How to Review Literature Effectively: Sharing my Research Experiences

Karna Rana, PhD

In my experience reading through the existing documents and reviewing relevant literature is a challenging job in the research process. The process of reviewing literature continues from the beginning of thinking about research to finalising a research paper or thesis. I believe that a researcher begins a research right from the beginning to think about what the research problem is and explores relevant information to the research problem. A researcher uses own bank of knowledge and various documents as a reference to define the research problem. However, it is not an easy job for anyone to explore resources and to find relevant information in the resources. Here, the researcher needs to have skills in reading documents and reviewing the literature and most importantly select the right resources from a vast ocean of resources such as the physical library, digital library and websites.

Let me share my experience of exploring resources, finding right documents, reading through lines and picking relevant information from the documents. When I started my second Masters in Education at the University of Bedfordshire in England in 2009, I struggled a lot to understand and learn the way of searching documents in both physical and digital libraries and had to wriggle when I was unable to recognise right information in the available resources. I cannot remember how often the library liaisons and tutors helped me explore digital books, journals and website information. It took a while to recognise the right information in journals, book chapters, newspapers and websites. I believe the way I learnt to read documents and review information relevant to research problems, questions or purposes is a generic skill needed for researchers to review literature. As you read a document, remember what to review.

In the beginning days of my Master’s research, I used to randomly pick information from documents, but gradually my tutors’ support and guidance, and the seminars I attended helped me to improve my way of reading skills and develop skills of reviewing literature. As a result, I was able to review the literature for my research more comfortably and systematically. Moreover, I was able to reflect the skills in my doctoral research activities from the beginning of developing a research proposal to the end of finalising thesis at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. The following diagram provides a guideline:

The above diagram (Presented by Professor Janinka Greenwood in the Creativity & Change Lab at the University of Canterbury) provides a fundamental guideline for reading documents and reviewing literature. The circles are interconnected in a literature and having the diagram on their mind can help a researcher to explore the right information in the documents and review literature systematically. The Topic in the diagram refers to the research topic. As a researcher or writer one needs to have a clear topic or the area to explore the right documents and the information within the documents. Moreover, the key aspects in the documents need to be relevant to the researcher’s own research area to relate the literature of the document. On the other hand, the Context in the diagram refers to the context of the research that the researcher has focused. When reviewing literature from journal articles, book chapters or other resources, a researcher needs to locate the context of the research information in the documents and provide the context in own review of the literature. The information becomes meaningful only in the contexts, the researcher must consider the context as an important aspect of the literature review process. The next important aspect of the literature review process is the Intention of the researcher which helps to read a wide range of texts in a document and explore the right content s/he wants to draw from the document. Another important aspect is the Criticality. The researcher needs to analyse how the information of the document relates to the topic and interpret it. It is a very important aspect in the process of reviewing information and interpreting in the body of literature because there is always a chance of biases. The researcher needs to reduce prejudices in the reviewed information.

When I started my doctoral research in education at the university, I got a good platform to learn reading skills and the skills of reviewing literature. Regular seminars in our research lab provided me with more opportunities for learning the strict discipline of reviewing literature such as exploring archived documents in a digital repository and printed materials, selecting right documents, scanning and skimming information in the documents. A researcher can use keywords and phrases to explore relevant materials available online from google, google scholar, EBSCOhost, digital library, etc. Similarly, the key terms and ideas of research can be helpful to select relevant books, journals and previous theses in the physical library. Moreover, the key ideas (specific topics) of the research can lead to reading through journal articles, specific chapters of bulky books and other documents. When reviewing literature, the researcher needs to have specific ideas to pick information from the resources such as journal article, book chapter, newspaper or other web pages and to interpret the information without any prejudices. The above diagram gives an idea to follow reading documents and what information to be reviewed from the resources. While reviewing any literature or a journal article, the researcher needs to bear in mind: who the researcher is, when the research was published, what the research is about (topic/ area), where the research took place (context), how the research was conducted (methodology) and what the results are. I believe that these key ideas help the researcher explore relevant information from documents, note key information when reading, interpret the information systematically and save valuable time.

Academic Writing and the Reality in Universities: A Review of Academics’ Voices

Karna Rana, PhD

This review is based on the interview which was published in April 2018 issue of ELTChoutari. Ashok Raj Khati, one of the editors of http://eltchoutari.com/ has explored significant ideas on academic writing from the interaction with scholars working in different universities of Nepal. The structured interview is centred on the university programmes which provide students with opportunities for learning skills of academic writing. It also highlights research and writing culture in the universities and publication habit of academics in their profession. The interview also raises the issue of plagiarism in Nepali academia.

The majority of academics in this interview emphasise that the formal courses they have in their universities can develop students’ academic writing skills. However, Khadka, Chairperson of English Subject Committee at Mid-Western University, Nepal, values the ELT club of students, which is a community of learning, to develop their writing skills. Students’ participation and presentation of their writing in seminars and conferences are highly focused by Gnawali and Ojha. Teachers’ feedback on students’ writing is focused to improve writing skills. However, developing students’ academic writing skills is a challenging job of university teachers in Nepali universities where the majority of students enrolled in English education come from government high schools. The students learn the English language in their schools as a subject among other subjects. Nevertheless, Negi doubts the scholarly qualification of university teachers and their learning and teaching habits who lack broad academic knowledge and extensively use diary notes to deliver lectures instead of teaching skills. Gaulee criticises university teachers for not providing feedback on students’ writing. He suggests the teachers need to value their salary for teaching life skills for students but not just for grading their level.

The academics in the interview highlight plagiarism in the works of academics and postgraduate students as a serious concern and a major issue in academic discussions in universities. Gnawali presumes that scholars plagiarise in their scholarly writing generally for two reasons: an intention to get quick promotion and lack of knowledge about how to acknowledge the sources. And the lack of enforcement of the law against the academic crime seems to be a loophole to allow the growth of plagiarism. Negi suggests the use of software to prevent plagiarism and discourage such activities in the authorship of academic publications. I believe that the academics’ arguments, ideas and suggestions signpost the demand for reformation in Nepali university programmes, the need for international standard academic writing and the development of research culture and publication.

The issues raised in the interview and the suggestions made to improve academic writings and publications in Nepal are genuine and significant if academics realise these in their professional activities. I reiterate the ideas of Gnawali and Gaulee that the honesty in knowledge and fair in sharing ideas in all kinds of academic publications should come first before thinking about earning money. However, the academic practice in Nepali universities is still based on Gurukul tradition, where chela (learners) just follow what their Guru (teacher) says. This culture is well maintained in academic writing and publications too. University lecturers and even professors compile contents from several sources based on the syllabus to prepare a book, author the book and insist undergraduate and postgraduate students to purchase their publications. None of such publications is ethical as the authors copy and paste contents without acknowledging the sources. Such publications are not standard because the information gathered in them is neither genuine nor authentic.

So far I know that the majority of standard journal articles and books in international academia are voluntarily written, reviewed and published, although few publishers charge little amount of money to cover the cost of press and distribution. Academics in Nepal need to learn about it and transform themselves before thinking to bring change in academic activities. Except rare recent graduates from local and international universities, who have been working hard to transform piracy academic culture to research-based original publication system in Nepali academia, the majority of university academics need to learn tangible academic skills and reflect their both soft and hard academic skills. Soft skills refer to social skills such as honesty in acknowledgement, fairness in information and unbiased criticality and hard skills refer to writing skills such as selection of academic language, organisation of ideas and presentation of information in an article or a book chapter.

Dr. Rana is associated with School of Teacher Education, College of Education, Health and Human Development, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand