Deciding whether a source is relevant to your purposes can be more challenging than it would initially seem. It's not simply a matter of finding sources that use the keywords you've landed on for your topic and research question. Rather, you need to really determine the "aboutness" of the source: What questions is it trying to answer?
Let's look at an example. Let's say your research question for your literature review is:
To what degree does social media use contribute to symptoms of depression?
In searching for articles that might address this question, you come across the two in this slideshow:
Both articles are on the topic of social media use (in this case, Instagram) and depression. But take a closer look at the titles and descriptions, and then recall the question you're trying to answer.
Which article will help you explore how other scholars have tried to answer your research question?
The article on Slide 1 focuses on using Instagram as a tool for screening for and predicting depression, whereas the one on Slide 2 is focused on the ways Instagram use may cause depressive symptoms. So in this case, the source on Slide 2 is the relevant one.
A source doesn't always have to directly address the same question you're investigating in order to be relevant for inclusion in your literature review. Sometimes a source addresses a variation on or portion of your question, and sometimes it may use theories or research methods that are relevant to the discussion. Ultimately, your general criterion for determining relevance should be not "Is this source on my topic?" but rather:
Does this source help me explore my research question?
Remember: in a literature review, all or most of your sources should be original research. You may come across textbooks, general introductions, or reference works that are relevant and seemingly helpful in answering your research question, but those sources are generally written through distilling insights from sources in scholarly journals. Make sure you use the original source where the research appeared.
Determining whether a source is relevant to the question you're exploring is vital, but it's only the first step in the process of analyzing a source. Remember, you're telling a scholarly story, and as we mentioned at the beginning, 1) The plot is the research on a topic done over a period of time and 2) the characters are the researchers who engaged in that work. Extending that metaphor, you'll need to explore whether a given source is a minor plot point featuring side characters or a major episode with central figures driving the story forward.
To do this, you'll need to examine two aspects of every source:
What the source is saying--its arguments, methods, evidence, and conclusions
the explicit and implicit responses to that source by other researchers, scholars, and critics.
Let's explore how to engage in this process.
In a scholarly literature review, the majority of sources you'll be using will be peer-reviewed, scholarly articles, as this is considered the main arena in which the scholarly conversation takes place. These sources can make for difficult reading, even for experts.
Luckily, despite the often-dense nature of academic material, it frequently also follows structural patterns that we can use as guideposts in our reading. This video breaks down the major parts of academic articles and suggests a useful process for reading them, a process sometimes known as "pre-reading" or "purposeful skimming":
Scholarly articles won't always use standardized subsection headers, like Abstract, Introduction, Discussion, and so on, but scholars will still engage in familiar sets of analytical actions regardless of whether they're explicitly labeled as such. Learning to identify these actions takes practice; we'll get into the details in the next section.
Theoretically, peer review yields the highest quality of research. That's often indeed the case, but there is plenty of peer-reviewed research that is methodologically poor or reaches specious conclusions, so it's important to dive in and closely read the sources you've deemed relevant to your literature review. This section will give you some guidance on how to locate and comprehend the arguments, methods, evidence, and conclusions of a scholarly source.
Note: Depending on the field you're working within, there may be important sources that appear outside of peer-reviewed, scholarly journals. This is especially the case in the humanities and some social sciences. These sources may require a different approach for reading and comprehension.
Since you're going to be analyzing multiple sources for your literature review, it makes sense to have a central place to track your work. This spreadsheet will help with that. We'll be using it in this activity, too, so go ahead and download and open it now.
This spreadsheet aims for maximum flexibility and applicability, so you'll notice other columns in addition to Argument, Methodology, and Analysis columns that you may be expecting. You may find these columns helpful especially when you're trying to find trends and patterns around which you can organize the drafting of your literature review.
Choose a source from those that you've collected. If you haven't already pre-read the source, go ahead and do so now following the process outlined in the video in the section above.
This is a great time to do some basic mapping of the source through marginal notes, whether in a printed copy or using a PDF reader that allows for comments and markup. (Adobe Reader DC is a great free option.) If you can find and mark where the argument, method, and analysis occur in the source, you'll be ahead of the game for Step 3.
Having pre-read the source and noted where relevant sections appear, now it's time to do a deeper read. First, read through the source in full, getting a global sense of the source's argument. Then, go back through and engage in each step outlined in "Analyzing Individual Sources" above, recording your understanding of:
Use the appropriate field on the source matrix for each step.
Now you'll investigate the scholarly context of the source using the methods outlined above. What are the key sources being cited? How many sources have cited this source? And have there been any substantive responses to the argument the source is making? Put anything of note in the Connections to Other Sources field. You may also find that in the process of putting a source in context you start to begin to evaluate the quality of your source's argument; you can put any thoughts you have on this in the Evaluation & Notes field.
You may find that not many other scholars have overtly engaged with the source you're looking at, and that's okay. Sometimes the connections between sources are only revealed once you've looked at a number of different sources and made connections between them. This is why you want to repeat this process for each source you're potentially going to cite in your literature review. We'll dive deeper into finding patterns among multiple sources in the next section.