Tuesday 18 July 2017

When Have You Read Enough for a Literature Review?

When Have You Read Enough for a Literature Review?

Many students and researchers will ask their supervisors and professors: “How long should my literature review be? How many citations should I have? And when do I know that I’ve read enough?”

Almost invariably, the supervisor will respond by saying that there is no way to tell; there is just a sense of completion that comes when the researcher has done enough work. “You’ll know when you know.” For many of us, this feedback is too vague, and the sense of completion never seems to come as we are always discovering more and more information that makes us feel like we don’t know enough to do our study or to get our degree.

It's important not to become overwhelmed by the vast amount of information that’s out there. If you really try to read every single study in your field of study, for most fields you would need quite a few lifetimes before you’ve read them all.

A good way to know when you’ve read enough is when you can comfortably go through a few studies that are similar to yours and recognize the majority of references in their reference lists. If you’ve already read most of the work that has helped others to do studies similar to yours, then you’re on the right track.

Another way to ensure that you’re being thorough is to make sure that you read as much of the relevant literature over the past four or five years. When you do a library search of the studies that match your keywords or that fit your themes, are there any that expand on the established knowledge in a substantial way? Read all of the abstracts for these studies, and then only choose the most relevant ones to read the full text of and to incorporate in your literature review. Be selective with your reading, especially after you’ve already spent months working on a literature review.

Another way to gauge your level of completion is to send regular drafts of your literature review to your supervisor or to other knowledgeable colleagues. They have a lot more experience than you have, and if they point out any readings that you should include, focus on those instead of the hundreds of other readings that might be tangentially relevant.

In some fields, like natural sciences or engineering, studies usually range from 20 to 150 references, although around 70 – 95 should be sufficient for a master’s study. For the social and health sciences, the range is much higher with anywhere from 20 – 220 references in many studies. Most studies in these fields end up with around 100 references at master’s level. If you are doing literary or cultural analysis, or looking at case studies, for example in the humanities fields like History or English literature, you will require a lot more references since you won’t need to do experimentation. However, many of these references will form part of your body chapters and not all of them are included in your literature review. The average for master’s studies in the humanities is around 170 references in total.

For a doctoral study, you can safely double these figures.

This should only be a general guideline, and your particular study might require much more or much less reading than the figures listed here.

Review Your Learning:
·         Your literature review should logically flow from one idea to the next
·         A good logical framework for any piece of writing is to move from the general to the specific, or from broader ideas to more specific ideas
·         Make sure that you fully understand your readings, and critically engage with the content so that you don’t end up making the same mistakes that another researcher made in their article