Aisha Walker

Thinking onscreen

Interviewing the literature: a tip for students


All academic research starts with a literature review and this is one of the big headaches for students writing theses or dissertations. Tutors tell students to ‘read critically’ and sometimes talk about “interrogating the literature” which sounds terrifying (perhaps you shine a bright light on the paper to make it give up its secrets). One way to approach the reading for a literature review is to imagine that you are interviewing the author.  In an interview you would ask questions such as “Why did you do this study?” “What did you do?” “Why did you do it that way?”  You would ask about things such as the number of participants; how they were selected; how the data were collected and analysed… You would also ask what the study found, why this is signficant and how the researcher can be sure that those conclusions are robust.  Every research paper and report should be able to answer these questions.  So, when preparing to undertake a literature review, start by writing a list of your ‘interview’ questions.  As you read each paper, note the answers to your questions.  If you can’t find the answer to a question then that is important and may be a weak point in the paper or help to identify a gap in the research.  Either way, an unanswered question is something that you should mention when you write your literature review.

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