Ever wondered how on earth you are going to start your literature review? That’s right: first of all you need to be able to assess other people’s work. In today’s post, Ben from Literature Review HQ shares some excellent advice on how to develop your own skills at critical reading and writing. I am sure you’ll find it very useful. Thanks a lot, Ben!
Bio I’m Ben the writer from Literature Review HQ. I’m an early career researcher who developed my website as a resource for anyone who needs help with their literature review. I write weekly blog posts as well as providing a Literature Review Toolbox for anyone who signs up to receive my emails. If you need more tailored help, I also offer 1:1, or group training over the Internet. You can contact me via Twitter (@LitReviewHQ) or email (Ben@LiteratureReviewHQ.com).
Hands up if you find criticizing other people’s writing tough. As grad students it’s especially hard because we are expected to criticize our peers while we are still learning our craft. Furthermore, our peers are normally world-leading experts in the field. How are we, as lowly grad students and early career researchers supposed to criticize Professor Big-Shot and their enormous research group?
Errrr…I don’t know!
Sorry folks. While I was writing my thesis and my blog, I developed a lot of ways to cope with many different aspects of writing. However, critical reading and writing was something that I just couldn’t seem to crack. So, what did I do? I went around and asked other people and read up about critical reading and writing. It turns out there are some pretty clever people out there who have some really good advice on how to be critical. So my first piece of advice is…
…Interact with other people
You can read an article until you are blue in the face and not find any ways to critique it. However, if you and a friend (or your supervisor) have read the same paper and you have a 5-minute discussion, you’ll be amazed what will come out. If you read relevant papers together you will pick out points you can use in your writing, however, by regularly interacting with people, you will quickly learn how to draw critical conclusions of your own. I’m a strong advocate of journal clubs, whether they be in person or online. I think this is a great way to learn the skill of being critical. Join a journal club this week if you have one, or start one if you don’t. My second piece of advice comes from an interview I did with Alison Wray and Mike Wallace who have written a very good book on how to be a critical writer…
Many people have their own way of doing this and you can develop your own way too… or copy someone else’s! It doesn’t make that much difference but if you can tailor a systematic approach to your own circumstances then I think you will benefit more. What exactly am I talking about? I’m talking about question asking and note taking. For every paper you read, you should develop a set of questions that you can ask of the paper to try and tease out any flaws and criticisms. There are several lists of questions available online and I would start by downloading the question sheet from this blog. You should answer the questions and find a way to store the answers with the paper, either electronically or physically, so that you can easily access your notes with the paper and use them or alter them as needed. Some good critical questions to ask are:
- What are the main findings?
- How does this work relate to the central theme of my literature review?
- What does this work claim?
- How do they back up their claims?
This brings me nicely onto my third point that I stole from Alec Fisher and Stephen Toulmin.
The Claim vs The Evidence
Firstly, I have to say that Fisher and Toulmin present great methods for critical analysis that aren’t the same. However, it would take too long to go through them both here so I will talk about the similarities and the general principle behind their methods. To put it simply, any article that you read will make not just one, but many claims. They will state that something is true based on evidence that they SHOULD present. To understand this is a powerful tool to unlock the floodgates of critical analysis – it’s so powerful, that you could end up being too critical!
The crux of these methods is to analyze the claims that articles make and then check that the evidence for these claims stacks up and is present in the first place. This is where you can really take advantage of being new to a field because you can more easily unpick assumptions that people too familiar with the work might make. Do the authors have sufficient evidence to make that claim? Have they misinterpreted the evidence they have? Have they assumed too much?
When I first discovered these methods I went a bit crazy and I found that most academic articles were flawed in some way. I needed to rein in my critical reading rampage. It was then that I discovered some more advice on critical writing from the amazing writer Pat Thomson.
The Literature is a conversation
When you are reading and writing, you are interacting with the literature as if it were a conversation, not an argument or a blazing row. This is an important distinction. Your goal in critical writing is not to tear other literature to pieces but to effectively engage with it in an interesting and appropriate way. The way Pat puts it is to imagine you are inviting the authors of the papers in your literature review to a dinner party. How are you going to interact with them? You’re not going to agree with everything they say (boring) neither are you going to tear them to pieces and shout at them (antisocial). You’re going to be somewhere in the middle. You are going to identify with some things that people say and contradict others. However, you are going to do all of this in a civilized way.
So that’s how I critically read and write now. I’m lucky to have interacted with some great people to help me on the way. I know I still have a long way to go but I get better every week. This raises another important point, which is…
Practice makes perfect
The more you read and practice the art of critical analysis, the better you will get. This will happen over the course of your career but also over the course of a project. Not only will you have more experience, but also you will have more context in which to set all of the articles you are reading.
I hope this guide helps; I’d love to hear your thoughts, either in the comment or on Twitter (@LitReviewHQ).