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Optimizing the Literature Review Process

A good literature review is about the balance of speed, depth, and planning. If you know why you want to read a paper, prioritize what you read, and collect the insights carefully, your literature review becomes easier, more enjoyable, and efficient. Just collecting everything into an extensive list or skimming through most papers, on the other hand, is a sure way to an overwhelming nightmare. Here are three ways to keep your literature review focused, organized, and, most of all, effortless.


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Literature reviews are a challenge for most researchers, not only because of the synthesis skills needed to condense a body of information into “sense” but because too much information is available, and each new paper offers more questions and prospective avenues than answers. If you don’t manage your literature review process clearly, you either collect too many papers, frantically skim through them without building understanding, or never finish on time. This brings us to the Literature Review Harmony Triangle. Each corner is a bad habit; combining either two also leads to problems, but once you balance your collection habits, reading speed, and depth, you become efficient.

Literature review triangle between overcollecting, stalling and skimming.

Luckily there are methods to help direct your efforts and streamline the literature review process:

  1. A goal-driven reading list for your review to prioritize and avoid hoarding papers.
  2. A Kanban board to grade your papers by importance or topic to focus on the essential papers.
  3. Reference maps to visually lay out finished papers/notes and instantly find your knowledge

Having a good system is like having a map on a hike. You always know where to go and how far it will be, and you will never get lost. Let’s get started:

Using Obsidian to organize your literature review

First and foremost, you need a platform to write down your notes. Pen and paper, post-its, and stacks of papers with highlights are often quick and efficient, but they don’t scale very well, in my opinion. This is why using digital note-taking apps is an advantage. There are a number of objective reasons why every academic can benefit from digital note-taking. Specifically for a literature review you want your notes to be searchable and visually organized for a quick overview. In the rest of the post we are going to look at exactly how this is done.

Obsidian as the best note-taking tool for academics.

If you are a novice to Obsidian, check out my note taking course to learn everything you, as an academic, need to know.

Creating a goal-driven reading list

When you start your literature review, you will have many papers you want/need to read, and by the time you get to even the 3rd or 4th on your list, you have already forgotten why you wanted to read the 5th paper on the list. Maybe you decide to treat this next paper as relevant and trust your past self. As days turn into weeks and months, your list of relevant papers has grown, and you realize you won’t be able to read all of them. This is quite often the time when panic sets in.

But luckily, most papers are not that important. For example, I use machine learning to study how forests in New Zealand change in response to climate change. One peripheral paper, e.g., “McGlone 2010”, is on the botanical nuances of New Zealand’s forests. I am not a botanist, so the paper is mainly irrelevant, but I needed a citation to prove that “New Zealand’s forests are mostly evergreen forests (McGlone 2010)”. Is it a good use of your time if you study McGlone 2010 in detail? No. In fact, it just adds to your anxiety!

The solution is simple: Collect the intent to collect a paper; don’t just download it to your reference manager. Point out why you wanted to read a paper. Then, when you pick out your next paper, you know how much time it is worth spending on this paper. If you want, you can even add a category to your reading list: “Essential” or “Peripheral,” for example.

Here is how such a list can look.

Never just download a paper “for later” but treat the act of adding/downloading this paper to your library as a reward.

Tools to build a reading list

You can create a reading list by simply using a text editor or even a piece of paper. However, using Obsidian offers a few key advantages:

  • You can add links to related concepts, related papers or even deep-link into a PDF to give yourself context.
  • You can add a clickable link to the paper to find it quicker
  • You can scatter your reading list across multiple notes and use the tasks or dataview plugins to pull everything into an automatic list.

This last point needs a little bit more explanation but is a key element of my system.

Using the tasks plugin in Obsidian.

Reading list entries are valuable notes too

You might be surprised why I suggest scattering your reading list across multiple notes. Let’s return to my example of using “McGlone 2010” as a citation for “New Zealand’s unique, evergreen vegetation”. Somewhere, I have a note on forests. This note contains a section on New Zealand’s forests in particular, but I have not written anything there yet. Rather than leaving it empty, I can add the “McGlone 2010” paper as a reading task there. Now, if I stumble upon my note on forests, I know where to get more answers. So the reading list entry doubles as a piece of useful information in a different context outside of my current literature review and even after have read it this note remains there and I know where to look!

