knowing what you are talking about or what you want to say. For example, if you don’t have a solid definition of your key concepts or a sense of how the literature has developed over time, it will be difficult to make coherent scholarly claims about your topic.

There is no magical point at which one is ready to write. As you consider whether you are ready, it may be useful to ask yourself these questions:

  • How will my literature review be organized?
  • What section headings will I be using?
  • How do the various studies relate to each other?
  • What contributions do they make to the field?
  • Where are the gaps in the research? What are the limitations of existing research?
  • And finally, but most importantly, how does my own research fit into what has already been done?

The problem statement

Scholarly works often begin with a problem statement, which serves two functions. First, it establishes why your topic is a social problem worth studying. Second, it pulls your reader into the literature review. Who would want to read about something unimportant?

A problem statement generally answers the following questions, though these are far from exhaustive:

  • Why is this an important problem to study?
  • How many people are affected by this problem?
  • How does this problem impact other social issues relevant to social work?
  • Why is your target population an important one to study?

A strong problem statement, like the rest of your literature review, should be filled with facts, theory, and arguments based on the extant literature. A research proposal differs significantly from other more reflective essays you’ve likely completed during your social work studies. If your topic were domestic violence in rural Appalachia, I’m sure you could come up with answers to the above questions without looking at a single source. However, the purpose of the literature review is not to test your intuition, personal experience, or empathy. Instead, research methods are about gaining specific and articulable knowledge to inform action. With a problem statement, you can take a “boring” topic like the color of rooms used in an inpatient psychiatric facility, transportation patterns in major cities, or the materials used to manufacture baby bottles, and help others see the topic as you see it—an important part of the social world that impacts social work practice.

The structure of a literature review

In general, the problem statement belongs at the beginning of the literature review. I usually advise students to spend no more than a paragraph or two for a problem statement. For the rest of your literature review, there is no set formula by which it needs to be organized. However, a literature review generally follows the format of any other essay—Introduction, Body, and Conclusion.

The introduction to the literature review contains a statement or statements about the overall topic. At a minimum, the introduction should define or identify the general topic, issue, or area of concern. You might consider presenting historical background, mentioning the results of a seminal study, and providing definitions of important terms. The introduction may also point to overall trends in what has been previously published on the topic or on conflicts in theory, methodology, evidence, conclusions, or gaps in research and scholarship. I also suggest putting in a few sentences that walk the reader through the rest of the literature review. Highlight your main arguments from the body of the literature review and preview your conclusion. An introduction should let the reader know what to expect from the rest of your review.

The body of your literature review is where you demonstrate your synthesis and analysis of the literature. Again, do not just summarize the literature. I would also caution against organizing your literature review by source—that is, one paragraph for source A, one paragraph for source B, etc. That structure will likely provide an adequate summary of the literature you’ve found, but it would give you almost no synthesis of the literature. That approach doesn’t tell your reader how to put those facts together, it doesn’t highlight points of agreement or contention, or how each study builds on the work of others. In short, it does not demonstrate critical thinking.

Organize your review by argument

Instead, use your outlines and notes as a guide what you have to say about the important topics you need to cover. Literature reviews are written from the perspective of an expert in that field. After an exhaustive literature review, you should feel as though you are able to make strong claims about what is true—so make them! There is no need to hide behind “I believe” or “I think.” Put your voice out in front, loud and proud! But make sure you have facts and sources that back up your claims.

I’ve used the term “” here in a specific way. An argument in writing means more than simply disagreeing with what someone else said, as this classic Monty Python sketch demonstrates. Toulman, Rieke, and Janik (1984) identify six elements of an argument:

  1. Claim: the thesis statement—what you are trying to prove
  2. Grounds: theoretical or empirical evidence that supports your claim
  3. Warrant: your reasoning (rule or principle) connecting the claim and its grounds
  4. Backing: further facts used to support or legitimize the warrant
  5. Qualifier: acknowledging that the argument may not be true for all cases
  6. Rebuttal: considering both sides (as cited in Burnette, 2012)[13]

Let’s walk through an example. If I were writing a literature review on a negative income tax, a policy in which people in poverty receive an unconditional cash stipend from the government each month equal to the federal poverty level, I would want to lay out the following:

