Organize your state of the art

Now that you have read several references relating directly or indirectly to your subject and problem, it is important to organize yourself well in order to put on paper the mass of information that you will have to digest. Here's how to organize your state of the art.

organize your state of the art

The structure of a literature review should include the following elements:

  • An overview of the topic, question or theory under study, as well as the objectives of the literature review,
  • Division of the works examined into themes or categories [eg. works that support a particular position, those that are against it, and those that offer entirely alternative approaches],
  • An explanation of the similarity and difference of each work compared to the others,
  • The conclusions as to which elements are best taken into account in their argument, are the most convincing of their opinions and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their field of research.

The four steps to follow to organize your state of the art

Everything in research follows a protocol or scientific method. The state of the art is no exception to the rule. Here are the four steps to structure its state of the art:

  1. Formulation of the problem: what subject or domain is examined and what are its constituent issues?
  2. Documentary research: find documents relevant to the subject explored.
  3. Data evaluation: determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic.
  4. Analysis and Interpretation: Discuss findings and conclusions from relevant literature.

For this, you must follow the algorithm described in the previous course. The more paper you have read and synthesized (the next lesson), the more material you will have. However, it quickly becomes complicated to know what to keep.

The narrower your topic, the easier it will be for you to limit the number of sources to read to get a good overview of relevant resources. Your professor probably won't expect you to read everything available on the subject, but it will make your job easier if you narrow down the scope of the research problem first (see the courses on the problem).

If your assignment is not very specific about the form your literature review, seek clarification from your teacher by asking these questions:

  • Approximately how many sources should I include?
  • What types of sources should I consult (books, journal articles, websites; scholarly sources or popular sources)?
  • Should I summarize, synthesize or critique the sources by discussing a common theme or problem?
  • Should I evaluate the sources?
  • Should I provide subtitles and other contextual information, such as definitions and/or background?

Chronological, thematic or methodological? What strategy to organize your state of the art

There is no single way to organize your readings, you can combine ways or reorganize as you go.

One way to organize readings is to understand trends from a chronological perspective. If your state of the art follows the chronological method, you can write on the documents according to their date of publication.

This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and if these trends follow a clear chronological order of development. Order your sources by publication chronology, then only if the order demonstrates a larger trend.

Organize your state of the art organize your state of the art

It is also possible to organize by theme, often the themes are chronologically visible trends. Thematic literature reviews are organized around a topic or question, rather than the progression of time. However, time progression can still be an important factor in a thematic review.

The only difference here between a “chronological” approach and a “thematic” approach is what is most emphasized. Note, however, that thematic reviews are more authentic and may break with the chronological order. A review organized in this way would move from period to period of each section depending on the point being raised.

Organize your state of the art organize your state of the art

The last approach is methodological. A methodological approach focuses on the methods used. A methodological scope will influence either the types of papers in the review or the way those papers are discussed.

Organize your state of the art organize your state of the art

Organize your state of the art, the first summaries

Once you have decided how to organize your literature review, you are ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep these questions in mind. The next two courses will help you read the papers quickly and structure your state of the art.

A literature review section is, in this sense, like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be supported by evidence [quotes] that demonstrate that what you say is valid. To organize your state of the art, it is important to always reference the writings when taking notes.

Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should be directly related to the research problem, whether thematic, methodological or chronological. Related material that provides additional information but is not essential to understanding the research problem may be included in a list of further reading.

A few short quotes are acceptable if you want to emphasize a point or if what an author has said cannot be easily paraphrased. Sometimes you may need to cite terminology invented by the author, not widely known, or taken directly from the study. Do not use long quotations to replace your own summary and interpretation of the literature.

Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources in each topical paragraph as well as throughout the review. Summarize the important features of a research study, then synthesize them by restating the importance of the study and relating it to your own work.

While the literature review presents other people's ideas, your voice [that of the writer] should remain at the forefront. For example, incorporate references to other sources in what you write, but keep your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas and formulations.

When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author's information or opinions accurately and in your own words. Even when paraphrasing an author's work, you should still provide a citation to that work.

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