Starting the literature review process

Snow is falling outside my window. It is May 1st in Colorado. Snowfall is happening. The snow that is falling includes heavy flakes that are actually sticking to the ground. The roads are clear, but the group is slightly covered with snow. That type of weather is great to inspire a desire for hot chocolate and the start of a literature review. In my case, a cup of coffee was confused and I have started to work on a literature review article related to growing and developing talent in the workplace. That topic is something that I want to better understand. It is a topic worthy of structured academic inquiry.

Understanding the structured nature of academic inquiry could underscore why we conduct research. It could also illustrate the process of how that research occurs. In this example it could describe what a literature review involves. Most of the literature reviews I have written were not intended for publication or were eventually condensed into a single section of an article.

In this case, I just wanted to better understand the topic in question. I am not sure if that is the right or wrong way to approach this type of work. The final product might be a standalone literature review or it could end up being a section of an article to be named later.

Writing a literature review is about figuring out what exists within academic literature and how it relates to the question at hand. Undergraduates typically have access to academic databases that they have not learned to appreciate just yet in the process. Outside of school the search becomes harder without easy access to academic databases. The vast majority of journal articles are not something that just shows up in a quick Google Search. A quick Google search for, “scholarly articles on developing talent in the workplace”, may not yield everything. You cannot expect that it will yield all possible scholarly results. That is unrealistic — some academic journals are not easily searchable without subscriptions.

My process for reviewing academic literature is pretty straightforward. I have used it over the course of a number of years. I hit up Google Scholar or a scholarly database and use the references from articles to map key contributions. The academy has existed for a very long time. Contributions have been made to academic literature over a very long period of time. Figuring out how far back to review and how many of the new articles are relevant is the core of the question at hand. You really do want to understand about newer and older academic theories and how older works are being referenced.

Here are the steps I am undertaking:

  1. Define the topic in question
  2. Define the keywords related to the topic in question
  3. Search for the keywords and locate relevant literature
  4. Use the relevant literature to locate key referenced works
  5. Identify what key referenced works to read
  6. Build an outline of the literature review
  7. Read the relevant literature and fill in the outline of the literature review
  8. Complete a first draft that addresses the topic in question
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Colorado snow in May

Reading academic journals

During flights I like to read academic journals cover to cover. Some of those moments of quiet reflection influenced the way I see the world. My interest in the field of public administration was sparked by a stack of Public Administration Review issues (PAR). They were sitting in the University of Kansas public administration department student lounge. My thesis advisor Elaine had told me if I did not enjoy reading journals from the field I may not have enough passion for graduate work. Students these days get so focused on drilling down into specific research areas. They sometimes cannot see the tallest trees in the forest. Mastery of a subject requires general understanding of the entire subject area.

Digital copies of journal articles have become ubiquitous. Some of them include the entire issue, but some of them are piecemeal. Single serving versions of what was a wider journey into the field. Students that only search databases may never venture beyond the edges of a targeted search. A world of knowledge becomes reduced to a limited frame. I think of it like going to an art gallery and only looking at the frames and ignoring the paintings.

Our native capacity to weave concepts together helped us build the intellectual walls of the academy. I fear that modern approaches are degrading our capacity to build new sections of the academy. We stand at a crossroads where derivative work is outpacing innovation. Now is the time to take action. The need for change is real.

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