  1. Claim: the negative income tax is superior to other forms of anti-poverty assistance.
  2. Grounds: data comparing negative income tax recipients to people receiving anti-poverty assistance in existing programs, theory supporting a negative income tax, data from evaluations of existing anti-poverty programs, etc.
  3. Warrant: cash-based programs like the negative income tax are superior to existing anti-poverty programs because they allow the recipient greater self-determination over how to spend their money.
  4. Backing: data demonstrating the beneficial effects of self-determination on people in poverty.
  5. Qualifier: the negative income tax does not provide taxpayers and voters with enough control to make sure people in poverty are not wasting financial assistance on frivolous items.
  6. Rebuttal: policy should be about empowering the oppressed, not protecting the taxpayer, and there are ways of addressing taxpayer spending concerns through policy design.

Like any effective argument, your literature review must have some kind of structure. For example, it might begin by describing a phenomenon in a general way along with several studies that provide some detail, then describing two or more competing theories of the phenomenon, and finally presenting a hypothesis to test one or more of the theories. Or, it might describe one phenomenon, then describe another that seems inconsistent with the first, then propose a theory that resolves the inconsistency, and finally present a hypothesis to test that theory. In applied research, it might describe a phenomenon or theory, then describe how that phenomenon or theory applies to some important real-world situation, and finally, may suggest a way to test whether it does, in fact, apply to that situation.

Use signposts

Another important issue is . It may not be a term you are familiar with, but you are likely familiar with the concept. Signposting refers to the words used to identify the organization and structure of your literature review to your reader.  The most basic form of signposting is using a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph. A topic sentence introduces the argument you plan to make in that paragraph. For example, you might start a paragraph stating, “There is strong disagreement in the literature as to whether psychedelic drugs cause psychotic disorders, or whether people with psychotic disorders cause people to use psychedelic drugs.” Within that paragraph, your reader would likely assume you will present evidence for both arguments. The concluding sentence of your paragraph should address the topic sentence, addressing how the facts and arguments from other authors support a specific conclusion. To continue with our example, I might say, “There is likely a reciprocal effect in which both the use of psychedelic drugs worsens pre-psychotic symptoms and worsening psychosis leads to the use of psychedelic drugs to self-medicate or escape.”

Signposting also involves using headings and subheadings. Your literature review will use APA formatting, which means you need to follow their rules for bolding, capitalization, italicization, and indentation of headings. Headings help your reader understand the structure of your literature review. They can also help if the reader gets lost and needs to re-orient themselves within the document. I often tell my students to assume I know nothing (they don’t mind) and need to be shown exactly where they are addressing each part of the literature review. It’s like walking a small child around, telling them “First we’ll do this, then we’ll do that, and when we’re done, we’ll know this!”

Another way to use signposting is to open each paragraph with a sentence that links the topic of the paragraph with the one before it. Alternatively, one could end each paragraph with a sentence that links it with the next paragraph. For example, imagine we wanted to link a paragraph about barriers to accessing healthcare with one about the relationship between the patient and physician. We could use a transition sentence like this: “Even if patients overcome these barriers to accessing care, the physician-patient relationship can create new barriers to positive health outcomes.” A transition sentence like this builds a connection between two distinct topics. Transition sentences are also useful within paragraphs. They tell the reader how to consider one piece of information in light of previous information. Even simple transitional words like ‘however’ and ‘similarly’ demonstrate critical thinking and link each building block of your argument together.

Many beginning researchers have difficulty incorporating transitions into their writing. Let’s look at an example. Instead of beginning a sentence or paragraph by launching into a description of a study, such as “Williams (2004) found that…,” it is better to start by indicating something about why you are describing this particular study. Here are some simple examples:

  • Another example of this phenomenon comes from the work of Williams (2004)…
  • Williams (2004) offers one explanation of this phenomenon…
  • An alternative perspective has been provided by Williams (2004)…

Now that we know to use signposts, the natural question is “What goes on the signposts?” First, it is important to start with an outline of the main points that you want to make, organized in the order you want to make them. The basic structure of your argument should then be apparent from the outline itself. Unfortunately, there is no formula I can give you that will work for everyone, but I can provide some general pointers on structuring your literature review.

The literature review tends to move from general to more specific ideas. You can build a review by identifying areas of consensus and areas of disagreement. You may choose to present historical studies—preferably seminal studies that are of significant importance—and close with the most recent research. Another approach is to start with the most distantly related facts and literature and then report on those most closely related to your research question. You could also compare and contrast valid approaches, features, characteristics, theories – that is, one approach, then a second approach, followed by a third approach.

Here are some additional tips for writing the body of your literature review:

  • Start broad and then narrow down to more specific information.
  • When appropriate, cite two or more sources for a single point, but avoid long strings of references for a single idea.
  • Use quotes sparingly. Quotations for definitions are okay, but reserve quotes for when something is said so well you couldn’t possible phrase it differently. Never use quotes for statistics.
  • Paraphrase when you need to relay the specific details within an article
  • Include only the aspects of the study that are relevant to your literature review. Don’t insert extra facts about a study just to take up space.
  • Avoid first-person like language like “I” and “we” to maintain objectivity.
  • Avoid informal language like contractions, idioms, and rhetorical questions.
  • Note any sections of your review that lack citations from the literature. Your arguments need to be based in empirical or theoretical facts. Do not approach this like a reflective journal entry.
  • Point out consistent findings and emphasize stronger studies over weaker ones.
  • Point out important strengths and weaknesses of research studies, as well as contradictions and inconsistent findings.
  • Implications and suggestions for further research (where there are gaps in the current literature) should be specific.

The conclusion should summarize your literature review, discuss implications, and create a space for further research needed in this area. Your conclusion, like the rest of your literature review, should make a point. What are the important implications of your literature review? How do they inform the question you are trying to answer?

You should consult with your professor and the course syllabus about the final structure your literature review should take. Here is an example of one possible structure:

  • Problem statement
    • Establish the importance of the topic
    • Number and type of people affected
    • Seriousness of the impact
    • Physical, psychological, economic, social, or spiritual consequences of the problem
  • Argument 1
    • Definitions of key terms
    • Supporting evidence
    • Common findings across studies, gaps in the literature
  • Argument 2
    • Definitions of key terms
    • Supporting evidence
    • Common findings across studies, gaps in the literature
  • Argument 3
    • Definitions of key terms
    • Supporting evidence
    • Common findings across studies, gaps in the literature
  • Final paragraph
    • Research question(s) and hypothesis(es)

Editing your literature review

Literature reviews are more than a summary of the publications you find on a topic. As you have seen in this brief introduction, literature reviews represent a very specific type of research, analysis, and writing. We will explore these topics further in upcoming chapters. As you begin your literature review, here are some common errors to avoid:

  • Accepting a researcher’s finding as valid without evaluating methodology and data
  • Ignoring contrary findings and alternative interpretations
  • Using findings that are not clearly related to your own study or using findings that are too general
  • Dedicating insufficient time to literature searching
  • Reporting isolated statistical results, rather than synthesizing the results
  • Relying too heavily on secondary sources
  • Overusing quotations
  • Not justifying arguments using specific facts or theories from the literature
For a quick review of some of the pitfalls and challenges a new researcher faces when he or she begins work, see “Get Ready: Academic Writing, General Pitfalls and (oh yes) Getting Started!

For your literature review, remember that your goal is to construct an argument for the importance of your research question. As you start editing your literature review, make sure it is balanced. Accurately report common findings, areas where studies contradict each other, new theories or perspectives, and how studies cause us to reaffirm or challenge our understanding of your topic.

It is acceptable to argue that the balance of the research supports the existence of a phenomenon or is consistent with a theory (and that is usually the best that researchers in social work can hope for), but it is not acceptable to ignore contradictory evidence. A large part of what makes a research question interesting is uncertainty about its answer (University of Minnesota, 2016).[14]

In addition to subjectivity and bias, writer’s block can obstruct the completion of your literature review. Often times, writer’s block can stem from confusing the creating and editing parts of the writing process. Many writers often start by simply trying to type out what they want to say, regardless of how good it is. Author Anne Lamott (1995)[15] terms these “shitty first drafts,” and we all write them. They are a natural and important part of the writing process.

