Organizing Your Literature: Spreadsheet Style – Inside Higher Ed (blog)

Kathleen Clarke is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter @_KathleenClarke where she tweets about graduate education, mental health, and disability.


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There are many different types of reference managers, including Refworks, Zotero, Endnote, and Mendeley. I’ve tried them all and none of have stuck. It’s not that there is anything wrong with them; I know folks who swear by them. They just don’t suit my workflow. Instead, I use a simple spreadsheet (Excel and/or Google Sheets) and a numbering format to keep track of all my resources. The best part about my system: it doesn’t require buying any software and it doesn’t take hours to learn!


The Major Spreadsheet


In her post called “How I Use Excel to Manage My Literature Review,” Elaine Campbell outlines her approach to using a spreadsheet to manage literature. I call her approach the Major Spreadsheet, because she is mapping out a very large body of literature for her doctorate in a single spreadsheet. I started a similar spreadsheet very early in my program. Here’s what it looks like:


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What you want to do is add a bunch of column headings for things you want to keep track of and then start adding resources to each row. I initially was only adding journal articles, but realized this would work better if it truly housed all my resources. I therefore add anything related to my work: books, policies, blog posts.


Here are two pointers for your Major Spreadsheet:


First, start early and add often. I add to my Major Spreadsheet whenever I come across an article pertinent to my research area (graduate students with mental health challenges and disabilities). I started this in the first year of my program, so I have quite a few articles now. As Campbell points out in her post, this approach is great because it can help you see how far you’ve come and how much you’ve read.


Second, headings. The beautiful thing about workflow and organization is that there is no right way to do it; you can customize anything. The headings of your spreadsheet are where you can make this your own. In my spreadsheet, I have:


  • ID number (I’ll come back to this)
  • Year
  • Author(s) + Year
  • Title
  • APA Reference
  • Type of Resource
  • Abstract
  • Keywords
  • Location (Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Other)
  • Purpose/Objectives
  • Research Questions
  • Survey/Interview/Focus Group Questions
  • Sample
  • Quantitative/Qualitative Design
  • Main Findings
  • Notes (where I put quotations I might want to use)

Some of these headings may not be of interest to you, but you are free to add any characteristic or metric you may want to use as a filter or sorting feature. These headings can change, too. As you go along you can add or remove as you see fit. You also want to think about the themes you might write about in your literature review. I, for example, have headings like: prevalence, stressors, depression, anxiety, suicide, accommodations, counseling, disclosure, faculty perceptions, and stigma. When an article I’m adding addresses one of these in a research question or as a finding, I add a little x in the cell to show that. Then, when I’m writing about that topic, I sort the column so that I can easily pull all the articles that address that theme.  


The Minor Spreadsheets


In addition to my Major Spreadsheet, I also developed what I call Minor Spreadsheets, which are similar to what Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega writes about in his post called Synthesizing different bodies of work in your literature review: The conceptual synthesis Excel dump technique. Minor Spreadsheets are much smaller than my Major Spreadsheet and have more specific details. I use Minor Spreadsheets in two different ways.


First, in the picture of my spreadsheets from above you’ll see at the bottom that I have different sheets within the same workbook. These are articles that could be related to other work I want to do. For example, I have a sheet about international students, where I track all the literature concerning international students’ mental health. I also have a sheet with cool studies that I want to come back to later (because who said reviewing literature can’t be fun?). I add to these sheets on an ongoing basis to save me time later.


The second way I use Minor Spreadsheets is when I start a new paper. I pull articles from my Major Spreadsheet and throw them in a new one. Now that I have an existing foundation for the literature, I can go to Google Scholar to build on what I already have instead of starting from scratch.  


These Minor Spreadsheets are typically much more focused than my Major Spreadsheet. For example, in the Major Spreadsheet I use the x to identify articles under one overarching disability theme and in the Minor Spreadsheet I take all these and look more closely at type of disability, level of education, and accommodations.


The Number System


Now, lots of folks would use the spreadsheet approach and then store their articles with annotations in another program. Instead, I include a number system that allows me to easily find any article from my Major/Minor Spreadsheets from a regular folder in my Documents (Shout out to Jeff Burrow for introducing me to this method). If you look back at the screenshot I provided earlier, you’ll see that there is a column called ID Number. Every article I add to my Major or Minor Spreadsheets gets an ID number. I then have a folder for my Major Spreadsheet and all its articles.


My folder for my Major Spreadsheet looks like this:


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Everything is nice and clean with the numbers, but it doesn’t always look like this. Here’s an example of what one of my Minor Spreadsheets, Canadian articles, looks like:


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For my Minor Spreadsheets, I typically start by copying and pasting articles from the Major Spreadsheet and the folder of articles. This is why you end up with folders for Minor Spreadsheets where the numbers are all over the place, which is okay. The numbers don’t mean anything; it’s just an easy way to find articles other than using author name(s) and article titles.  


A final note: I number dissertations differently than other pieces. I started numbering those at 1000 and have gone up from there. I wanted to differentiate dissertations in some way so that I could easily find them in my folders (usually because I look at dissertations to see how others have done certain things). You could also differentiate other pieces in your folder like books, by starting at 2000, for example. Again, you can customize all of this to what works for you.


I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this spreadsheet approach and to also know what other methods you might be using to organize your literature. Do you think the spreadsheet approach would work for you? What other methods do you use to organize your literature review work?


[Image by Flickr user Craig Chew-Moulding and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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