How many sources do you need in a literature review?

February 19, 2014

Students often ask me how many sources they need in their literature review. The short answer is, “It depends.” It depends on your topic, the nature of your research project, your level of scholarship, and a number of other factors.

An article from Canberra University (http://www.canberra.edu.au/studyskills/writing/literature) suggests:

  • Undergraduate review: 5-20 titles depending on level
  • Honours dissertation: 20+ titles
  • Master’s thesis: 40+ titles
  • Doctoral thesis: 50+ titles

Another strategy I learned somewhere along the way that I now share with my students is this:

If your literature review is one section of a larger research paper, thesis or dissertation

 Minimum number of sources = number of pages in the body of your entire paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A paper that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) needs at least 10 sources in its literature review. 

A thesis of 100 pages (in the body) includes at least 100 sources.

If your literature review is a stand-alone document

Minimum number of sources =  3 times the number of pages in the body of your paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A stand-alone literature review that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) should examine at least 30 sources.

These are not hard and fast rules by any means. Also, it is worth mentioning that as students and scholars who care about the quality of our work, we want to aim to raise the bar, not simply meet a minimum suggested standard. What these guidelines are suggesting is that you don’t aim for any less. If you do, your search for relevant literature in your field may be incomplete and you need to keep digging. Of course, your sources have to be relevant to your topic, too.

Not every scholar or academic supervisor would agree with the guidelines I offer here, criticizing them as being too reductionist or simplistic. My point isn’t to offer a black and white rule or open theoretical debate for which there can be no clear solution, but rather to offer a straight forward and practical answer to a question that academics often respond to in an ambiguous way, leaving students frustrated, exasperated and anxious about how to go conduct their literature review. 

When in doubt, talk with your own instructor or supervisor, asking them what their expectations are. (Don’t be surprised though, if you get an answer that is vague, like, “It depends…”)

Remember: Aim for quality over quality… and to do a quality literature review, you need to have a substantive quantity of sources.

Here are some of my favourite resources to help you write your literature review:

University of Toronto – http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review

U Conn – http://classguides.lib.uconn.edu/content.php?pid=239974&sid=1980274

University of Leicester –  http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/literature-review

Queensland Univeristy of Technology – http://www.citewrite.qut.edu.au/write/litreview.jsp

Birmingham City University – http://library.bcu.ac.uk/learner/writingguides/1.04.htm

Related posts: Why APA formatting matters http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hc

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


How to create a research paper outline: 5 great resources

January 2, 2013

Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, presenter, keynote, technology, social media, Calgary, Canada, educator, education, professional developmentOnce again, I am teaching “Writing Educational Research” to Master’s of Education (M.Ed.) students at the University of Calgary this semester. I have found that some students struggle with the process of outlining their final research papers.

Outlining is an invaluable skill that helps you to conceptualize, plan and organize your writing. I learned to outline my essays when I was in school and to this day, I use outlines for research papers and even my books. I find that organizing my ideas in an outline helps me to keep my writing focussed and clear. I even outlined my Master’s and Ph.D. theses. When my Ph.D. thesis had to be modified as I was writing up my project, having an outline helped to decide what to toss, what to keep and how to re-organize the work effectively.

Here are some excellent resources that are useful to university level students, as well as high school students and adult learners who are learning to write essays:

  1. How to write an outline (SUNY) – This is an excellent web page resource produced by the State University of New York (SUNY). The method they demonstrate is the same one I learned in school. It is a classic “tiered” outline. The chart on this web page presents the information in a very clear way that is easy to understand.
  2. How to write an outline (LAVC) – Similar to the SUNY resource, this web page by the Los Angeles Valley College Library explains the difference between a topic outline and a sentence outline, using the tiered format. This web page has some great examples of what a real outline might look like.
  3. Wikihow – How to write an outline – This Wiki breaks down the process of writing an outline into simple, easy-to-follow steps. The wiki also has samples of a research outline, a literature outline and a “compare and contrast” outline.
  4. How to outline a 5-paragraph essay – This YouTube video (4:26) offers tips on how to write a shorter essay. It is great for students who have to write shorter papers or adults who are learning how to write an essay.
  5. Sample qualitative research outline by Rey Ty – This YouTube video moves a bit slowly, but it gives an excellent overview of how to write an outline for a qualitative research project.

Learning to outline is a valuable skill that will serve you in school and in the workplace. A good outline keeps you focussed, organized and on track.

