Literature Review Process with Mendeley and Synthesis Matrix

When I decided to work in academia, I knew I would have to eventually restart my literature review to continue or extend my previous research in preparation for a PhD. I didn’t get around to really get back to my reading and writing habit as I just started to get myself acquainted with new lectureship and academic processes. When The Thesis Whisperer’s Dr Inger wrote about How to write faster and credited my idea of synthesis matrix (I sincerely thank Dr Inger for that!), I realized I have been neglecting my literature review and my matrices are left untouched for some times.

When I revisited my literature review process one day, I have identified some steps that I actually followed in doing my previous literature review. I thought it’s best that I share it in this blog, hoping that more people would find it useful and probably we could all do literature review together following this process.


This diagram shows my literature review process starting from searching for articles until writing a critical literature review. As you can see, this is a continuous process and it’s not actually that straightforward. My literature review process has two important (must-have) tools: Mendeley as my primary reference manager and synthesis matrix as the template to collect all my notes before writing.

This process is still a work-in-progress and it’s (definitely) not perfect. Oh, I’m definitely not the expert too! If you really want some professional help with literature review fast, I’d recommend you to check out Literature Review HQ. Dr Ben has great literature review bootcamp courses to help you get your literature review done effectively. Anyway, the diagram above is just one way of doing literature review and it might not suit you if you prefer other method. Nevertheless, you can always use this as a reference to kick start your own literature review process. I plan to write more in details about each step that I do in my literature review process and I probably need more posts to talk about them.

If you are currently doing your literature review and you have just stumbled upon this site, I hope you can be patient to read more about these later. I’ll try my best to share more soon. Meanwhile, you can see all other related posts under Literature Review category. I have briefly described how to use synthesis matrix for literature review in my previous posts.


Organize your literature review notes in a matrix

I have wanted to make sure I got this link in my blog for future reference, so I have actually copied the link in my draft and nearly forgot about it. My bad!

It’s an awesome practical example on how to use the matrix to organize your notes shared by the famous Thesis Whisperer. I’m really honored to get a mention there. If you have missed her earlier sharing on this particular piece, here you can check it out below.

TW Backline Masters – Using matrix to organize your notes

I actually wanted to share something similar to show how I organized my literature review notes before I wrote my literature review but never got around to share a practical and good example. I’m glad Thesis Whisperer shares her example and I’m sure many have already benefited from it.

Happy writing, everyone! 🙂

How literature review matrix works for me

When I decided to make the literature review (LR) or synthesis matrix during the LR process, I didn’t expect how this matrix would help me in writing the LR until the day I was working on my paper for submission during the writing workshop. My supervisor thought I needed more references in that paper and I needed to get the paper ready in less than an hour. I just opened my LR matrix on PLE that I made earlier, looked through it again on the different aspects that I’ve made notes on, then I easily added more references where I saw appropriate to my paper without the need to reread all the related articles. Within half an hour, I had the paper ready with extra related references. That’s when I realized my hard work and time spent on my LR matrix has paid off.

I’ve done a few matrices on different research topics for my literature review but my LR matrix on PLE is the most comprehensive because that’s my major research topic that I focused on. I basically divided my matrix into a few aspects that I wanted to look into, so when I was reading each article about PLE, I’d take note of these aspects.

These aspects were the common issues about PLE that I wanted to talk about in my LR. All these notes really helped me in writing my LR on the overview of my understanding about the topic. The cite-able notes are the most valuable in my matrix because these notes were the ones that I cited in my LR as references using my own words. So, basically I’ve at least one cite-able note per article and sometimes I’ve more than one per article depending on what I was writing for LR. In a glance, I’ve every article summarized nicely and neatly in table format. Whenever I’ve new article to read, I just simply add another column to the table and make notes on the same aspects like the others.

In conclusion, I’m speaking from my real life experience that LR matrix has helped me not only in organizing my literature review but in saving me time and effort writing my LR in the long run. Making the LR matrix is the best (early) effort ever in my studious life.