Even if you have a detailed outline from which to work, the words are not going to fall into place perfectly the first time you start writing. You should consider turning off the editing and critiquing part of your brain for a while and allow your thoughts to flow. Don’t worry about putting the correct internal citation when you first write. Just get the information out. Only after you’ve reached a natural stopping point might you go back and edit your draft for grammar, APA style, organization, flow, and more. Divorcing the writing and editing process can go a long way to addressing writer’s block—as can picking a topic about which you have something to say!

As you are editing, keep in mind these questions adapted from Green (2012):[16]

  • Content: Have I clearly stated the main idea or purpose of the paper and address all the issues? Is the thesis or focus clearly presented and appropriate for the reader?
  • Organization: How well is it structured? Is the organization spelled out and easy to follow for the reader ?
  • Flow: Is there a logical flow from section to section, paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence? Are there transitions between and within paragraphs that link ideas together?
  • Development: Have I validated the main idea with supporting material? Are supporting data sufficient? Does the conclusion match the introduction?
  • Form: Are there any APA style issues, redundancy, problematic wording and terminology (always know the definition of any word you use!), flawed sentence constructions and selection, spelling, and punctuation?

APA Style

Social workers use the APA style guide to format and structure their literature reviews. Most students know APA style only as it relates to internal and external citations. If you are confused about them, consult this amazing APA style guide from the University of Texas-Arlington library. Your university’s library likely has resources they created to help you with APA style, and you can meet with a librarian or your professor to talk about formatting questions you have.  Make sure you budget in a few hours at the end of each project to build a correctly formatted references page and check your internal citations.

Of course, APA style is about much more than knowing there is a period after “et al.” or citing the location a book was published. APA style is also about what the profession considers to be good writing. If you haven’t picked up an APA publication manual because you use citation generators, know that I did the same thing when I was in school. However, I genuinely suggest picking up the newest manual for excellent guidance on writing for a professional audience. It will also help you with a common problem I hear about from students. Every professor (and every website about APA style) seems to have their own peculiar idea of “correct” APA style.

Here are some additional resources, if you would like more guidance on writing your literature review.

Doing a literature review / University of Leicester

Get lit: The literature review / Texas A&M Writing Centre

Guidebook for social work literature reviews / by Rebecca Mauldin and Matthew DeCarlo

 

Key Takeaways

  • A literature review is not a book report. Do not organize it by article, with one paragraph for each source in your references. Instead, organize it based on the key ideas and arguments.
  • The problem statement draws the reader into your topic by highlighting the importance of the topic to social work and to society overall.
  • Signposting is an important component of academic writing that helps your reader follow the structure of your argument and of your literature review.
  • Transitions demonstrate critical thinking and help guide your reader through your arguments.
  • Editing and writing are separate processes.
  • Consult with an APA style guide or a librarian to help you format your paper.

Exercises

  • Look at your professor’s prompt for the literature review component of your research proposal.
    • Write 2-3 facts you would use to address each question or component in the prompt.
    • Reflect on which questions you have a lot of information about and which you need to gather more information about in order to answer adequately.
  • Outline the structure of your literature review using your concept map from Section 5.2 as a guide.
    • Identify the key arguments you will make and how they are related to each other.
    • Reflect on topic sentences and concluding sentences you would use for each argument.

 

Media Attributions


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  10. Bernnard, D., Bobish, G., Hecker, J., Holden, I., Hosier, A., Jacobson, T., Loney, T., & Bullis, D. (2014). Presenting: Sharing what you’ve learned. In Bobish, G., & Jacobson, T. (eds.) The information literacy users guide: An open online textbookhttps://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/the-information-literacy-users-guide-an-open-online-textbook/chapter/present-sharing-what-youve-learned/
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  12. Early Childhood Longitudinal Program. (2011). Example research questionshttps://nces.ed.gov/ecls/researchquestions2011.asp
  13. Burnett, D. (2012). Inscribing knowledge: Writing research in social work. In W. Green & B. L. Simon (Eds.), The Columbia guide to social work writing (pp. 65-82). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  14. University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. (2016). This is a derivative of Research Methods in Psychology by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
  15. Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York, NY: Penguin.
  16. Green, W. Writing strategies for academic papers. In W. Green & B. L. Simon (Eds.), The Columbia guide to social work writing (pp. 25-47). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

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