Related posts:

Readings for Writing Educational Research (EDER 603.23) http://wp.me/pNAh3-1OJ

12 Phrases to Avoid in Your Academic Research Papers http://wp.me/pNAh3-1JX

Active vs. passive voice — How to tell the difference http://wp.me/pNAh3-1HX

Why APA formatting matters http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hc

How many sources do you need in a literature review?  http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hu

What’s the difference between a citation and a reference? http://wp.me/pNAh3-1F9

Why “as cited in” should be avoided in academic writing  http://wp.me/pNAh3-1BH

10 Great writing resources for grad students – http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Bc

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5 Tips to make writing easier

October 4, 2012

This past spring I taught a course on Writing Educational Research to a group of Master’s students, most of whom taught English as an Additional Language as their job. I was surprised how many of them loathed writing. One student said that she was reluctant to teach writing in her EAL courses because it felt like forcing a traumatic experience on them.

Over the course of the six-weeks we learned together, we came up with some strategies that they could use for themselves, and also use with their students. Here they are:

1. Write every day. Saying, “I’m going to write my essay on the weekend,” can turn the weekend into a time of torture instead of a time to relax and recharge your batteries. Instead, commit to writing 30 minutes per day. This helps build the writing habit.

2. Choose a time of the day when you feel fresh and creative.  For me, that time is often first thing in the morning. By mid-afternoon I am crashing and after supper my brain seems capable of basic life support only. In the morning is when I feel both creative and clear-headed.

3. Work with a writing partner. Choose someone you get along with and like to work with. Arrange a time to work together to review each other’s writing, make suggestions and do some peer editing. The point of working together is to try to help each other, not to nit pick. Set some ground rules and focus on the positive.

4. Let go. Some students said they hated writing because they couldn’t tolerate being criticized or being asked to revise their writing. They became very emotionally attached to their writing right away. What if the purpose of writing was to share it? And share it in the best form possible? If we start with that idea, then we might become less emotionally tethered to the writing… You can still be proud of your work without having a  Gollum-like attachment to it.

5. Edit and revise. It is said that Mozart never revised his music. He sat down, wrote it and was done. Unfortunately, most of us are not Mozart. I recently submitted the second revision of an article I submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal. It was “accepted with minor revisions” when I first submitted it. That was almost six months ago. I made the changes the reviewers requested and re-submitted it. Then recently, the editor came back to me with a few more minor changes. He was right in asking me to change a few more things. I had forgotten to add in some citations, which are important in journal articles. I made the changes and sent the manuscript back again. I had been so close to the work, I could no longer see the errors. Working with editors, reviewers and instructors is really a chance to make your writing better.

Writing seems to be very easy for some people and very painful for others. These strategies may help a few reluctant writers and ease their stress so writing does not seem so daunting.

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How writers can learn to accept criticism

May 14, 2012

Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, presenter, keynote, technology, social media, Calgary, Canada, educator, education, professional developmentI teach a graduate level writing course for students enrolled in the Master’s of Education program at the University of Calgary. My students are from all over the world and are actively involved in the teaching profession. The objective of this course is to prepare them for professional writing as educators and scholarly academic writing. Their major assignment involves preparing a manuscript for submission to a reputable journal in the profession.

Some students have said that they cringe at the thought of their writing being rejected by an editor or criticized by a teacher. Most have never submitted a manuscript to a journal, with fear of criticism or rejection being a contributing factor. These tips are intended help novice writers learn to take criticism from instructors, peer reviewers and editors.

Start with the assumption that your work can be improved

The biggest mistake writers make is assuming that once they have submitted a piece of writing, that is finished… and perfect. This assumption sets the writer up for a frustration and anger when their work is returned with a request for revisions. Falling in love with your own writing is a dangerous thing.

It can be helpful to approach your writing from the point of view that a perfect piece of writing never (or at least only very rarely) exists. Assume that there is always room for improvement.

Expect rejection

There are many stories of famous writers whose work was rejected. Even great writers get multiple rejections. J.K. Rowling had Harry Potter rejected a dozen times, according to some reports.  Rather than assuming that your work will be accepted or accepted with minor revisions, instead expect that you will be rejected, not once, but numerous times. This will position you to be tenacious and resilient. Here’s a list of 50 iconic writers whose work was repeatedly rejected. Personally, I’d count myself lucky to ever be included on such a list.

Develop a thick skin

Some writers develop such a deep emotional attachment to their work that it can be unhealthy, or even destructive. It is healthy and productive to develop your writing until you are satisfied and proud of it. You have passed the point of healthy emotions when you are so fragile when anything but glowing praise leaves you feeling all crumpled up and hateful towards anyone who has offered you feedback.

