Are you having to do a formal literature review or just needing to start your research? Below we discuss some of the things that may help you. We will be looking at each of the different elements briefly but will (hopefully) point you to resources so you can dive a little deeper.
This blog post is in support of a class we ran at the beginning of this month. A recording of that class can be found at https://canvas.ox.ac.uk/courses/119859/external_tools/496 if you are an Oxford University member.
So first things first, what is a literature review?
(social sciences) A formal, reflective survey of the most significant and relevant works of published and peer-reviewed academic research on a particular topic, summarizing and discussing their findings and methodologies in order to reflect the current state of knowledge in the field and the key questions raised. Literature reviews do not themselves present any previously unpublished research. They may be published as review articles in academic journals or as an element in a thesis or dissertation: in the case of the latter, they serve to situate the current study within the field – Dictionary of Media and Communication, accessed on Oxford Reference (16/11/2021)
This definition shows that a literature review is not just a quick search of the known databases but involves a lot more. This post will look at some of the things that may help with a more systematic approach. As the picture below shows, there are various stages: Defining the scope of the research, devising search terms, compiling a list of relevant sources, conducting a search, organisation of material, evaluation of the material and then coming up with a way of keeping on top of any developments using current awareness tools.
Scope of the research
It is important to start with what you are being asked to do. Is it a formal literature review which has to be presented in a particular way, or are you compiling a select bibliography for your topic or are you just starting off your research? Are you looking at material for one jurisdiction or all material on a topic? Are you restricted to peer reviewed material or do you want to expand your research to non-traditional sources such as blogs and podcasts?
It is worth spending time putting together a list of keywords and deciding which are ‘key’ terms that you know would appear or that you definitely would need to appear in material to make it relevant. Have a secondary list of terms that you think may also be relevant but not essential. Think about synonyms especially if you are looking across jurisdictions or disciplines. You should also think about broader and narrower terms, just in case there are too many/too few results once you start.
As well as just a list of terms, it is also worth thinking about the relationship between the key terms and concepts. Below is a very simple example.
Leading on from this, think about the Boolean connectors and how you can use them in the best way. Most databases have the basic connectors: AND, OR and NOT, but a lot of databases have many more connectors available that will make your research more efficient (an example of this would be proximity connectors that allow you to search for terms within a sentence/paragraph/number of words). Advanced searches are usually available, and this may help structure your search and do some of the work for you.
It is worthwhile looking at the help pages on the databases you are using before starting your search to make sure you are getting the most out of it.
Talking of sources, we will now move on to the next thing to think about – where should we look?
It is important for you to make a list of the possible sources available to you in order to make sure you have covered a wide base. In Oxford there are many databases and indexes to help and it can sometimes be a little bit overwhelming as to which to use. Below is a list of general sources for Law that cover different type of academic material. These should be a good place to start, however the list is not exhaustive. There are also databases that are more specialised depending on what you are researching (e.g. Human Rights) and so please do contact your friendly subject librarian to go through these as well. Remember that not all of the databases will have useful information for your topic but it is worth searching so you can cross them off your list.
To look at a selection of these in more detail.
- Legal Journals Index: This is on Westlaw Edge UK and is a subscription service. It has abstracts of a large number of legal article published in the UK from 1986 onwards. Although this is an index and a method of finding a list of articles on a topic, it does link to the full text when the journal is on Westlaw. It does not, however, has citation information (such as times cited) that other indexes have. It is best to use when looking for articles published in the UK.
- Social Science Citation Index: You can access this via SOLO and it forms part of the Web of Science database. It has some coverage of law journals but it is better for subjects with a cross disciplinary aspect. Although it is an index, it does have a link to the full text via the Find@Oxford tab. It also has a lot of clever citation information and does allow you to search for citation rankings for journals. It covers jurisdictions both in and outside the UK.
- Articles on SOLO: This is an index that is included on SOLO and you will be searching it if you leave it as the default “search everything”. However you can search this index specifically by choosing “articles” from the drop down menu. There are links through to the full text via the “online access” link and every result should be available to you at Oxford. However, it doesn’t include everything and it does not have cited information.
- Google Scholar: This is a free index and is really easy to search. You can get links to full text via Find@Oxford to appear by going into Settings – Library Links and adding Oxford to your list. It has ‘cited by’ information and other helpful tools but it does not cover everything and it may be difficult to narrow things down to legal journals.
- Westlaw International/World journals: This is a full text subscription collection that you can access via Westlaw Edge UK. If you go to Westlaw International on the right hand side. It is very good for US journals but has journals from other jurisdictions as well. It also has a clever advanced search that helps you build your search to make it more efficient. Depending on the jurisdiction, it does have some citation tools.
- Social Science Research Network: This is a subscription service that you can access via SOLO or the list of legal databases. It contains papers, research and pre-publication material. You can browse or search and it contains the Legal Scholarship Network.
- Proquest: Dissertations and Theses: A subscription database of a different type of material but one that may be useful in finding out what other material is out there that may not be published. It has full text for some jurisdictions but only abstracts for UK and Ireland.
- ORA (Oxford University Research Archive): This should be included in a SOLO search but there is a link to a dedicated search screen from SOLO. It has research deposited by Oxford academics as well as theses but there is not always full text available.
Literature Search Itself
Of course you then need to go off and search the sources you have identified. A blog post is not the right place to go through the best method of searching but if you are interested, then the recorded class mentioned above (https://canvas.ox.ac.uk/courses/119859/external_tools/496) shows searching the sources highlighted above or you can book an appointment to sit down with a librarian; just email email@example.com
Evaluation and sorting
Once you have your list of results and material, you will probably need to look at evaluating it in some way (regardless as to whether you are doing a formal review or just starting your research).
Using ‘Cited by’ information
One method you can look at to help you determine the most authoritative articles, is to look at how many times an article has been cited. Some of the indexes will do this for you, for example Google Scholar has the number of times an article has been cited (along with a link through). Social Science Citation Index goes one step further and allows you to sort by ‘times cited’ and other useful filters. You can also use the Social Science Citation Index to show the citation rankings for journals in your area, although this is limited in the case of law.
This may be something that you want to use even before your searching but it can also help when you are trying to sort as well. There are free applications you can use such as Coggle or Bubbl.Us. Below is an example of ideas for this class as shown on Coggle.
You may wish to use coding to help evaluate and sort your results (depending on what you are wanting to do). This can be done manually (with post it notes for example) or you can become familiar with software such as Nvivo (especially if you are going to go on and conduct original research).
Keeping track of your results as you go along is very important, especially if you are going to be compiling a bibliography. Lots of the databases will allow you to make use of folders, but you also need a central method to keep a track of the citations.
There are a number of reference management software options out there (some subscription, some free) and it is worth taking your time to see which suits. If you are studying law at Oxford, then Endnote is perhaps the best to choose as it has the correct OSCOLA style available. Other popular ones are Refworks, Zotero and Mendeley. Oxford University has institutional subscription to both RefWorks and Endnote and so it is free to use if you are an OU member. More information can be found in this Libguide https://libguides.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/reference-management . If you are at Oxford, you can also take advantage of the IT training for this sort of software.
If you are conducting a literature review it is probably a snapshot of the material available at that particular point in time. However if the review is the start of your research, you will need to monitor the topic to be aware of any new publications within the field. Rather than just periodically search the same sources, there are tools to help you keep up to date. There is a separate class on these (as well as an accompanying blog post) coming up and so we will not get into detail here, but things to think about are:
- RSS Feeds/emails
- Table of Content services
- Database alerts
- Blogs, Twitter, other social media
If you have any questions on this, then please get in touch our email is firstname.lastname@example.org