Describe the Importance of Authentic Literature in Research

After developing a rough idea for the study, you will need to begin examining how others have already thought about and researched the topic. Let’s say an idea for some research begins with an interest in alcohol use by male college students, despite my warnings that this ground has been covered extensively already. You might formulate a rough question for research such as the following: What is the relationship between college and drinking among American males? This rough idea already shows elements of refinement. It has been limited to consideration of only American males. But it is still very general and unfocused. The next step is to visit the library or its Web site to get started on a literature review. Because every library is different, you will need to familiarize yourself with the sorts of databases, periodicals, and books that are readily available to you. Most periodicals are available to browse online through databases such as Infotrac or Research Navigator’s ContentSelect, but for books you have to actually go to a building. Some libraries have subscriptions to many journals, but not all of these may be useful for social science research, let alone a specific topic such as alcohol drinking by American male college students. Different libraries also provide different methods for accessing materials, including large selections of in-print periodicals maintained both in current stacks and in bound versions in back stacks or in the open library. As convenient as pdfs are, the fastest way to immerse yourself in a new topic is still to spend a few hours pulling bound volumes off of shelves and browsing the most promising articles in them.

The next task is to begin thinking creatively about cryptic subject topics related to your rough research idea or question and to search for these topics in the indexes. For the preceding example, you might make a list that includes “alcohol use,” “collegiate alcohol use,” “alcohol on campus,” “drinking,” “males and alcohol,” “masculinity,” “Americans and alcohol,” “social drinking,” “substance abuse in college,” “campus problems,” and so forth. It is important to develop a number of different subject areas to search. Some will be more fruitful than others, and perhaps some will yield little information. This is because both the print versions and computer-based versions of indexes are created by humans. Because of this, indexes unavoidably suffer from the problem of terminological classification bias. In other words, even though these indexes are cross-referenced, if you do not use the same term or phrase used by the original indexer, you may not locate the entries he or she has referenced. Your search of the academic literature is guided by your research topic, but the literature search itself will help you to refine your questions. Only after you have immersed yourself in what is known about the topic, what is speculated about, and what is unknown can you define the useful angle for your study that can promise to make an actual contribution.

A promising research project can be quickly derailed by a weak literature review. For instance, some years ago, Bruce Berg became interested in the idea of doing research about women in policing. More directly, he was interested in the effect of policing on female officers. He asked his graduate student to see if she could locate some material about female police officers. (Getting your graduate students to do an initial search is one of the most effective ways to begin a project.) When she returned the next day, she reported that there was virtually nothing in any of the index databases on the topic “female police officers.” Berg asked if she had tried “women in policing,” or “women police officers,” or even “minorities in policing.” Sheepishly, she explained she had not thought to do that and returned to the library. When she returned, she was carrying a list of literally dozens of references. I have seen many instances of similar thinking among students who are first learning to conduct research. Returning to the preceding example, many of my past students have proposed research on male college drinking only to declare that there is virtually no literature on “campus drinking by men” or “why men in college drink.” Yet, using the separate searches mentioned earlier would yield thousands of relevant articles. The lesson to be learned from this is that you must not be too restrictive in your topics when searching for reference materials in indexes. In fact, most online indexes provide users with a thesaurus to assist them in locating subject terms used to index material in the database.

When beginning your literature review, it is no longer necessary to arrive at your library empty handed and hoping to stumble across good materials. Library catalogs, database search engines, book reviews, and journal tables of contents are all available online and may be scoured for promising sources from the comfort of your own coffee shop. The majority of academic articles may be downloaded in pdf format depending on your library subscription services. You can pore through these more immediately accessible works, saving your actual visit for older or harder-to-find books and articles. Still, there is much to be gained by casual browsing in the library stacks. Search engines, databases, and the vast information available via the Internet are wonderful tools and places to begin searching for literature. They can provide enormous amounts of information. But they only give you access to the information that someone else has already added to the pertinent databases. Frequently, however, there is no substitute for physically thumbing through journal indexes. It is also important when using the Internet to be careful about the legitimacy of materials taken from the Web, which we will now consider in detail.

