Occasionally, I encounter a resource that I think may be useful to clients and colleagues. I recently had the pleasure of enlisting the help of Green Heron Information services who helped me conduct a literature review for a project that I was working on. I’d like to share with you some of the central ideas about doing literature reviews—ideas that may be helpful to both evaluators and grant seekers— and encourage you to connect with Matt Von Hendy who is the president of Green Heron Information Services. (240) 401-7433 (email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.greenheroninfo.com)
If you are like most people you probably have not thought about literature reviews since college or graduate school until you need to write one for a contract report, journal article or grant proposal. Just a quick review: A literature review is a piece of work that provides an overview of published information on a particular topic or subject usually within a specific period of time and discusses critical points of the current state of knowledge in the field including major findings as well as theoretical and methodological contributions. It will generally seek to present a summary of the important works but also provide a synthesis of this information as well.
Literature reviews matter for a number of reasons: they demonstrate a strong knowledge of the current state of research in the field or topic; they show what issues are being discussed or debated and where research is headed; and they provide excellent background information for placing a program, initiative or grant proposal in context. In short, a well-written literature review can provide a ‘mental road map’ of the past, present and future of research in a particular field.
Literature reviews can take many different types and forms but typically good ones share certain characteristics such as:
- Follows an organizational pattern that combines summary and synthesis
- Tracks the intellectual progression of a thought or a field of study
- Contains a conclusion that offer suggestions for future research
- Is well-researched
- Uses a wide variety of high quality resources including journal articles, conference papers, books and reports
Many evaluation and grant professionals when doing research for literature reviews use some combination of Google and/or other professionals as their primary information sources. While these resources are a great place to start, they both have limitations which make them not so good places to end your research. For example, search engines such as Google filter results based on a number of factors and very few experts can keep up to date with the amount of information that is being published. Fortunately, many high quality tools such as citation databases and subject specific databases exist that make going beyond Google relatively easy. Many evaluation professionals and proposal writers are motivated to do their own research but there are times such as working in new areas or tight deadlines where hiring an information professional to consult, research or write a literature review can be helpful.
You may think while this all sounds good in theory but wonder how would it work in practice? Let me offer a very quick case study of conducting research for a literature review in evaluating programs that attempt to improve mental health outcomes for teenagers in the United States. I would first start a list of sources by consulting experts and searching on Google. My next step would be to look at the two major citation databases, Scopus and Web of Science, and find out which journal articles and conference papers are most cited. I would then search in the subject specific databases that cover the health and psychology areas such as PubMed, Medline and PsycINFO. Finally, I would examine resources such as academic and non-profit think tanks just to make sure I was not missing anything important.
A well-researched and written literature review offers a number of benefits for evaluation professionals, grant-seekers and even funders and grantors: it can show an excellent understanding of the research in a subject area; it can demonstrate about what current issues or topics are being debated and suggest directions for future research; it can also provide an excellent way to place a program, initiative or proposal into context within the larger picture of what is happening in an area. If you have questions with getting started on a literature review, we are always glad to offer suggestions.
Green Heron Information Services offers consulting, research and writing services in support of literature review efforts. www.greenheroninfo.com