The Literature Review Puzzle

Scientific thinking is the means by which one views the world from various perspectives (scientific disciplines) to acquire new knowledge and increase understanding. Scientific research is a systematic and, in many cases, a fairly rigorous process of analyzing phenomena, asking questions, collecting data, and developing answers. Scientific research is often defined by the scientific method, which essentially describes the process by which scientific research is conducted. There are many models that describe the scientific method, but it typically consists of a few important steps:

Step 1: Observe what is going on in the world around you.
Step 2: Ask questions about what you observe (who, what, where, why, how).
Step 3: Create models that help conceptualize your observations and questions.
Step 4: Test your model for proper representation and prediction of the world you've observed.

The scientific method is a continuous and iterative process because the world is always changing and one simple model can never account for all possible variables or for all influencing factors.



An important activity that takes place within the scientific method is research to find out what is already known about the world being observed. At the point in the scientific method where questions are asked, the researcher begins to research the literature to find out if anyone else has asked the same or similar questions and what, if anything, was discovered. This research phase is often referred to as the literature review and consists of activities to review material across a spectrum of professionally written articles to personal blogs related to the topic. So let's break down the literature review process.

Like the scientific method, there are several models that describe how the literature review process works, but it essentially consists of activities that help frame the problem, collect research data, and identify patterns amongst the collected research data. The literature review begins with the research question, and from the research question, the primary topic or focus of the question is derived. In the book, The literature review: Six steps to success, Machi and McEvoy use the analogy of putting together a puzzle to describe the literature review process.

Once assembled, the puzzle displays a picture of something. Pictures might include images of various things. In the case of the picture above, the picture includes images of big rocks, clouds, trees, and water. Each image represents a concept. The tree is a concept. The water is a concept. The rocks are concepts. A concept is simply an idea that has definition and meaning. From the perspective of the world around us, concepts represent shared ideas. We all see the same things in the picture above, and we all define the images in the picture the same way.



In the literature review puzzle, framing the problem consists of activities to identify the topic, core concepts of the topic, and the boundaries (terms and ideas) of the topic. We can think of the topic as the picture itself. Framing the problem is a way to focus the lens of the camera, so we only get what we need in the picture.  The next step is collecting the research data. Here we search everything from professional research articles to personal blogs to discover what is already known about the topic and see what questions have already been asked. We then take all of this data, and we find the patterns in the literature. This helps identify the themes and the consistent thinking and the relationships that exist across the breadth of the literature. From here, the researcher continues with the scientific method. More on the scientific method is subsequent posts.

References
Machi, L. A.; McEvoy, B. T. (2016).  The literature review: Six steps to success (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


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