Evaluating Web Sites

In the years since the first edition of Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences was published, Internet searches have become the first, and often the only, information source for many millions of users, including professional researchers. Google even provides separate search levels called Scholars and Books. We strongly endorse, and rely on, these different tools, but they are not the sole source of literary materials a good researcher should employ. Google Scholar, for example, is full of papers and articles that can be downloaded in their entirety; unfortunately, many of these require a fee or membership in some sort of literary subscription. Google Books allows one to explore thousands of books—but not in their entirety. Sometimes, the topic one is seeking does yield enough information to be used, and the full citation information is provided in the search. However, at other times, only segments of the information are reproduced, and one must still acquire the actual text from the library or through a purchase. And unlike scientific research tools, Internet search engines retrieve far more information that is of possible general interest but mostly useless in formal research. For example, access the Internet and try running a search for the term “concept.” The initial results may be less than useful if you are writing a scholarly term paper, article, research report, or proposal.

We need to make an important distinction here between the Internet as a document delivery service and the Internet as a document repository. In the first case, the traditional materials of basic research—peer-reviewed scientific articles—may be downloaded via the Internet right to your computer. The source of the materials is the journal in which it was first published, whether you got your copy by photocopying, downloading, or from a published reader (e.g., Lune, Pumar, & Koppel, 2009). The Internet just gets you the article faster. In the second case, however, the materials were actually published on the Web and can only be accessed through an Internet search. As a very general rule of thumb, the first set of materials is valid and useful while the second is suspect and unreliable. Reviewing the literature in a field of study means reading valid research, not abstracts, blogs, magazine articles, rants, or encyclopedias.

We take the Internet for granted, and such complacency with this technology can be dangerous for a researcher. Yes, the Internet is enormously fast, and yes, it has evolved in less than three decades to provide access to many millions of documents. However, the quality and integrity of all the available documents are not equal. The Internet epitomizes the concept of caveat lector—Let the reader beware.

The Internet allows you to access information from a variety of governmental and private sources, as well as from online electronic journals, books, commentaries, archives, and even newspapers. Most governmental agencies have Web sites that offer the public copies of recent (and often backlogged) reports, pamphlets, news releases, and other forms of information. There are also Web sites, however, that offer inaccurate, erroneous, or fabricated information. I once had the unpleasant experience of reading a student “research” paper on homosexuality in America that was entirely based on information he had downloaded from a couple of hate-group sites. Amazingly, the student had (apparently) skimmed the materials so carelessly that he accepted their claims as established facts without even noticing the death threats, support for Nazi extermination programs, or frequent use of curses and other invectives. He hadn’t realized that the sites were not valid and reliable sources of data. Granted, this is an extreme example: sort of the Internet-age version of writing your term paper on the bus ride to school on the morning that it’s due. With just a little care, this error would never have occurred. But other errors may be harder to detect. It is critical that you carefully evaluate documents before quoting them. Here are a few questions you might want to consider before accepting information from a Web site as valid:

  1. Whose Web site is it? Before you even start to consider the veracity of the text on a particular Web site, look at the URL to get a sense of the authenticity of the material on that site. Personal pages are not necessarily inaccurate, but you should nonetheless consider the authority and expertise of the author very carefully. Just about anyone with a computer can launch and maintain his or her own Web site. When you consider using information taken from an individual’s personal Web site, you still should be cautious and consider the credibility of the individual or group that is operating and maintaining the site
  2. What is the nature of the domain? The domain represents a kind of hierarchical scheme for indicating the logical and sometimes geographical venue of a Web page. In the United States, common domains are .edu (education), .gov (government agency), .net (network related), .com (commercial), and .org (nonprofit and research organizations). Outside the United States, domains indicate country: ca (Canada), cn (China), uk (United Kingdom), au (Australia), jp (Japan), fr (France), and so forth. Is this an official government Web site or that of a well-known and reputable organization? Is it operated and maintained by a private group that has a special purpose or motive for having the site and offering the materials you are considering? As I mentioned earlier, there are a number of Web sites sponsored by hate groups. The information offered on such sites may sound like the reports of scientific studies, and the reports and documents may even look official. Yet, much of the information on these sites is likely biased and designed to be self-effacing and positive in order to sway readers to think favorably about the group’s viewpoints
  3. Is the material current or dated? You should check to see how frequently the Web site is updated. If the materials have not been updated recently, you may want to question how reliable a source it is. Consider also whether links are active or have expired or moved. Naturally, just because a site is well maintained and information is regularly updated doesn’t mean it is necessarily a good site in itself, and some material may not require constant updates. However, issues of currency are important when conducting research and should be considered when evaluating information taken from a Web site.
  4. Can the information be corroborated? Sometimes the material you find on a Web site seems odd or unusual, and further investigation suggests that it may not be truthful. When this happens, do not use it. Often when you undertake a search using an Internet search engine, you get many hits. Do not use only the first one you find. Carefully check a number of comparable sites to ensure the information is comparable. If you find that there are glaring contradictions or discrepancies, you should be very cautious about using this information.

