This section is designed to provide you with some reminders in relation to searching, choosing search terms and some ideas about where to start in undertaking a literature review.
Where to start
The best places to start are likely to be a legal database (or law library) and Google Scholar. Many students and academics now useas one of their ‘go to’ tools for scholarly research. It can be helpful to gain an overview of a topic, or to gain a sense of direction; but it is not a substitute for your own research of primary and secondary sources.
Having gained an overview from your initial search through browsing general collections of documents, you will then need to undertake a more detailed search to find specific documents. Identifying relevant scholarly articles and following links in footnotes and bibliographies can be helpful as you continue your search for relevant information.
One of the decisions you will have to make is when to stop working on your literature review and your research, and when to start writing up your dissertation. This will be determined by the material you gather and the time constraints you are working to.
One starting point may be to locate a small number of key journal papers or articles; for a draft outline proposal for your research you might have around four to six of these, accumulating more as you develop the research subsequently. Aim for quality, not quantity. Look for relevant and recent publications. Most of your references will typically not be more than four years old, although this does depend on your field of study. You will need quite a few more in due course to cover other aspects of your research such as methods and evaluation, but at this stage you need only a few recent items.
While reading these documents, aim to identify the key issues that are essential to your research question, ideally around four to six.
Compare and contrast the literature, looking for commonalities, agreements and disagreements and for problem identification and possible answers. Then write up your analysis of the comparison and any conclusions you might reach. The required outcome will be that you can make an informed decision about how to proceed with your primary research, based on the work carried out by other researchers.
Note that ultimately there is no infallible means of assessing the value of a given reference. Its source may be a useful indication, but you have to use your judgement about its value for your research.
Reviewing your sources
Skim read each document to decide whether a book or paper is worth reading in more depth. To do this you need to make use of the various signposts that are available from the:
- title page
- notes on a book’s cover can help situate the content
- abstract (for a paper), or the preface (for a book)
- contents page
- references section (sometimes called the ‘bibliography’)
In your record, make a brief note (one or two sentences) of the main points.
Next, skim through the opening page of each chapter, or the first paragraph of each section. This should give you enough information to assess whether you need to read the book or paper in more depth, again make a suitable note against that record.
Reading in more detail: SQ3R
If you have decided to look in more detail at a source document that you have skim read, you can use the well-known ‘SQ3R’ approach (Skimming, Questioning, Reading, Recalling and Reviewing).
- Skimming – skim reading the chapter or part of the paper that relates to your topic, or otherwise interests you.
- Questioning – develop a few questions that you consider the text might answer for you. You can often use journal, chapter or section titles to help you formulate relevant questions. For example, when studying a journal article with the title, ‘Me and my body: the relevance of the distinction for the difference between withdrawing life support and euthanasia’, you might ask, ‘How is the distinction between withdrawing life support and euthanasia drawn?’
- Reading – read through the chapter, section or paper with your questions in mind. Do not make notes at this stage.
- Recalling – make notes on what you have read. You should normally develop your own summary or answers to your questions. There will also be short passages that you may want to note fully, perhaps to use as a quotation for when you write up your literature review. Be sure to note carefully the page(s) on which the quotation appears.
- Reviewing – check through the process, perhaps flicking through the section or article again. It is also worth emphasising that if you maintain your reference list as you go along, not only will you save yourself a lot of work in later stages of the research, but you will also have all the necessary details to hand for writing up with fewer mistakes.
There is no doubt that this approach takes considerably more effort than sitting back and studying a text passively. The benefit from the extra work involved is the development of a critical approach, which you must adopt for your research.
Following citations in a paper
When you have found (and read) your first couple of papers, you can then use them to seed your search for other useful literature. In this case, we will use the example in Box 1.
When we looked at the references list in Suppon, J. F. (2010) ‘Life after death: the need to address the legal status of posthumously conceived children’, Family Court Review, vol. 48, no. 1, pp. 228–45, a couple of items, going only by the titles, looked promising:
- Doucettperry, Major M. (2008) ‘To Be Continued: A Look at Posthumous Reproduction As It Relates to Today’s Military’, TheArmy Lawyer, no. 420, pp. 1–22.
- Karlin, J. H. (2006) ‘“Daddy, Can you Spare a Dime?”: Intestate Heir Rights of Posthumously Conceived Children’, Temple Law Review, vol. 79, no. 4, pp. 1317–54.
These are simply the papers that we felt looked most appropriate from the references. There is no formula for determining the best paper; you simply need to read a few and try to develop a feel for which seem the most appropriate for your own research project. You should only be citing papers that contribute to your research in a significant way, or that you have included material from; not everything that you read (and discarded) along the way.
Recording your references
We strongly suggest that you establish a recording system at the outset, when you begin your research and keep maintaining records in an organised and complete manner as you progress. You need to choose a consistent method of recording your references; this is a personal choice and can be paper based or electronic. Do not be tempted to have more than one method or repository as this can lead to confusion and unnecessary extra work. There are software tools available that can help you to both organise your references and incorporate them into your written work. Always keep a backup copy of your records.
The following is a suggestion as to how you might record any document that you think you may use.
Open a new record, and record the basic details:
- author(s), including initials
- date of publication
- title of work or article.
Additionally, for books:
- place of publication
- page numbers of relevant material.
Additionally, for journal papers:
- journal name
- volume and issue number
- date of publication
- page range of the whole article.