I tell my students to think of TV shows such as Iron Chef. The chefs who make it to the top of their profession are deeply proud of their accomplishments, but they can also take criticism. They have a thick skin. Be your own version of an “Iron Writer”.

Learn the difference between criticism and cruelty

It is true that some editors are just plain mean. However, the majority are not cruel. They may be straightforward and clinical, but do not mistake this for cruelty. Your editor is not paid to be your friend. Sometimes they are not paid at all, particularly if they are editing an academic journal.

An editor’s job is to help ensure that the final written work adheres to an established set of guidelines and standards. If your work doesn’t meet a minimum set of standards, they have to tell you. That’s their job.

If you submit enough manuscripts to enough editors, chances are that you will eventually run into a jerk or two. When that happens, take whatever feedback you find helpful and disregard the rest.

In general though, editors are generally a clear headed and insightful bunch. Many really do want to help. Most love writing and words as much as you do, maybe even more. The truth is though, they see so much crap and poorly written material that sometimes, they  just get exasperated. They are human, too. So, they may learn to be unemotional or clinical in their responses. Do not mistake an editor’s lack of bubbly enthusiasm as a personal vengeance against you.

Accept the challenge of improving your work

Let’s use the analogy of TV chefs again. But this time, think of a cooking show such as Top Chef, where chefs have to compete for the title of “Top Chef”. One by one, chefs are eliminated. Those who reach the finale all have two things in common. First, their end creation is superb. Second, when they are given advice and criticisms by their judges, their attitude is “Bring it on!” They not only accept the judges’ criticism, they embrace the challenge of improving their work.

Focus first on creating stellar writing. Second, when you are faced with an editor or peer reviewer who challenges you to improve on your masterpiece, smile sincerely and say, “I’m here to bring my A-game… So bring on the feedback!” Take your editors or reviewers’ comments the same way a Top Chef takes criticism from a judge.

Be humble and gracious

Say thank you to your editor or reviewer. Chances are very high that your editor has just as much, if not more, experience in publishing as you do. He or she has likely experienced everything that you are experiencing yourself, including rejection. Editors vary in their tone, style and personality. You may be offended by an editor’s straight forward approach to your work.

An editor does not have the same emotional attachment to the work that you do; and nor should they. Their priorities include getting the publication out on time, and possibly working with an entire editorial or production team. By recognizing that your editor has more on his or her plate than your manuscript and and by being gracious, you are likely to build a better professional relationship. Trust me, it always pays to be on the good side of your editor.

Keep a lid on your anger

It is normal to feel angry when we are rejected. What is not OK is to take your anger out on your editor, your peer reviewer or your professor. Even if you believe your editor’s comments come across as cruel or unjustified, they may not have been intended that way. Besides, what you can not control is what others say or how they say it. What you can control is your own professional conduct. Never, ever send an e-mail when you are angry.

Here’s a trick I learned: If you need to write an angry letter to “get it all out”, the trick is not to put the recipient’s address in the “To” section of the e-mail. Instead, put your own address. Send yourself the e-mail first. Let it sit in your inbox for a minimum of 24 hours. Then, read it again. If you still feel angry. Leave it in your inbox for another  24 hours. Do not send it to the intended recipient until you can read it over yourself and not be flooded with the same feelings of rage. It is likely that you will revise and soften the language of your message when you do.

Don’t be a diva

Do not fight with your editor or go all “diva” on them. That means, do not tell them how wrong they are or how sorry they’ll be that they didn’t publish your precious manuscript. Seriously, nothing comes across as more arrogant or disdainful. The bottom line is, if your work really is that good, it will speak for itself… eventually.

Be patient and resilient

Writing is a process. It takes time. Revising and rewriting are part of that process. Mozart may have popped out masterpieces without revising them, but few musicians or writers can lay claim to such genius. Be patient with your editors and with yourself. Learn the subtle balancing act of having simultaneous confidence in your work and humility in yourself. Most editors, peer reviewers and instructors have benevolent intentions. They are not monsters set to duel to the death with your ego. When you see these people as your allies instead of your enemies, the writing process becomes easier. As they say… every rejection gets you one step closer to a “yes”. Patience is part of the process.

Resources related to this post:

How to Take Writing Criticism Gracefully – by Hannah Rice Myers, eHow

How (and Why) to Take Criticism – by Monique van den Berg

Developing a Thick Skin: How to Accept Criticism – by Betty L. Meeshack

How to Happily Accept Criticism – by Angus Shaw

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