Content versus Use

By now, you should have begun to amass a large quantity of documents to include in your review of the literature. Naturally, you will need to begin taking some form of notes on the various pieces of literature you have obtained. There are a number of ways you can keep such records and notes. What follows are a few general suggestions for organizing your work. There are no rules, however, and you will do best to discover the style that works best for your own ways of thinking.

It is difficult to educate yourself on a new area of study while also learning who the key authors are in this area while also becoming familiar with the specialized vocabulary of research on the topic while thinking about the meaning of the findings presented while planning the paper that you will write. It helps if you can break the work down into different parts. I prefer to maintain a strict distinction between two questions: What does the material say? And how does this relate to me? In other words, taking notes on the content of the literature you study is distinct from taking notes on how to use that literature in your own work.

Writing notes on the content of research articles and books is a lot like preparing a junior high school book report. First, record the full citation information for the article or other source. Next, identify the major claim(s), methods, and subject matter of the work. Under that, begin to write out all of the best parts—the quotable explanations, definitions, and findings that make this work unique. Quote each exactly, with quotation marks, and note the page numbers. When you are done, you should have a brief file that encapsulates the key parts of your source, making it much easier to draw on when you write. Chapter 12 discusses the problems with paraphrasing and with careless use of quotes in the section about plagiarism. There are other benefits to careful quoting.

Copying over exact quotes often seems tiresome and unnecessary. Since we are primarily interested in ideas, not phrases, one might think that a paraphrase is better. I recommend otherwise. If you, as an investigator, paraphrase material in your content notes, it is possible that you might slant or alter meanings. Without intending to, you might have misread, misinterpreted, or poorly paraphrased material. When you go through the notes looking for agreement among authors, you might find paraphrased statements that seem to represent similar ideas, but that actually do not accurately represent the sent iments of the original authors. Using verbatim excerpts ensures that this will not occur. Either the authors did say similar things or they did not. Also, block copying from pdfs into a word processor is faster and more accurate than typing it yourself.

I also recommend saving keywords with each file to describe the content. It may seem like extra work at the time, but it can be invaluable later when you need to find all of your sources on antidrug laws, or to locate that one piece you vaguely remember containing the story about the homeless dog. If it’s possible, it also sometimes helps to make liberal use of subfolders to store your notes. Under the “social movements” folder, I might have folders for “American” and “European” cases, or “cultural” movements in one and “material” goals in another. Of course the problem there is that you could have a European cultural movement that is pursuing the expansion of access to things of material value, in which case you could file that almost anywhere. This is why keywords are often more useful ways to identify source files.

With keywords, you can very quickly sort the summaries into different categories as you need them (e.g., placing all the notes about police detectives together, or all the theory pieces in one place). In this manner, you can assemble the material into an organized sequence that will reflect how you plan to write the report or paper. This allows you to read through the relevant materials for each section rather than repeatedly read through all of the material in order to write a single section.

