beginning the literature review: the art of scan-reading

It’s important at the start of a piece of research to try to get a sense of the field – to establish the kinds of articles and books that are going to be useful. This is often a particularly hard task for doctoral researchers. Where to start? What to eliminate? How to decide what is important? There is just so much!!!

There are a couple of things that doctoral researchers need to do when starting a literature review. The first is of course to get a steer from the supervisor or committee about the key texts and key debates. The second is to skim read across a set of texts that appear to have something to do with the topic, in order to ‘get the lay of the land’.

Scanning a large number of articles allows you to get a sense of what’s out there and what might really be relevant to the proposed study. AFTER this you can go back and read the articles that seem most pertinent.

Scanning might seem counter-intuitive. I have seen many doctoral researchers begin their literature work by engaging in depth with a tiny handful of texts. They spend a day or two on each journal article, carefully noting a considerable amount. In the end they produce as much as half the word count of the actual article they are reading. In other words, they are rewriting, not summarising and synthesising.

My advice is to do the reverse of this intensive reading for everything OTHER than those texts your supervisor/committee has said are must-reads.

Spend as little as half an hour on a much larger number of texts. You can find these via the most obvious word search that you can imagine of a major journal site such as Taylor and Francis. Supervisors/committees will advise on what the most obvious search terms might be.

Once you have a quantity of texts that seem related to your area of study, you are set for scan-reading. But what is scan-reading? When I ask doctoral researchers to scan-read in my academic writing classes I suggest that they:

1 read the title
2 read the abstract
3 read the introduction, the headings, the first and last sentence of every paragraph and the conclusion
and then
4 tell their neighbour what they thought the article was about.

Participants are often surprised that they have grasped quite a lot from this less detailed/arduous textual engagement.

This is because articles that are well written will have the kinds of abstracts and headings that allow the reader to get to grips with the argument quite quickly. However, the tendency for writers to use generic headings – such as ‘discussion’ or ‘findings’ – means that it is best for readers to go to the paragraph level in order to make sure that they can see the line of argument. A well-written paragraph will have a topic sentence either at its beginning or end (more usually the beginning), and so reading the first and last sentence should allow the reader to get to grips with the writer’s train of thought.

I also ask doctoral researchers not to have a highlighter or pen in their hands but to simply read. If they have trouble focusing on the lines of text they can use a ruler – but no pen. (Some people have real difficulty reading without a pen in their hand and I confess that on the odd occasion I have been known to suggest that they sit on their hands in order to break the habit.) I do this because many of us have been taught that reading an article always requires writing, noting and underlining. I want to suggest to doctoral researchers that noting can come AFTER a first reading, and that highlighting and writing on the actual text are best left for a second detailed read, IF it is required.

The other reason for reading the article ‘skeleton’ is of course related to academic writing. If it is possible to read and understand an argument from just these textual features, then it is also important to pay attention to them when writing. Titles, abstracts, headings and topic sentences are ‘the red thread’ that creates coherence in any piece of scholarly writing.

The next post will be about noting – how not to rewrite the article. See also the post on why doctoral researchers get asked to read so much.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in coherence, literature review, reading, scan-reading and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to beginning the literature review: the art of scan-reading

  1. This is pretty much what I ask my A-Level students to do; they hate it, of course. I say they must spend time training themselves to read this way; they ignore me. Interesting that many postgraduate students are still learning.


  2. Anonymous says:

    If only my supervisors had told me any of that! They just told me to “read everything in X field”. I felt lost, stupid and had a nervous breakdown.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Kate says:

    This advice is AWESOME. I am 1 month in to my PhD in geology and this is article is invaluable. Thank you for writing it.


  9. Kourtney says:

    I know I’m 5 years late, but great post! It helped me so much!


  10. nagdawi84 says:

    Great post thanks for sharing.


  11. Zhongyuan says:

    Thanks for your suggestion


  12. Lily Ann Dimas Lando says:

    Thanks for this. I teach short classes for first-time researchers/proponents and the Literature Review is often the most challenging part to get through. I’ll share the scan-reading process and see how they do. I’m excited already!


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