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How to do quick and dirty literature surveys

·4 mins

What follows is a simplified version of this workflow. It’s great for rapid literature surveys, and I’ve done a few recently for non-academic projects. No reference managers or specialist software are required. I use Ulysses for Mac to do my writing in the workflow below, but any text editor on any platform will do.

1. Gather everything in one place #

Save all the documents you will be reviewing in a folder. Optionally, split by type: in the example images below I have a folder for academic articles, and another for assorted reports, website pages and other publicity material.

Academic source documents

Number these sequentially, as in the images. As you work through them, you may wish to label them as read (I’ve used a green tag to remember which ones I have reviewed).

Non-academic source documents

(Skip to the bottom if you’re a Mac user and want to know how to find articles on Google Scholar incredibly quickly).

2. Create loose headers or categories (optional) #

If it will save sorting time later, create headers in a text document corresponding to the final output. For example, in my latest project this was simply ‘introduction’, ‘development’, ‘outcomes’, ‘future’.

3. Scan the documents #

As you read each document, copy and paste the key information into your text file. The less you copy, the easier the final review becomes. Before each extract, put the document number or letter from step 1. Add comments if helpful.

Pasting extracts from source documents. ‘F’ and ‘6’ refer to difference sources

Ulysses offers advantages for taking notes: you can quickly navigate between headers using keyboard shortcuts, and you can easily distinguish comments from pasted text. But other programs will work fine.

4. Sort into sub-categories (optional) #

In this example, after working through 19 documents I had over 7,000 words of notes, which was a little unwieldy. To speed things up later, I had identified themes and quickly moved text around within new sub-categories (two or three within each of the four main headers). This should be a quick and crude exercise; don’t worry about missing things as the next stage will capture these.

Adding sub-categories. This should be a quick and crude process

5. Duplicate, write and delete #

Create a copy of your notes. Name it something like ‘DELETABLE’ so you don’t mix it up with your main notes.

You now begin writing. As you draw from your notes, cite the source with the number of the document, preceded by any unique character (in the image below, the footnote would contain the text “@3” to indicate source document number 3, for example, with the page number included if needed). The reason for the unique character will become clear in the next step.

Writing the final output

When you’ve included content from your notes, delete it from the copy. If you decide you no longer want or need to use an extract, delete it. As you proceed, the copy of your notes will get shorter and shorter.

In Ulysses, I have a second editor open with the deletable notes on the left, and the final output being written on the right.

6. Tidy up references #

When you’ve finished writing, do a find and replace on each source reference (e.g. “@3”) with the full reference. Saving this until the end means you aren’t distracted with referencing when you should be writing. And using the unique character before the source number (e.g. “@”) means you aren’t searching through every number in the document.

As with the previous longer workflow, the flow in workflow is important. For effective results, do all of the above quickly. Any wait between collecting extracts from documents and writing means the broader context (information that you haven’t copied and pasted, but will be in your mind), is likely to fade.

Bonus: searching Google Scholar from your Mac #

I use the excellent Alfred application for quick keyboard control of my computer. A custom search allows me to search Google Scholar from Alfred, by typing ‘scholar’ followed by the search term.

Custom search for Google Scholar using the Alfred MacOS application

Here is how custom searches work, and here is my custom search (if you have Alfred installed, clicking this should import to your library).

(Image credit)