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Literature Review: 3. Read & Take Notes

How to guide for researching and managing the literature review.

Tracking Your Searches

One way to begin taking notes is to keep track of what you are searching for.  Many databases help you do this by allowing you to save searches.  Saving searches allows you to watch the development of your search over time and to make sure you are not simply repeating the same (not so great) search over and over.  Copy and paste or print out the search page to help think of ways your search could or should change over time.  This example is from the EbscoHost version of Medline, but many databases have a similar option.

Saved search

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a popular way to brainstorm about your topic or to take notes about an article or presentation.  Start with the main topic in the center and then think of a variety of related subtopics that you want to explore.  Mind maps allow you to be flexible and to see alternative ideas you may not initially have considered.

Mind Map by Xmind

You can either use paper and pencil or you can use a variety of free or commercial products to create mind maps.  See some suggested options below.  (This mind map was made with the free version of XMind.)

Note taking Tables

Some of us think in a more linear way and find it useful to enter notes in tables rather than in mind or concept maps.  This table is one illustration of what types of information you can gather from the articles or books that you read.  If this table is helpful, you can download the handout version below.

Notes Table

Reading Tips

Learning how to read academic literature, both articles and books, takes practices.  Here are some tips to help you become a more focused reader:

  • Read with your question in mind (usually your thesis or research question)
  • Write a short "take home message" about the significance of the article as it relates to your research question.  Then it is easy to transition from these notes to your literature review draft.
  • Re-read articles - but with new questions in mind, not because you forgot the contents of the article.

Writing as a Conversation

One way to think about writing a literature review is as a dialogue between authors who have previously written about various aspects of your topic.  You will create this dialog by discussing the agreements and disagreements between those authors, and you will illustrate what they have not yet talked about or researched. 

Use this illustration not as an exact recipe for how to write, but as a guide for how to incorporate some of these writing strategies.

Lit Review Outline

Writing Center Resources

Need more writing help? Try the OSU Writing Center.  In addition to providing free help, particularly with brainstorming and organization, they also have writing assistants who are specifically trained to work with graduate students.  Plan ahead as it can often take several sessions to work through something as major as a thesis writing project.

How do you take notes?

Which of these tools do you most commonly use to take notes?

How do you take notes?
Mind maps: 8 votes (15.38%)
Tables: 7 votes (13.46%)
Index cards: 1 votes (1.92%)
One big Word document: 13 votes (25%)
Note book: 12 votes (23.08%)
In a citation manager like Zotero: 4 votes (7.69%)
In Evernote: 1 votes (1.92%)
I don't take notes!: 5 votes (9.62%)
Other: 1 votes (1.92%)
Total Votes: 52