Literature Review: Writing Techniques

Organising the information

By the end of this section you should be able to

An information organisation model

Organising the information in the context of the 'broader task'

Recognising your own cognitive style

The best cognitive style for research

You are not alone

Analyse and define your subject area

An information organisation model

As we have seen in Section 3.1, a literature review is both an activity and a product. Organising the retrieved information is not only a set of steps to be followed - it also requires the researcher to continuously review and relate the information to the research question itself.

Imagine yourself in the following 'writing scenario' described by Price (1998):

A Writing Scenario

Imagine an academic writing the related work (literature review) section of a paper. Consider all the questions that he or she faces: What should I say? Have I read enough relevant papers, or should I do a literature review? Which papers are relevant? What does the previous work mean for my paper?

In practice, academics first decide whether the effort of digging through the literature seems worthwhile. Then, they search and browse for relevant papers, print them out (or order copies), and sort through them on paper. They read, annotate, and compare the most important papers; connect the important ideas together; and try to make some coherent sense of them. As they read, they find references to more relevant papers. Eventually, they return to writing their paper, and use the key information they found by digging through their notes or through piles of paper.

This scenario raises more general issues with information exploration as a process that people go through to solve their problems. They must decide whether information exploration is the appropriate strategy by predicting whether helpful information is available and how much effort will be required to find it. They must collect a manageable amount of relevant information by browsing or searching; if there is too much material available, as is often the case, they must select articles to read by rapidly scanning them. They must understand how this information relates to their problem: understanding one document can be difficult enough; often they must connect ideas from disparate sources together. Finally, they must apply this understanding to their problem, which may require looking through their piles of papers and typing in information. In sum, this scenario suggests that we should take the broader task into account throughout the information exploration process.

Organising the information in the context of the 'broader task'

The 'broader task' is fitting the retrieved information into the development of your literature review and your research as a whole. Price provides a helpful model that draws on previous analyses of the information gathering process, but draws an important distinction between the understanding of the reseacher during the collecting phase, and actually using it:

 The process is shown in the figure below:

Recognising your own cognitive style 

The way in which you organise the information you have retrieved for the purposes of your research is dependent on your own individual 'cognitive style'. According to Wapner et al. (1991), cognitive style refers to a manner of moving toward a goal, and a characteristic way of experiencing or acting. More specifically, it is the characteristic way in which an individual organises and processes information (Goldstein & Blackman, 1978). Cognitive style can be measured by several different dimensions. Martens (1979) identified some of the dimensions including field dependence/independence, breadth of categorising, conceptualising styles, cognitive complexity/simplicity, constructed/flexible control, and so on.

Undestanding your own cognitive style is the key to adopting a method of information organisation most suited to your normal way of working. The second step is to align your methods as closely as possible to the standard practices of libraries and other information services (like Internet websites).

First, try to identify your own cognitive style in the two types list below (adapted from Kim, 1997):

Field dependence/independence

According to Witkin et al. (1977), field-independent learners can be characterized as the following. 

The field-independent learners 
(1) make greater use of mediational processes such as analysing and structuring, 
(2) adopt an active, hypothesis-testing role in learning, 
(3) are less dominated or governed by the most obvious or salient cues in learning, and 
(4) operate more from internally defined goals and reinforcements and thus more likely to be motivated by intrinsic or task-oriented forms of motivation. 

The field-dependent learners 
(1) make less effective use of mediational process, 
(2) adopt a passive, spectator role in learning, 
(3) are more dominated by salient cues in learning, and 
(4) are better at learning and remembering information having social relevance or content.

Problem-solving style

Problem-solving can be defined as a goal-oriented sequence of cognitive operation (Anderson, 1980). Problem-solving process comprises cognition as well as emotion and behavior. Skills of problem-solving include the ability to 

As term "problem" has different facets, there appears to be several aspects of problem-solving process: cognitive problem solving, personal problem solving, social problem solving, etc. 

The best cognitive style for research

Research can be described as an advanced form of problem-solving, so clearly a 'problem-solving' cognitive style is most appropriate for conducting research. However, as elements of all the styles described above are necessary for the effective organisation of retrieved information, careful self-analysis can shape the way you go about ordering your information to answer your main research question(s).

You are not alone

 Research may involve a great deal of individual effort, but it is not a solitary activity. From the time you began to formulate your research topic, you will have become increasingly aware of the forces influencing your planning and design: 

The combination of these factors defines the broader context in which your research will take place.

Analyse and define your subject area

To organise your retrieved information effectively, your first step is to pinpoint where your research area lies in established knowledge structures. One such structure is the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), commonly used to organise books and journals in libraries. Fundamental to this type of organisation is the notion of 'hierarchy':


Hierarchy in the DDC is expressed through structure and notation. Structural hierarchy means that all topics (aside from the ten main classes) are part of the broader topics above them. Any note regarding the nature of a class holds true for all its subordinate classes, including logically subordinate topics classed at coordinate numbers.

Notational hierarchy is expressed by length of notation. Numbers at any given level are usually subordinate to a class whose notation is one digit shorter; coordinate with a class whose notation has the same number of significant digits; and superordinate to a class with numbers one or more digits longer. The underlined digits in the following example demonstrate this notational hierarchy:

600 Technology (Applied sciences)
  630 Agriculture and related technologies
    636 Animal husbandry
      636.7 Dogs
      636.8 Cats

"Dogs" and "Cats" are more specific than (i.e., are subordinate to) "Animal husbandry"; they are equally specific as (i.e., are coordinate with) each other; and "Animal husbandry" is less specific than (i.e., is superordinate to) "Dogs" and "Cats."

Sometimes, other devices must be used to express the hierarchy when it is not possible or desirable to do so through the notation. Relationships among topics that violate notational hierarchy are indicated by special types of headings, notes, and entries. (adapted from the OCLC, 2000)

Subject headings

Subject headings are controlled vocabulary - precise terms designated by the Library of Congress. If you try a subject search in a libarary catalogue for 'Teen Pregnancy' you will learn that this term is not a recognized subject heading. The term that Library of Congress does recognize is 'Teenage Pregnancy.' However, 'Teen Pregnancy' and other phrases that are considered natural language are readily recognized in a keyword (or 'word') search. If you are frustrated with subject searching with terms that the catalogue does not recognise, try using them in a keyword search.

By far the best way to determine the subject headings and the most likely keywords for your research area is to examine the descriptors used to reference important publications that you have found in your search for information. Often these are listed at the beginning of the article or in the 'front matter' of a book. They will always be listed in references retrieved from a bibliographic database (see the next Section  3.4 Managing information on a personal computer). You will see subject headings (called descriptors) at the end of the retrieved record shown below . 


Price, N.M. (1998) Models of Information Exploration: Where is the broader task? CHI98 workshop on information exploration interfaces. (

Kim, K.S. (1997) Effects of cognitive and problem-solving styles on information-seeking behavior in the WWW: A case study.

(2000) Introduction to the Dewey Decimal Classification. Dewey Decimal Classification.OCLC Forest Press. (

Marchionini, G. (1995) Information Seeking in Electronic Environments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



1. What is the 'broader task' referred to in this section?

A. keeping a record of all the information sources used in the research
B. following all the steps in the information retrieval process
C. relating the retrieved information into your literature review 

2. What is meant by 'cognitive style'?

A. fashionable thought patterns
B. the way in which you organise and process information
C. the style you adopt for writing your literature review

3. A hierarchy is

A. a series in which each element is graded or ranked
B. a list of subjects
C. the structure of a literature review