Using Kanban to organize your papers

Your reading list can quickly grow out of control, and you might want to introduce categories. These can be importance categories or topical categories. Obsidian’s Kanban plugin is the natural progression from this state. It transforms a list with a few headings into a board with multiple columns. Each column is a heading and each card or entry in a column is one entry in the list. Here is how the transformation looks. A complete tutorial on installing this plugin can be found in this Twitter thread.

Your papers now turn into cards, and you can drag and drop them around. The original idea of a Kanban board is that cards start on the left and move to the right. In the video above, the “unread” column is on the left. Then, the card moves into one of the categories: Foundational, Interesting, or Important. After reading, it ends in the rightmost column in “Read.”

Kanban boards are a widespread way to organize a process but are equally valuable for storing information and acting as an interactive table. If you do not use Obsidian, you can use Trello. This is the most straightforward Kanban tool available. It is free to use alone or with teams of up to 10 people (e.g., a lab). Here is an in-depth tutorial on using Trello for academics. A few example boards (these have nothing to do with a literature review, but once you start using boards you can quickly get creative and organize any kind of process with it).

Using Reference Maps to store your insights

Until now, we have used methods to store or prioritize papers before reading. However, organizing the papers you have finished reading is equally important. This makes it much easier to synthesize information later on. Aside from writing your literature review and creating connected notes, the best way is to organize them in a visual reference map. Here is how it looks in Obsidian.

This method is easy to implement and requires no plugins in Obsidian. To create a new Canvas, as these maps are called in Obsidian, you hit ctrl/cmd + P and type in “Canvas.” This opens up a menu with commands; the first command is “Canvas: Create new Canvas.” Select it to get a blank canvas. (Alternatively, find in the ribbon on the left the button for it). A Canvas is stored inside a file, just like a regular note in Obsidian.

Your central building blocks are the papers themselves. The easiest way is to drag and drop PDFs directly onto the canvas. A better way, though, is to use source notes. These are notes you create on a single paper with summaries, authors’ intentions and meta information. Using your own words helps you remember better. You can also easily include the PDF in the source note and access it by hovering over the title (check out the video above). This tweet thread has a detailed description on setting up source notes.

Arranging these source notes is relatively easy, and you can also use cards that are just pieces of text on the canvas. These cards can be used to create a hierarchy of your papers. For example, here are papers on “Machine Learning in Ecology” further subdivided into review papers and example papers:

The most potent part of this method is that you can start building your argument directly on the canvas. Your storage becomes a sketch pad. In this example, Swenson 2020 found out that trait-demography relationships are often very weak, referring to the Yang 2018 paper (this is how I found out about it). After doing some more digging, I found out that Lynn 2023 found an explanation for this weak relationship. The story of your literature review emerges through these connections. Litmaps is an excellent tool for uncovering these hidden connections; you will learn all of them in the upcoming literature review webinar. This is what the result looks like:

Look at the more detailed reference map tutorial if you resonate with this method. There is an alternative note-taking app, Heptabase, which elevates the canvas aspect of note-taking. If you end up using maps more often than textual notes, check out the comparison between Heptabase and Obsidian.

Upcoming webinar on literature reviews

In my upcoming webinar, you can learn this technique and many more, which together form an efficient and easy workflow for your literature review. This course has been recently embraced by the Victoria University of Wellington.

Workflow for the Literature Review webianr

Leverage semantic and citation search with AI to find the most impactful literature quickly. Uncover reference gaps combining multiple tools. Use ChatGPT assistants to get rid of hallucinations and use AI to aid faithfully and ethically in your lit review and writing process.

Summary

The three main enemies of your literature review are:

  1. Collecting too many papers as it leads to a sensation of overwhelm. Often caused by the inability to prioritize what is essential.
  2. Skimming papers too quickly due to time constraints as it prevents you from learning deeply about your topic.
  3. Reading every single paper and stalling often due to a sense of perfectionism and trying to read up on everything.

In this post, we looked at using a reading list to prevent (1) and (3). With this approach, you don’t just download the paper but write down why you want to read it. This way, even if you collect too many papers, you always know what’s inessential. Then, we used the kanban approach to sort the papers by priority, allowing us to focus on the most relevant papers and skim the rest. This helps you navigate around (2) and (3). Lastly, we created a reference map to track what we read. This enables you to synthesize the information and develop the narrative as you read. It also provides a sense of direction and makes it easy to find your literature.

If you are curious to learn all of these steps in one concise presentation, join the Effortless Literature Review Webinar.