Keyword searches also allow you to assess whether multiple authors actually have made similar statements about issues or situations. In turn, you are able to make strong synthesized statements regarding the work or arguments of others. For example, you might write, “According to Babbie (2007), Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias (2007), and Leedy and Ormrod (2004), the design stage is a critically important element in the development of a research project.” Making such a synthesized statement, which collapses the arguments of three individuals into one, can be easily accomplished because you would have notes for each author conveying this sort of general sentiment.

I have violated all of this advice at times, and so I have learned the hard way about the importance of good record keeping. Before we all had laptops, I had actual folders with pieces of paper in them to store my notes. To save time, I would write the author’s name on the top of a note sheet without writing down the title. Weeks later, after I had inserted a great quote from “Smith” into my paper, I would have to take it out again because I was unable to figure out if this was Dorothy Smith (1987), Michael Peter Smith (1998), or someone else altogether. I still have a folder containing an entire conference presentation without a single citation in it. I would love to rewrite the material for publication, but I have no usable sources for any of my claims.

Fortunately, there are technological solutions for those of us too rushed or too lazy to write everything down. Most of the databases that you might use to find many of your materials—whether books or articles—will also allow you to save the complete citations in any of the standard writing styles. And many will generate records suitable for a bibliography program. Bibliography software is extremely useful for storing accurate and complete lists of materials you have read, whether you ended up using them in your current paper or not. They also allow you to store keywords with each record, which we know is helpful. And since you can download the citations and copy them into files with a few keystrokes, you have little opportunity to introduce typos. Your university library may offer free or reduced-cost software for this, and many programs can be downloaded for little or no money anyway. You can try out a few and decide for yourself.

First, though, we need to think about how we use all of these notes. New work is built on a foundation of old work. We take the best of what is currently known and weave it together to form the solid ground on which to place our own, new, contributions. The content notes that I described earlier are not such a foundation. To push the metaphor a little more, they are the materials from which we construct that foundation. 

Let’s imagine that I am starting a study of teen drug use. Clearly, some of my background literature would come from the field of juvenile delinquency studies, from which I would learn of the statistical distributions of different forms of youthful criminal behavior, the nature of interventions and their success and failure rates, and criminological theories for such behavior. All of this is a start, but little of it would be exactly on my topic. The youths I’m studying aren’t necessarily thieves or thugs, gang members, or even dropouts. Most of them are probably suburban stoners. But the delinquency literature is one pillar.

There is a rich social-psychological research literature on adolescence. One can get lost in such a broad field, soaking up thousands of pages of new information. For the sake of efficiency, I would need to limit my reading with the strategic use of additional keywords. I would obviously read about teen drug use, and teen drinking and probably teen smoking as well. This body of research would provide another pillar, with theories and data about the nature and causes of adolescent behaviors that are viewed as “antisocial.” Notice that “antisocial” behavior will overlap with some of what the delinquency literature calls “criminal” behavior. Relating the two to each other, or separating them in a useful way, is part of my job as the writer of my own research paper.

A third pillar for this work might come from research on families. There might be household-level data that I would want to consider. Of course, the drug of choice among youths varies by socioeconomic status. Powdered cocaine is more popular among people who can afford it, while crack cocaine is accessible to low-income consumers. Heroin goes in and out of fashion, while marijuana remains the perennial favorite among casual users. I would certainly want to know more about who is typically using what in order to both plan and describe my research.

Finally, at least for purposes of this discussion, there are classic works that simply have to be included if I’m going to make any sort of conceptual argument about my topic. If I want to investigate youth drug use in relation to anomie, then I will have some discussion of Durkheim. If I want to address the social context in which the drugs are used, or the meaning of the act to the users, then I would certainly start with Norman Zinberg’s (1984) Drug, Set, and Setting

With all of this research literature consumed and reduced to notes, I have my materials. But I still don’t have my foundation. Simply listing all of the different viewpoints that all of this past work has claimed or demonstrated would produce more confusion than clarity. Results in one source, taken at face value, contradict the results of another. Each of the sources addresses some small part of my study, but none of them directly answer my question. (Notice that if one of them did answer my question, and I accepted that answer as valid and complete, then there would be no justification for me to do my work at all. We’re supposed to use our work to go beyond our sources.) So how do I use my notes?

