By the time you have managed to develop a (more or less) satisfactory research question, the next hurdle appears – where do I start reading?
By this stage in your academic life, it is very likely that you already know who the key writers are in your specific topic, but the problem remains: how to ensure you are also familiar with most of the key debates, issues and more “obscure” authors. In fact, you will soon realise that you need about three lifetimes just to identify the literature – never mind to actually have time to read it!
You will devise your own strategies, and you should by now be familiar with your University’s search engines and other search engines such as the ISI databases or Google Scholar (in fact, I will be writing a post on the advantages and disadvantages of these in the future). However, you will need to start somewhere. Ideally, you should be aware of 3 to 5 key authors or works in your area of research. It goes without saying that it makes sense to start there. The next step is to look through their bibliographies – who are they quoting? How are they arguing their case?
This process should give you an overview of some of the key issues. Yet, on its own this will not be sufficient; not even their bibliography will be sufficient! It is more than likely that there will be later contributions that are not considered in some earlier debates for obvious reasons. Hence, wider literature searches will be required and you will need to discern between many different sources, that at first, may all appear to be highly relevant to you. How can you identify which ones are the really relevant ones?
Paradoxically, no matter how long we’ve been reading academic texts we often forget the conventions of academic writing when reading. In fact, I think it’s essential that we start thinking that writing and reading are actually part of the same process – not two distinct activities. Therefore, there are three key stages that can help identify whether an article, a chapter or a book are useful for our endeavour:
First, we ought to focus on the abstract. A well-written abstract should contain the essence of the argument. Second, we need to skip rather quickly through the first section – at this stage we only need to check which authors are being cited and whether they are being praised, developed or critiqued. Third, it’s important to focus the attention on the middle of the article – this should contain the actual contribution made by the author.
This process should, in the first instance, take no longer than fifteen minutes (obviously depending on your reading speed), and it has two advantages.
It can save you time. This is particularly important if it turns out that the article is not relevant to your research as you can disregard it at this early stage. However, don’t feel bad about this. I used to believe that I had to read everything that was vaguely related to my research. I can assure you that such an inclination is not actually necessary. It can easily take you down paths that may be counter-productive. Keep a tight focus of your reading as much as you should do with your writing.
Additionally, this fast approach to reading can increase your ability to critically engage with the literature. It can help you assess whether a piece is well structured, whether it has an original, and relevant to you, contribution to knowledge and, crucially, whether it actually does what it has set itself out to do. Make notes. Think about the strengths and weaknesses the piece has at this stage. If it is worth reading, then read it in detail, paying attention to the whole article.
It may have come to your attention that I haven’t advised you to focus on the conclusion. And I wouldn’t, not until you have actually decided that a particular article (or book) is worth your time. Unfortunately, good conclusions are few and far between. They tend to be written rather quickly in an attempt to show that the article may have wider relevance, and importantly, a future. They may point towards future research – but that is not necessarily yours, but rather the author’s own research agenda! Very rarely do conclusions do what they are supposed to do – bring together a clear and logically set out argument AND offer ways forward, if appropriate.
Just remember, you don’t have three lifetimes to identify the literature, just about three to four years to develop and complete a PhD project. Many words of wisdom will have already told you to focus your research. That also means to focus your reading, to narrow it down to a manageable level whilst keeping your ability to situate your project within wider debates.