LR: Don’t forget your focus

I believe many are simply afraid of the mention of ‘literature review’. I used to be one, literally wanted to hide myself under a blanket and hoped the literature review (LR) would either write itself or just go away. In reality, none of these would ever happen, unfortunately. If I don’t start reading and trying to write, the LR will never get finished. Without LR, my research just won’t happen either. Simply, I would be stuck…forever and ever…

No, that’s not going to happen in this life. I have learned after some practices and many good advice that LR is not so scary after all. Today, I would only describe LR as tedious and full of hard work but not the most scary part in dissertation writing. All I need, I realize, is a good system to make  things work for me.

One of the greatest problem in LR is the amount of articles to read in order to write. By collecting all related articles and seeing them unread in my Mendeley library are already good enough to scare me witless. Sometimes I just keep on reading articles, achieving nothing but only some new ideas from the authors. This just doesn’t work well for my progress in the final submission. So, I have learned to get my thoughts organized and set my focus in LR. It’s always good to remember what I’m looking for while reading an article. I normally look at a few aspects in a topic while reading an article: definition, purposes, characteristics, approaches, rationales and challenges. For every article I read, I only focus on these aspects and try to see what the author has to say about them (if they even mention them). It’s important to note if the authors agree or disagree on certain aspects when compare to others. I collect all these in LR matrix for easy reference later. Whatever the authors’ point of views that related to my research, I want them in my LR to show as evidence or support alongside with my own arguments. It’s always good to show comparisons or similarities between authors’ point of views. That’s where the debate or argument can be further discussed with new insight.

I also learned to categorize my LR by topics as I don’t think all articles cover everything I want to say in my LR. So, I have different LR matrices for different topics, though they are interrelated somehow. By putting them in different matrices make it easy for me to discuss topic by topic and to show how they related from one topic to another when I’m writing my own synthesis. It’s important not trying to cramp everything in one too. Not only I will get lost in my own thoughts or arguments, I’m sure my readers will be lost too. Most importantly, always have focus while reading and always take note. Reading without taking note will only waste time. I normally read fast the first time trying to get the overview. My second read will be together with note-taking in Mendeley Desktop. I conclude my reading and note-taking by copying my notes into my LR matrix. I start to write about the topic when I have enough support from the articles I read and according to the aspects that I collected. During the writing process, it’s much easier referring to the LR matrix as I know which author is saying what and how I use their points as the base for my own argument. Citation is easier too especially if there are more than 1 author say the same thing.

All in all, I hope my opinion about LR here is good enough to help you if you feel stuck with LR too. All you need is just a system that works for you. Feel free to try my method or any other good methods out there. Just explore and try everything until you find one that works for you 🙂

Literature review process

I spent my last Sunday working on the desk at home, facing my Sony Vaio for more than 8 hours. I was cleaning up my paper clutter when I saw this handouts from one of the workshops I attended earlier this year. It was a Doctoral Research Methodology Workshop conducted by Dr Edward Wong. It was from this workshop that Dr Edward had been telling us about literature review matrix. It was still at this page 5 when I found this handouts where there’s a diagram depicting the literature review process. I studied the diagram again and realized this is a good reference for all.

By looking at this diagram, it seems not so difficult to do the literature review. It’s more like an iterative process (and hard work!). I still remember being told to always start with my research questions and objectives. It’s even better if you can pin up the research questions and objectives where you can see them every day, so that you won’t deviate from your purpose. With that, we define what we want to search i.e. research keywords. With these keywords, we start our search and start to collect articles to be read and evaluate. Summarize the points after reading and put them in a literature review matrix (that’s what I do).

The only thing I haven’t really done right is the start drafting review. I have always thought to complete the search and reading before writing. However, after some times, I found it’s getting more difficult to define ‘complete search’. This stage has become an obstacle in writing. So now I have learnt to start writing even though I feel I haven’t read enough. It seems that while trying to write, I would found some other aspects that I want to talk about, hence I add new research keywords and search for more. Here’s when the process will continue to iterate until the final product of a written critical review of the literature.

