Overwhelmed by your lit review? How to read less and get away with it

This is a post for any researchers who might be feeling:

  1. That they simply don’t have time to read enough
  2. That their ‘to read’ pile is getting bigger and bigger, no matter how much you read
  3. (Being totally honest) their reading choices are shaped by fear of missing out (FOMO) – or fear of getting caught for not having read something.

I know these feelings all to well.

For those of you who prefer a video, all the key points below are in a lovely 10 minute video on my YouTube channel.

The ideas that follow are very much shaped by what I heard by colleague Julie Robert explain to research students a few years ago. The four labels are not my invention, I heard them from her.

Don’t read lots, read smart

I eventually recognised that my reading practices were not serving me well. I was reading based on FOMO, rather than based on my needs. I was defaulting to reading all articles from start to finish, or when I skipped sections I felt extremely guilty.

What I needed was a way to spend quality time with the literature, but to make sure I wasn’t wasting time either.

Reading smart isn’t about just reading the same number of books, papers, paragraphs or words in less time. It is about choosing purposefully how to spend that time.

 

A blunt reality

Time you spend reading something in full that doesn’t justify a full read is time wasted. You cannot get that time back.

But…

If you spend only a little bit of time on a particular book or paper, it isn’t going anywhere. You can always come back to it later, if and only if you have good reasons to spend more time on it.

 

The key is to read in different ‘modes’ – each with a different purpose and different practices

 

Discovery reading

This is the reading you do when you don’t know what is out there. It is about becoming familiar, getting a landscape view. It can answer questions such as:

  • Who are the key researchers who are frequently cited?
  • Where is the consensus and where is the disagreement?
  • What feels more ‘done’ and what is left more open for you to do
  • What the range of methods or theories used is.

It does not make sense to Discovery read texts from start to finish, nor to make copious detailed notes. To answer questions such as those above you might only need to read abstracts, dip into other sections, scan the conclusions and peruse the reference list.

And yes, you can cite something if you have only read the abstract or part of the text, provided (and this is a big point here) you are not leaning heavily on that text. It’s okay, in my view, to cite an abstract-only read if your citation is ‘light touch’ eg. Several studies have used x method to investigate y topic (Singh 2019, Hopwood 2017), however my study departs from these by adopting a different approach. If you are going to report, and trust, their findings, or build on concepts they use, then after discovery, you’re going to need to go back for…

 

Archaeology reading

This is the slow, detailed, fine-tooth comb reading. When you need to fully understand a theory, method, or how a particular study reached its conclusions (so you can critique them, accept them, question them, build on them), there is no choice but to go in deep.

Archaeology reading cannot be short-cut or sped up. I often archaeology read the same text multiple times.

My point is, you can save time by only archaeology reading what you need to read in this way. It will not make sense for you to read everything in this fashion.

 

Quest reading

This is another lighter-touch approach to reading. Unlike Discovery, where you don’t really know what is out there, in Quest, you are going looking for something specific. Quest is a very extractive way of reading. Maybe you have found a concept and you want to read examples of people who have used it in research to help you get a better understanding. Maybe you need to plug a little hole in your methods by finding details of how particular data collection or analysis techniques are accomplished. Maybe you’re at the late stages and just need to check that the big picture you got through your discovery hasn’t changed in the months you’ve been working hard on your own writing.

This is not about reading on the author’s terms. You’re not there, sitting down, ready to hear everything they have to say. It’s like you’ve got a metal detector. You are sweeping methodically through the text waiting for a ‘ping!’ – a moment where you can find what you are looking for.

Of course we have to maintain our ethics and rigour and make sure we don’t go quoting things out of context. But the point remains, when on a quest, reading in detail from start to finish and producing heaps more notes is unlikely to be serving your interests.

Nor will it be leaving you time to watch Game of Thrones, go to the gym, spend time with your kids, visit your parents, have dinner with friends, or whatever it is that matters to you other than your research.

 

Cheat

Yes, I said it. We are human beings. Sometimes we ‘cheat’. By this I mean we read and cite in a way that might leave people with an impression we have read in more detail than we actually have.

There are clearly times when this is not okay – especially in relation to archaeology. We can’t ‘fake’ the understandings of and intimacy with the literature that come from archaeology reading.

But sometimes in order to have high quality time with the texts that really matter, we do a bit of a drive through on some others.

Cheat is okay as long as we don’t compromise our ethics and start heavily leaning on texts we have ‘cheat’ read. The texts aren’t going anywhere, and we can always go back in with more of an archaeology approach.

 

In conclusion

The lesson I learned from years of poor reading practices that didn’t serve my needs was that default start-to-finish reading of everything was doing more harm than good. It was denying me extended quality time with the texts that really mattered.

I don’t feel guilty now I have given other ways of reading names. Thanks Julie!

I’d love to hear from you about your own ways of reading – anyone ready to confess to some cheat reading? Do these labels make sense to you? What other ways of reading do you use?

7 thoughts on “Overwhelmed by your lit review? How to read less and get away with it

  1. Mark Azavedo

    A qualified thumbs up from me. I don’t feel it clarified that the deep-reading elements should concern only those elements that will shape YOUR narrative, the narrative of your thesis in its main chapters. When you adopt that approach you will notice from those deep-read articles that there are references that you simply must follow-up. That gives you your medium level of reading which will also be mobilised in shaping your narrative, if less strongly. It will inevitably narrate where your “prime” author got his/her ideas from.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi Mark. Thanks for your comment. I think my idea of archaeology is that it will often shape ‘your narrative’, but also not necessarily. We often do archaeology for good reasons, in good faith, early on and end up not using it. We also do archaeology to understand others’ narratives more to put ours in position rather than shape our narrative itself. But, yes, I agree there is lots of follow-up reading about where ideas came from, and that is precisely why I think the archaeology metaphor is nice – we go another layer down, excavate another layer to get at what came before / what was underneath. Anyway thanks, again for your comment 🙂

      Reply
  2. Trang Hong Hoang

    Thank you Nick for such a useful blog post! From the time I started thinking about what are the research skills that I need to develop, I’ve found your sharing of different reading techniques one of the most beneficial. Truly love your communication style, simple, concise and full of wit. Fun reading 😀

    Reply
  3. Ruby

    Timely post. I found your blog just today. I’ve started my doctorate less than a month ago and was reflecting on the time I’ve spent reading. I felt i was wasting time because i was seemingly reading without purpose (still very much at the discovery stage), felt bad for only reading small sections (specifically related to my topic) and not taking notes on everything i read. Being new to the field i feel i need to read everything related to my topic so i can build a solid foundation. The amount of “relevant” literature out there is overwhelming and sometimes i forget the content of what i read.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi Ruby! Thanks for your comment – refreshingly open and candid! I’m sure lots of readers will appreciate you sharing your experiences!
      I hope the reading strategies are of some use.
      Nick

      Reply
  4. Isaac Coffie

    Hi Nick
    This is timely information for me to organize myself for my PHD work. These ideas you have posted here are really going to help to know which literature to spend several hours and even days and those which I should not. Thanks for the information

    Reply

Please join in and leave a reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s