An easier way to review literature (cheat)

See that stack of papers on your desk? Those ones you thought looked relevant but haven’t read yet?

Here’s how to deal with them.

It takes a long time to read every single paper in depth, so cheat.

How to cheat effectively

Not all papers are relevant or important so you don’t need to read every single one in the same level of detail.

  • At first glance, make a quick judgement as to whether it might be useful to you. You might look at 30 papers and pick 10 quite quickly. Put the other 20 to one side.
  • Those 10, read through once again and highlight the key points that seem important or relevant to your work.
  • You can also highlight some references to look up, and repeat the process to pick out 10 more good ones
  • Any papers you think are fantastic, draw a star on the front page so you can find it again quickly. These you’ll read again in more depth later.

So you’re reading fast, but not in depth. It just gives you an impression of what’s there.

If you keep repeating this process, you’ll end up with a stack of papers, all of which you know are good.

Then you can read individual papers and go into more depth.

So decide which papers are most important and relevant and put more effort into them than the rest!

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  1. Abi says

    Nvivo QSR is amazing qualitative analysis software. You can code papers and search for notes later. Coding is an almighty pain in the ass but it pays off and if your going to be reading anyways, its only a little extra effort. If fact, it kind of focuses you a bit more. When you think “Oh, I wish I could remember who said that thing about such and such,…and what exactly was it they said” you can search for all the bits of literature (and any other data) you have on a theme. It helps draw real insights and saves loads of time sifting through unorganised post-its and notes.

  2. Tracey says

    the problem i’m having with my literature collection is that when i come to write i have a “fish” brain – i know i’ve read something about what i’m writing but i can’t seem to easily locate the paper it’s from – so does anyone out there have a way of cross referencing papers for easy retrieval ???

    thanks everyone in advance for your help


    • Alciia says

      Tracey, as you read – make notes. Anything you think might be relevant in anyway, make a note of it. I just copy the text and paste it into my literature review document with the authors name and then forget it and move on. I also highlight the text I took from the paper in case I want to come back to it to find out more. When I remember an idea related to what I am writing about I can usually remember whether I pasted the related text somewhere/made a note of it or not. Otherwise I just scan through my notes to look for the related material. Hope that helps!

    • Ellen Spaeth says

      Tracey – I find Scrivener particularly helpful for that. It lets you keep all your literature together, meaning in this case you can
      – Skim the PDF
      – Make notes in the “Document Notes” section
      – Tag it with keywords
      – Search the keywords later

      It’s not free software, but it is not expensive (around £25 if you’re a student). I’ve mentioned it really briefly on my blog ( but there’s a lot more information about the software on the internet in general. I recommend Googling
      – Scrivener PhD or
      – Scrivener literature review

      Hope that helps. I find mindmaps quite useful too.

      • myndflyte says

        Try Docear. It works the same way as Ellen said but it is free. It takes a little tinkering with to understand how it is supposed to work but it easily creates mind maps. Plus the creators are very good about replying to questions on their forums.

  3. Carroll says

    I read the abstract, introduction and then conclusion to decide whether the paper goes into the pile of “need to read later”.

  4. says

    “Just 500 words per day.” – Even the little word ‘just’ can stir the emotions.

    By setting an acceptable minimum, there is still room for emotion to get in the way. An emotional person may have difficulty if they miss the acceptable minimum one day. Rather than strike the day off or add the remaining words to the next day’s count, a more emotional response may consider the delicate process destroyed. In turn, dedication could grind to a halt as the individual assumes a lack of ability.

    It’s important to recognise the difference between a rare lapse and a general lack of self-discipline. I totally agree with you that productivity varies every day. As you rightly point out, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

    If someone goes 10 days straight with their acceptable minimum and then has an ‘off’ day, where’s the harm? An emotional focus could switch from “I have failed” to “Perhaps tomorrow will be an exceptional day”. It may not be an exceptional day, but you’re more likely to come right back in play.

    That’s the real beauty of your “500 word per day grid”. The closer you are to that goal, the closer you are to realising your ongoing ability to get that work done. Even superheroes have ‘off’ days.

  5. says

    YES! You’re totally right. You hardly ever need to read a paper from cover to cover. To to a good literature review, you need to learn how to extract the relevant information and leave the rest.

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