I guess sometimes it really takes a lot of wrong turns to reach a destination when you are a novice. The more I err, the more I learn (I hope!). I believe I’m a much better learner now than I first started. Hope this diagram helps you (as much as it helps me) in the literature review process. 🙂

Synthesis Matrix for literature review

When I first attempted to write on this Chapter 2, which is the literature review (LR) chapter, I was feeling a bit lost as if I was floating in the ocean. The articles I found were piling up and I didn’t know what I should really do about them other than to allocate time to read them. But that was not enough still. Just reading them, of course gave me great insight and new idea but I was still struggling to put them into proper writing. I failed miserably. Nothing was written for months even though I kept on reading those articles I found. I had serious problem in putting everything together to make a story.

When I was in a workshop, I heard this  term of literature review matrix or some called it a synthesis matrix. According to the speaker, all PhD candidates (okay, I’m not! Thank God!) must produce a matrix to show their literature review work and every supervisors should demand to see it too. I was intrigued and went to search more about it.

LR is the most important part of the research (as if you still don’t know) and it can really help you moving forward or it can also act as a boulder that doesn’t let you pass. Sometimes I still feel this LR is the biggest barrier in my research life. Hehe! Why is it so hard? To me, it’s because I didn’t know the proper way to do it. I have learnt that LR is not supposed to just summarize each individual article I found. Yes, summarizing is a must skill in LR but it must be done in the right way. In LR, it requires analyzing skill while doing the summary before you attempt to do the synthesis and finally write the review.

I found some guides in creating a LR matrix and I went ahead to read the articles I found, particularly in the topic of Personal Learning Environment (PLE). Before that, I have already identified what I want to look for while reading the article. Specifically, I’m looking at the article for any mentioning of the definition of PLE, the pedagogy or principle behind PLE, the rationale for PLE, the skills required and the challenge in implementation. These subtopics or themes are the ones that I want to talk about in my Chapter 2 later. When my matrix started to fill up, it quite amazed me. I’m rather glad that I start to see some patterns in those articles I read, particularly the definition. There are many, of course but mostly mentioned about learner control or autonomy and self-regulation in learning. Whenever I’m reading an article, these are what I’m looking at and sometimes some articles would mention some cool argument or idea. If I cannot fit them in any boxes, I would put them in Other category, hoping I can reference to it later if it fits. I also started to see gap in the matrix when the articles didn’t mention any of those that I’m looking for.

Here is my on-going effort on the matrix on PLE. I have started another matrix on Pedagogy, trying to analyze the different pedagogical approaches and technology used in higher education today.

This matrix is in MS Word and the references are generated by Mendeley add-in. I also saw some doing this matrix in MS Excel.

Sadly, I still haven’t started writing my review, though I have a clear outline and idea in Chapter 2. I promise I will start writing soon enough. *Cross my heart*

Organizing articles collection in Mendeley

This is long overdue post and I’m sorry for the delay. I have wanted to make this screen-cast long ago but never had the time and right environment to do it. It was not in perfect environment still as you can hear some background noise in this video. Please bear with me for my first time doing this.

Since I have found Mendeley, I have wanted to show you how I organize my articles collection online. So far so good, I’m still a happy user of Mendeley and I hope to continue use it even after I finish my dissertation.

Organizing articles collection using Mendeley Desktop from Jennifer Lim on Vimeo.

I have been religiously making notes while reading the articles in Mendeley Desktop and later transferred those notes to what I called a synthesis matrix, so I have better idea which author is saying what idea. I haven’t synthesize every article yet as I keep finding new related article here and there. And since I have different categories that I want to explore, it probably takes me more time to go through as much as possible.

Anyway, I’m just glad I found Mendeley to help organizing all the articles, or else it would take me years to get them organized and start writing. Hehe! Hope this tool helps whoever in need. Oh, and if you have better way to do this, do share. Thanks!