Let’s recall the purpose of writing a literature review. You provide the background needed to educate your readers enough so that they can understand and follow what you are doing and so that they can appreciate the need for your work. The review of past research brings them up to speed, introduces and explains the major concepts with which you are working, does not introduce concepts that you don’t need, and provides the motivation for your new research (Galvin, 1999). Ideally, by the time individuals have finished reading your background section, they should be on the edge of their seats wanting to know what you have found.

There are many ways to write a literature review section. A few of the things you might try to do when writing yours are as follows:

  1. Dispel myths. One of the myths of drug use is that we could eliminate it entirely if we had just the right policies and strategies. Yet, studies indicate that drug use is universal, across all sorts of times and places, under all regime types, and through all kinds of economic and social conditions.
  2. Explain competing conceptual frameworks. Some drug use studies center on the issue of blame. Are the users bad people? Are their parents so? Have their schools failed them? Other studies look at control efforts, police budgets, the availability of treatment options, and enforcement policies. So, one set of readings is concerned with the problems of supply, while others are all about demand.
  3. Clarify the focus of your own work. I might, for example, explain the unique features of a symbolic interactionist approach to state that I am interested in understanding the meaning of the act (drug use) from the perspective of the user, and not from the perspective of parents or politicians.
  4. Justify assumptions. Drug use patterns are cyclical. The popularity of specific drugs rises and falls endlessly. By using government data on drug sales and arrests, I can back up my claim that declines in use of one drug are usually accompanied by increases in the use of others. Therefore, I might reject a local mayor’s claim that his own policies toward drug control are responsible for the recent decline in whatever drug is going out of favor

The main point is that your literature review section is like an essay on the background to your topic. It has an introduction, in which you explain what your topic is and what you are reviewing. It has a point, which is to support your research question and your design. There is the body of the paper, in which you present the information that defines the background to your work. Therefore, you can start with an outline as you might for a larger paper. And this is where you start to map out a strategy for putting your content notes to use. You can lay out the major claims of the literature, decide what order to address them in, and begin to write out notes about what you want your readers to understand about the material. Ultimately, you would produce a coherent essay that flows from the introduction to the conclusion, touching on the various works of the field along the way

Returning to the example above, my written literature review on drug use might emphasize the transitory nature of most use, in contrast to the literature on addiction. I would emphasize the situationally specific nature of much use and include references to research on how and when people stopped using whatever they had been using. These references to research findings would include citations to the sources of the information. But the writing is about the findings, not the sources. Few things are as boring as a list of things other people have said. You may have an early draft of your paper that says, “researcher A looked at smoking practices . . . , but researcher B found otherwise . . . . In researcher C’s study, . . . . ” But don’t hand that in. The final version should contain a paragraph or more on smoking practices as they apply to your topic (with a parenthetical, in-text citation to researcher A). Further research may raise questions about how applicable that is (B).

Notice how completely unlike a junior high school book report this final essay is. No one, honestly, no one wants to read your content summaries. Your papers are not strengthened by a long diversion into listing a bunch of things that you have read. All of that content summary was for you, to make it easier for you to write the real literature review part.

Let us return to the earlier research idea: What is the relationship between college and drinking among American males? After reading through some of the literature, you might begin to refine and frame this idea as a problem statement with researchable questions:

Problem statement. This research proposes to examine alcohol-drinking behaviors in social settings among college-age American males. Research questions. A number of questions are addressed in this research including (although not limited to) the following: 

  1. What are some normative drinking behaviors of young adult American males during social gatherings where alcohol is present? 
  2. How do some young adult American males manage to abstain from drinking (e.g., avoidance rituals) while in social situations where alcohol is present?
  3. How do young adult American males define appropriate drinking practices? 
  4. How do young adult American males define problem drinking?

These questions did not just happen spontaneously. They were influenced by the literature about drinking practices among Americans. They resulted after the investigator began thinking about what issues were important and how those issues might be measured. This required the researcher to consider various concepts and definitions and perhaps to develop operationalized definitions.